It may be known as the City of Angels, but dirty rumors still run rampant in Los Angeles. Sordid stories and whispered scandals reached their fever pitch in the golden age of Hollywood, when puritanical public morale’s masked hidden affairs and the rampant sexuality of the stars. From a feces-loving lead actor to a silver screen starlet who died under mysterious circumstances, we have some of the dirtiest rumors to grace Hollywood’s history books.
Joan Crawford will always be remembered as a glamorous icon of the silver screen. Her career took off in the late 1920s, and her star never really dimmed until her death in 1977. Most remember Crawford as the picture of sophistication—her film costumes were designed by some of the most famous designers in history, and she was always pictured as immaculately dressed and tailored, with a cigarette or a drink in one gloved hand.According to Rachel Shukert, a writer who extensively researched the private lives of old Hollywood stars for her book series Starstruck, Joan had a tawdry past that she was constantly trying to put behind her.The star wasn’t born into the Hollywood elite—her father was a common laborer from San Antonio, Texas and left the family shortly after Joan’s birth. Her mother then moved the family to Lawton, Oklahoma where she remarried a man who ran the local opera house. That man, Henry Cassin, is the subject of one of the Joan Crawford rumors: It’s alleged that Henry was sexually involved with Joan when she was only 11 years old. Once discovered, this led Joan’s mother to end the marriage.A few years after the move to Oklahoma, the family relocated again to Kansas City, which is where the rumors get even dirtier. According to Shukert, Joan’s poor hygiene as a teenager resulted in her spreading crabs around Kansas City, which later led to her obsession with cleanliness once she reached Hollywood. The final rumor about Crawford plagued the actress until her death. It was constantly rumored that Joan had worked as a call girl and starred in at least one porno before she got her big break at MGM—specifically, a 1918 film called The Casting Couch. If the actress had correctly stated her age during her first studio screen test, the film would have been made while Joan was still going to school in Kansas City, but some argue that Crawford lied about her age so frequently that it’s impossible to be sure.
Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald were both stars for MGM back in the days of the “studio system,” which kept actors and other creative personnel bound by tight contracts. Louis B. Mayer was one of the tyrannical heads of MGM, and inadvertently pushed Eddy and MacDonald together by assigning them starring roles in many of the studio’s most popular musicals. MacDonald and Eddy never got married, but they were the loves of each other’s lives (much to the chagrin of Mayer). Allegedly, the magnate feared they would distract one another from their incredibly lucrative careers. In 1935, after spending a blissful summer together, MacDonald found out she was pregnant with Eddy’s baby. This was an absolute disaster for Mayer—the two actors were young, unwed, and made money hand over fist for the studio. The last thing he wanted was to lose MacDonald just because of a pregnancy. So, he purportedly did what any good tyrant would do: Mayer told the actress that if she didn’t have an abortion, he would blacklist both her and Eddy, ruining the remainder of their careers.The rumor gets even sadder at the end of the summer of 1935. MacDonald miscarried her child, but when Eddy and Mayer heard the news, both assumed she had bowed to Mayer’s threats. Eddy broke up with the actress because of it, but Mayer was giddy over the news and forced MacDonald into more and more pictures. The studio chief worked hard to discourage the pair from ever getting back together. He constantly made threats against Eddy’s life and pushed the actor’s car off the road as a warning.
Actor Clark Gable was a real man among men: tough, rough-and-tumble, and known for his cocksure young characters from Peter Warne in It Happened One Night to Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind. Director George Cukor was one of the most famous gay men in Hollywood and was known as a “woman’s director,” coaxing the best performances out of the beautiful starlets he directed. Cukor was the original director on the set of Gone with the Wind, and stayed with the film through its pre-production stages and screen tests. But before filming could start, he was ungraciously fired from the set, only to be replaced by Victor Fleming at the behest of lead actor Clark Gable. Gable’s reasons for having Cukor canned are the basis for one of the juiciest rumors in Hollywood.One simple theory is that Gable resented the attention that Cukor lavished on the film’s female leads, Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland, and wanted more of a “man’s” director who could help him deliver his best performance. Then again, there may have been a deeper reason: Cukor knew a secret about Gable that the actor was eager to bury. So eager that he had the director kicked off the set.Gable’s secret, if it were true, is one that would make the conservative actor understandably uncomfortable. According to gossip at the time, Gable was forced to work as a “rent boy” at the beginning of his career and had sexually serviced silent movie actor William Haines around 1925. Cukor and Haines were close enough that the director would know all about the affair, and Gable was paranoid that Cukor would spill his secret. Whatever the case, Cukor left the film, and the rumors around Clark Gable remain a closely guarded secret.
