During the golden age of Hollywood, secret stories happening behind the scenes were often more intriguing, and certainly darker, than anything on the silver screen. In an era of sanitized, often puritanical popular entertainment, old Hollywood scandals seeped in moral bankruptcy were fueling the creative, administrative, and financial branches of the motion picture industry. From studios hooking impressionable kids on drugs to women forced into abortions to maintain their image, scandals old Hollywood covered up will certainly change the way you look at tinsel town’s rose-tinted past.
In an era when studios had fixers who used money and intimidation to save the reputation of a starlet or the studio, countless scandals were covered up. Many of these secret old Hollywood scandals were swept under the rug when they happened, and sealed in airtight boxes for several subsequent generations, in an attempt to erase them from history, to preserve the legacy of those involved. In other cases, the public got wind, then, not soon thereafter, simply forgot they’d happened in the first place.
But as the years have passed, many of these secrets and cover ups have been revealed, showing a darker side to the studios and stars of old Hollywood.
Before she became a movie star, Joan Crawford appeared in at least one pornographic film. As the story goes, MGM spent years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars, tracking the movie down and destroying it.
Crawford was one of MGM’s biggest stars, so when studio brass found out she starred in pornographic short Velvet Lips as a teenager, probably while underage, the gloves were off. Allegedly, MGM’s notorious fixer, Eddie Mannix, partnered with the mob to track down extortionists asking $100,000 for the film. The extortionists were given a choice: accept $25,000 for all negatives or the mob would kill them and take the negatives. In another version of the story, Mannix simply shelled out $100k for the negatives.
When Crawford left MGM in 1943, she paid the studio $50,000, an unusual move. Many historians believe she paid the studio back for acquiring and destroying the negatives to Velvet Lips.
In 1943, Errol Flynn, one of the biggest Hollywood stars of the late 1930s and early ’40s, most well known for roles in swashbuckling pictures like Robin Hood and Captain Blood, stood trial for statutory rape.
Flynn, once quoted as saying “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” was accused of sleeping with two 17-year-old girls. He denied the charges, and his lawyers worked hard to turn the jury against the accusers. After he was found not guilty, one accuser was quoted as saying: “[The jury] just sat and looked adoringly at him as if he was their son or something.”
The scandal did little to stop Flynn’s appetite for younger women. During the trial, he met a 19 year old he married. At the time of his death, at age 50, Flynn was in a relationship with a woman he met when she was 15.
In 1932, Jean Harlow’s husband, producer Paul Bern, died of an apparent suicide. His body was found naked in their home with a gun in his hand, along with a note, which read:
Unfortuately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you.
You understand that last night was only a comedy
The police assumed this to be a suicide note, though could make neither heads nor tails of what it actually meant, given Harlow’s refusal to talk about it other than to say she was at her mother’s house the night of the suicide.
MGM, Harlow’s studio, quickly moved in to clean up the situation. Irving Thalberg, head of production, and Louis B. Mayer, studio head, arrived at Harlow’s home the morning the body was found. Perhaps something nefarious was afoot; research conducted years after the case suggests Bern most likely did not commit suicide.
While living in New York years before meeting Harlow, Bern was romantically involved with struggling actress Dorothy Millette, who became his common-law wife. She suffered from mental and emotional problems. One day Bern found in her in a coma. Doctors said she would likely never come out of it. Ten years later, Bern was with Harlow, and Millette woke up and contacted him. He set a date to meet with her at his house, and sent Harlow away for the evening (according to some accounts, he provoked an argument to get her to leave the house).
Bern supposedly died the same night he arranged to meet Millette. Nine days after Bern died, Millette’s body was found in the Sacramento River, leading researchers to believe she killed him.
Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich had a lot in common. The actresses were only four years apart in age, both came to Hollywood from Europe around the same time (Garbo from Sweden, Dietrich from Germany), and both were rumored to be bisexual. However, for most of their careers, Garbo and Dietrich denied ever having met one another.
In 1925, at the age of 19, Garbo appeared in silent German film The Joyless Street, supposedly alongside Dietrich, who was 23 at the time. Dietrich consistently denied having been in the film, and since no complete prints of it survive, it was hard for anyone to say for certain what was true.
Diana McLellan, author and film historian, has extensively studied the surviving footage from the film, a project she undertook solely to see Garbo’s performance. During the process, and using several old photos as a means of verification, McLellen is near-certain Dietrich appears in several key scenes in The Joyless Street. So what gives?
Dietrich was a well-known, promiscuous bisexual on the Berlin theater scene during the days of the Weimar Republic. Actor Klaus Kinski once related a tale if Dietrich going down on his girlfriend backstage a theater in Berlin: “Marlene tore down Edith’s panties backstage in a Berlin theatre and, using just her mouth, brought Edith to orgasm.”
