Old Hollywood’s 12 Most Shocking Scandals And StoriesPublished on July 17, 2018. Updated November 10, 2019
Old Hollywood is looked back upon as being glamorous and the “good old days” of Hollywood but, behind the scenes, things weren’t as innocent as they appeared. Although glitz, glamour and the life of luxury was in the spotlight, back in the early days Tinseltown could be surprisingly seedy and controversial and fans would be shocked at what went on when the cameras weren’t flashing (and sometimes even when they were). Back then, without social media and tabloids, things were expertly covered up and Old Hollywood was able to keep its charm and grace without anyone finding out what was really happening. Take a look back at 12 of Old Hollywood’s most shocking scandals and stories:
12. Spade Cooley
The story of Spade Cooley is one of the most tragic in country music history. From the ’40s to 1960, Cooley was regarded as the King of Western Swing but, on April 3, 1961, the singer viciously murdered his wife Ella Mae Evans right in front of their 14-year-old daughter. According to reports, Ella Mae had admitted to having an affair with country singer Roy Rogers and sent Cooley into a violent rage. Although he initially told police that Ella had fallen in the shower, at the trial Melody Cooley told the jury the entire beating that she witnessed saying that she “watched in terror as her father beat her mother’s head against the floor, stomped on her stomach, then crushed a lit cigarette against her skin to see whether she was dead.” After the longest case in county history at the time, Cooley was convicted of first-degree murder after withdrawing his insanity plea. After serving nine years of his life sentence, Cooley was given a 72-hour furlough from the prison to play a benefit concert but while standing on the wings he suffered a fatal heart attack.
11. George Reeves’ Suicide
When George Reeves was found dead on June 16, 1959 after a gunshot wound to the head, the world mourned the loss of the iconic Superman actor and couldn’t believe he would take his own life. While it was ruled a suicide, right away there were questions about what really happened – from the delayed reaction of the people in his home at the time to the evidence found on scene. There was the fact that Reeves had reportedly been having an affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of famed MGM “fixer” Eddie Mannix. It was reported that years later, shortly before her death, Mannix actually confessed to a priest that Eddie had hired someone to kill Reeves. While the Mannix story has caused suspicion, her confession has never been deemed as true due to the fact she was suffering from dementia before her death. Most still believe that Reeves took his own life because he could not find work after playing the iconic superhero.
10. Joan Crawford’s Scandal
Back in the ’20s, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer found their next big starlet in Joan Crawford, but she came with one big scandal. Rumors have swirled for decades that before she became a mainstream movie star, the actress was supporting herself by appearing in one or more adult films. The rumors stated that upon hearing this MGM spent a lot of time and money to track down the film and have it destroyed. One of Old Hollywood’s most notorious “fixers” Eddie Mannix was reportedly hired to get the film, allegedly called Velvet Lips, removed from existence and stories state that he even partnered up with the mob to get the job done. Although the story of Crawford’s early pornographic career has long been disputed, many found it telling that when the actress left MGM in 1943 she actually paid them $50,000. It was believed that she did so to pay them back for acquiring and destroying all of the negatives to the film.
9. Jean Harlow’s Husband’s Death
Jean Harlow was one of the most infamous actresses and sex symbols of the 1930s and one of MGM’s biggest stars of the time, but she was also a part of one of Old Hollywood’s biggest mysteries: the death of her husband. In 1932, Harlow’s husband, producer Paul Bern, was found dead in their home of an apparent suicide. While his naked body was found with a gun in his hand he also held a note that read, “Dearest Dear, Unfortuately [sic] this is the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation, I Love [sic] you. Paul. You understand that last night was only a comedy.” Although it was assumed to be a suicide note, no one knew what it actually meant and Harlow refused to speak a word about her husband’s death other than insisting she was not there and was at her mother’s house. Once again, MGM’s fixers swooped in and arrived at the home the morning that the body was found. Things became even more mysterious when it was revealed that years before he was with Harlow, Bern was in a relationship with a struggling actress named Dorothy Millette who suffered from mental health issues. Eventually, Millette went in to a coma and Bern was told she would probably never recover, but ten years later when Bern was with Harlow, Millette woke up and set out to find Bern. Bern agreed to meet with Millette and sent Harlow away from the house and that was the night he died. Nearly ten days after Bern’s death, Millette’s body was found in the Sacramento River.
8. The Many Loves of Elizabeth Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor has become as infamous for her personal life as much as her professional career thanks to her eight marriages through the years. While the actress obviously never cared what people had to say about her love life choices, she sure did cause some noise when in the late ’50s she began an affair with Eddie Fisher. The affair began shortly after the tragic death of Taylor’s third husband due to a plane crash and, at the time, Fisher was married to Taylor’s good friend, actress Debbie Reynolds. Fisher eventually left Reynolds for Taylor but the cycle continued when Taylor ended up leaving Fisher for actor Richard Burton. Although Hollywood is a mess of affairs and scandals now, back then Elizabeth Taylor’s many scandalous loves caused quite the controversy, and what was most remarkable was that she and Debbie Reynolds were able to reconcile their friendship after the whole ordeal.
