18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood

Larry Holzwarth - August 8, 2019

It’s been said, often and obviously, that sex sells. But even sex takes a back seat to scandal when it comes to attracting the attention of an often lascivious public, and when the scandal is about sex, especially illicit sex, the morally upright can’t help but line up to buy. Hollywood, America’s longtime seat of wealth and conspicuous consumption, has long been a fount of sordid stories which held the attention of an enraptured public, happily tsking and tutting over the amoral activities of the spoiled denizens of America’s Babylon. Seeing the names of America’s favorite stars dragged through the proverbial mud, especially in the bygone days when an actor or actress was a Movie Star, has long been a cheap thrill for the American public.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Silent film star Clara Bow was once one of the most powerful – and scandal ridden – actresses in Hollywood. Library of Congress

During its so-called Golden Age, Hollywood produced scandals which went beyond mere titillation of the public. J. Edgar Hoover, with his penchant for keeping records damaging to the reputations of anyone he deemed too powerful and influential, ensured the FBI was active in Hollywood for decades, collecting what should have been private information in order to protect the nation’s morals. Hollywood obliged, with both steamy rumors of illicit affairs and reports of sexual activities which were at the time illegal. Some of the nation’s greatest film heroes were subject to damaging tales, some true, some speculative, and some criminal. But even the innuendo collected by Hoover for personal reasons often took a backseat to the scandals which emerged from the stars’ decadent lifestyles. Here are some of the greatest scandals to emerge from Hollywood during its Golden Age.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Beloved for his film character the Little Tramp, Charles Chaplin’s personal life was one of scandal and moral condemnation. Wikimedia

1. Charles Chaplin’s second divorce was Hollywood’s greatest scandal at the time

Charles Chaplin was a genius as a comedian, actor, writer, composer, director, and filmmaker, the creator of one of the most iconic characters of all time, his immortal Little Tramp. But when it came to relationships with the opposite sex he was less gifted. He liked them young, both his first and second wives were sixteen when he married them, and the second, Lita Grey, convinced Chaplin that she was pregnant with his child, leading to a hasty marriage (he could otherwise have been imprisoned for having sex with a minor). She wasn’t, though she later bore him two sons. Married in 1924, by 1926 they were headed to divorce court, and Lita presented an image of Chaplin far removed from his popular public persona. The divorce became a scandal which the newly-minted entertainment tabloids and the mainstream press couldn’t get enough of. Chaplin found his reputation shattered by his soon-to-be ex’s accusations.

According to Lita, Chaplin had demanded an abortion prior to their marriage (which she couldn’t have because she wasn’t pregnant), and told her that their marriage would be short. The two sons she bore later in the marriage brought into question her accusations that Charles ignored her completely, but the press and the public were easily persuaded that Chaplin was an abusive monster, a profligate womanizer, with a taste for young girls (an image he could not escape). She succeeded in trashing Chaplin’s reputation while relieving him of $800,000 (about $11 million today). It was the largest divorce settlement in American history at the time. After the divorce was final Lita remarried at least three times more, and in the 1960s published a partial autobiography entitled My Life With Chaplin in which she revisited many of the old allegations. Before she died she recanted most of them. Chaplin’s reputation never fully recovered.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
The 1950s slang “In Like Flynn”, meaning one had it made, failed to take into account his legal difficulties over underage women. Wikimedia

2. Errol Flynn and the statutory rape allegations in the 1930s

During the 1950s the phrase In like Flynn meant that someone was in an enviable position, with the success of whatever venture was being undertaken all but ensured. In the 1940s the namesake of the phrase, Errol Flynn, found himself in a position neither enviable nor likely to lead to success. Sex with minor females – those under the age of 18 in California – was statutory rape, and Flynn found himself so charged by not one, but two underage young ladies, threatening his reputation, his career, his marriage, and his freedom. Both girls, 17 year old Peggy Satterlee and Betty Hansen, also 17, accused Flynn of seducing them, Peggy on Flynn’s yacht and Betty in the home of a friend. The press was largely against Flynn (like Chaplin before him, Flynn was a foreigner, and thus possessed of un-American morals).

