Hollywood scandals are all over the news these days, with actors like Kevin Spacey and directors like Harvey Weinstein taking their lumps in public. It seems like there’s always another headline that reveals the bad behavior of a well-known celebrity. But even though our current culture is more attuned to these sorts of things than ever, that doesn’t mean that the past was scandal-free. Lest you think that classic Hollywood was squeaky clean, here are ten scandals from the glory days of Tinseltown you might not even know happened.
Errol Flynn and the two underage girls
Errol Flynn, who played roles ranging from Robin Hood to Captain Blood and more, once found himself standing trial for statutory rape. The accusations surfaced in late 1942, when two underage girls came forward to press charges. Betty Hansen said that she was accosted at the Bel Air home of Flynn’s friend Frederick McEvoy, while Peggy Satterlee said the incident took place on Flynn’s yacht.
The case went to trial in early 1943, and after a heated trial that included Flynn’s lawyer accusing both girls of affairs with married men and other indiscretions (including an illegal abortion that Satterlee allegedly had), Flynn was acquitted. However, the widespread coverage of the trial did long term damage to his image, both on and off-screen.
Joan Crawford’s appearance in a pornographic film
Before Joan Crawford was a big-screen superstar, she was what most girls new to Hollywood were in those days – hungry for parts. During her teenage years, she allegedly appeared in a pornographic film titled Velvet Lips. When Crawford became an MGM star, the studio supposedly sent out its notorious fixer, Eddie Mannix (who was alternatively listed as MGM general manager or comptroller over the years) to find, acquire, and destroy the negatives of Velvet Lips.
There are two versions of the story as to how Mannix managed the job. One says that he simply paid $100,000 for the negatives and destroyed them, while also tracking down and destroying all prints of the film. The second, and more enjoyable story, is that he partnered with the mob to negotiate the purchase of the negatives, who talked the holders down to $25,000 by offering them the option of simply being shot down instead.
Whichever version of the story is real, Crawford’s FBI file says that the film did exist, citing a “high police authority.” When Crawford left MGM in 1943, she wrote the studio a personal check for $50,000, an amount that many believe was a reimbursement of the studio’s expenses incurred in destroying Velvet Lips.
MGM Got Judy Garland hooked on diet pills
Judy Garland, probably best known for her beautiful voice and her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, signed with MGM when she was just a 13-year-old starting out singing in vaudeville under her real name, Frances Gumm. She first appeared on screen in 1936’s Pigskin Parade, a musical comedy about college football coaches, and MGM execs were already chiding her about her weight. They told her she looked like a “fat little pig with pigtails” and placed her on a forced diet, something that would be commonplace for her career.
The studio restricted her calories so heavily that fell into cycles of starving and binging. In 1938, a MGM exec told her that she was so fat she looked like a monster, and when she was 18, Louis Mayer himself allowed her to consume only black coffee and chicken soup, along with 80 cigarettes and diet pills every four hours to reduce her appetite (these pills were commonplace at the time for child stars). This kept the weight off, but anytime she stopped dieting, her weight would skyrocket. Studio managers would send memos on her daily eating, including notes like “Garland gained 10 pounds. Costumes refitted,” and “Judy sneaked out between takes seven and eight this afternoon and had a malted milk.”
She never shook the addiction to pills and eating, and it affected her health the rest of her life. She died of a barbituate overdose in a London hotel room on June 22, 1969 at age 47.
Charlie Chaplin’s teenage wives
Charlie Chaplin was one of, if not the biggest star of the silent film era. His portrayal of a caricatured version of Adolf Hitler in 1940’s The Little Dictator is probably his most recognizable work, although most would also be familiar with his on-screen persona as the Little Tramp, the man with a toothbrush mustache, bowler hat, a cane, and a funny walk.