Beautiful Clara Bow was one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, famous for being one of Hollywood’s first sex symbols. But by 1931, a series of scandalous rumors had erupted around the movie industry’s first It Girl, ruining her career and resigning her to a life of anonymity.The rumors about Bow were shocking (and ludicrous) even by today’s standards. The Coast Reporter ran a three-week series about the actress’s private life claiming that poor Clara was an irremediable alcoholic, a drug abuser, and a gambler. She was supposedly the mistress of multiple men, had sex in public and threesomes with prostitutes, and would sleep with women when no men were available The biggest whopper was that she regularly held orgies for the USC football team and would sexually service every player there. That rumor was false although she did raise the moral (wink wink) of many a player . She did it with her acting and money suporting the team in those early days. So where did these rumors come from? It all started in 1930 when Bow’s secretary Daisy DeVoe left the star in a fit of anger after an argument, taking piles of the actress’s personal documents with her. DeVoe tried to blackmail Bow, but the star called the police and took DeVoe to court, which ended up backfiring horribly. The trial ensured that all of Bow’s private dalliances became public knowledge, and the actress never had the cleanest record. Her dirty laundry was nowhere near as bad as the tabloids made out, but she did gamble, had taken multiple lovers without marrying them (still shocking in the 1920s), and was guilty of starting some sort of affair with an older married doctor, whose wife named Bow as a cause for “alienation of affection” in the couple’s divorce.Ultimately, the rumors surrounding Bow were enough for Paramount to cancel her contract with them—the actress’s star was already fading, and it was hard work doing constant damage control on the many allegations surrounding her. Bow said”My life in Hollywood contained plenty of uproar. I’m sorry for a lot of it but not awfully sorry. I never did anything to hurt anyone else. I made a place for myself on the screen and you can’t do that by being Mrs. Alcott’s idea of a Little Woman”. Bow married actor Rex Bell (later a lieutenant governor of Nevada) and had two sons. Bow retired from acting in 1933. In September 1937, she and Bell opened The ‘It’ Cafe in the Hollywood Plaza Hotel at 1637 N Vine Street near Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. It closed in 1943. Her last public performance, albeit fleeting, came in 1947 on the radio show Truth or Consequences. Bow was the mystery voice in the show’s “Mrs. Hush” contest. died of a heart attack on September 27, 1965, at the age of 60. An autopsy revealed that she suffered from atherosclerosis, a disease of the heart that can begin in early adolescence
Both Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino were well-known leading men of the 1920s, famous for their roles as dashing young romantics in films like Mata Hari and The Son of the Sheikh. Novarro was Mexican and Valentino was Italian, which quickly led tabloids to brand them as “the Latin Lovers.”Because of their flamboyance on and off screen, rumors began to swirl that both Novarro and Valentino were closeted homosexuals. The rumor was true for Novarro, but not for Valentino—his alleged homosexuality was a legend that chased him his entire life. Still, it didn’t take long before the two stars were linked as lovers, with one interviewer claiming that Novarro had secretly admitted the affair to Cary Grant.That’s where the dildo rumor comes in. Valentino may or may not have gifted Novarro with an art deco model of his penis, which Novarro kept on his nightstand. The model would later become part of a graphic tragedy—in 1968, Novarro was brutally murdered by two petty criminals in the bedroom of his Los Angeles ranch house. Details about the case vary wildly from report to report, but one of the most widely accepted details is that Novarro choked on his own blood after the two hustlers shoved the dildo down his throat. The motive for such a horrific crime? A paltry $5,000, which the murderers had heard was hidden in the actor’s home.
In old Hollywood, the studios controlled the lives of actors, and they strongly believed a bombshell couldn’t get married or, most especially, pregnant. When Jean Harlow became pregnant during an affair with William Powell, the studio arranged for her to enter a hospital under a pseudonym to “get some rest.”
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. The abortions arose in part from a new class of economically and socially independent women who were fueled by tabloids and male cohorts to indulge every hedonistic whim without considering the consequences at the dawn of the era of modern birth control, which wasn’t used in any widespread way.