Flynn was eventually acquitted in both cases, and during the trials his attorneys managed to point out both girls had been previously involved with other married men, of lesser fame and wealth. It was also pointed out that prosecutors had coordinated both cases when presenting their accusations. Flynn’s acquittal did not restore his reputation in much of the public’s opinion. There was, after all, that pesky fact that he was a foreigner (Flynn was Australian) and xenophobia was at its height in the early days of the Second World War. The press eventually went on to other things, but Flynn’s image was permanently damaged, and he never again enjoyed the reputation of being a romanticized gentleman, cultured and debonair.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Few women in history were more involved in scandals than Talullah Bankhead, and few ever cared less about it. Library of Congress

3. Tallulah Bankhead was too scandalous to be linked to scandals

Tallulah Bankhead was born into wealth and privilege, and though she was mainly known as a stage actor, she became a symbol of Hollywood extravagance in her lifetime. Tallulah simply didn’t care what anyone, including her father, an 11 term member of the US House of Representatives and Speaker of the House for two terms, said of her. She enjoyed drugs and alcohol, and didn’t attempt to hide the fact from the public. In one interview she claimed that the only thing wrong with her was that she needed a man, and it had been too long since she’d had one. She had no children, but at least four abortions at a time when the procedure was illegal throughout most of the country. In 1932 she told an interviewer that she had accepted a film part only so that she could sleep with Gary Cooper, though she substituted a common four letter word for sleep with in the interview.

When she was introduced to film director Irving Thalberg, for whom she was to star in a Hollywood production, she asked him, “How do you get laid in this dreadful place?” Supposedly a sneering Thalberg told her to “ask anyone”. She was linked to sexual relationships with both men and women, among the latter were Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, and Hattie McDaniel of Gone With the Wind fame. She neither confirmed nor denied her sexuality, referring to herself in one interview as “ambisexual”. Warned by her father to avoid men and alcohol in New York, she told an interviewer, “He never said anything about women and cocaine.” It was she who uttered one of the most deflating political put downs of all time, referring to Republican Presidential candidate Thomas E. Dewey as resembling “the little man on the wedding cake”. She was never tainted by scandal because she welcomed the controversy, as evidenced by her once saying of cocaine, “Cocaine isn’t habit forming and I know because I’ve been taking it for years.”

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
The secret cross dresser J. Edgar Hoover kept personal files on hundreds of people in part to protect himself from blackmail and innuendo. FBI

4. J. Edgar Hoover’s files on Hollywood personalities

After meeting Charles Chaplin at a dinner party, J. Edgar Hoover began using the resources of the FBI to compile a dossier on what he considered to be the Hollywood star’s un-American beliefs and activities. Eventually the file grew to over 1900 pages, and was instrumental in Chaplin’s long exile from his adopted country. Chaplin was not alone. Hoover used, or rather abused, his position as head of the FBI to keep files on stars, directors, producers, and reporters – indeed on anyone whom he considered possibly subversive or anti-American. The files were held for the purpose of blackmail, and were extensive collections of personal information and activities. He documented, often through little more than innuendo, potential homosexual activity, drug use, alcohol use (both during and after prohibition), sexual peccadilloes, extramarital affairs, and political beliefs.

When he found it beneficial to his own interests, Hoover leaked information, collected but often unconfirmed, to press representatives sympathetic to his views, which were anti-communist, anti-Semitic, and often anti-feminist. Scandals in the Hollywood periodicals of the day, later amplified by the mainstream press, were fed by the FBI files as Hoover attempted to discredit Hollywood’s elite. Most of the information he collected and held secretly was intended to be used for his personal benefit, and the vast majority of the information was collected without regard to its accuracy or its relevance to the mission of the FBI, as were most of Hoover’s “personal files”. One of the greatest scandals in Hollywood’s, indeed in all of American history, was the abuse of power routinely practiced by the man who considered himself to be the greatest lawman in America throughout his long and self-serving career.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in a scene from 192’1s Brewster’s Millions. WIkimedia

