The woman in the window

Mae Fields or Mae Taube or Mae Sunday?

On Sunday, September 4, 1921, Roscoe Arbuckle opened the window of room 1221 of the St. Francis Hotel. There he took in virtually the same view of Powell Street he had in late June, when he was last in San Francisco for the Northern California Boosters beauty pageant and ball—as well as to appear with his Pierce-Arrow in the showroom of Don Lee, the coachmaker who had built the motorcar. To a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner, the comedian waxed on how much he loved to look out at San Francisco from this vantage. He could imagine himself living in the city.

On the day before Labor Day, Arbuckle had a guest or guests in his suite, not only for the weekend open house but to watch a Marine sergeant ride a bicycle, with a pretty girl on a trapeze below him, across the roof of the St. Francis Hotel on a high wire stretched between two tall flagpoles. As the stunt was in progress, a young woman sidled up to Arbuckle as he tried to get good look at the daredevils peddle over the light well between the south and middle wings of the hotel building.

Arbuckle’s companion was Mrs. Mae Taube. Both stood at a window and were photographed by a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner from his vantage on the roof of the middle wing. The resulting photograph shows Arbuckle in a white shirt and bowtie, looking up with a bemused expression, supported by his big hands on the stone sill, and hanging halfway out the window.

Taube can also be seen in full but keeping one arm safely inside, holding on to the window sash. With her dark marcelled hair, evening dress, a string of pearls, and a cigarette in hand, she seems unaware of the photographer but quite pleased at being near “Fatty” Arbuckle. This and the way she would carry herself after later being exposed as Arbuckle’s friend suggested she was something more. What comes to mind are press agents or gossip columnists. But Mae Taube was neither. She was certainly in the enviable position of a freelance informer, who passed on stories in their raw form before being turned into titillating fibs and fabrications. Whatever purpose Taube served in the film colony, it gave her unrivaled access for her own use and advancement over the course of her lifetime—and when she deigned to keep silent, the silence spoke too.

Two days after Virginia Rappe’s death, on September 11, the Examiner published the chance photograph of Arbuckle and his still anonymous female person of interest.

* * *

Greg Merritt in his book about the Arbuckle case, Room 1219, describes Mae Taube as the daughter-in-law of the famous evangelist Billy Sunday. She allegedly married Billy Sunday Jr.—who, unlike his father, was an alcoholic and a womanizer—twice, once in Tijuana in 1926 and again in Yuma, Arizona, in 1928. The remarriage only lasted six months and two photographs were used to identify Mae Sunday in newspapers in 1929 when she filed for divorce. The reportage gave Mae Taube’s maiden name as Sanders or Saunders and gave such details about her past as being from New York or Indianapolis, that she was an actress, a former Ziegfeld Follies girl, and at the center of an alienation of feelings between a woman and her motorcycle cop husband. These details all add more chaff to the history of this woman who was, as one movie magazine put in, “Hollywood’s favorite guest and one of its favorite hostesses.”[1]

Two decades later, while teasing Photoplay readers with tattletales about Betty Grable dating George Raft, Adela Rogers St. John described Mae Sunday as “that fabulous friend of stars who probably knows more about Hollywood than any living person.”[2] Incredibly, this was probably the only real secret that St. John divulged in her piece. To most of her readers, the name meant nothing. But Mae Sunday really did know “more” than anyone else and kept it to herself or within a small coterie of friends.

That coterie in September 1921 was hardly insignificant. Yet the background of this “snappy brunette, chic, sunny and winsome,” as one reporter styled her, aroused no curiosity and the press missed that she was the wife of a Sacramento livestock broker—who was serving a prison sentence in San Quentin for vehicular homicide—and counted as close friends Bebe Daniels, Gloria Swanson, and Arbuckle himself.[3]

Arbuckle and Mae Taube photographed in the window of his room in the St. Francis Hotel the day before the ill-fated Labor Day Party (San Francisco Examiner)

* * *

Mae Taube was born Julia Mae Fields on New Year’s Day 1896 in Oolitic, Indiana, a small town named for the oolitic limestone quarries of Lawrence County, which produced much of the stone for first skyscrapers in America’s big cities, including the Empire State Building. Her father was a quarryman who rose from derrick operator to foreman. By the time Mae Fields was twenty, she had already lived in Chicago and Indianapolis, where her path crossed with one Gus Taube.

Gus Taube had a good eye for horse and mule flesh—and pretty young women. Although he was married and had six daughters, he preferred spending his time with other young women as well as drinking and driving—which, with the coming of the automobile age, was becoming a public health threat. While still living Indianapolis in 1912, Taube struck a pedestrian. In November 1913, with a carload of fellow drinkers, he was nearly arrested when a female companion tried to shoot herself. The month before he had almost died of concussion in the hospital after his car met with the Broad Ripple Park streetcar. Fortunately, two doctors quickly rendered aid. The young woman in Taube’s company, however, ran from the scene of the accident only to be apprehended by a policeman.

She gave her name as Mabel Harvey, claimed to be twenty-five years old, and refused to speak further unless in the presence of an attorney. Her reasoning had to do with her not being Taube’s wife and that he had been seen drinking with her. She also lied. The police found her again, when investigating the theft of Taube’s diamond ring in the immediate aftermath of the wreck, and this time she gave her name as “Maude,” her age as eighteen, and that she worked as a hairdresser.

