How a Sex Scandal Shaped an American Icon

In late March of 1901—seven years before he directed his first motion picture—David Wark Griffith stopped on a dark street corner outside a midtown Manhattan police station to light a cigarette.

He knew what he was about to do was a crime. If he aroused suspicions he could even end up being charged with fraud for making false statements to the police.

He was there to file a missing persons report on his cousin, a married woman known to San Francisco society as Mrs. Neville Castle. But it was all a bald-faced lie. She was not a blood relation at all. In fact, the missing woman was his lover, an actress with whom he had been performing around the country using her maiden name of Mary Scott.

Griffith watched the comings and goings under the precinct street lamps. Pressure mounted with each flick of his cigarette ash. One misstep and his entire life could be shot to hell.

Sex was a solemnly private business at the end of the Victorian era. Any public exposure of a sexual nature could easily become a “police matter.” Here in New York living as man and wife out of wedlock fell under the heading of “moral turpitude.” A conviction could result in prison time and a nullification of business contracts.

Griffith was finally where he longed to be, at the very heart of professional theater in America. This was where all the important producers and agents were located. He had worked too hard to risk watching his career as an actor and playwright go up in flames.

On the other hand, Mary Scott Castle had indeed gone missing. Her Manhattan relatives were members of the social elite and did not approve of women having careers outside the home. But when Mary arrived with her beau to perform his play at Keith’s Fifth Avenue vaudeville theater they rallied to her in support. The least they could do was throw a dinner party in their beautiful cousin’s honor.

It was there she disappeared. At some point during the course of that dinner on March 23 Mary Scott Castle got up to use the washroom and apparently slipped off in the night. She had left her purse and address book behind. She took no money with her.

Her New York cousins feared the worst. They had listened to her stories of her hand-to-mouth existence on the road. They knew she regretted leaving friends and star treatment on stage in San Francisco only to find herself starting over now on the absolute bottom rung of show business. Mary had a prior history of explosive behavior. All her cousins could think was that she had run off somewhere to take her own life.

Griffith returned to their quarters in town alone, waiting for her to turn up. He had learned to live with her erratic mood swings, her fainting spells and backstage tantrums. Her own husband had washed his hands of it and taken off for the Klondike without stopping to file for divorce. But it was not like her to vanish like this right before the opening of an important show.

After two days her relatives came to see him. It was his duty as her partner, they said, to go to the police and open a missing person’s case. The idea of going public with such intimate matters was horrid. But they were willing to put up a $500 reward for any information on her whereabouts.

Griffith accepted the blame. He knew from the start that Mrs. Mary Scott Castle was as troubled as she was beautiful. Even as a poet he could find no words for what she had put him through.

If there was any chance of saving Mary he knew he had to act. Grinding the stub of his cigarette under the heel of his leather boot, he straightened his brushed-felt fedora and headed off toward the West Forty-seventh Street station.

“Yes, sir, and what might your name be?” asked the police desk sergeant.

“Lawrence Griffith,” he said, using his stage name. He described the missing person as his cousin and theater colleague. He called her “a strikingly handsome woman, her hair and eyes being black as the night.” When last seen at the dinner party she was wearing “a black velvet gown trimmed with sable, a black velvet picture hat, black velvet coat and a large diamond solitaire ring.” He said she had been hospitalized for depression in the past, and now feared she might be suicidal.

The authorities did not question his account nor ask to see any identification. Later that night a reporter on the night beat copied his story from the police blotter. It ran the next morning in the New York Times dated March 26, 1901 under the headline “Vaudeville Actress Disappears.”

Griffith cringed as he read it. If Mary had not done away with herself already, seeing the Times describe her as a “vaudeville actress” would most likely push her to it.

News of the missing society woman spread through the five boroughs and a manhunt was launched. David “Lawrence” Griffith sat back to take stock. Up to then he thought himself the aggrieved party. Now he was forced to see things from Mary Scott’s vantage.

Many times she had spoken fondly of her late father. Henry Harrison Scott was a native of Virginia who served as a colonel in the Confederate army, just as Griffith’s own father had once. But Mary lost both father and mother after moving to San Francisco and she and her siblings were taken in by an upper-class aunt living on California Street.