5. Fatty Arbuckle and the Labor Day Party of 1921

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in 1921, the first to pocket $1 million per year, and well known around town for his hedonistic pursuits. Especially popular with children, Arbuckle had given comic star Buster Keaton his big break, and was a friend and supporter of Charles Chaplin. On September 5, 1921, Arbuckle attended a gala party on the twelfth floor of San Francisco’s famed St. Francis Hotel. It was a party that proved to be his downfall. During the party actress Virginia Rappe was heard screaming in a room from which Arbuckle later emerged. Guests (friends of Arbuckle’s) who found the 30 year old actress claimed that she was fully clothed at the time; her friends later claimed she was raped, by Arbuckle, though a subsequent physical examination revealed no physical evidence of sexual assault. The next day Rappe died of peritonitis, the result of a ruptured bladder.

Arbuckle found his fame was a liability rather than an asset as he denied the charges of rape, and the subsequent trial was a media sensation for weeks. Arbuckle was tried three times, with the first two resulting in mistrials due to juries unable to render a verdict. In the third he was acquitted, though the press and the public had long before convicted him. Arbuckle was formally barred from acting by a newly formed censorship board, and the press and public subjected him to continuous condemnation, as well as ridicule over his substantial girth. Finally offered a film contract in 1933, a dozen years after the scandal, he died of a massive heart attack before the project could be started. Almost a century after the event, the mystery of what really happened that Labor Day remains unanswered, though Fatty Arbuckle’s reputation as a rapist and worse is still whispered about in Hollywood.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Whether suicide or murder, there is little doubt that the premature death of Olive Thomas – once called the most beautiful woman in the world – was painful in the extreme. Wikimedia

6. Olive Thomas, Jack Pickford, and the bichloride of Mercury

Jack Pickford was the brother of Mary Pickford, arguably the most powerful woman in Hollywood in 1916. Pickford was a notorious man about town, with the result of being stricken with syphilis, then treated with highly toxic mercury. Olive Thomas was a former Ziegfeld Girl, called the Most Beautiful Woman in the World (if so existing photographs don’t do her justice), and soon Pickford’s bride, though their marriage was what today would be called a long-distance relationship. According to acquaintances when together they fought constantly and with equal exuberance. Whether Olive was aware of Jack’s medical problem is debated, though he had his mercury with him when the couple spent time together in Paris in the summer of 1920. On September 9, Jack called a doctor to their hotel room after learning that Olive had taken a liberal dose of his bichloride of mercury. She died that night, in considerable pain, as a result.

The ensuing scandal was multi-pronged. Some said that Jack deliberately placed his medicine where his wife would confuse it with nostrums of her own and thus take it accidentally. Others claimed Olive committed suicide after learning of the reason her husband carried the mercury with him on his travels. The existence of a large insurance policy on her life, with Jack the beneficiary, gave credence to the former belief. Still others, cognizant of the fact that Mary Pickford despised her sister-in-law,believed Mary arranged for Olive to ingest the mercury through means not fully explained. The French authorities decided the poisoning was accidental, but their finding did little to stop wagging tongues in Hollywood and Paris over the untimely death. Her funeral was studded with Hollywood celebrities and her ghost is said by some to haunt the New Amsterdam Theater in New York, where she had first gained attention as one of Flo Ziegfeld’s girls.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
A scene from the film The Soul of Youth, the director of which, Desmond Taylor’s murder was never solved. Wikimedia

7. Director William Taylor’s murder was never solved

William Taylor was a highly prolific director between 1915 and 1921, and as such, he was one of the first directors to rely on what would later become known euphemistically as the casting couch. Young female wannabe stars were frequent guests to his office so that he may evaluate their skills. Nonetheless, Taylor maintained a relationship with actress Mabel Normand, and on February 1, 1921, he entertained her at his home, where he was found dead the following morning. The Los Angeles police responded to the call, and according to reporters and those who have studied the case since, thoughtfully removed evidence of Taylor’s liaisons with other women, including several young actresses not yet of legal age. As a result of the dearth of physical evidence innuendo and gossip soon provided theories as to who killed the director.

