These days, we seem to be living in a world where Hollywood and political scandals are the new normal and the two often clash and combine in fascinating (and dangerous) ways. But absolutely nothing compares with the secrets and scandals that circulated throughout the golden years of Hollywood, which included harassment and even more serious crimes. It’s a wonder that anyone really wanted to be a star back in those days when movie studios were known to have a heavy hand in the lives of the stars they claim to have created. It’s a wonder any star actually survived those days. While we continue to be shocked by the scandals Hollywood is living through these days, we can at least be thankful it’s not as bad as it used to be. Or is it? Here are 15 secrets and forgotten histories of 20th century Hollywood.
Sure, young generations know actor Christopher Walken as “the dude from the more cowbell gif,” but back in the late 70’s, early 80’s, Walken was a hot up-and-coming actor who palled around with actor Robert Wagner and his wife, actress Natalie Wood. The stunning Wood hit fame with the musical West Side Story and was one of Hollywood’s leading ladies when she married Wagner and the two became one of Tinsel Town’s “IT” couples. Their marriage was wrought with tension, however, and that tension seemed to escalate on the night of November 28, 1981, on board the Splendour off of the coast of the Santa Catalina Island. After a tense argument with Wagner, Wood ended up falling off the boat somehow and drowning. All fingers were pointed at Wagner and guest Walken, who was present on the boat when Wood drown because the actress was actually deathly afraid of water and would have never gone swimming on her own accord. To this day, no one knows how she got into the water or if her husband and Walken had anything to do with her death.
Way back when, beautiful starlets Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were considered close friends back during Hollywood’s glamour decade. Young Reynolds was married to Eddie Fisher at the time, a man whom Taylor deeply admired… to a startling point. Hollywood was suddenly turned upside down when Taylor ended up stealing her best friend’s husband, creating one of the biggest scandals back then. Reynolds and Taylor famously turned on each other and fought for decades before both actresses actually made up years later. Taylor even famously left a large quantity of her jewelry to her former rival in her will after she passed away. Reynolds would often visit Taylor and spend days with her as the latter continued to grow increasingly frail. Reynolds even said later in life that Taylor did her a huge favor by stealing Fisher from her.
To this day, no one can quite grasp the fact that George Reeves, star and title character of The Adventures of Superman, actually would take his own life when he had everything going for him. Actually, he had too MUCH going for him. Apparently, Reeves was seeing the wife of a notorious Hollywood “fixer” at the time of his death. Eddie Mannix was a film studio producer who would often protect stars by disguising their private lives in order for them to maintain a healthy public image. Reeves was seeing Toni Mannix, Eddie’s wife, at the time of his end, so many suspected that Eddie had something to do with it. Before Toni’s own death, a witness overheard her confess to a priest that Eddie, in fact, had Reeves killed. This had been wildly debated since Reeves was actually suffering from depression at the time of his death.
Back when she was just a child star, Wizard of Oz actress Judy Garland was horribly bullied by the very movie studio that was responsible for her worldwide fame. Executives were constantly harassing Garland about her weight, even at the delicate age of 14, by referring to her as a “fat little pig with pigtails”. The harassment continued until she was 18 when the studio actually put her on a diet of chicken soup, black coffee, up to 80 cigarettes a day, and diet pills that were to be taken every four hours. Thanks to this treatment, Garland went on to develop an eating disorder and had a lifelong battle with addiction. Studios were notorious for harassing their female stars into maintaining a certain weight while keeping a short leash on them at the same time.
You wouldn’t think that movies could get more evil than harassing their starlets into staying thin, but, if you look back at history, you realize that, yes, they did actually get more evil. The studios made a majority of their money on their female stars, mainly Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and Dorothy Dandridge to name a few, so when one of them ended up in a, well, “delicate” position, the studio they worked for would push them to have it fixed. These women were not allowed to get married or pregnant in real life between certain ages in order to maintain their “innocent-like” images and if they did, the studio would actually go to great lengths in order to make sure the “problem” was rectified. It was a disgusting time.
Back in the 1940’s, everyone knew the nickname “The Black Dahlia” thanks to the brutal crime of a young woman named Elizabeth Short. The flower was actually the nickname of Short that went viral after she was found in the Leimert Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. Short was an aspiring actress who was born in Boston and came out to live with her father in LA during the 40’s. After her body was discovered, the Los Angeles Police Department produced more than 150 suspects for her murder, yet no arrests were ever made in connection with it. Her unsolved murder was one of the most famous unsolved cases in the post World War II America and went on to inspire many books and films based on the subject.
Charles Manson and his cult known as the Manson Family had all of Los Angeles in a fear chokehold during two months in the late 1960’s as they ran rapid, harming numerous people most notably pregnant actress Sharon Tate, who was the wife of Hollywood bigwig director Roman Polanski. The Tate murders were carried out by four followers of the cult over the course of two days. Polanski was not actually there during the crimes, as he was shooting a film in Europe at the time they were carried out. Tate had had six people over at her and her husband’s secluded house hidden in the Hollywood Hills when they were ambushed by Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, Patricia Krenwinkle, and Charles Watson, members of Manson’s cult. The pregnant Tate was actually with Roman in Europe but had returned three weeks prior to the incident.
