Public image is probably the greatest asset of public figures. Whether kings, politicians, movie stars or moral crusaders, projecting and maintaining a certain perception for the public is often the deciding factor between success and failure. Needless to say, there is often some variance between the public image and the actual public figure. Following are forty fascinating things about famous people, and some of the jarring contrasts being their public images and by their actual personas.
40. John Wayne’s Public Image vs Reality
John Wayne (1907 – 1979) made a killing off his public image of rugged toughness, and on-screen portrayals of virile and gung ho tough guys. “Duke”, as he was known to millions of admirers, cornered the market for a while on depictions of the quintessential American fighting man. Such roles got him two Oscar nominations for Best Actor, including one for playing a tough US Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949).
Less known is the fact that, just a few years earlier during WWII, Duke had been booed off stage by actual US Marines, who reacted negatively to his fake machismo. They also resented the fact that he had gone out of his way to duck the draft and avoid service during the war. Wayne spent the rest of his life berating himself – and overcompensating – for having avoided the fight during WWII.
During the Great Depression, Hollywood director Raoul Walsh cast an aspiring actor named Marion Robert Morrison in his first lead role in The Big Trail, released in 1930. The movie was an epic flop, and sent its lead actor back into Hollywood purgatory. However, the one good thing that came out of the venture was that the lead actor, on the recommendation of Walsh and the studio, had changed his name to John Wayne.
Over the next few years, Wayne toiled in dozens of forgettable Westerns for so-called Poverty Row Studios. He was saved from obscurity in 1938, when Oscar-winning director John Ford offered him the lead role in Stagecoach. The movie was a hit. It kicked off a productive relationship that lasted for 23 pictures, during which the iconic director crafted John Wayne’s public image, and transformed him into a Hollywood legend.
During the filming of Stagecoach, Ford seemingly disliked everything about Wayne. At one point, the director grabbed his lead actor by the chin and berated him: “Why are you moving your mouth so much? Don’t you know that you don’t act with your mouth in pictures?” He even hated the way Wayne moved, which Ford thought was effeminate: “Can’t you walk, instead of skipping like a god*** fairy?” That one stung so bad, that Wayne changed the way he walked for the rest of his life.
The success of Stagecoach secured John Wayne a place in Hollywood. By 1941, while not yet among the top drawer elites, such as Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart, Wayne had established himself as a reliable star. Then late that year, came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and America’s subsequent entry into WWII.
John Wayne’s course of action during that conflict would forever after shape his self-image and self-perception of his manhood. His reaction to and regrets about what he did – or more accurately did not do – during the war, shaped the public image he strove to project for the rest of his life.
America’s entry into WWII, triggered the greatest collective outpouring of patriotism in the country’s history. It seemed that just about everybody and their grandmother wanted to chip in, do their part, and sacrifice what they could for the common cause of victory.
As the country armed and geared up to beat plowshares into swords, women rushed to the factories, and men of fighting age rushed into the service. John Wayne, by contrast, rushed to do everything he could to avoid serving in the military.
35. “I Better Go Do Some Touring – I Feel the Draft Breathing Down My Neck“
John Wayne was in his early 30s when America joined WWII – not exactly a youngster, but still prime fighting age. Many famous public figures rushed to enlist, including athletes, movie directors, and Hollywood superstars. Some were significantly older than Wayne, such as Clark Gable, who was in his 40s when he enlisted.
Another was Jimmy Stewart, who had to pull strings and get waivers to join the military (he was underweight). John Wayne, by contrast, pulled strings and got waivers to stay out of the military. Both Gable and Clark subsequently risked their lives on bombing missions over Germany. Wayne limited his contribution to USO tours, entertaining troops overseas. Even those, however, were done with the ulterior motive of keeping him out of the military. As he once put it during the war: “I better go do some touring – I feel the draft breathing down my neck“.
Post-WWII, many bought into John Wayne’s public image of manly toughness. During the war, that public image was not bought by America’s actual tough guys: the fighting men. As one wounded Marine veteran described a wartime incident: “after my evacuation from Okinawa, I had the enormous pleasure of seeing Wayne humiliated in person at Aiea Heights Naval Hospital in Hawaii … Each evening, Navy corpsmen would carry litters down the hospital theater so the men could watch a movie. One night they had a surprise for us.