The list of suspects was long and colorful, including an allegedly gay Englishman who turned out to be neither gay nor English following police inquiries; fellow director and creator of the Keystone Kops Mack Sennett, another paramour of Normand’s; and Mary Minter’s mother. Mary was an underage actress whose letters to Taylor were allegedly removed by the helpful LAPD. Normand’s cocaine use and resulting connections to organized crime figures were also considered, but no firm evidence could be found. In the end, the murder of William Taylor was never solved, other than by Hollywood gossips who were sure they knew who the killer was and what their motive had been. The scandal remained at the tip of Hollywood’s wagging tongues for months, and is still considered from time to time in various media today, though the probability of solving the crime was destroyed by the LAPD nearly a century ago.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
A jump from the H in the Hollywoodland sign ended the life of actress Peg Entwistle. Harvard Theatre Collection

8. Suicide by jumping from the Hollywood sign in 1932

Probably there exists no more famous icon of Hollywood than the sign which spells that name in the Hollywood hills. In the 1930s the sign, already famous, read Hollywoodland, and it was from the H that a young actress, despondent over her career, committed suicide by jumping in 1932. Her death created a sensation in Hollywood, both from her manner of accomplishing it and the note which she left behind. Her name was Peg Entwistle, and she had recently completed work on a film by David O. Selznick entitled 13 Women. It was to have been her “big break”. Instead she ended up, as they say in movieland, on the cutting room floor, her part eliminated, her work rejected (according to most stories of her suicide, in fact she wasn’t cut out of the final print of the film until after her death, though her fourteen minute appearance had been reduced to four).

The dramatic nature of her demise, including the manner in which her body had been found (by a hiker who also found her suicide note) led to the inevitable gossip around town, which was fed further by the elaborate funeral she was given by the film community, attended by several stars. Entwistle’s promise as an actress was stressed in the sensationalized reports of her death, including her performance on a New York stage with luminary Billie Burke (later Glinda in The Wizard of Oz) and a young actor by the name of Humphrey Bogart. Her death was less a scandal than a sensation, and in 2014 a group of roughly 100 film fans gathered to mark her demise by viewing 13 Women in a Hollywood parking lot, an event geared towards raising awareness (and money) for suicide prevention.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Actor Vic Morrow (right) with Ric Jason on the set of the popular 1960s series Combat!. Wikimedia

9. Entering the Twilight Zone

The television series The Twilight Zone was a popular weekly program from 1959 to 1964, the brainchild of writer and director Rod Serling. Its popularity was such that it was in high demand in reruns for years, and eventually was adapted as a full length motion picture in the early 1980s. During the filming of the motion picture, an on-set accident involving a helicopter led to the death of popular actor Vic Morrow and two child actors, with multiple injuries to the helicopter crew and film personnel onboard. Morrow and one of the children were decapitated by the helicopter’s rotor; the other child was crushed beneath the machine. The accident caused a scandal over working safety, particularly for children on film sets, and years of litigation which kept the story on the front pages of trade papers for a decade.

The civil and criminal actions which occurred subsequent to the accident – which was more the result of negligence than misfortune – was scandalous, and the film’s director, John Landis, was charged and tried for manslaughter, along with other members of the film crew. They were eventually acquitted in terms of criminal liability, but civil penalties were assessed. Landis continued his career with little negative impact, but he found several long-term friendships with other filmmakers ended as a result of his evident cavalier attitude towards the accident and its causes. Millions of dollars were awarded the families of the victims, mostly paid by insurance companies. Landis later attempted to deflect the blame for the accident, claiming that the cause of the accident had been in part a special effects fireball detonated by an underling erroneously, an error for which he was never charged.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
The long affair between Katherine Hepburn and the married Spencer Tracy was an open secret in Hollywood. Wikimedia

10. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s 27 year affair

In 1941 actor Spencer Tracy, one of Hollywood’s most successful and in demand leading men, began seeing actress Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn was from upper crust New England stock, presenting a prim, proper, and athletic image to her fans, who had for several years been involved in a relationship with Howard Hughes. Tracy was a married man who presented the public persona of being a devout Catholic, though in fact he did not follow the practices of the religion as piously as his image indicated. From 1941 until his death, the two maintained an affair which was an open secret in Hollywood. Tracy did not seek a divorce, nor did he return to married life to attempt a reconciliation for the rest of his life. Rather than live with Hepburn, Tracy resided in hotels for the most part, with his main employer, MGM, helping to continue the charade of his having a happily married life.

Not until the final years of his life, when Tracy was suffering from numerous ailments and in declining health, did he and Hepburn live together. During their lengthy affair, Tracy was also unfaithful to Hepburn, having an affair with actress Gene Tierney which made the tabloids, and speculation was often rife over others. When Tracy died at the home he shared with Hepburn, she reacted by calling his wife and then removing herself from the scene, in order to avoid embarrassing her. She did not attend Tracy’s funeral for the same reason. In addition to keeping his affair with Hepburn under wraps, MGM helped quell reports of Tracy’s long battle with alcohol, barbiturates, and Dexedrine, including at least two arrests for alcohol related incidents. Tracy was buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park, alongside his wife Louise. Katharine Hepburn was interred in Connecticut, thirty-six years after Tracy’s death.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Ingrid Bergman, with Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, was forced to live in exile from Hollywood for several years after her affair with Rossellini. Wikimedia

11. Ingrid Bergman and her public censure by a United States Senator

In the 1940s the Swedish born actress Ingrid Bergman displayed her versatility as a performer with roles as Ilsa in Casablanca, a near saintly nun in Bells of St. Mary’s, and an actual saint, as well as virgin, in the title role in Joan of Arc. She entertained American troops during the Second World War, protested against segregation in the US Armed Forces, and was generally regarded as one of the leading actresses of her generation. In 1949 the married Bergman (her husband was neurosurgeon Petter Lindstrom) began an affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini (an earlier affair she had with American actor Gregory Peck was kept hidden at the time). The married Bergman became pregnant with Rosellini’s child, and the resulting scandal was huge, at least in the United States.

After their child was born, Bergman obtained a divorce from her husband, and within a week married the Italian director, though she had to travel to Mexico to do so. Public outcry in America was strong, and Senator Edwin Jackson railed against her in the US Senate. He called Rossellini “vile and unspeakable” and demanded that the couple, “not set foot on American soil under our immigration laws”. The scandal, which was fed by the Catholic Legion of Decency, numerous newspapers and magazines, and from the pulpits of churches across the country drove Bergman from the United States. Bergman chose to remain away from America for many years. Hollywood studios did not again employ her until 1956, six years after the scandal, when she appeared in the film Anastasia. Though made by an American studio, it was filmed entirely in Europe.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Franchot Tone derailed his own career by becoming enmeshed in several scandals in the 1930s and 40s. Wikimedia

12. Franchot Tone and Tom Neal

Franchot Tone was a film and stage star of sufficient stature to marry Joan Crawford in 1935. Over the next four years they tried to have children with no success; Crawford suffered two miscarriages and their marriage dissolved when his drinking became out of control. Having lost Joan, Tone turned to a fashion model and actress named Jean Wallace. Their seven year marriage produced two sons. Divorced again, Tone began pursuing Barbara Payton, another actress who was also involved with an actor and former boxer named Tom Neal. Tone and Neal encountered each other one evening at Payton’s home, and with the actress providing an enthralled audience, the two men attempted to settle the issue with fisticuffs. Tone was beaten soundly, with his opponent inflicting a broken cheekbone and nose, a concussion, and a no doubt severely bruised ego. The latter was soothed by Payton and Tone marrying after he recovered.