“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.”
During her time at MGM, Judy Garland was subjected to near endless abuse, including constant harassment from executives, including Louis B Mayer, about losing weight. This resulted in Garland starving herself and getting hooked on diet pills. Garland joined MGM when she was 13, and the studio’s comments on her weight began not soon after.
At age 14, the studio told her that she looked like a “fat little pig with pigtails”.
At age 16, an MGM executive told Garland she was “so fat she looked like a monster.”
At age 18, Mayer pushed Garland on to a diet of black coffee, chicken soup, 80 cigarettes a day, and diet pills every four hours.
Garland lived the rest of her life with an eating disorder and drug addiction.
Richard Gully, (who died last fall at 93) assistant to Jack Warner and general man about Tinseltown dropped bombshells including the fact that Louis B. Mayer once ran over a man and killed him only to have a companion take the rap, the identity of the man who (supposedly) actually shot JFK (Giancana lieutenant Johnny Roselli), and the ranking of actor Lee Marvin in the most splendidly endowed man in Hollywood sweepstakes (third, after playboy Porfirio Rubirosa and ”F Troop” stalwart Forrest Tucker).
It is Spincer Tracy’s bisexuality claims has caused the most media spillover and concomitant reaction. (It is rumored Tracy was never sober. I don’t think he functioned as a man. He and Katharine Hepburn had chemistry only onscreen.”) The New York Daily News reported March 12 that Hepburn is livid over the article, telling a ”well placed source” that ”it’s bunk,” and quotes the actor’s daughter, Susanna Tracy, as saying ”Anybody who knew him is just going to laugh. Oh Lord! It’s just absurd.”
Well, everyone once thought that Cary Grant was the epitome of hetero elegance, and it’s fairly well established now that he swung whichever way he pleased in his early days. And, personally, I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the now documented fact that comedian Danny Kaye once had a passionate affair with Sir Laurence Olivier. The point is that anything’s possible, especially when you’re talking about the early, unbuttoned glory days of Hollywood, when successful actors — a species not normally noted for their adherence to quotidian morals — had the luxury of time, money, parties, and sunshine.
Questions of sexual preference aside, Tracy clearly was a complicated man, and not a very happy one. He was prone to fits of black depression. He was Catholic enough to never divorce his wife, despite his longstanding relationship with Hepburn and at least one earlier serious fling ( with Loretta Young on the set of ”Man’s Castle”). He had ongoing problems with the bottle, culminating in an episode where he trashed the set of a film he was making during a late night visit to the soundstage.
None of which matters when you watch Tracy in a movie: He had the extremely rare knack for making his acting invisible. He was always a craftsman rather than a star, and his awed peers knew it. (Sample quote: ”Spence is the best we have, because you don’t see the mechanism at work.” — Humphrey Bogart.) That bifurcation — the serene surface only occasionally hinting at the turmoil beneath — could serve as a metaphor for all of Hollywood during the Golden Age. We in the audience saw of the stars only what the studios and movie magazines wanted us to see — a sanitized vision of Olympians at play.
The reality, of course, is that they were human beings, with all the messiness that goes with it. But we weren’t paying to see the reality, were we? The reason we loved these people — the reason we still build cargo cults around movie actors — is that they seemed much closer to dreams than anyone we actually knew.
There’s another thing. Since the classic studio era has passed, it has become fashionable to ”out” many of its stars and directors. This is a cheap thrill, to be sure, and in some cases it actually adds insight to the historical record. But it also casts a harsh light on our own age’s neurotic need to pin a dead celebrity to the specimen board of yes or no sexuality. As mainstream culture grapples with the burgeoning gay frankness of the past decades, too many people get obsessed with putting famous names in one of two boxes, ”gay” or ”straight.”
What we sometimes forget and what the Hollywood of the 1930s knew — precisely BECAUSE everyone had to present a rigidly wholesome face to the public — is that gender identity tends to be fluid. Most people are NOT either strictly ”gay” or ”straight” but somewhere on the infinite points between the two; furthermore, where you find yourself on the graph can change over the course of a lifetime or a day, regardless of whether you act on it or not.
Maybe Spencer Tracy acted on it. Maybe not. Me, I don’t much care; I’ll stick with late show reruns of ”Man’s Castle” and ”Fury,” thank you. And if you care, do me a favor. Ask yourself why.