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Margaret Lawrence, born in Trenton, NJ, in 1889, had begun her stage career at the age of seventeen in Philadelphia, and went on to appear in plays in Chicago and New York. While her stage successes were numerous, her personal life had been very untidy. Her second marriage was failing at the time she met Bennison and she had been the center of several scandals and lawsuits. Like Bennison, she was by this time a heavy drinker.
In the fall of 1927, Louis Bennison and Margaret Lawrence—without her husband—toured Australia together in a production of Robert Emmett Sherwood’s new play, The Road to Rome. Even if Bennison and Lawrence were not well acquainted before this, the week-long train trip to the West Coast and the three-week ocean voyage from San Francisco to Sydney would have provided ample opportunity to discuss more than theater. They spent several months in Australia before returning from their tour in January 1928 Later that year, Bennison toured the West Coast in yet another revival of Johnny Get Your Gun. He also made a short one-reel sound film for Vitaphone, The Reward. The need to recycle Johnny yet again combined with a Vitaphone appearance suggests that, as his stage career declined, Bennison may have been exploring the possibility of acting in the newly-emerging sound films.
Back in New York, Margaret Lawrence’s career was beginning to collapse. She was offered the leading role in Edgar Selwyn’s comedy, Possession, which opened on Broadway on the 2nd of October 1928. But after two weeks, overwhelmed by her personal problems and drinking heavily, she suddenly dropped out of the play. Selwyn filed charges against her with Actor’s Equity. She was suspended for six months and fined two weeks wages.
In the spring of 1929, Bennison made what was to be his final visit to the West Coast to perform in a play. He visited his wife and daughter before heading back to New York to the apartment he was now sharing with Lawrence. In May, Bennison and Lawrence appeared together in a vaudeville sketch which turned out to be such a flop that it was withdrawn from the program after three performances. A month later, Bennison was in rehearsals for the leading role in This Thing Called Love, scheduled to open on June 10th at a theater in Brooklyn. In the last week of rehearsals, however, Bennison was drinking so heavily that he repeatedly failed to show up and the director was finally forced to replace him.
On Wednesday June 5th, one of Lawrence’s friends, Mrs. Gertrude Chalaire came by to visit at the elegant penthouse atop a hotel at 34 E. 51st Street where Lawrence and Bennison had recently taken up residence. Chalaire wanted her friend to join her for a few days at her place on Long Island. While there, she was alarmed by Bennison’s behavior. At one point, he stormed into the room obviously drunk and brandishing his heavy cowboy revolver. “This will finish both of us,” he shouted. Lawrence calmed Bennison down and persuaded him to put the gun away. She declined her friend’s invitation. A few days later, on Saturday June 8th, Chalaire returned only to be met at the door by Bennison, who turned her away saying “Margaret doesn’t want to see you anymore.” Though she left, she felt that something was amiss. She was right.
Concerned for her friend, Gertrude Chalaire returned to the penthouse the next day and when no one answered the bell, she decided to use the pass key which Lawrence had given her. Entering the suite, she called out for her friend, but no one answered. When she looked into the bedroom, she found both Margaret Lawrence and Louis Bennison dead. After what may have been several days of hard drinking—forty empty gin bottles were found—Bennison had shot Margaret Lawrence while she slept, then turned the gun on himself. Pinned to the door between the living room and kitchen was a nearly illegible note in Bennison’s handwriting: "The sunset has a heart. Look for us there.”
The sensational scandal made national headlines for days and sent two families and the theatrical communities of both New York and San Francisco reeling with disbelief. Some reports called it murder, others speculated that the two had agreed upon a murder-suicide pact. Bennison’s comments to Lawrence in Chalaire’s presence and her decision to remain in the penthouse seem to suggest her complicity in the tragedy. But the New York Police Department could determine neither a motive for the shooting of Lawrence, nor for her possible agreement to a suicide pact. Her lawyer reported that she had only days before asked him to help her explore the possibility of making a talking picture. Neither could Bennison’s devastated family find any reason for the tragedy. During his recent visit, they had sensed nothing wrong. Frances Bennison, in fact, claimed that she suspected nothing about her husband’s relationship to Margaret Lawrence. “We knew they were friendly,” she told the press, “but I considered it only a stage association.”
Louis Bennison’s remains were cremated and returned to his family in San Francisco. Margaret Lawrence is buried in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia. Whatever the reasons for the tragic end of these two talented and much-loved performers, we can only indulge in useless speculation. We will never know the truth. We can only hope the sunset really has a heart.
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