According to McLellan’s research, Garbo and Dietrich had a torrid affair while filming The Joyless Street. The young, impressionable Garbo fell head-over-heels for Dietrich, who had no intent of creating a lasting relationship with the younger woman. The affair burned brightly but quickly, and left both actresses embittered for life. Dietrich later confided in friend and writer Sam Taylor that Garbo was an unintelligent “Scandinavian child” who wore dirty underwear.
In 1959, George Reeves, star of The Adventures of Superman, was found dead from a bullet to the head. Despite his death being ruled a suicide, rumors of foul play have persisted, especially because the death followed Reeves’s affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of infamous Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix.
Many years after Reeves died, an elderly and ill Toni Mannix was supposedly overheard by a friend confessing to a priest that Eddie had Reeves killed. However, most historians believe Reeves committed suicide, most likely due to depression stemming from his inability to find work beyond Superman.
In old Hollywood, the studios controlled the lives of actors, and they strongly believed a bombshell couldn’t get married or, most especially, pregnant. When Jean Harlow became pregnant during an affair with William Powell, the studio arranged for her to enter a hospital under a pseudonym to “get some rest.”
Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanette McDonald, Lana Turner, and Dorothy Dandridge all had abortions arranged by the studios, often against their wishes. The abortions arose in part from a new class of economically and socially independent women who were fueled by tabloids and male cohorts to indulge every hedonistic whim without considering the consequences at the dawn of the era of modern birth control, which wasn’t used in any widespread way. To quote Vanity Fair:
“In the 1930s, vamp and man-eating thespian Tallulah Bankhead got ‘abortions like other women got permanent waves,’ biographer Lee Israel quips in Miss Tallulah Bankhead. When virtuous singing sensation Jeanette McDonald found herself pregnant in 1935, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer told Strickling to ‘get rid of the problem.’ McDonald soon checked into a hospital with an ‘ear infection,’ according to Fleming’s The Fixers.”
Whether or not Walt Disney was an anti-Semite is subject to debate. He was, however, the only studio head to meet with Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl when she came to Hollywood at the end of 1938, in the wake of Kristallnacht (during which German citizens and the military were unleashed on Jewish institutions by the government, and permitted to burn synagogues and destroy Jewish homes and businesses).
Only three people met Riefenstahl at the airport, despite her reputation as a filmmaker. When she arrived, at the end of November, the first anti-Nazi Hollywood film, I Was a Captive of Nazi Germany, was already in production, and Riefenstahl’s most notorious film, Triumph of the Will, a cinematic veneration of Hitler and the Nazi party, was known around the world.
On December 3, Walt Disney took Riefenstahl on a three-hour tour of his lot and showed her early sketches Fantasia, which was in development. He also arranged a screening of her upcoming documentary Olympia, about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
Spade Cooley was the self proclaimed king of western swing. He had a television show, movie contracts, and hit records. In 1961, Cooley murdered his wife, Ella Mae, after beating her for hours in front of their daughter.
As his fame grew, Cooley became increasingly paranoid. He was naturally impulsive and quick to lose his head, and his temper was exacerbated by the stress of contractual obligations and his habit of hemorrhaging most of his vast wealth on bad investments. One fateful day, convinced his wife was having an affair, Cooley snapped, beating her for hours, until she lost consciousness and, eventually, died.
The trial was a media circus. Fans waited in line for hours to get in the courtroom, where Cooley was found guilty of murder. Cooley’s celebrity friends lobbied California governor Ronald Reagan, to pardon him. Reagan eventually agreed, in 1969, but Cooley died of a heart attack that same year, before even learning of his impending pardon.
Lana Turner, a Hollywood star known for femme fatale roles, lived her own version of a sordid film noir tale of murder and betrayal. In 1958, her boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a known mobster with ties to Mickey Cohen, was found stabbed to death in her home.
Turner’s 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane, admitted to the murder, claiming she took a butcher knife to Stompanato’s gut to protect her mother from his rage. In the coroner’s inquest, Mickey Cohen was called as a witness, and Turner took the stand to detail the fatal night. The coroner’s jury ultimately called the death a justifiable homicide.
Though Turner continued to work, rumors swirled about the death. Some believed Crane was in love with Stompanato, while others suggested Turner killed him and forced her daughter to take the blame.
During her time at MGM, Judy Garland was subjected to near endless abuse, including constant harassment from executives, including Louis B Mayer, about losing weight. This resulted in Garland starving herself and getting hooked on diet pills. Garland joined MGM when she was 13, and the studio’s comments on her weight began not soon after.