The public found the story too salacious to ignore, especially after the marriage split up after less than two months. Payton vacated the marital home and returned to Neal, and Tone, perhaps wisely, decided to resolve the issue in court rather than in another bout. Payton and Neal became engaged after Tone won a divorce over the issue of adultery, but the marriage never came off. Tone, well-connected with powerful MGM, used his influence to ensure that Neal was unable to find acting roles in Hollywood. Neal eventually married a receptionist named Gale Bennett, living with her in Palm Springs until 1965, when she was murdered. Eventually Neal was convicted of manslaughter in her death. And Tone? He attempted to remarry Joan Crawford when he was dying of cancer in the 1960s, but she demurred, though she did care for him in his last days, and arranged his funeral when he died in 1968.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Lana Turner, in a publicity photo from the 1940s. Wikimedia

13. Lana Turner and Johnny Stompanato

Lana Turner was the classic blonde bombshell of the 1940s, a popular pinup among American servicemen and teenage boys and a favorite co-star with Clark Gable. Her role in The Postman Always Rings Twice established her as a serious actress at the same time her well-publicized personal life called her morals into question among those inclined to do so. She developed a reputation of being hard to work with, temperamental, and a sex symbol relying on her looks as much as her acting ability. The legend that she was discovered by a Hollywood mogul at Schwab’s Pharmacy has long been debunked, but the scandal which surrounded her in 1958, after her daughter stabbed to death reputed mob figure Johnny Stompanato, has not.

Stompanato wooed Lana with flowers and phone calls while she was filming The Lady Takes a Flyer, and unaware of his reputation and mob contacts, she began dating him. When she learned that he had similarly stalked other actresses (including Zsa Zsa Gabor and June Allyson) and of his underworld contacts, she broke off their affair. In April 1958, after a heated argument in her home during which Stompanato allegedly threatened to kill her, Turner’s daughter came to her mother’s defense with a kitchen knife. Stompanato was killed and Turner’s daughter was charged with manslaughter. The combination of a female sex symbol, a mobster, and her daughter’s involvement was too much for the press to resist and the trial became a media circus. Turner’s daughter, Cheryl, was acquitted, though the scandal remained for many months, with numerous reports that Lana’s testimony (she was the only eyewitness to the killing) had been nothing more than an example of her practicing her craft as an actress.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Like the Rhett Butler character he portrayed, Clark Gable was fond of patronizing brothels, as did many of Hollywood’s leading men. Wikimedia

14. The Hacienda Arms on Sunset Strip

During the 1930s an apartment complex on Sunset Strip known as the Hacienda Arms Apartments offered more than just leases on residential quarters. It was among the most well-known and popular brothels in Hollywood, with several of the leading stars of the day counted among its satisfied clientele. Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and several other leading men of the time were known to frequent the building known as the “House of Francis”. Several leading ladies were counted among the customers as well, including Talalluh Bankhead, Jean Harlow, and Barbara Stanwyck. According to one writer, MGM studios maintained an open account upon which their stars could charge the services they requested, thus keeping their expenses secret from wives and husbands. The establishment was named for Madam Lee Francis, who often had to have her bouncers remove famous personages who became too boisterous to remain on the premises. They did so discreetly. Tracy was one of them, on multiple occasions.

Francis managed to maintain a level of privacy by providing a stipend to local authorities, reportedly about 40% of the income from her business. Spreading the money about helped her ensure that those whose careers would be damaged by the shock of an arrest on a morals charge were absent from the premises on those occasions when raids were scheduled, as Lee recounted in a book about the brothel entitled Ladies on Call. After her arrest Ann Forester took over the operation, and it remained in business until 1948, when a drive to clean up local corruption among the elected officials of Los Angeles and the police department they supervised led to the business being closed. The building remains in 2019, housing various offices for companies involved in the film industry.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
A mugshot of Elizabeth Short – the Black Dahlia – taken when she was arrested for underage drinking before becoming the victim of a grisly murder. LAPD