But what is lesser known about Chaplin is his attraction to younger women – much younger women. He first married in 1918, when he was 29, to 16-year-old Mildred Harris. That marriage lasted only 2 years, and four years later, he married another 16-year-old, Lita Grey. That marriage ended in 1927 thanks to a widely publicized divorce case that led to some women’s clubs managing to get Chaplain’s movies banned in some states. His third wife was 20 when they began dating in 1931, and they married in 1936, splitting in a divorce six years later. Along the way in 1941, 21-year-old aspiring actress Joan Barry filed a paternity suit in which she claimed Chaplin had fathered her daughter. Although a blood test showed that Chaplain was not the father, he lost the ensuing court case.
Chaplain is also rumored to have been one of the first to use the so-called “casting couch” audition. According to Complex article, film historian Kevin Browning claims, “Charles would only communicate with the actress he was auditioning via caption cards and mime, supposedly to test their ability to ‘perform’ in silent movies. The cards would become ever more lewd and suggestive as he got them to undress, and he would fondle their breasts in an exaggerated silent movie acting manner… eventually, he would get them to stand naked and throw custard pies at them…”
Finally, in 1943, at age 54, Chaplain married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill, and their marraige lasted until his death in 1977.
Frank Sinatra’s mob ties
Old Blues Eyes is well known for his silver tongue and long-running acting gigs, but he may be the most mob-connected celebrity to ever set foot in Hollywood. His ties to the Mafia began at birth, as his uncle Bob Garavante was a part of Willie Moretti’s gang. Throughout his life, his close association with the mob would continue, from playing mob-owned clubs to a long-running friendship with West Coast boss Benny “Bugsy” Siegel.
His flirtation with the mob culminated in a trip to Havana, Cuba in February of 1947 where Sinatra was photographed leaving a plane carrying a large square case. During that trip he spent time with deported mobster Lucky Luciana, sang and entertain visting mafia members, and was amply rewarded with women and money. However, the trip was reported in American news and culminated in a 4 AM hearing with a Senate comittee in which a visibly nervous Sinatra testifying that he didn’t know what business those men were in.
His ties to the mob are so well-known that many speculate that Mario Puzo based the character of Johnny Fontaine in The Godfather directly on Sinatra. While the part Sinatra got in From Here to Eternity was a big break for him (as it likely saved his career), it was more the result of him looking more Italian than his main competitor Eli Wallach, and his willingness to work for an expenses-only rate of $1,000 a week that likely secured him the work.
Lana Turner’s Mafia lover was stabbed to death by her 14-year-old daughter
Lana Turner was known as a Hollywood femme fatale on screen, and that role extended into her real life as well. In 1958, Turner’s boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato, was found stabbed to death in her home. Stompanato was a reputed associate of mobster Micky Cohen.
He had been stabbed in the abdomen with a butcher knife, and during the ensuing investigation, Turner’s 14-year-old daughter confessed that she was the one who delivered the fatal blows. Cheryl Crane said that she stabbed him to protect her mother, who she felt was in danger from Stompanato.
At the inquest, Turner took the stand and described Stompanato as hyper-possesive and prone to fits of rage. She said that she had told her daughter of her plans to end the relationship that night, saying, “I’m going to end it with him tonight, Baby. It’s going to be a rough night. Are you prepared for it?” Turner said that Stompanato flew into a rage when she told him it was over. She said, “He grabbed me by the arms and started shaking me and cursing me very badly, and saying … that if he said jump, I would jump; if he said hop, I would hop, and I would have to do anything and everything he told me or he’d cut my face or cripple me. And if … when it went beyond that, he would kill me and my daughter and my mother.”
“I was walking toward the bedroom door and he was right behind me, and I opened it and my daughter came in. I swear it was so fast, I … I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach. The best I can remember, they came together and they parted. I still never saw a blade.”
The jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide, but rumors swirled that Turner had been the one to wield the blade and simply had her daughter take the blame. Although many continue to believe that, her daughter seemed to settle the question in her 1988 autobiography where she again admitted stabbing Stompanato, who she said was sexually abusing her.
Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Eddie Fisher
Pretty much everyone knows that Elizabeth Taylor has had plenty of marriages – eight to be exact. Although many of them have made news, none was more remarked upon than her affair and subsequent wedding to Eddie Fisher. Not long after Taylor’s third husband, director Mike Todd, had died in a lane crash, the actress took up with Fisher. That might not seem like anything scandalous, but Fisher was married to actree Debbie Reynolds at the time.
Fisher later divorced Reynolds to marry Taylor, but surprise, surprise – Taylor left Fisher for Richard Burton. Although the affair was a big Hollywood scandal, it turns out that Taylor and Reynolds eventually buried the hatchet and became friends again. In an interview with Access Hollywood, Reynolds said that the two met up again on a cruise in the late 60s or early 70s, where they reconciled their friendship.
The mysterious death of Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood was one of the most talented actresses to hit Hollywood, garnering three Oscar nominations prior to age 24. She appeared in such well-known films as West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause, but she died tragically at age 43. She drowned while sailing with her husband, Robert Wagner, off Catalina Island in California.
The drowning was ruled an accident, but the specific circumstances of her death were never made public. In 2011, the captain of the ship that night, Dennis Davern, admitted that he had lied about to police and failed to disclose that the couple had argued on the boat the night Wood died. While the police have not re-opened the investigation, the cause of Wood’s death has been changed to “undetermined.”
Several well-known Hollywood actresses had abortions forced by the studios
In the old days, actors and actresses had their lives controlled by the studios. One of the big assumptions the studios made was that their star actresses would not get married or pregnant. One of the highest profile cases was Jean Harlow, who became pregnant during an affair with William Powell. Shortly thereafter, the studio arranged for her to head to the hospotal under an assumed name to “get some rest.” Other actresses that had abortions forced by studios include Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanette McDonald, Lana Turner, and Dorothy Dandridge. Many of those abortions were against the wishes of the actresses.
Biographer Lee Israel wrote in Miss Tallulah Bankhead, that the actress got “abortions like other women got permanent waves.” Jean Harlow’s mother said of her daughter’s own abortion at age 18, “A child could wait; her career could not.”
Ava Gardner was quoted as saying of the abortions, “MGM had all sorts of penalty clauses about their stars having babies. If I had one, my salary would be cut off. So how could I make a living? Frank was broke and my future movies were going to take me all over the world. I couldn’t have a baby with that sort of thing going on. MGM made all the arrangements for me to fly to London. Someone from the studio was with me all the time. The abortion was hush hush . . . very discreet.”
The Death of Marilyn Monroe and the involvement of the Kennedys
Marilyn Monroe died at age 36 on August 5, 1962. Her death was from an overdose of barbituates, and was ruled a probable suicide. Since that time, several conspiracy theories have risen up around her death, with one of the most interesting involving both Jack and Bobby Kennedy.
Supposedly Monroe spent the night before her death with gangster Sam Giancana at Frank Sinatra’s Cal-Neva lodge in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. There, according to reports, the mobster tried to convince her not to go public about her affair with President John F. Kennedy. She flew back to Los Angeles on Sinatra’s private jet, and was found dead later that same day. The report comes from Monroe’s hair stylist, George Masters, in recordings released after his death. Masters is also heard to say of the reason that Monroe died, “It was because of the Kennedys. I really think the FBI did it.”
Former LAPD detective-turned-private investigator Fred Otash claimed to have a recording of Monroe’s death after taping an argument with Bobby Kennedy and Peter Lawford. Otash said of Monroe, “She was passed around like a piece of meat. It was a violent argument about their relationship and the commitment and promises he made to her. She was really screaming and they were trying to quiet her down. She’s in the bedroom and Bobby gets the pillow, and he muffles her on the bed to keep the neighbors from hearing. She finally quieted down and then he was looking to get out of there.”
Monroe’s death remains a probable suicide. Los Angeles County District Attorney John Van de Kamp conducted a “threshold investigation” in 1982 to see whether a criminal investigation should be opened, but no evidence of foul play was found.