At age 14, the studio told her that she looked like a “fat little pig with pigtails”. At age 16, an MGM executive told Garland she was “so fat she looked like a monster.” At age 18, Mayer pushed Garland on to a diet of black coffee, chicken soup, 80 cigarettes a day, and diet pills every four hours.Garland lived the rest of her life with an eating disorder and drug addiction.
Actress Peg Entwhistle experienced success on Broadway as a teenager, and elected to move to Los Angeles at the height of the Great Depression, in 1932, to pursue her dream of being a film star. In May 1932, she starred in the play The Mad Hopes at LA’s Belasco Theatre, alongside Billie Burke and Humphrey Bogart. Though she booked small roles in some films after that, nothing much came of Entwhistle’s career in the summer after her Los Angeles theater debut.
On September 18, 1932, Entwhistle hiked to the Hollywood sign, climbed a ladder on the “H,” and threw herself down the mountain. A hiker found her purse, which contained a note reading “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” and alerted the police. Tabloids dubbed Entwhisle The Hollywood Sign Girl.
In the 1940s, Ingrid Bergman was married, and maintained a wholesome public image on which much of her fanbase was predicated. During production of 1949’s Stromboli, she began an affair with (also married) Italian director Roberto Rossellini. She got pregnant, and the two divorced their respective spouses. Their child was born out of wedlock, before they married in 1950.
Bergman’s affair and the resultant scandal was denounced as immoral by fans, many of whom abandoned her. Government officials even got in on the fracas, with Senator Edwin C. Johnson calling Bergman “a powerful influence for evil.”
Of course, the hatred of fans is just as fickle as their adoration. By the mid-50s, after making a string of classic films together, Bergman and Rossellini were divorced. She returned to Hollywood and won an Academy Award for Anastasia, gaining back fans as the moral outrage of 1949 faded into the foggy ruins of time.
Hollywood has forgotten Ted Healy was the creator of The Three Stooges, and history has forgotten hedied after sustaining a brutal beating outside a Hollywood club. A vaudevillian, Healy assembled the Stooges as sidekicks for his comedy act. By 1934, he had parted ways with them, and they went on to fame and fortune.
Healy, a heavy drinker, got in a fight outside the Trocadero Club in Hollywood in December 1937. He was, apparently, out alone celebrating the birth of his first child. A number of conflicting accounts of what happened that night (maybe December 21, maybe December 19) exist, making it hard to know the truth. Some claim Eddie Mannix helped clean up the crime scene, indicating some degree of studio involvement.
According to other reports, Healy’s assailants were future James Bond producer Cubby Broccolli, mobster Pat DiCicco, and actor Wallace Beery. The autopsy, meanwhile, states Healy died of alcoholism, not the fight.
Howard Hughes’s aviation epic Hell’s Angels was one of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history. It took three years to film, cost $3,000,000 (about $44 million in 2016), and led to the deaths of three stunt pilots and one mechanic.
Hughes wanted incredibly realistic aerial footage, and pushed pilots to try increasingly dangerous stunts. Hughes himself even almost died during a plane crash when he decided to fill in for a stunt pilot. The flying footage was some of the most realistic and exciting ever captured on screen, but it was at the expense of three pilots and a mechanic, killed filming the dangerous stunts.
Charlie Chaplin was a beloved comedic figure of the silver screen, but the reality of his love life makes his goofy antics a little more difficult to enjoy in all their campy innocence. Chaplin was married four times throughout his life, first at the age of 29, and the last time at 54, but the age of his brides all stayed relatively the same. His first marriage – again, at age 29 – was to 16-year-old Mildred Harris, but the couple divorced two years later. Then, at 35, he married 16-year-old Lolita McMurry; the pair even wed in Mexico to avoid California’s statutory rape laws. The marriage would last for three years before a very public divorce occurred.
When he was 47 he married 20-year-old Pauline Levy, and the couple stayed together for six years. Eventually he found his fourth and final wife, 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. This would prove to be the one that stuck – a good thing since he was about ready to give Henry VIII a run for his money.
Clark Gable was known in his day as The King Of Hollywood, a title he’d worked hard to earn. He was also known as something of a ladies man, a title he’d had to do very little to earn, and he happily went after anyone he shared the screen with, not to mention every pretty new starlet who rolled into town.
Despite this reputation, Gable was allegedly involved with men, too. In David Bret’s book Clark Gable: Tormented Star, the writer alleges Gable was gay for pay and traded favors for career advancement and cash.
It is also speculated that Gable initially didn’t want to star in Gone with the Wind because George Cukor was attached to direct. Cukor was a gay man and allegedly knew about Gable’s early days of hustling, and Gable was in turn uncomfortable working with him befcause of this. While it’s impossible to prove, Cukor was fired as director of Gone with the Wind in the middle of production, and replaced by Gable’s friend Victor Fleming, so there may be some truth to the matter.