Elizabeth Montgomery Was Known As The Good Witch, But Her Life Off Screen Was Much Darker

The hit ’60s show Bewitched was all about a cute young witch-turned-housewife played by Elizabeth Montgomery. Samantha Stephens wanted a normal marriage to her husband, but her life as a witch kept getting in the way. And the concept of leading two lives would leak out into the real world, as Montgomery struggled with her career and her childhood.

Bewitched was considered a very wholesome show, though its premise probably wouldn’t fly today. Samantha’s husband, Darrin, wanted her to be a typical housewife, even though she possessed tremendous power. Whenever she used her magic, it was usually in secret and sometimes to quietly help her husband’s career.

Today, Bewitched is considered to have used some rather outdated tropes. Even its episode about racial equality is seen as cringe-worthy now. But back in the ’60s and ’70s – the show ended up running from 1964 to 1972 – it was huge. And a big part of its success can be attributed to Montgomery.

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Montgomery was the daughter of actor Robert Montgomery and his wife Elizabeth, who passed her name down to her child. And although the family had privilege and wealth, life wasn’t always easy. A baby born before the future star, a girl called Martha, died in infancy. And when Montgomery was still young her parents divorced.

There was some tragedy further back in the family line as well. Robert was born Henry Montgomery Jr, named for his father, who was a very wealthy man. Indeed, until his death, he was the New York Rubber Company’s vice-president. But when he took his own life in 1922, it was discovered the family’s money had disappeared. Robert had to work his way back up.

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Robert clearly found fame and fortune in the acting world. And as a result, his daughter also had that career path set out for her, if she chose. And she did indeed start acting while she was still a child. After a stint at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, in 1951 the future star appeared on her father’s show, Robert Montgomery Presents. Naturally, she played his character’s daughter.

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Montgomery would always have a complex relationship with her famous dad. He was hard on her when she first started out as an actor. Sometimes, he would send his daughter notes telling her exactly what he didn’t like about her performances. Yet when the young woman suggested changing her last name, he asked in shock if she was ashamed of him. In the end, she kept it.

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The star and her father also had very different political viewpoints. Robert was a Republican, and, at one point during the ’50s, he was a consultant to President Eisenhower. His daughter, however, was the exact opposite. She was a liberal, and throughout her career she supported women’s rights, gay rights and an end to the Vietnam War.

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The actor’s biographer, Herbie Pilato, thinks that a lot of the turmoil in Montgomery’s personal life had a distinct origin. In his opinion, it was a result of pushing back against her dad. And the writer gave an interview to that effect the Daily Mail in 2012. In it, he claimed, “She was always looking for the ‘bad boy,’ which may have been part of her rebellion against her father.”

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There’s no denying that Montgomery wasn’t exactly lucky in love. The first man she married was a socialite named Fred Cammann, who was ten years older than her. But he wanted the actor to give up her career and become a housewife – perhaps that sounds familiar? – and she wasn’t having it.

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The actor’s marriage to Cammann lasted just under a year in the end. After that, Montgomery fell into the arms of Academy Award-winning actor Gig Young, who was even older than her ex-husband. In fact, he had 25 years on on the young star. Her father disapproved of the marriage, and as it turned out, he had good reason to.

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Young, it seems, suffered from alcoholism. In addition, biographers think there’s a chance he was physically abusive to Montgomery, who was the second of an eventual five wives. But one confirmed fact is this: In 1978, police found Young and his last wife, Kim Schmidt, dead in their New York apartment. All evidence pointed to a murder-suicide.

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After Young, Montgomery married William Asher, a producer and director on Bewitched. He, too, was much older than the young star. And he was the person responsible for one of the most famous elements of the sitcom, Samantha’s twitchy nose. After noting the actor’s own facial expressions when she was nervous, he wrote it into the show.

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The Asher marriage resulted in three children for the couple: William Jr, Robert and Rebecca. The last two pregnancies were worked into the show so Montgomery wouldn’t have to hide them, providing children for Samantha and Darrin. As a result, much was made in the media of the actor having settled down and become a mother.

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In 1965, the year Robert was born, the usually quite private Montgomery gave an interview to Screen Stories magazine. On the subject of motherhood she said – and this sounds rather astounding to modern ears – “I think that instinct holds for every female. If it comes to a showdown, her choice is home and family over career.”

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Montgomery went on to say, “When women choose a life of competition with men in the market-place, it is usually due to circumstances beyond their control… Like sickness in the family or some inner drive for success that’s caused by a childhood of frustration. Most women try to walk the tightrope between home and office. And some of them manage to do surprisingly well at it.”

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But what of Montgomery’s thoughts on her own childhood? During the interview, she indicated that the loss of her sister always hung over the family. When it came to her father, the star explained, “I never replaced Martha in his heart, but I did help to soothe his grief.” For his part, Robert rarely spoke about the daughter he lost.

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Montgomery also revealed she had no ill feelings about her mom and dad divorcing – even though her father would go on to marry another woman named Elizabeth. She told the magazine, “I felt no bitterness when my parents parted. There was no spite or name-calling. There was no open quarreling that I knew of. They separated with the same dignity and mutual respect I had come to expect of them.”

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But, it seems, Montgomery’s relationship with her dad was always a strict one. She said that, before her debut on Robert Montgomery Presents, “Father showed me no favors during rehearsal. He was so impersonal that I referred to him as ‘Robert,’ the way the other players did. Anyone in the cast who had been afraid I might get favored treatment was soon relieved.”

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Robert himself had some words regarding his relationship with his daughter. TV Radio Mirror magazine quoted him as saying, “Elizabeth is a strong-willed girl with a mind of her own and she doesn’t need help from me or anyone else. The only thing I demand of her is a good performance – otherwise, I’ll bean her!”