Gus Taube’s San Quentin Prison mugshot, 1919 (Ancestry.com)

Mae Taube likely arrived in California during the First World War years as the wife of Gus Taube, now a mule buyer for the U.S. government. It was a match likely made in Indianapolis and dating back to 1913. According to the 1920 census, in January of that year, Mae lived in Sacramento, California, as a “roomer” in the Capitol Apartments—just not in her husband’s apartment. He was listed too, but at his former residence in Richmond, Indiana, as the head of household for his real wife and their six children. Though at the time Gus Taube was incarcerated.

In November 1918, Taube struck and killed a motorcyclist—and then drove off, parked his car, hailed a taxi, and continued on to a “roadhouse.” Sentenced to five years in San Quentin for leaving the scene of an accident and failing to offer assistance, He was paroled in June 1920 after a year—and faced a lawsuit filed by his victim’s widow, which went nowhere in the courts. Nevertheless, the Sacramento Bee depicted Taube as a paragon of careless driving and cowardice in a scathing editorial.[4]

Mae and Gus Taube also kept an apartment in the Plaza Hotel in San Francisco. Just across Union Square, Mae Taube only had to take a short walk to visit Arbuckle at the St. Francis Hotel, where he arrived on September 3, 1921, along with his friends, the director Fred Fishback and the actor Lowell Sherman.

Mae Taube is barely mentioned in Arbuckle case narratives. In our book, she has an important place. She only half-attended Arbuckle’s Labor Day party on September 5, 1921, much of the time she “hovered” downstairs in the lobby or lounge of the St. Francis. She claimed that she didn’t like the low company the men kept. She was, however, beckoned back up to Arbuckle’s twelfth-floor suite by Fishback during Virginia Rappe’s “crisis” in room 1219.

Taube took charge of the situation and was likely the one heard expressing concern over the notoriety that might befall Arbuckle. She also was the one who suggested that Rappe be moved to a separate room down the hall and out of earshot—a suggestion that Arbuckle took and Taube followed up on by telephoning the front desk.

In the days following Rappe’s death, as detectives rounded up Arbuckle party guests, Mae Taube disappeared. Gus Taube claimed that his wife had gone to Los Angeles. Detectives went to find her at the West Adams Street home of Bebe Daniels. Daniels’s family denied that she knew “Mrs. Taube”—a denial that would be short-lived, for she and Mae Taube (later Sunday) were at the time. and for the rest of their lives, close friends. When, at last, Mae Taube appeared at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, she defended Arbuckle as a gentleman, who would never hurt anyone. As to his being blamed for Rappe’s death because a clearly drunken woman had said so, namely Maude Delmont, Taube only said, “Funny thing—life”—which likely expressed much about her own situation. Afterward, Arbuckle and Taube took the elevator downstairs to the hotel dining room, where they had dinner. Then they danced together in the hotel ballroom.

Although Mae Taube gave a statement to District Attorney Matthew Brady, she was never asked by either the prosecution or the defense to testify at the three Arbuckle trials. Nevertheless, after many weeks of silence, Arbuckle, in late November, invoked her name when, at last, he testified. He claimed that he had not followed Rappe into his bedroom, room 1219, and that he had no idea she was there. He only found her on the floor of the bathroom after preparing to, at last, dress for the day, late in the afternoon, in order to take Mae Taube for a pleasure drive in the Pierce-Arrow. Using this like an alibi, his lawyers, led by Gavin McNab, were finally able to convince a jury to vote for an acquittal in April 1922—and whatever Taube said to Brady inoculated her from giving any testimony that cast doubt on Arbuckle’s dubious recollections that he had only ever treated Rappe like a Good Samaritan.

Mae Taube, like another key witness who never testified, Lowell Sherman, certainly saw another version of the events that transpired on the twelfth floor of the St. Francis Hotel on Labor Day 1921. Why Matthew Brady and his assistants were satisfied with their vanilla statements is a mystery—as is their dogged efforts to convict Arbuckle in three trials. There’s another mystery for us to solve: How did someone like Mae Taube, the wife of a mule buyer with a dubious background and real problem with alcohol, come to know Arbuckle and her other Hollywood friends? Arbuckle had filmed on location in Northern California for such films as The Traveling Salesman (1921). He had visited San Francisco several times prior to September 1921, usually in the summer months. The climate agreed with him and he, a large man who sweated profusely, felt comfortable in cooler air of San Francisco. But, according to Mae Taube herself, she had known Arbuckle for some time in Los Angeles and saw him frequently when she was a guest of Bebe Daniels and her mother. (Arbuckle, too, lived on West Adams Street.)

The answer to Mae Field Taube Saunders Sunday’s access may lie in all those mules that Gus Taube bought and sold. Cornering the market in army mules was a kind of investment scheme among the well-to-do in California. It was part of the plot of the 1920 Madge Kennedy vehicle, Trimmed with Red. Mules, too, were used by film crews much the same way armies did, to move equipment, supplies, and even the actors and actresses into remote areas for exterior shoots. A Modern Musketeer (1917), with Douglas Fairbanks, required forty mules for this purpose.

Mae Sunday, ca. 1929 (Newspapers.com)

[1] “Gossip of the Studios,” The New Movie Magazine, July 1930, 107.

[2] Adela Rogers St. John, “What You Don’t Know about the Betty Grable-George Raft Romance,” Photoplay, April 1943, 26.

[3] Evelyn Wells, “Girl Describes Wild Booze Party/Gives Impressions of Arbuckle,” San Francisco Call, 17 September 1921, 2.

[4] “More Prison Sentences Might Remedy This Evil,” Sacramento Bee, 6 January 1920, 18; “Infamous and Cowardly Acts of Inhumanity,” Sacramento Bee, 20 January 1921, 20.

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