Throughout the 1920s, her name was linked with widely publicized scandals, including the 1922 murder of William Desmond Taylor and the 1924 shooting of Courtland S. Dines, who was shot by Normand's chauffeur using her pistol. She was not a suspect in either crime. Her film career declined, and she suffered a recurrence of tuberculosis in 1923, which led to a decline in her health, retirement from films, and her death in 1930 at age 37.
Born as either Amabel Ethelreid Normand or Mabel Ethelreid Normand in New Brighton, Richmond County (before it was incorporated into New York City), she grew up in a working-class family. Normand's mother, Mary "Minne" Drury, of Providence, Rhode Island, was of Irish heritage, while her father was French Canadian. Normand's father, Claude Normand, was employed as a cabinet maker and stage carpenter at Sailors' Snug Harbor home for elderly seamen. Before she entered films at age 16 in 1909, Normand worked as an artist's model, which included posing for postcards illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson, creator of the Gibson Girl image, as well as for Butterick's clothing pattern manufacturers in lower Manhattan.
For a short time, she worked for Vitagraph Studios in New York City for $25 per week, but Vitagraph founder Albert E. Smith admitted she was one of several actresses about whom he made a mistake in estimating their "potential for future stardom." Her quietly effervescent lead performance, while directed by D. W. Griffith in the dramatic 1911 short film Her Awakening, drew attention and she met director Mack Sennett while at Griffith's Biograph Company. She embarked on a topsy-turvy relationship with him; he later brought her across to California when he founded Keystone Studios in 1912. Her earlier Keystone films portrayed her as a bathing beauty but Normand quickly demonstrated a flair for comedy and became a major star of Sennett's short films. Normand appeared with Charles Chaplin and Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in many short films as well as Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, and Boris Karloff.
She played a key role in starting Chaplin's film career and acted as his leading lady and mentor in a string of films in 1914, sometimes co-writing and directing or co-directing films with him. Chaplin had considerable initial difficulty adjusting to the demands of film acting and his performance suffered for it. After his first film appearance in Making a Living, Sennett felt he had made a costly mistake.
Most historians agree it was Normand who persuaded him to give Chaplin another chance, and she and Chaplin appeared together in a dozen subsequent films, almost always as a couple in the lead roles. In 1914, she starred with Marie Dressler and Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance, the first feature-length comedy. Earlier that same year, in January/February, Chaplin first played his Tramp character in Mabel's Strange Predicament, although it wound up being the second Tramp film released; Chaplin offers an account of his experience on the film in his autobiography.
She opened her own company in partnership with Mack Sennett 1916. It was based in Culver City and was a subsidiary of the Triangle Film Corporation. She lost the company in 1918 when Triangle experienced a massive shake up which also saw Sennett lose Keystone and establish his own independent studio. In 1918, as her relationship with Sennett came to an end, Normand signed a $3,500 per week contract with Samuel Goldwyn.
Director William Desmond Taylor shared her interest in books, and the two formed a close relationship. According to author Robert Giroux, Taylor was deeply in love with Normand, who had originally approached him for help in curing her cocaine dependency. Based upon Normand's subsequent statements to investigators, her repeated relapses were devastating for Taylor. According to Giroux, Taylor met with federal prosecutors shortly before his death and offered to assist them in filing charges against Normand's cocaine suppliers. Giroux expresses a belief that Normand's suppliers learned of this meeting and hired a contract killer to murder the director. According to Giroux, Normand suspected the reasons for Taylor's murder, but did not know the identity of the man who killed him.
According to Kevin Brownlow and John Kobal in their book Hollywood The Pioneers the idea that Taylor was murdered by drug dealers was invented by the studio for publicity purposes. There is no evidence that Normand was an addict, despite the fact that this is often repeated as if it were established fact.
On the night of his murder, February 1, 1922, Normand left Taylor's bungalow at 7:45 p.m. in a happy mood, carrying a book he had lent her. They blew kisses to each other as her limousine drove away. Normand was the last person known to have seen Taylor alive. The Los Angeles Police Department subjected Normand to a grueling interrogation, but ruled her out as a suspect. Most subsequent writers have done the same. However, Normand's career had already slowed, and her reputation was tarnished. According to George Hopkins, who sat next to her at Taylor's funeral, Normand wept inconsolably.
In 1924, Normand's chauffeur Joe Kelly shot and wounded millionaire oil broker and amateur golfer Courtland S. Dines with her pistol.
Normand's co-star in many films, Roscoe Arbuckle was the defendant in three widely publicized trials for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe. Although Arbuckle was acquitted, the scandal destroyed his career, and his films were banned from exhibition for decades. Since she had made some of her best works with him, much of Normand's output was withheld from the public by default.
Normand continued making films and was signed by Hal Roach Studios in 1926 after discussions with director/producer F. Richard Jones, who had directed her at Keystone. At Roach she made the films Raggedy Rose, The Nickel-Hopper, and One Hour Married (her last film), all co-written by Stan Laurel, and was directed by Leo McCarey in Should Men Walk Home?. The films were released with extensive publicity support from the Hollywood community, including her friend Mary Pickford.
In 1926, she married actor Lew Cody, with whom she had appeared in Mickey in 1918. They lived separately in nearby houses in Beverly Hills. However, Normand's health was in decline due to tuberculosis. After an extended stay in Pottenger Sanitorium, she died on February 23, 1930, from tuberculosis in Monrovia, California, at the age of 37. She was interred as Mabel Normand-Cody at Calvary Cemetery, Los Angeles.
Mabel Normand has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her contributions to Motion Pictures at 6821 Hollywood Boulevard.
Her film Mabel's Blunder (1914) was added to the National Film Registry in December 2009.
In June 2010, the New Zealand Film Archive reported the discovery of a print of Normand's film Won in a Closet (exhibited in New Zealand under its alternate title Won in a Cupboard), a short comedy previously believed lost. This film is a significant discovery, as Normand directed the movie and starred in the lead role, displaying her talents on both sides of the camera.
Some of her early roles are credited as "Mabel Fortesque".