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Montgomery seemed happy during the interview. But before too long, her marriage to Asher would start to implode. According to Pilato, speaking to the Daily Mail, the producer had affairs while he and his wife both worked on Bewitched. And then so did his wife – she fell into the arms of married director Richard Michaels.

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That affair not only marked the end of the Montgomery-Asher marriage, but also Bewitched. The show was declining in the ratings and the star wanted to branch out in to other roles anyway. When the show finished in 1972, she moved in with Michaels, but the relationship didn’t last in the end.

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Pilato told the Daily Mail that Asher always blamed himself for driving Montgomery towards another man. He revealed, “Toward the end of his life, Bill Asher still missed Elizabeth and was crying his heart out for her, saying, ‘It was all my fault.’ He couldn’t get over her.” The Bewitched producer passed away in 2012.

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After Bewitched, Montgomery continued to work. She received an Emmy nomination for her performance in 1974’s A Case of Rape, and the following year she played historical figure Lizzie Borden in The Legend of Lizzie Borden. It would transpire, many years later, that she and the real Borden were actually distant cousins.

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Robert Montgomery passed away in 1981, leaving behind his two children and a total of eight grandchildren, as well as six step-grandchildren. The family then kept the memorials for him as private as possible. There were reports, however, of the actor’s cremation, and that his ashes would be kept by his survivors. And the cause of death was also revealed: it was cancer.

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In Montgomery’s later years, she married Robert Foxworth, a fellow actor, whom she’d met on the set of Mrs. Sundance. She also began speaking out about politics and human rights more and more. This came after her Bewitched co-star and real-life good friend Dick Sargent came out as gay in 1991.

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In 1992 Montgomery spoke to The Advocate magazine about her work, campaigning for gay rights and a desire for privacy. She told the publication, “I grew up in Hollywood, so I’ve seen what kind of damage loose talk can do.” The actor then added, “I have had a couple of run-ins with magazines where the reporters were wildly insensitive and were not very nice.”

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Montgomery said that homosexuality was accepted within the circles she frequented as a kid. She then recalled an interaction with playwright Noel Coward, “Daddy was doing the film version of Private Lives, playing the role that Mr. Coward originated in his play. Daddy was having dinner at Sardi’s one night, and in walked Noel Coward. And he screamed across the restaurant at Daddy, ‘Hello, gorgeous!’ and went up and kissed him full on the mouth. People were cheering. I grew up with that kind of thing.”

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The Advocate asked Montgomery if she ever tired of talking about the show that made her famous. The actor answered, “I know this sounds disgustingly Pollyanna, but working on Bewitched was like being in college for eight years and learning about what I really loved and really wanted to do. How the hell could I not want to discuss it?”

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Montgomery went on, “We had an incredible cast: Agnes Moorehead, Marion Lorne, Maurice Evans, Paul Lynde… Just an incredible group of people. I had a grand old time. I will admit to one thing: I did get a little tired of Samantha being sweet and adorable all the time.” But the star worked around that.

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The actor explained, “That’s why I invented Serena.” Indeed, from 1969 Montgomery also played Samantha’s less wholesome cousin on Bewitched. The role was a chance for the star to stretch her acting chops and break out of that super-sweet mold. And for most of those bad-girl appearances, Montgomery was credited as “Pandora Spocks,” a play on “Pandora’s box.”

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The Advocate then suggested to Montgomery, “Bewitched is sort of a gay allegory: the story of […] a witch who’s being told that she can’t tell anyone who or what she really is. It’s the ultimate closet story.” The star then answered, “Don’t think that didn’t enter our minds at the time.”

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The actor explained, “We talked about it on the set – certainly not in production meetings – that this was about people not being allowed to be what they really are. If you think about it, Bewitched is about repression in general and all the frustration and trouble it can cause. It was a neat message to get across to people at that time in a subtle way.”

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Montgomery then made it clear to The Advocate what her priorities were going forward. When the interviewer asked if she was worried people would think she was a lesbian, she laughed and said, “I’m really not worried about that. There are bigger things to worry about. Like the presidential election and finding a cure for AIDS.”

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Sadly, though, Montgomery never got a chance to take her activism further. In 1995, while filming Deadline for Murder: From the Files of Edna Buchanan, she started becoming ill but tried to ignore it. It turned out to be cancer, the same disease that had killed her father. And by the time it was discovered, it was too late.

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Following the diagnosis, Montgomery decided she would rather die at her home than in a medical facility. With her husband by her side, the star returned to her house in Beverly Hills. She then spent the following eight weeks with Foxworth and her three children, who were now adults with careers of their own. She passed away on May 18, 1995, at the age of only 62.

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The actor’s ex-husband Asher was also present during those last days. Despite the divorce and everything surrounding it, the two had maintained a relationship. The month after her death, he told People magazine the star hadn’t wished her husband and children to see the moment of her death, and had thus been alone when she passed.

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After Montgomery’s passing, her friends told People magazine what a good person she was. Her manager Barry Krost said, “There was no Hollywood B.S. about her. She was born here, she’d seen it all and she knew how to dodge the arrows.” And Howard Bragman, her publicist, spoke of her charity work, saying “You wouldn’t see her at parties, but you would always see her at benefits.”

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Another co-star of Montgomery’s, Edna Buchanan, remembered how the actor was never snobby, no matter where she happened to be. Whenever they went to dinner, in fact, she would happily chat to the waiters about their lives and families. The star, Buchanan said, “just acted like a terrific, friendly, wonderful, buoyant person.”

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Despite a life fraught with complexities, Montgomery made it all work before cancer tragically cut her time here short. Those who remembered the star in the media talked about what a good mother she was. Erin Murphy, who played Tabitha in Bewitched, summed it all up by saying, “She was a working mom when it wasn’t in style to be one.”

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