Hobnobbing with the rich and famous was always part of the Hollywood territory. So it seemed only natural for William Randolph Hearst to throw Ince a birthday bash on board his yacht, The Oneida. The ship sailed from San Pedro, California heading for San Diego on Saturday, November 15, 1924. Among the guests were Hearst's mistress Marion Davies, silent film star Charlie Chaplin, columnist Louella Parsons and Hearst's film production manager, Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, a licensed, but non-practicing, physician. Ironically, guest-of-honor Ince missed the boat.
Tied up with business in Los Angeles, Ince took a train to San Diego and joined the party Sunday morning. At dinner that night, the group celebrated Ince's 42nd birthday. Early Monday morning, he took a water taxi to shore accompanied by Dr. Goodman. By Tuesday night, Ince was dead in his own home.
The official cause of death? Heart failure. The Wednesday morning papers, however, declared: "Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht!"—headlines that supposedly vanished in the evening edition. Hollywood legend says that William Randolph Hearst suspected Davies and Chaplin were lovers. Supposedly, he found the couple in a compromising clinch and went for his gun. Davies' screams awakened Ince who rushed to the scene and took the bullet meant for Chaplin.
A second version had Davies and Ince alone in the galley late Sunday night. Ince, suffering from ulcers, was looking for something to ease his upset stomach. Hearst walked in, mistook Ince for Chaplin and shot him. A third version tells of a struggle over a gun between unidentified passengers. The gun accidentally fired and the bullet ripped through a plywood partition straight into Ince's room striking him.
Toraichi Kono, Chaplin's secretary, claimed he saw Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the head when he came ashore. Kono’s story quickly spread throughout Beverly Hills. One month after Ince's death, rumors ran so rampant that the San Diego District Attorney's Office took action.
The D.A. interviewed one witness—Dr. Goodman. He explained that once ashore, he and Ince caught a train heading back to L.A. when Ince fell ill. The two men disembarked in Del Mar and checked into a hotel. Goodman called a doctor, as well as Ince’s wife. Not sure whether Ince was suffering from a heart attack or indigestion, Goodman claimed he left Del Mar before Mrs. Ince arrived. Case closed.
Rumors and suspicions continued. Chaplin denied being on board The Oneida, adamant that Ince died two weeks after the cruise. In reality, Ince was dead within two days after leaving the yacht with Chaplin attending the memorial services that Friday.
Marion Davies never acknowledged that Chaplin or Goodman attended Ince’s final birthday party. Davies insisted that Ince’s wife called late Monday afternoon to inform her of Ince's death—but he didn't die until Tuesday. Supposedly, Hearst, himself, provided the Widow Ince with a trust fund. In return, she refused an autopsy and ordered her husband's immediate cremation, then left for Europe.
Hearst apparently took care of Louella Parsons as well. Pre-cruise, Parsons was a New York movie columnist for one of Hearst's papers. Post-cruise, Hearst gave her a lifetime contract and expanded her syndication launching her infamous power in Hollywood.
So what really killed Thomas Ince? A sudden heart attack? A bout of indigestion? A misguided bullet? We'll never be sure and that’s what makes a legend—Hollywood-style.