Sure, anyone and everyone knows who exactly Heidi Fleiss is, but can you name some other famous Hollywood madams that had a particular market cornered in Tinsel Town? Because some of them ran one of the top brothels and in Hollywood and ironically paved the way for some very successful women. During the 1930’s it was Lee Francis who ran her brothel on the Sunset Strip and had a clientele that included Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, and Errol Flynn while the LAPD officers were paid to turn a blind eye to her business. When she was eventually taken down, it was Brenda Allen who took her spot and became the most successful madam of the late 1940’s, who took a cue from Francis and began to pay off the police officers investigating her. When she too was eventually arrested, she threw a bunch of cops under the table.
Sure, Joan Crawford was a superstar back in the MGM heydays of early Hollywood glamour, but before she hit stardom, she had to make a living somehow and starred in at least one adult film (at least, what was considered “adult” way back when). After she became hugely famous, MGM actually spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in order to track down and do away with the film itself. Eddie Mannix was even brought in, and he got the mob involved in order to successfully get the film and its negatives, which were being used as blackmail by a few extortionists who were asking for a lot of money in return. In one version of the story, Mannix and the mob tracked down the extortionists and had them murdered, while in another, they simply shelled out the money that was asked of them in order to get the negatives back.
Back in 1932, the husband of the famous Jean Harlow, producer Paul Bern, took his own life and left the following note, which police claimed was his "final" note:
Unfortunately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and wipe out my abject humiliation, I love [sic] you.
You understand that last night was only a comedy.
No one really understood the message because Harlow herself refused to discuss details of the meaning behind the note. Harlow herself was not present during the accident and was actually staying with her mother at the time of his death. MGM stepped in to help clean up the mess, leading people to believe that Bern didn’t actually take his own life, but was murdered by his former girlfriend, who was in a coma for 10 years. Bern was actually supposed to meet up with the ex the night he died, leading to speculations that she was the one who actually killed him.
Until the day she died, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl claimed to have loathed Adolf Hitler, even though he was openly in love with her and her work during his reign of terror in the late 1930’s, 1940’s. She had directed Triumph of the Will, a documentary she was hired by Hitler to make about the rise of the Nazi party. In 1938, Riefenstahl came to Hollywood and was given a private, three-hour tour of the Disney lot by Walt Disney himself and he even arranged to have her review early sketches of Fantasia and even screened her upcoming documentary Olympia, which was about the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin. At the time, Riefenstahl was believed to be a Nazi sympathizer, something she really didn’t deny at the time.
It was ironic that Lana Turner, who was best known for playing femme fatale roles in the 1950’s, was involved in one of Hollywood’s most profiled real-life crimes. Her boyfriend Johnny Stompanato was found stabbed to death in her home, which didn’t surprise many people because Stompanato had ties to the mob. What no one was prepared for was the fact that it was actually Lana’s 14-year old daughter, Cheryl Crane, who was to blame. Crane claimed that she did it in order to protect her mother after Stompanato flew into a jealous rage and went after her. Since it was considered a justifiable murder at the time, Crane was released. However, Turner’s career faltered because of it since people believed that it was actually Turner who committed the crime and had her daughter take the fall because she knew that Crane would be able to get away with it.
Young actress Peg Entwistle had a taste of fame when she found success as a Broadway actress as a teen, so she decided to move to Hollywood in order to pursue a career in film. Though because she made the move during the Great Depression, she hit a few very big snags in her career. Her only LA success at the time was the play The Mad Hopes, which she starred in alongside Humphrey Bogart and Billie Burke. After that, she only had a few minor roles on the silver screen as her career went downhill. After only spending a summer in LA, Entwistle made her way up to the famous Hollywood sign that overlooked the town, climbed up on the “H”, and threw herself down the mountain, ending her life. She left a note that read: “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.”
For those of you who don’t know, Ted Healy was actually responsible for assembling the Three Stooges, and literally responsible for them rising to fame back in the 1930’s. However, by 1934, Healy had parted ways with the trio and his career went downhill while theirs skyrocketed, which probably is what turned Healy into such a heavy drinker. On a cold night in December 1937, Healy got into a drunken brawl outside of the Trocadero Club in Hollywood and died, though no one was really clear about the details of his death. His autopsy said that it was alcoholism that killed Healy, while others claim that it was his assailants, which were future James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli, mobster Pat DiCicco, and actor Wallace Beery, who were responsible. People even claim that Eddie Mannix was brought in to clean up the whole mess, meaning the studio had to have a hand in it.
Spade Cooley was a hot community back in the heydays of Hollywood and was the self-proclaimed “King of Swing”. He had a hit television show and numerous hit records attached to his name, so when word got around that he took the life of his wife, people were shocked. Cooley had grown increasingly paranoid that he was going to lose his fortune and his fame the more famous he became and he would often take it out on his wife, Ella Mae, during regular beatings. One day in 1961, Cooley was convinced that his wife was having an affair so he beat her to death right in front of their daughter. The trial was a media circus where Cooley was eventually found guilty of his crime. Then-California governor, Ronald Regan, agreed to pardon Cooley, but the singer died of a heart attack in prison before the pardon could happen.