A finishing school prepared Mary for life as a proper Victorian homemaker. But her head was full of different futures. She studied fencing and languages while dabbling in amateur theatricals. She ranked among the most beautiful debutantes on the Pacific Coast but she was not driven to be anyone’s wife. It was not until she was 24 that she agreed to marry Neville Castle, an esteemed Bay Area lawyer ten years older than herself.

He promised her she would be free to pursue an acting career, and that January of 1900 she made her professional debut at age 27. Almost at once she was fielding offers for better parts, attracting influential male boosters. Her husband did not like his supporting role in his own wife’s life. Adding injury to insult, the Castle law office lost its most prestigious accounts when his wealthy clients perceived his weakness for Mary as a character flaw.

By the time Lawrence Griffith replaced a leading actor in her company that spring, Mary had fistfuls of glowing notices to share with him.

At the still-green age of 25, Griffith was far less self-assured. He was sensitive about his hawk-like nose, and he invested in expensive hats to hide his thinning hair. As he struggled to shake off all traces of his Kentucky accent he nurtured a thoughtful baritone delivery that suited his own high-mindedness.

Offstage, Griffith was not well schooled in the ways of love. He had grown up pampered by older sisters who came running to help him through every crisis. Now, oddly enough, in the reflection of Mary Scott’s outspoken willfulness, Griffith saw his own true identity begin to emerge and rushed to smother it in her arms.

With Mary’s husband now out of the picture, it was Griffith’s turn to experience the darker sides of Mary Scott.

Acting demanded a nomad’s existence, and life on the road only fanned Mary’s instability. Hotel lamps and vases had a way of turning up broken in the morning after her stays, and she was not shy about causing public rows over costuming and billing.

Griffith turned a blind eye to her rages. He knew the mental toll exacted by being constantly on the move. It was a bleak and lonely existence filled with aggravations offset only by brief moments of ecstasy.

It was somehow even harder on women, where their looks and demeanor were under harsher public scrutiny. They could not go to a restaurant alone or blow off steam at a sports event. With no right to vote or to exercise adult privileges, a freethinking woman like Mary Scott had to fight each day against male oppression and the expectations of society. Small wonder that a high-strung artist like her would cause a scene from time to time.

Theater managers and producers, however, were not as forgiving. They grew wary of her reputation and were less and less willing to risk engaging her.

An arranged road schedule took them across Oregon and Washington State to Montana with ambitious revivals of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But after some grueling months the actors found themselves back in the Pacific Northwest reduced to doing benefit shows for charity.

Mary Scott demanded that Griffith quit the company with her and return to San Francisco. But he had had a taste of directing now and was writing a play about the Revolutionary War titled In Washington’s Time. He thought if they could produce it together it might provide the career boost they both needed.

He told Mary about his months stomping around the theater district in New York and of his meetings with many of the influential movers and shakers there. Mary said she had cousins near Central Park West who might help them, but she did not want to depend on anyone in a strange city.

After a particularly violent argument, Griffith headed off alone for Manhattan. Eventually, Mary followed and they lodged together at a boarding house on West 45th Street. Life seemed exciting again until the reality dawned that their money was running out.

Griffith adapted a key scene from his play as a stage sketch and persuaded Mary to perform it in the only venue available to them—the vaudeville circuit.

After a tryout in Massachusetts they were in rehearsal for a limited run at Keith’s Union Square Theater when Mary Scott walked out on him. She just could not face the fact that she was no longer a Bay Area celebrity and was acting with nobodies in vaudeville.

To everyone’s relief Mary Scott returned out of the blue on March 27. She offered no apologies for her disappearance and claimed she was unaware of the world’s concerns. She had simply agreed to stay with some friends for a few days.

Griffith set about repairing the damage. He booked “In Washington’s Time” for an April opening in Washington, D.C., and rescheduled the long-awaited New York City premiere for August. It was not a success.

