Old Hollywood was a place of riches and glamor – on the surface at least. Behind the scenes some pretty dark and unpleasant things went on. Although the stars of that era attempted to sweep scandals under the rug, they tended to get out anyway. That’s how the world came to know these 20 particular shocking stories.
20. Clark Gable had an illegitimate daughter
While filming the 1935 movie Call of the Wild, actress Loretta Young had an affair with the married Clark Gable. This resulted in a pregnancy, and if it had been discovered it would’ve ruined her. Young concocted a plan. She would pretend to be ill, have the baby, and then tell the media that she had adopted a daughter.
The little girl, Judy, was born with ears which looked very much like Gable’s. So the terrified Young attempted to keep them covered in order that nobody would realize the truth. But, of course, it came out in the end. Eventually Judy was told that Gable, a man she had met only once, was her biological father.
19. Lucille Ball’s marriage wasn’t so happy offscreen
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were a supercouple of their era. You see, they were the stars of I Love Lucy, which was almost a precursor to reality TV in that it sometimes borrowed from their real lives. But some things were left out, like the fact that Arnaz cheated on Ball several times and also allegedly drank too much.
According to Keith Thibodeaux, the child actor who played Little Ricky on I Love Lucy, things got pretty turbulent. Indeed, he told People magazine in 1991, “One time Desi Jr. [their son] and I were playing in the backyard… We heard a lot of loud arguing and cursing and glass shattering and screaming, and we were scared. Desi Jr. turned to me and said, ‘There they go again.’”
18. Jean Harlow’s husband died mysteriously
Actress Jean Harlow was married to producer Paul Bern. And in 1932, he was found dead at their house holding a gun and a note. Written in the note was, “Unfortunately this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humiliation.” It seemed to be a clear suicide, but perhaps it wasn’t.
The real story sounds positively soap opera-esque. Bern had been involved with an actress called Dorothy Millette before Harlow. And she’d been in a coma for ten years, but had miraculously recovered and wanted to meet him the night he died. Her own body was found in a river nine days later. Did she kill him?
17. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn had a long affair
When Spencer Tracy fell in love with Katharine Hepburn in 1941, he was unfortunately already a married man. He was the husband of Louise Treadwell, and they had two children together. Furthermore, he was a Catholic – it was a big part of his image – so he couldn’t ask for a divorce. There was only one option, strange though it was.
Tracy simply remained married to Treadwell and continued seeing Hepburn. Although there have long been rumors that this, too, was a cover-up, potentially a way of allowing both Tracy and Hepburn to entertain same-sex partners. In any case, Hepburn was by Tracy’s side when he died in 1967. She didn’t attend his funeral, but she spoke fondly of him for many years afterwards.
16. Howard Hughes didn’t adhere to safety standards
Howard Hughes, the man whose name would become synonymous with “eccentric millionaire,” filmed a movie called Hell’s Angels in 1930. And it was an exciting airplane adventure starring Jean Harlow. But it was also incredibly expensive to film, and yet little of that money seemed to go on health and safety. Indeed, four people died making the movie.
Filming the stunts was a dangerous job, and in the end three pilots and one mechanic all perished to get the movie Hughes wanted. Some pilots adamantly refused to do one scene, so Hughes did it himself, and crashed his plane. However he walked away from the crash site, while of course many others did not.
15. Greta Garbo may have had an affair with a woman
Rumors have circulated about Greta Garbo’s sexuality for a long time. Both men and women were said to have had romances with her. The most hotly debated one of these is Garbo’s relationship with the lady playwright Mercedes De Acosta. And letters the pair of them wrote to each other still exist today.
While Garbo kept her romantic life as secret as possible, Acosta did not, and she was rumored to have slept with Marlene Dietrich as well. In 2000 the letters between Garbo and Acosta were finally unsealed, but to many people’s disappointment there was no sign they’d been having an affair. Unless, so one theory goes, the most scandalous letters were destroyed.
14. There was a riot at Rudolph Valentino’s funeral
Italian silent film actor Rudolph Valentino was a major heartthrob. Women adored him. But then suddenly, at the age of just 31, he was gone. You see, in August 1926 he suffered a ruptured ulcer and within a week it had killed him. There was a mass outpouring of grief, and 100,000 people – too many to control – turned up for the funeral.