15. The Black Dahlia

The morning of January 15, 1947, saw the beginning of one of Hollywood’s greatest scandals as well as one of its most famous unsolved mysteries. That winter morning the mutilated body of a woman, later determined to have been dead for about ten hours, was discovered by a woman and her three year old daughter, out for a leisurely morning stroll. She had been mangled in a manner similar to some of the victims of the notorious London killer Jack the Ripper; eviscerated, dismembered, exsanguinated, and then posed. The woman who found the body thought that the scene was so grisly that it had been set up using a mannequin for the purpose of shocking the police and witnesses. But it was no mannequin. It was the body of Elizabeth Short, who became known as the Black Dahlia in the sensationalized aftermath of her murder.

Among the men later suspected of being involved in the murder were actor/director Orson Welles, several newsmen including the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Norman Chandler, who it was claimed dismembered the body to hide the fact of her pregnancy; a small-time criminal named Jack Anderson Wilson; and George Hodel, a Los Angeles physician who was accused of the murder by his own son, LAPD detective Steve Hodel. Gangster Bugsy Siegel was implicated by some. The LAPD also investigated the murder as part of a lesbian affair, identifying one suspect only as “Queer Woman Surgeon” in their files. The crime was never solved and the sensational nature of the murder, widely covered by an ill-informed and voracious press, was a scandal in Hollywood for years. In the 21st century amateur and professional criminologists continue to search for the killer of Elizabeth Short.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Gloria Swanson, in her heyday as a silent film star, circa 1921. Library of Congress

16. Joseph P. Kennedy and Gloria Swanson

Gloria Swanson was one of the leading actresses in Hollywood, on her third husband when she met Joseph P. Kennedy. Swanson’s divorce from her second husband had included revelations that she had been unfaithful with at least thirteen men, including Hollywood luminaries Cecil B. deMille and Rudolph Valentino. Kennedy, determined to become a Hollywood mogul to supplement the income derived from his stock market and real estate fortunes, didn’t care a whit about Swanson’s character. The married (and very Catholic) Kennedy was soon involved in an extramarital affair with the actress, one which saw him maneuver to dominate her career, her social life, and her financial affairs. Their affair was the talk of society in both Hollywood and Boston, where Rose Kennedy chose to ignore it, at least publicly.

Kennedy as head of Pathe Studios dispatched Gloria’s husband to France as a film executive there, thus removing the inconvenience of having him in the way as he took over her finances. The affair continued until at least 1930, when Kennedy summarily dumped his paramour in the aftermath of her completing a film, Queen Kelly, which was a critical and box office failure. After his departure from the scene Swanson was nearly broke, virtually unemployable following the debacle of her most recent film, and soon to be divorced by her irate husband. Unfortunately for Gloria, she married her fourth husband before her divorce from her third was complete, adding bigamy to her list of questionable moral activities. Swanson was a walking scandal for most of her Hollywood career, at least during its so-called Golden Age, but today is considered one of that era’s greatest stars.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Jean Harlow with actor Ben Lyon in a promotional still for the film Hell’s Angels, 1930. Library of Congress

17. Jean Harlow was the original blonde bombshell

Actress Jean Harlow was a scandalmongers dream, openly flaunting her sexuality on screen to the point that new censorship restrictions were written to curb her filmed allure. She created scandal by aborting a pregnancy in which the father was a leading man in one of her films, married to another (William Powell). She regularly and openly consorted with known gangsters, including Bugsy Siegel, and in response to her husband’s impotence (at least according to wagging tongues in Hollywood) she carried on an affair with Clark Gable, one which she thought belonged in the headlines of the local papers, much to his chagrin. After her husband responded to the affair by committing suicide (by gunshot, though according to the police he took the time to strip naked before shooting himself), the press speculated whether Jean had been involved in some manner or another.