The couple went back on the road, performing with companies across Canada, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska and West Virginia. Mary would miss performances now and then, forcing Griffith to cover for her. Twice she was hauled before a local judge and sentenced to court-ordered sanitarium stays.

After two years of this, Griffith had had enough. In fall 1903 he joined with independent companies on both coasts. Mary traipsed after him for a while but finally gave up when he became engaged to a different San Francisco actress and settled in New York to finish a play he had started titled “A Fool and a Girl.”

When his play premiered in Washington, D.C., and quickly closed, Griffith started down a new professional path. He acted in films for Edwin Porter at the Vitagraph Co., then acting and directing motion pictures for the Biograph Co. In August 1910 he began making films under his own name of D.W. Griffith.

He never discussed his affair with Mary Scott in public, and no one asked him about her. The affair was not mentioned in either his or his wife’s autobiographies. He probably did not know anything of Mary’s movements until the morning of June 11, 1910. That’s when newspapers around the world brought reports of a strangled corpse having been found in a sealed trunk dumped into Italy’s Lake Como. It turned out to be the former Mary Scott Castle.

For the next several months the headlines screamed with the latest news on the murder trial of Mary’s accused killer. But it was not the only attention-grabbing trial involving Griffith’s longtime paramour.

It turned out that after their break-up, Mary Scott had tried to start her own drama company and found a stage career closed to her. She supported herself as a figure model in New York for a time. Neighbors found her unpredictable and scary, and few were surprised when she was arrested for shooting a married attorney.

She had known William B. Craig in her happy San Francisco days. He was married now to one of her distant cousins, and after moving to New York he sought her affections. But when he tried to break off the affair she began to stalk him. According to court documents, Mary followed him into an elevator at the Waldorf-Astoria on August 3, 1909, and shot him with a .22 caliber handgun.

Craig survived, and six weeks later the assault case was dismissed due to the actress’s record of mental problems.

It was some time later that Mary hooked a fish that proved more her match. She took up with the handsome son of a judge who been a friend at Yale of President William Howard Taft. Still only 21 years old, Porter Charlton was 16 years younger than Mary, but was also prone to violent outbursts.

With his wavy dark hair and fair-skinned good looks, Porter Charlton Porter fell under Mary’s spell. On June 10, 1910, they were wed and went off on a European honeymoon, relocating often after being kicked out of fine hotels for their drunken public fights.

Again Mary went missing one morning. But this time the outcome was far sadder. When her body was recovered from Lake Como, Porter Charlton was arrested and eventually convicted of her murder.

He actually served only a few years in prison. His own mental stability was disputed by his father’s attorneys, and soon enough he was free again, aimless but troubled. In 1933 he took his own life in France at age 45. But by then he hardly merited a mention in the U.S. press.

The big question remains: How did Griffith’s longtime affair with Mary Scott escape notice during such a sensational murder trial? By that time he was well known as the man who was turning the Biograph Co. into a model for all motion picture studios to come. How did his potentially ruinous relationship with a slain actress remain hidden?

As far as can be known, the two lovers were never linked at all until as recently as 2012. That’s when film historian William M. Drew published his research in the groundbreaking book Mr. Griffith’s House With Closed Shutters: The Long-Buried Secret That Turned Lawrence Into D.W. (Mutoscope Publishing).

How could such a thing be? After all, Griffith had no studio press department watching out for his reputation. He had no “fixers” or attorneys twisting arms and bribing witnesses to keep his name out of the papers.

The answer largely appears to have been pure serendipity. Through the three-and-a-half years of his affair with Mrs. Mary Castle, Griffith was using his stage name, which itself was often misreported in newspapers as Lawrence Griffiths. By the time the international murder trial began he had moved on to a little-visible career as a film director, only to emerge years later as the world-famous D.W. Griffith.

It is Mr. Drew’s premise that the twisted relationship between the film director and the society actress made it into Griffith’s body of work as a key component of his psychology and artistic imagination.

To whatever extent that is so, Mr. Griffith’s House With Closed Shutters should be regarded as important new lens through which to study the contributions and passions of D.W. Griffith.

© 2019 by John W. Harding