It’s been said, often and obviously, that sex sells. But even sex takes a back seat to scandal when it comes to attracting the attention of an often lascivious public, and when the scandal is about sex, especially illicit sex, the morally upright can’t help but line up to buy. Hollywood, America’s longtime seat of wealth and conspicuous consumption, has long been a fount of sordid stories which held the attention of an enraptured public, happily tsking and tutting over the amoral activities of the spoiled denizens of America’s Babylon. Seeing the names of America’s favorite stars dragged through the proverbial mud, especially in the bygone days when an actor or actress was a Movie Star, has long been a cheap thrill for the American public.
During its so-called Golden Age, Hollywood produced scandals which went beyond mere titillation of the public. J. Edgar Hoover, with his penchant for keeping records damaging to the reputations of anyone he deemed too powerful and influential, ensured the FBI was active in Hollywood for decades, collecting what should have been private information in order to protect the nation’s morals. Hollywood obliged, with both steamy rumors of illicit affairs and reports of sexual activities which were at the time illegal. Some of the nation’s greatest film heroes were subject to damaging tales, some true, some speculative, and some criminal. But even the innuendo collected by Hoover for personal reasons often took a backseat to the scandals which emerged from the stars’ decadent lifestyles. Here are some of the greatest scandals to emerge from Hollywood during its Golden Age.
Charles Chaplin’s second divorce was Hollywood’s greatest scandal at the time
Charles Chaplin was a genius as a comedian, actor, writer, composer, director, and filmmaker, the creator of one of the most iconic characters of all time, his immortal Little Tramp. But when it came to relationships with the opposite sex he was less gifted. He liked them young, both his first and second wives were sixteen when he married them, and the second, Lita Grey, convinced Chaplin that she was pregnant with his child, leading to a hasty marriage (he could otherwise have been imprisoned for having sex with a minor). She wasn’t, though she later bore him two sons. Married in 1924, by 1926 they were headed to divorce court, and Lita presented an image of Chaplin far removed from his popular public persona. The divorce became a scandal which the newly-minted entertainment tabloids and the mainstream press couldn’t get enough of. Chaplin found his reputation shattered by his soon-to-be ex’s accusations.
According to Lita, Chaplin had demanded an abortion prior to their marriage (which she couldn’t have because she wasn’t pregnant) and told her that their marriage would be short. The two sons she bore later in the marriage brought into question her accusations that Charles ignored her completely, but the press and the public were easily persuaded that Chaplin was an abusive monster, a profligate womanizer, with a taste for young girls (an image he could not escape). She succeeded in trashing Chaplin’s reputation while relieving him of $800,000 (about $11 million today). It was the largest divorce settlement in American history at the time. After the divorce was final Lita remarried at least three times more, and in the 1960s published a partial autobiography entitled My Life With Chaplin in which she revisited many of the old allegations. Before she died she recanted most of them. Chaplin’s reputation never fully recovered.
Errol Flynn and the statutory rape allegations in the 1930s
During the 1950s the phrase In like Flynn meant that someone was in an enviable position, with the success of whatever venture was being undertaken all but ensured. In the 1940s the namesake of the phrase, Errol Flynn, found himself in a position neither enviable nor likely to lead to success. Sex with minor females – those under the age of 18 in California – was statutory rape, and Flynn found himself so charged by not one, but two underage young ladies, threatening his reputation, his career, his marriage, and his freedom. Both girls, 17-year-old Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hansen, also 17, accused Flynn of seducing them, Peggy on Flynn’s yacht and Betty in the home of a friend. The press was largely against Flynn (like Chaplin before him, Flynn was a foreigner, and thus possessed of un-American morals).
Flynn was eventually acquitted in both cases, and during the trials, his attorneys managed to point out both girls had been previously involved with other married men, of lesser fame and wealth. It was also pointed out that prosecutors had coordinated both cases when presenting their accusations. Flynn’s acquittal did not restore his reputation in much of the public’s opinion. There was, after all, that pesky fact that he was a foreigner (Flynn was Australian) and xenophobia was at its height in the early days of the Second World War. The pre ss eventually went on to other things, but Flynn’s image was permanently damaged, and he never again enjoyed the reputation of being a romanticized gentleman, cultured and debonair.