Before the film, the curtains parted, and out stepped John Wayne, wearing a cowboy outfit – 10-gallon hat, bandana, checkered shirt, two pistols, chaps, boots and spurs. He grinned his aw-shucks grin, passed a hand over his face and said âHi, ya guys!’ He was greeted by stony silence. Then somebody booed. Suddenly everyone was booing. This man was a symbol of the fake machismo we had come to hate, and we weren’t going to listen to him. He tried and tried to make himself heard, but we drowned him out, and eventually he quit and left“. Wayne never got over that humiliation.
John Wayne developed a guilt complex for refusing to sign up to fight during WWII. It was key to the public image he sought to project thereafter. It also played no small part in his starring in numerous testosterone-drenched war movies throughout the rest of his career, playing manly heroic characters on screen, whom he wished he had been like in real life.
Four years after getting booed offstage by wounded Marines for being a phony, Wayne played a grizzled combat Marine sergeant in The Sands of Iwo Jima. He nailed it, and got a best actor Oscar nomination for the effort. As Wayne’s third wife put it: “He would become a âsuperpatriot’ for the rest of his life, trying to atone for staying at home“.
Charlie Chaplin (1889 – 1977) had a great public image. He is best known as a lovable tramp on screen, and an artiste off screen. However, according to many who came into close contact with him, the real Chaplin and public image Chaplin were at odds. Marlon Brando, for example, described Chaplin as “probably the most sadistic man I’ve ever met“. He formed that impression while working with Chaplin on A Countess From Hong Kong, and witnessed the iconic comedian viciously humiliate his own son before the entire crew.
Brando was not spared Chaplin’s wrath: he was chewed out by the funny superstar – in a decidedly not funny way – for being late, and was called a “disgrace to [his] profession“. Chaplin was not just a meanie, but also a pervert who liked ’em a bit too young. So young as to cause scandal, derail his career, and get him de facto deported from America.
Charlie Chaplin’s public image was also belied by the fact that he was a Harvey Weinstein prototype figure, long before the actual Harvey Weinstein. He is credited within pioneering the “casting couch”, whereby powerful Hollywood figures extracted illicit favors from actresses. Reportedly, Chaplin used caption cards during auditions to prompt aspiring actresses into increasingly suggestive poses, until they stood before him naked or nearly so. However, his kinks went beyond run of the mill quid pro quo sexual harassment, and into the realm of the… unusual.
Chaplain had a thing for pies – and not just as comedic props and gags. After getting actresses to disrobe during auditions, Chaplin would grope them in exaggerated ways on the couch. Then, having worked himself up by getting them to do a strip tease on demand, followed by a groping session on the couch, he would stand them naked against a wall and throw pies at them.
Another contrast between Charlie Chaplain’s public image and the actual man was his penchant for orgies. He liked to organize them with his friend and fellow comedic film star, Fatty Arbuckle. Those orgies came to a screeching however in the aftermath of a scandal that rocked the country in 1921, when Fatty Arbuckle was prosecuted for raping a woman to death.
Arbuckle was acquitted, but the duo’s orgy parties never resumed. Chaplin’s greatest scandals however – the ones that most damaged his public image – arose from his propensity for cradle robbing: he liked much younger women. It proved his undoing.
FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, a pervert himself if there was ever one, and one whose straitlaced public image was a fraud, had long disliked Chaplin’s political leanings. So he used the actor’s illicit scandals to launch a smear campaign against him. In 1944, he had Chaplin prosecuted for violating the Mann Act, which prohibits the transportation of women across state lines for carnal purposes. Chaplin was acquitted, but his reputation and public image were severely damaged.
In 1952, while Chaplin was in London for a film premiere, the US Department of Justice revoked the British actor’s reentry visa. To reenter the US, he would have to submit to an interview concerning his politics and morality. Chaplain decided not to bother, cut his ties with America, and settled in Switzerland.
Charlie Chaplain’s orgy pal, comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle, had an even worse scandal that not only tarnished his public image, but wrecked his career into the bargain. Roscoe Conkling Arbuckle, better known as Fatty Arbuckle (1887 – 1933), was a comedian, director, screenwriter, and early superstar actor during the silent film era.