7. Errol Flynn’s Trial
Errol Flynn was the Hollywood hunk of his time after he found fame in the late ’30s with several roles as the strapping romantic lead. No one was concerned by Flynn’s playboy reputation until he ended up standing trial for the statutory rape of a 17-year-old girl. In 1942, right in the midst of the peak of Flynn’s career, a 17-year-old aspiring actress named Betty Hansen met Flynn who then invited her to party with him. She claimed that after too much drinking she became sick and Flynn offered to take her to a room to help clean her up, but he ended up seducing her. After a complaint was filed, the actor was arrested but was cleared of all charges by a jury and someone was quoted as saying, “[The jury] just sat and looked adoringly at him as if he was their son or something.” Despite the incident, Flynn who had previously said, “I like my whiskey old and my women young,” was not dissuaded from pursuing younger women and during the trial he met a 19-year-old whom he ended up marrying, and at the time of his death when he was 50 he was in a relationship with a girl that he had met when she was 15.
6. Johnny Stompanato’s Stabbing
In the early days of Hollywood, mobsters had pretty big ties to studios and celebrities and in one of the most famous cases, gorgeous actress Lana Turner. While her career saw some incredible highs, her luck in love was much worse and in the ’50s she became involved with mobster Johnny Stompanato. While Turner claimed she did not know about his ties to some of the most notable crime families of the time, he was very aggressive and eventually began physically abusing Turner. Eventually, he was stabbed to death by Turner’s 14-year-old daughter. Cheryl Crane immediately confessed to murdering Stompanato in headlines that shocked the nation as she claimed she was defending her mother from a particularly brutal attack from Stompanato. Eventually, Crane’s actions were ruled as “justifiable homicide,” but many still think that Turner is the one who killed her boyfriend himself and Crane agreed to take the blame.
5. Studio Arranged Abortions
While memories of Old Hollywood are still shrouded by ideals of a better time in the movie industry, one thing that is for certain is that stars, especially actresses, were not treated properly. One of the saddest Old Hollywood scandals out there is the amount of studio pressured abortions that some of the time’s biggest stars were forced to get. Studios became infuriated when the bombshell who attracted all the men to the film became married or worse pregnant in real life and the amount of actresses who were forced to get abortions is staggering. Jean Harlow, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Tallulah Bankhead, Jeanette McDonald, Lana Turner, and Dorothy Dandridge all had abortions arranged by the studios, often against their wishes. A story from Vanity Fair about the era of Hollywood abortions at the time reads: “In the 1930s, vamp and man-eating thespian Tallulah Bankhead got ‘abortions like other women got permanent waves,’ biographer Lee Israel quips in Miss Tallulah Bankhead. When virtuous singing sensation Jeanette McDonald found herself pregnant in 1935, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer told Strickling to ‘get rid of the problem.’ McDonald soon checked into a hospital with an ‘ear infection,’ according to Fleming’s The Fixers.”
4. Virginia Rappe’s Death
The death of actress Virginia Rappe has always been a haunting story from Old Hollywood. Prominent silent film actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was at the center of the 26-year-old’s death as four days before she died she attended a labor day party at Arbuckle’s suite. It was claimed that Rappe had been violently assaulted by Arbuckle and when she went into the hospital she had many severe and brutal injuries consistent with a violent sexual assault including a ruptured bladder. Four days later, Rappe died in the hospital from her injuries and Arbuckle was arrested and tried for manslaughter. After three trials, the actor was formally acquitted because of lack of evidence but his fate had been sealed in the eyes of his fans and his career never recovered.
3. Judy Garland’s Spiral
No matter how many years go by, Judy Garland has remained one of the entertainment industry’s most iconic stars thanks to her role in The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, what Garland went through as a young actress in the industry is truly depressing. Garland joined MGM when she was only 13 and, before long, she was subjected to endless mental and verbal abuse from executives with comments mostly centered around her weight. At only 14 years old, the studio said she looked like a “fat little pig with pigtails,” and when she was 16 said she was “so fat she looked like a monster.” By 18 the studio took complete control of her diet, giving her black coffee, chicken soup, 80 cigarettes and a diet pill every four hours per day. After the abuse she suffered as a teenager, Garland began battling many other personal demons and had a continued eating disorder and drug addiction which eventually claimed her life at only 47. It wasn’t until many years after her death that fans and the public began to learn what Garland was going through during her years of fame while the studio forced her to put on a happy face.
2. Ingrid Bergman’s Affair
Through the late ’30s and into the ’40s, Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman was the image of grace and the wholesome woman ideal, that was until her affair with director Roberto Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini began their relationship while both were still married to other people and Bergman even became pregnant by Rossellini and eventually asked for a divorce from her husband Petter Lindstrom which was only granted days before her child was born. The scandal gained worldwide fame and Bergman’s career took a direct hit because of her tainted reputation in the eyes of fans. Fortunately for Bergman after the waves around the sordid affair settled she was able to make a career comeback and she and Rossellini ended up divorcing seven years later.
1. Marilyn Monroe’s Death
To this day, the death of Hollywood icon and blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe remains one of the industry’s biggest mysteries. Although it was known that the actress had struggled with substance abuse and perhaps depression, her death by “probable suicide” is still considered suspicious by many. Monroe’s extreme stardom mixed with her personal relationships with some of the most prominent people in America means that her death has been blamed on everyone from the mafia to the CIA and of course, the Kennedy family. Jaws dropped when it was revealed that Monroe reportedly had affairs with not only then-President John F. Kennedy but also his brother Robert Kennedy. While it seems we will never know the true story behind her life and death, one thing for sure is that she remains the most iconic symbol of both the good and bad that came with life and stardom in Old Hollywood.