Tallulah Bankhead was too scandalous to be linked to scandals
Tallulah Bankhead was born into wealth and privilege, and though she was mainly known as a stage actor, she became a symbol of Hollywood extravagance in her lifetime. Tallulah simply didn’t care what anyone, including her father, an 11 term member of the US House of Representatives and Speaker of the House for two terms, said of her. She enjoyed drugs and alcohol, and didn’t attempt to hide the fact from the public. In one interview she claimed that the only thing wrong with her was that she needed a man, and it had been too long since she’d had one. She had no children, but at least four abortions at a time when the procedure was illegal throughout most of the country. In 1932 she told an interviewer that she had accepted a film part only so that she could sleep with Gary Cooper, though she substituted a common four-letter word for sleep with in the interview.
When she was introduced to film director Irving Thalberg, for whom she was to star in a Hollywood production, she asked him, “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” Supposedly a sneering Thalberg told her to “ask anyone”. She was linked to sexual relationships with both men and women, among the latter were Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Hattie McDaniel of Gone With the Wind fame. She neither confirmed nor denied her sexuality, referring to herself in one interview as “ambisexual”. Warned by her father to avoid men and alcohol in New York, she told an interviewer, “He never said anything about women and cocaine.” It was she who uttered one of the most deflating political put downs of all time, referring to Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey as resembling “the little man on the wedding cake”. She was never tainted by scandal because she welcomed the controversy, as evidenced by her once saying of cocaine, “Cocaine isn’t habit forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.”
J. Edgar Hoover’s files on Hollywood personalities
After meeting Charles Chaplin at a dinner party, J. Edgar Hoover began using the resources of the FBI to compile a dossier on what he considered to be the Hollywood star’s un-American beliefs and activities. Eventually, the file grew to over 1900 pages and was instrumental in Chaplin’s long exile from his adopted country. Chaplin was not alone. Hoover used, or rather abused, his position as head of the FBI to keep files on stars, directors, producers, and reporters – indeed on anyone whom he considered possibly subversive or anti-American. The files were held for the purpose of blackmail, and were extensive collections of personal information and activities. He documented, often through little more than innuendo, potential homosexual activity, drug use, alcohol use (both during and after prohibition), sexual peccadilloes, extramarital affairs, and political beliefs.
When he found it beneficial to his own interests, Hoover leaked information, collected but often unconfirmed, to press representatives sympathetic to his views, which were anti-communist, anti-Semitic, and often anti-feminist. Scandals in the Hollywood periodicals of the day, later amplified by the mainstream press, were fed by the FBI files as Hoover attempted to discredit Hollywood’s elite. Most of the information he collected and held secretly was intended to be used for his personal benefit, and the vast majority of the information was collected without regard to its accuracy or its relevance to the mission of the FBI, as were most of Hoover’s “personal files”. One of the greatest scandals in Hollywood’s, indeed in all of American history, was the abuse of power routinely practiced by the man who considered himself to be the greatest lawman in America throughout his long and self-serving career.
Director William Taylor’s murder was never solved
William Taylor was a highly prolific director between 1915 and 1921, and as such, he was one of the first directors to rely on what would later become known euphemistically as the casting couch. Young female wannabe stars were frequent guests to his office so that he may evaluate their skills. Nonetheless, Taylor maintained a relationship with actress Mabel Normand, and on February 1, 1921, he entertained her at his home, where he was found dead the following morning. The Los Angeles police responded to the call, and according to reporters and those who have studied the case since, thoughtfully removed evidence of Taylor’s liaisons with other women, including several young actresses not yet of legal age. As a result of the dearth of physical evidence innuendo and gossip soon provided theories as to who killed the director.
The list of suspects was long and colorful, including an allegedly gay Englishman who turned out to be neither gay nor English following police inquiries; fellow director and creator of the Keystone Kops Mack Sennett, another paramour of Normand’s; and Mary Minter’s mother. Mary was an underage actress whose letters to Taylor were allegedly removed by the helpful LAPD. Normand’s cocaine use and resulting connections to organized crime figures were also considered, but no firm evidence could be found. In the end, the murder of William Taylor was never solved, other than by Hollywood gossips who were sure they knew who the killer was and what their motive had been. The scandal remained at the tip of Hollywood’s wagging tongues for months, and is still considered from time to time in various media today, though the probability of solving the crime was destroyed by the LAPD nearly a century ago.