Weighing about 300 pounds, Arbuckle incorporated his heft into his comedy, moving gracefully, tumbling, throwing pies, and being an all around lovable and jolly fat guy. In addition to acting, Arbuckle was a Hollywood mover and shaker. He mentored Charlie Chaplain, with whom he formed a close personal friendship, and discovered and launched the careers of future stars such as Buster Keaton and Bob Hope. Then came the scandal that wrecked his public image beyond repair.
The scandal that destroyed Fatty Arbuckle’s public image began with a wild party at a San Francisco hotel, where he and his friends rented adjacent luxury suites in September of 1921. Several women were invited, and at some point during the revelry, an aspiring actress, Virginia Rappe, was found seriously ill in one of the suites. The hotel’s doctor examined her, concluded she was just super drunk, and gave her morphine to calm her.
Two days later, Rappe was rushed to a hospital. There, a friend claimed that Fatty Arbuckle had sexually assaulted Rappe at the party. The next day, Rappe died of peritonitis, caused by a ruptured bladder. Medical examinations found no evidence of assault. Newspapers had a field day, however, printing increasingly salacious stories. Some alleged that Fatty Arbuckle had killed Virginia Rappe with his weight while raping her. Other stories claimed that Arbuckle had penetrated Rappe with a piece of ice. That eventually grew into accusations that he had ruptured her insides by raping her with a bottle of Coca Cola or champagne.
Police investigators went with the theory that the heavy impact of the overweight Fatty Arbuckle’s atop Virginia Rappe during intercourse caused her bladder to rupture. Arbuckle denied any wrongdoing, but was arrested and charged with essentially having sexually abused Virginia Rappe to the point of death. It was a major media event – the OJ Simpson criminal scandal of the day.
Arbuckle was regarded by those who knew him as good natured and shy with women – “the most chaste man in pictures“, as some put it. Charlie Chaplain, for example, “knew Roscoe as a genial and easy going man, who would not harm a fly“. However, newspapers went with a far different image, depicting him as a gross pervert, who routinely used his massive bulk to overpower and abuse innocent girls. The damage to Arbuckle’s public image was irreversible.
The prosecution’s case against Fatty Arbuckle eventually fizzled. It emerged that San Francisco’s District Attorney, an ambitious man with plans to run for California governor, had pressured witnesses into lying. The defense also obtained a letter from the state’s star witness, Virginia Rappe’s friend who had had first leveled accusations of abuse, admitting that she had planned to extort money from Arbuckle.
In the trial, the state produced little credible evidence, and medical experts demonstrated that Rappe’s bladder had been ruptured by an internal inflammation, not by an outside force. The jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of acquittal, and a mistrial was declared. A second trial again ended in a 10-2 deadlock in favor of a not guilty verdict. At the conclusion of a third trial, the jury took just six minutes to return a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Arbuckle was exonerated, but his reputation and standing never recovered. His public image was destroyed, and so was his career.
As seen from the Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle scandals, above, early Hollywood’s scandals make today’s Tinseltown controversies look tame by comparison. Another early superstar whose public image was marred by scandal was Rudolph Valentino (1895 – 1926). Also known as “The Latin Lover”, Valentino was a Hollywood superstar and heartthrob of the silent film era, and a 1920s’ symbol of masculinity. He shot to fame with captivating performances in silent film blockbusters such as The Sheik, and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. His sudden death at age 31 resulted in mass hysteria among his female fans, and solidified his iconic status.
However, before becoming a star, Rudolph Valentino had probably been a male prostitute. Before rising to fame, Valentino had worked as a dancer in what were known as “taxi dance clubs”. Such clubs were basically escort services, where clients would come in, examine the club’s stable of dancers, and pay to dance with whichever one caught their eye.
Taxi dance clubs, such as the one in which Rudolph Valentino worked, had a system in place for picking intimate partners. Clients who got good vibes and liked their dance partner would negotiate a price with him or her, then pay the club an “exit fee” to leave with the dancer. Some taxi dance clubs were legitimate and innocent, but most were just straight up escort services. In Valentino’s case, he was once arrested in a brothel before becoming famous, so it is unlikely that his taxi dance club was the innocent kind.
