It may be tempting to think that Hollywood today has reached its lowest point in regard to its ethics and those of its stars. Unfortunately, it seems that the movie business has attracted scandal since its birth.
In addition, to maintain the reputation of its stars, studios have always hired fixers, double dealers, and outright shysters to do the dirty work for them. Here are 10 scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood that they tried to cover up.
Loretta Young had it all. She was beautiful. She was successful. She was recognized, even winning an Oscar for her 1947 performance in The Farmer’s Daughter. And she was hiding a secret.
After she finished shooting The Call of the Wild in 1935, Young disappeared from view. When she returned to public life 18 months later, she brought along her “adopted” daughter, Judy. In fact, the child was her own, the product of a brief relationship with (married) Clark Gable. It is unclear if the relationship was consensual.
Young was a strict Catholic and would not have contemplated aborting the child. The secret was kept from everyone, including her daughter, for 31 years. Although rumors of the child’s true parentage were whispered around Hollywood for years, they were only officially confirmed in a memoir published after the star’s death.
Joan Crawford was one of MGM’s biggest stars. She was known to be ambitious and somewhat ruthless in her pursuit of her career. She won an Oscar for her leading role in Mildred Pierce in 1945 and received two other Oscar nominations and a host of other awards. Crawford was Hollywood gold.
This must have made the persistent rumors that she had begun her career with roles in porn a little awkward. She is said to have starred in a film called Velvet Lips. At one point, her brother was offering copies to the highest bidder. There are no longer any copies of the film in existence, possibly due to the efforts of studio fixers employed to see that stars were not embarrassed by their indiscretions.
Crawford’s first husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., confirmed that she was blackmailed over the films, even receiving threatening calls when they were on their honeymoon. A film was sent to the studio, but the company lawyer denied that the woman in the film was Crawford.
She denied participating in porn films until the end of her life. However, her FBI file (because, you know, McCarthy and all that) appears to confirm the existence of the film. Crawford’s biographers state that “a film of Crawford in compromising positions was circulated . . . to be used at smokers” (men-only stag parties).
They also suggest that the file contains evidence that the studio paid Crawford’s brother as much as $100,000 to stop him from leaking the film. This is supported by mysterious payments made by Crawford to the studio, which are supposedly repayment for the blackmail money.
Crawford’s family problems continued after her death. Her daughter, whom Crawford had disinherited, published a tell-all memoir, Mommie Dearest, which depicted the star in a whole new light.
Jean Harlow was the original blonde bombshell. She catapulted to stardom after appearing in Howard Hughes’s Hell’s Angels. It is fair to say that Harlow had a tumultuous life. She married her first husband on January 18, 1927, at age 15 and was divorced a few years later. Her second husband was killed in a gunshot accident, though there was much speculation that she had killed him.
Then she had an affair with a married boxer. When the scandal threatened to become public, the studio forced her to marry cinematographer Harold Rosson. However, the marriage was for public consumption only and they quietly divorced a few months later when the scandal was forgotten.
Harlow did want to marry William Powell. She fell for him in 1935 on the set of Reckless and wanted to get married, have a family, and give up acting. But Powell was not reckless. He had just been divorced from Carole Lombard and thought the public might not like him to marry so soon. He also made it clear that he never wanted children.
Powell’s caution, however, only went so far, and Harlow soon found herself pregnant. Knowing that he did not want children and that the studio would not tolerate an unmarried mother, Harlow aborted the baby that she wanted and never told Powell what had happened.
William Randolph Hearst was a businessman, politician, and newspaper publisher. In fact, he was a tycoon with the largest newspaper business in the world, one of the most powerful people in America, and the inspiration for Orson Welles’s masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Hearst was known to be ruthless, hot-tempered, and, occasionally, downright nasty.
So it is fair to assume that he would not have taken news of his mistress having an affair lying down. He believed that Marion Davies was sleeping with Charlie Chaplin. Instead of confronting Chaplin outright, Hearst invited Chaplin and a number of other film people to join Hearst on his yacht. This must have made for rather uncomfortable small talk.
Thomas Ince was a Hollywood producer who specialized in Western films. His studio was profitable for a while, but it began to flounder. Looking for investors, Ince boarded Hearst’s yacht, hoping that the trip would change his fortunes. It did.
The official version of the death—certainly the one that Hearst had printed with indecent haste in his newspapers—was that Ince had developed digestive problems which proved fatal despite his swift hospitalization. Ince’s body was immediately cremated.
Despite Hearst’s vigorous attempts to control the publicity surrounding Ince’s death, rumors kept surfacing that Hearst had shot at Chaplin, missed, and killed Ince instead. Although the Los Angeles Times ran the headline “Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht,” it was swiftly pulled and later editions carried no mention of the shooting.
A secretary aboard the yacht was quoted as saying that he had seen Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the head. Ince’s wife was unavailable for comment as she had embarked upon a sudden tour of Europe.
Tallulah Bankhead was as famous inside Hollywood for her sexual activity as she was for her beauty around the rest of the world. At one point, she was said to have had 185 notches on her bedpost and she hadn’t finished counting.
Knowing that the studios would not have tolerated a pregnant star, Bankhead had four abortions by age 30. She wasn’t the only one. The studios had established protocols for this contingency and booked women into hospitals under false names for vague procedures. They were attended only by their own doctors, and visitors were strictly prohibited.
Bankhead was one of the few regular visitors to the hospital. She was briefly married to a man whose proposal she accepted because “he’s the only one who ever asked me.” It didn’t last.
Her promiscuity was legendary. She had affairs with men and women, often in semipublic places, and made a practice of opening her door to visitors naked. She is even said to have flashed the audience while performing in a Broadway play, causing a priest and three nuns to walk out.