Suicide by jumping from the Hollywood sign in 1932
Probably there exists no more famous icon of Hollywood than the sign which spells that name in the Hollywood hills. In the 1930s the sign, already famous, read Hollywoodland, and it was from the H that a young actress, despondent over her career, committed suicide by jumping in 1932. Her death created a sensation in Hollywood, both from her manner of accomplishing it and the note which she left behind. Her name was Peg Entwistle, and she had recently completed work on a film by David O. Selznick entitled 13 Women. It was to have been her “big break”. Instead, she ended up, as they say in movieland, on the cutting room floor, her part eliminated, her work rejected (according to most stories of her suicide, in fact, she wasn’t cut out of the final print of the film until after her death, though her fourteen-minute appearance had been reduced to four).
The dramatic nature of her demise, including the manner in which her body had been found (by a hiker who also found her suicide note), led to the inevitable gossip around town, which was fed further by the elaborate funeral she was given by the film community, attended by several stars. Entwistle’s promise as an actress was stressed in the sensationalized reports of her death, including her performance on a New York stage with luminary Billie Burke (later Glinda in The Wizard of Oz) and a young actor by the name of Humphrey Bogart. Her death was less a scandal than a sensation, and in 2014 a group of roughly 100 film fans gathered to mark her demise by viewing 13 Women in a Hollywood parking lot, an event geared towards raising awareness (and money) for suicide prevention.
Entering the Twilight Zone
The television series The Twilight Zone was a popular weekly program from 1959 to 1964, the brainchild of writer and director Rod Serling. Its popularity was such that it was in high demand in reruns for years, and eventually was adapted as a full-length motion picture in the early 1980s. During the filming of the motion picture, an on-set accident involving a helicopter led to the death of popular actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, with multiple injuries to the helicopter crew and film personnel onboard. Morrow and one of the children were decapitated by the helicopter’s rotor; the other child was crushed beneath the machine. The accident caused a scandal over working safety, particularly for children on film sets, and years of litigation which kept the story on the front pages of trade papers for a decade.
The civil and criminal actions which occurred subsequent to the accident – which was more the result of negligence than misfortune – was scandalous, and the film’s director, John Landis, was charged and tried for manslaughter, along with other members of the film crew. They were eventually acquitted in terms of criminal liability, but civil penalties were assessed. Landis continued his career with little negative impact, but he found several long-term friendships with other filmmakers ended as a result of his evident cavalier attitude towards the accident and its causes. Millions of dollars were awarded to the families of the victims, mostly paid b y insurance companies. Landis later attempted to deflect the blame for the accident, claiming that the cause of the accident had been in part a special effects fireball detonated by an underlying erroneously, an error for which he was never charged.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s 27-year affair
In 1941 actor Spencer Tracy, one of Hollywood’s most successful and in-demand leading men, began seeing actress Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn was from upper-crust New England stock, presenting a prim, proper, and athletic image to her fans, who had for several years been involved in a relationship with Howard Hughes. Tracy was a married man who presented the public persona of being a devout Catholic, though, in fact, he did not follow the practices of the religion as piously as his image indicated. From 1941 until his death, the two maintained an affair which was an open secret in Hollywood. Tracy did not seek a divorce, nor did he return to married life to attempt a reconciliation for the rest of his life. Rather than live with Hepburn, Tracy resided in hotels for the most part, with his main employer, MGM, helping to continue the charade of his having a happily married life.
Not until the final years of his life, when Tracy was suffering from numerous ailments and in declining health, did he and Hepburn live together? During their lengthy affair, Tracy was also unfaithful to Hepburn, having an affair with actress Gene Tierney which made the tabloids, and speculation was often rife over others. When Tracy died at the home he shared with Hepburn, she reacted by calling his wife and then removing herself from the scene, in order to avoid embarrassing her. She did not attend Tracy’s funeral for the same reason. In addition to keeping his affair with Hepburn under wraps, MGM helped quell reports of Tracy’s long battle with alcohol, barbiturates, and Dexedrine, including at least two arrests for alcohol-related incidents. Tracy was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, alongside his wife Louise. Katharine Hepburn was interred in Connecticut, thirty-six years after Tracy’s death.