Such was the chaos at the funeral home that it turned into an outright riot, the police too outnumbered to calm things down. And not helping matters much was Valentino’s girlfriend, actress Pola Negri. She fainted onto his coffin, announced to the mourners that Valentino had proposed to her before he died, then fainted once again. Weirdly, the funeral flowers that she fainted on spelled her own name rather than his.
13. Elizabeth Taylor had an affair with a married man
Elizabeth Taylor had several husbands, but perhaps the most scandal surrounded her fourth, Eddie Fisher. You see, Taylor was comforted by him after her previous husband, Mike Todd, was killed in a 1957 plane crash. And this friendship soon turned to romance, but Fisher unfortunately was still married to Debbie Reynolds at the time.
Taylor and Reynolds had been friends, which made everything worse. And Reynolds believed Taylor would get bored of Fisher before too long, and she was mostly right. Yes, they married, but in 1965 she ditched him for Richard Burton. Perhaps surprisingly, Reynolds even began talking to Taylor again many years later, blaming Fisher rather than her for what happened.
12. There might have been more to Carole Lombard’s death
Carole Lombard and Clark Gable appeared to have the kind of relationship many people only dream of. By all accounts they utterly adored each other. And yet, things weren’t perfect. Before Lombard’s death in a 1942 plane crash, Gable might well have been cheating on her with the beautiful young Lana Turner.
And according to writer Robert Matzen, author of 2014’s Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3, Lombard might have been on the fated plane specifically because Gable was cheating. So desperate was she to get home and speak to him that she got on a plane rather than a train, and her death was the result.
11. Ingrid Bergman had an illegitimate child
Like many of her contemporaries, actress Ingrid Bergman presented a wholesome image to the world. But that was shattered in 1949 when the married actress had an affair with director Roberto Rossellini on the set of Stromboli. To add to that, she became pregnant with his child. Many were outraged.
During a speech in 1950, Senator Edwin C. Jackson labelled Bergman “a powerful influence for evil” and declared, “out of the ashes of Ingrid Bergman will grow a better Hollywood.” Even though Bergman married Rossellini before the baby was born, there was still anger. Eventually, as times changed, the scandal was more or less forgotten.
10. Steve McQueen was very popular with women
Acting legend Steve McQueen allegedly had a lot of affairs, as well as being married to three women throughout his life. According to people interviewed for the 2017 documentary Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, he would go off during lunch breaks, sleep with at least two women, then come back.
McQueen’s second wife Neile Adams said on the documentary, “When the flower children came along everything changed. He was almost 40 and there was suddenly free sex, and free love, and free this and free everything. He said to me one day ‘I have to work so hard for love in this house, I can get it for free out there!’” And apparently he did.
9. Alec Guinness foresaw James Dean’s death
James Dean had a Porsche Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard”, and that was the car he died in. On September 30, 1955 he was on his way to a race when the Little Bastard smashed into another car, killing the young actor at the age of 24. And just a week before, actor Alec Guinness had warned Dean about this.
Guinness himself told the story in a 1977 BBC interview. Just seven days before the actor’s death, he met Dean for the first time, entirely by chance. Dean showed the older actor the Porsche, and Guinness told him, “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.” Inexplicably, and tragically, he was right.
8. Marilyn Monroe lied about her mother
The woman who would become Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jean Mortensen, had a past fraught with pain. Her mother, Gladys, was so mentally unwell that she was unable to care for her daughter. The young Norma went in and out of foster homes until eventually she became a ward of the state. And so when Monroe became famous, she claimed her mother was dead.
Indeed, Monroe told the media that she had grown up in foster homes, which was true, but also that she was orphaned. Eventually, though, the truth came out. In 1952 a journalist discovered Gladys working in a nursing home, having lived in mental hospitals for some time. Monroe had to confess the truth: she couldn’t hide her troubled mother any more.
7. Julie Andrews wasn’t always a goody two shoes
For most of her career Julie Andrews played family-friendly characters in films that could always be described as good, clean family entertainment. And she did two “singing nanny” roles in quick succession. Yes, first she was the magical Mary Poppins in the film of the same name and then the sweet governess Maria in The Sound of Music.