Bankhead is said to have regretted her abortions later in life when she found herself unable to have children due to a hysterectomy performed after she contracted gonorrhea.
Patricia Douglas was a wannabe star. At 20, she was invited to attend an audition for MGM studios. Unknown to her, the “audition” was a party thrown by Louis B. Mayer for MGM’s sales executives. The party had been in swing for three days by the time Douglas attended, believing that she might be getting her “big break.”
Douglas was not worldly wise. She was a virgin from Kansas City, Missouri, who dreamed of being a star. She was not the only girl invited. In all, around 120 young women were bused in to “entertain” approximately 300 drunken delegates at a remote ranch. Dressed in cowboy hats, short skirts, and boots, the girls were promised a hot meal and $7.50 for the entire day.
Still under the impression that they were taking part in a screen test, the girls had their makeup done and were told to wait on the “set.” Knowing that the film business was difficult and wanting to be professional, they waited for their cue. However, the sales executives believed that the girls were a different sort of professional altogether.
Without transport or telephones, the women had no means of escape and had to fend off the male advances as best they could.
Douglas was brutally raped. Unlike others in Hollywood, she refused to be bought off and chose to press charges against MGM salesman David Ross. MGM hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to dig up dirt on Douglas. When they could find none, they coerced people into claiming she was a promiscuous woman who had a sexually transmitted disease.
The parking lot attendant initially said that he had seen her being attacked but later changed his mind. Afterward, his children admitted that his later statements were untrue. Douglas’s character was destroyed, and her assailant got away with rape.
It’s not a secret that Errol Flynn had a large sexual appetite. The phrase “in like Flynn” was popularized after his trial for the statutory rape of two girls. Flynn was acquitted of all charges, and the trial only increased his reputation as a Lothario.
Flynn began his Hollywood career after working as a river guide for a film crew, fighting off crocodiles, and dodging arrows from headhunters (apparently true). He was spotted and offered a role in a remake of Mutiny on the Bounty.
In addition to Flynn’s predilection for underage girls, other rumors followed him around. It is said that he lost his virginity at age 10. He had a two-way mirror installed in his bedroom and another allegedly in the bathroom.
He was famous for his sexual “experiments” fueled by drink and drugs, but nothing seemed to dampen the public’s enthusiasm for him. Flynn died at age 50 of a heart attack. It is alleged that the coroners at the inquest removed a number of genital warts from the body as souvenirs.
Judy Garland was first spotted by an MGM scout in 1935 as a young teen. They liked her voice and her acting but not her looks. She was signed and immediately began playing girl-next-door roles, working six days a week for up to 18 hours a day. To keep her energy up and her weight down, the studio supplied her with amphetamines. When it came time to stop work, they gave her sleeping pills.
Garland married at 19 against the wishes of the studio and was ordered back to work 24 hours after the wedding. When she became pregnant, they arranged for her to have an abortion.
By the time she began work on Meet Me in St. Louis in her early twenties, Judy Garland was completely reliant on amphetamines. The studio “protected” her by not allowing anyone else near her. When she called in sick, they recouped their lost production costs from her paycheck.
At one point, Garland checked into a hospital to learn to eat and sleep properly again. But when she came out, studio bosses ordered her to lose weight and she went straight back on the pills.
When Garland’s life began to spiral out of control, the studios abandoned her. She died from a barbiturate overdose in 1969 at age 47.
George Raft specialized in playing tough guys like convicts, crooks, and mobsters. Perhaps it was Raft’s real-life association with mobsters that influenced casting directors. His first role was a coin-tossing henchman in Scarface, which set the precedent for his career. He is known to have had lifelong associations with Mafia men like Owney Madden and Bugsy Siegel.
Raft had grown up in Hell’s Kitchen, a poor area of New York where his best friend, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, taught Raft how to flip coins. Raft admitted to running bootleg liquor operations for the mob. Later, Siegel, a known mobster with movie connections, helped Raft break into the movie business.
The Mafia never seemed to be far away from Raft’s film work. Al Capone even showed the Scarface director how to fire a tommy gun.
Alfred Hitchcock was a gifted director, but he was also rather peculiar. Though he was married for 54 years, he claimed to have had sex only once. It didn’t stop him from becoming obsessed with his leading ladies, however. Grace Kelly and Janet Leigh both complained about his controlling nature. He refused to allow them to speak to other cast members or drive to the set with anyone other than him.
But it was Tippi Hedren who really became the focus of his obsession. While Hitchcock was riding high from the success of Psycho, he picked the unknown actress Hedren to star in The Birds. She became an instant star. But she was also tied to a contract with Hitchcock which left her in a vulnerable position.
On the set of The Birds, the director ordered the other cast members not to speak to her or touch her. Meanwhile, he told Hedren that they didn’t like her. He made several advances to her, which she rebuffed. Hedren claims that the scenes where she was attacked by birds were Hitchcock’s revenge.
Instead of using mechanical crows as they were supposed to, he used live birds, which were attached to her by elastic. The birds became distressed and viciously attacked her. Filming one scene with real birds attacking her in a bedroom took five days.
Eventually, she snapped. According to Hedren, Hitchcock was so offended when she called him a “fat pig” and rebuffed his advances that he set out to ruin her. He would not use her again, but he refused to allow her to work for other directors.
When her work on The Birds won an award, he would not allow her time to collect it. Hedren also claimed that Hitchcock actively campaigned against her to prevent a nomination for an Oscar for her role.
Though Hedren continued to work, her career never really recovered.
Ward Hazell is a writer who travels and an occasional travel writer.