In 1936, the wife of Max Baer, the former Heavyweight Champion of the World (and eventually the father of Max Baer Jr, who portrayed Jethro Bodine on The Beverly Hillbillies), named Jean as one of the women with whom her husband had been unfaithful to his marriage. Harlow seemed primed for another scandal but before it could become the talk of the town she died suddenly, at the age of 26, of kidney failure. Fittingly, Harlow’s Hollywood career had begun with her as a starlet under the wing of Howard Hughes. During her short career she was linked romantically with Clark Gable, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Hughes, Baer, Paul Bern, Louis B. Mayer, Franchot Tone, Lee Tracy, James Stewart, and others, including Talullah Bankhead, Clara Bow, and Joan Crawford. Needless to say, the tabloid press loved her.

18 Salacious Scandals from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Thelma Todd with Chico Marx in the 1932 film Horse Feathers. Wikimedia

18. Thelma Todd’s death was believed to have been a murder, though it was deemed a suicide

Although even the most avid movie fan today is likely unaware of Thelma Todd, the actress appeared in more than seventy films, performing with luminaries including the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy. During her acting career she also became well-known to the authorities, being involved in numerous automobile accidents, to the point that her studio bosses provided her with a chauffeur and insisted that she use him. Both her marriages became tabloid fodder as a result of her physical and alcohol fueled public brawls with her husbands. She also became involved with gangsters, investing in restaurants which became money laundering activities for the likes of Lucky Luciano.

In 1935 she was found dead at the wheel of her Lincoln automobile, an event which the amiable LAPD agreed to treat as a suicide after being so urged by Luciano and others. Widespread press reports speculated that she had been murdered, fed by the fact that her car was parked in an area thick with sticky mud, though her shoes were clean. This gave the lie to the LAPD theory that she had exited the car to insert a hose into the exhaust pipe, the other end feeding into the cabin in which she died from carbon monoxide inhalation. Luciano was the prime suspect of many, and following her death he assumed control of her restaurant, an event she had once told him, before witnesses, would occur only over her “dead body”. “That can be arranged”, Lucky reportedly replied. She was 30 years old.

 

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Lita Grey; Married Charlie Chaplin at 16”. Burt A. Folkart, Los Angeles Times. December 30, 1995

“Throwback Thursday: Errol Flynn Stood Trial for Statutory Rape in 1934”. Bill Higgins, The Hollywood Reporter. May 1, 2014

“Talullah: My Autobiography”. Talullah Bankhead. 1952

“Secretary Says She Destroyed Hoover’s Letters on his Orders”. UPI, The New York Times. December 2, 1975

“Fatty Arbuckle and Hollywood’s First Scandal”. Jude Sheeran, BBC News. September 4, 2011

“Olive Thomas: The Life and Death of a Silent Film Beauty”. Michelle Vogel. 2007

“William Desmond Taylor: The Unsolved Murder”. Dina Di Mambro, Classic Hollywood Bios. Online

“The Tragic Story of Peg Entwistle, the Actress Who Jumped Off the Hollywood Sign”. Taysha Mutaugh, Country Living. October 26, 2017

“Pilot ‘Distraught’ that Morrow Never Looked Up”. Paul Feldman, Los Angeles Times. March 25, 1987

“Katherine Hepburn’s 25 Year Affair with Spencer Tracy Being Developed for a Movie”. Julie Miller, Vanity Fair. February 14, 2014

“When Congress Slut-Shamed Ingrid Bergman”. Marlow Stern, The Daily Beast. November 21, 2015

“Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir”. Karen Burroughs Hannsberry. 2003

“American Gigolo”. Richard Babcock, Chicago Magazine. April 2008

“The Sunset Strip: The Story of a Hollywood Icon”. Gustavo Turner, Discover Los Angeles. June 5, 2019

“The Black Dahlia”. History, FBI.gov. Online

“Gloria and Joe: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Gloria Swanson and Joe Kennedy”. Axel Madsen. 1988

“Platinum Girl: The Life and Legends of Jean Harlow”. Eve Golden. 1991

“The Mysterious Death of Massachusetts Movie Star Thelma Todd”. New England Historical Society. Online

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