Now, Maria and Mary Poppins probably wouldn’t have been caught dead smoking or swearing. But Andrews, on the other hand, very much did. And when children were present, too. Her young Mary Poppins co-star Karen Dotrice was shocked to see her having cigarettes with the movie crew. And at another point, a stunt went wrong, and Andrews used some profanities in front of Walt Disney himself.
6. Clara Bow was the victim of libel
Clara Bow, a big star of the “talkies” caused scandal for doing things that she had not, in fact, done. She was a modern woman in a stuffy era – she threw parties, she had boyfriends, and more. This made her the target for some pretty shocking lies. It all started when her former secretary, Daisy DeVoe, tried to blackmail her and the case went to court.
And the things that were revealed in court about Bow probably wouldn’t have raised many eyebrows today. But the newspapers took the suggestions of her casual hookups and exaggerated them. The Coast Reporter claimed that Bow was a sex maniac who took drugs and even engaged in bestiality. It wasn’t at all true – and the publication’s libel saw its editor jailed. But sadly, the reports still killed her career.
5. Rock Hudson had to hide his sexuality
In the days of Old Hollywood the idea of an openly gay leading man was absolutely off the table. However, Rock Hudson was indeed gay, and he was forced to keep it a secret. So that the press wouldn’t get wind of anything, Hudson’s agent Henry Wilson arranged for him to marry his own secretary, Phyllis Gates.
The marriage was an unhappy one, and indeed Hudson’s whole story would appear that same way, despite the success he achieved. You see, in 1984 he was diagnosed with HIV, at a time when there was no cure for it. And at the age of 59 he died of AIDS, before he ever had a chance to publicly announce his sexuality.
4. MGM Studios forced Judy Garland to diet
The Wizard of Oz is a beloved family classic, but things were rough for Judy Garland behind the scenes. Ever since starting out as a child actress, MGM Studios had fiercely controlled her diet and her weight. Sometimes, plates of food would be snatched away from right under her nose.
MGM were relentless in their rules about Garland’s diet, and producers had no qualms about mocking her weight in front of her. By the time the actress was 18, she was eating mostly just chicken soup and coffee – and consuming a lot of cigarettes and amphetamines, reported the . Garland had lost her entire childhood, and she knew it.
3. Thelma Todd died in strange circumstances
Actress Thelma Todd was known as the “Ice Cream Blonde”, and she had her whole career ahead of her. Then, she was found dead in what appeared to be a suicide. In December 1935 her maid discovered her body in her boyfriend’s garage, still in the front seat of her car. The cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning.
But was it really suicide, or in fact murder? After all, there were a lot of people with motive. Her divorced ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, might have killed her in an act of revenge, was one theory. Another rumored culprit was the gangster Lucky Luciano, who Todd was reportedly in an abusive relationship with. Or was it the estranged wife of Todd’s lover Roland West? Perhaps no-one will ever truly know.
2. Marilyn Monroe posed nude
Before she was famous in 1949, a desperate Marilyn Monroe posed naked for money. She was promised by the photographer that she’d look completely unrecognizable, and she signed a false name on the release papers. But her efforts to protect herself failed. You see, in 1953 Playboy’s Hugh Hefner bought the photos.
And when Hefner published the photographs in his magazine, Monroe decided there was no point pretending the model wasn’t her. Her bosses thought the leaked nudes would ruin the actress’s career – but if anything, Monroe actually became more popular. However, she resented that Hefner had never paid her for the use of the photos.
1. Hollywood special effects might have led to Steve McQueen’s death
Steve McQueen died of cardiac arrest caused by the cancer mesothelioma – yet his time in Hollywood might’ve contributed to his untimely end. At the time he was active in the industry, filmmakers frequently used asbestos as fake snow for winter movie scenes. It was, after all, cheap and fire-resistant. But, as the world knows now, it was also very dangerous.
However, McQueen probably got higher exposure to asbestos than most movie stars, because he’d also served in the military, and asbestos was in common use there as well. Plus he did his own motorbike stunts, and the stunt suits at the time would have been made from the material too. It was everywhere. And so sadly, McQueen died at the age of just 50.