Ingrid Bergman and her public censure by a United States Senator
In the 1940s the Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman displayed her versatility as a performer with roles as Ilsa in Casablanca, a near saintly nun in Bells of St. Mary’s, and an actual saint, as well as virgin, in the title role in Joan of Arc. She entertained American troops during the Second World War, protested against segregation in the US Armed Forces, and was generally regarded as one of the leading actresses of her generation. In 1949 the married Bergman (her husband was neurosurgeon Petter Lindstrom) began an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini (an earlier affair she had with American actor Gregory Peck was kept hidden at the time). The married Bergman became pregnant with Rosellini’s child, and the resulting scandal was huge, at least in the United States.
After their child was born, Bergman obtained a divorce from her husband, and within a week married the Italian director, though she had to travel to Mexico to do so. Public outcry in America was strong, and Senator Edwin Jackson railed against her in the US Senate. He called Rossellini “vile and unspeakable” and demanded that the couple, “not set foot on American soil under our immigration laws”. The scandal, which was fed by the Catholic Legion of Decency, numerous newspapers and magazines, and from the pulpits of churches across the country drove Bergman from the United States. Bergman chose to remain away from America for many years. Hollywood studios did not again employ her until 1956, six years after the scandal, when she appeared in the film, Anastasia. Though made by an American studio, it was filmed entirely in Europe.
Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato
Lana Turner was the classic blonde bombshell of the 1940s, a popular pinup among American servicemen and teenage boys and a favorite co-star with Clark Gable. Her role in The Postman Always Rings Twice established her as a serious actress at the same time her well-publicized personal life called her morals into question among those inclined to do so. She developed a reputation of being hard to work with, temperamental, and a sex symbol relying on her looks as much as her acting ability. The legend that she was discovered by a Hollywood mogul at Schwab’s Pharmacy has long been debunked, but the scandal which surrounded her in 1958, after her daughter stabbed to death reputed mob figure Johnny Stompanato, has not.
Stompanato wooed Lana with flowers and phone calls while she was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer, and unaware of his reputation and mob contacts, she began dating him. When she learned that he had similarly stalked other actresses (including Zsa Zsa Gabor and June Allyson) and of his underworld contacts, she broke off their affair. In April 1958, after a heated argument in her home during which Stompanato allegedly threatened to kill her, Turner’s daughter came to her mother’s defense with a kitchen knife. Stompanato was killed and Turner’s daughter was charged with manslaughter. The combination of a female sex symbol, a mobster, and her daughter’s involvement was too much for the press to resist and the trial became a media circus. Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, was acquitted, though the scandal remained for many months, with numerous reports that Lana’s testimony (she was the only eyewitness to the killing) had been nothing more than an example of her practicing her craft as an actress.
The Hacienda Arms on Sunset Strip
During the 1930s an apartment complex on Sunset Strip known as the Hacienda Arms Apartments offered more than just leases on residential quarters. It was among the most well-known and popular brothels in Hollywood, with several of the leading stars of the day counted among its satisfied clientele. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and several other leading men of the time were known to frequent the building known as the “House of Francis”. Several leading ladies were counted among the customers as well, including Talalluh Bankhead, Jean Harlow, and Barbara Stanwyck. According to one writer, MGM studios maintained an open account upon which their stars could charge the services they requested, thus keeping their expenses secret from wives and husbands. The establishment was named for Madam Lee Francis, who often had to have her bouncers remove famous personages who became too boisterous to remain on the premises. They did so discreetly. Tracy was one of them, on multiple occasions.
Francis managed to maintain a level of privacy by providing a stipend to local authorities, reportedly about 40% of the income from her business. Spreading the money about helped her ensure that those whose careers would be damaged by the shock of an arrest on a morals charge were absent from the premises on those occasions when raids were scheduled, as Lee recounted in a book about the brothel entitled Ladies on Call. After her arrest, Ann Forester took over the operation, and it remained in business until 1948, when a drive to clean up local corruption among the elected officials of Los Angeles and the police department they supervised led to the business being closed. The building remains in 2019, housing various offices for companies involved in the film industry.
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