To put it in perspective, imagine the damage to Brad Pitt’s public image if it emerged that he had been a gigolo or male prostitute who’d worked for an escort service. The paparazzi stampede would probably have caused an earthquake. The ensuing media and social media firestorm would probably have broken the internet, as the insatiable demand for salacious details produced a never ending stream of stories.
It is surprising how little damage the public image of president Grover Cleveland suffered from his marriage, considering all its creepy undercurrents. Frances Clara Folsom (1864 – 1947) was born in Buffalo, New York, the only surviving child of Oscar Folsom, a lawyer and close friend of Cleveland. At age 27, the future president met Frances shortly after she was born. Cooing over the newborn, Cleveland took an interest in her while she was still in swaddling clothes. He bought the infant a pram, used to babysit her as “Uncle Cleve”, and doted on her.
Frances’ father was killed in an accident while racing his carriage in 1875, and left no will. So a court appointed Cleveland to administer his deceased friend’s estate. That brought him in even closer contact with Frances. He became her new father figure, and her hero. Unlike Frances’ real father, who had been notoriously careless of both his life and his family, “Uncle Cleve” was dependable, attentive, and doting. Eventually, the doting became something else.
As Frances Folsom grew up, Grover Cleveland continued to dote on her. Then, at some point, matters progressed from doting to grooming: Cleveland took to sending her flowers, with notes saying “I am waiting for my bride to grow up“. When word got out, Cleveland’s public image took no hit: people thought he was kidding. However, as things turned out, he was in deadly earnest.
After he was elected president and while Frances was in college, Cleveland sent her a letter proposing marriage, then sweated her reply like a schoolboy. She agreed, and on June 2nd, 1886, as the Marine Band was conducted by John Philip Sousa, 21 year old Frances Folsom wed the 49 year old president in the White House’s Blue Room. It is the only time a president was married in the White House or while in office.
The public image of Eric Gill (1882 – 1940) would have been destroyed, and he would have probably ended his life behind bars, if his true self had been known during his lifetime. Gill was a celebrated English sculptor, printmaker, and type face designer, many of whose fonts are still in use today. He was named Royal Designer for Industry, Britain’s highest award for designers. He played a prominent role in the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts Movement that flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which popularized the use of folk styles of decoration. He was also a total pervert.
Gill was a man of many contrasts, to say the least. In 1913, he converted to Catholicism, and as with many a newcomer to a faith, he became a zealot, loudly and ostentatiously professing devoutness to his new creed. With his wife and others, he founded a lay Catholic religious order called The Guild of Saint Joseph and Saint Dominic, and went around wearing habits, with a girdle of chastity beneath. The chastity girdle was probably more aspirational than anything else, because it did not stop Gill from being a creep.
Eric Gill was obsessed with “intimate relations”, and could not resist working it into just about everything. Nor did his obsession revolve around normal intercourse: he was into incest, bestiality, and pedophilia, was addicted to prostitutes, and liked to abuse his maids. One of his most famous sculptures, Ecstasy, depicts a couple passionately entwined. The model was his sister, with whom he had a lifelong incestuous relationship, and her husband. Some of his most celebrated artwork used his own prepubescent daughters as models, whom he liked to draw nude in semi erotic poses.
In his diary, he described his perversions with great relish and in exhaustive detail: extramarital affairs, decades of inappropriate relations with his sisters, incest with two of his daughters, and bestiality with his dog. In short, Britain’s most celebrated sculptor, and one of her greatest modern artists, was the kind of person who would probably be in jail or on an offender registry if he was alive today.
Britain’s King Edward VIII is most remembered as the romantic monarch, who chose love over power. Famously, he abdicated the British throne in order to marry his American mistress, the divorcee Wallis Simpson. Less known is the jarring contrast between his public image, and the fact that he was a Hitler fan.
What attracted little attention over the years – in no small part because the British government went out of its way to downplay it and conceal the evidence – is that Edward was a Nazi sympathizer. Indeed, in 1937, a year after his abdication, Edward and his wife toured Nazi Germany, in defiance of the British government’s advice. There, they were lionized by the Nazis and honored by Hitler.
Edward VIII’s Nazi sympathies are not surprising, considering that he was an antisemite who blamed the Jews for the outbreak of WWII. In June of 1940, he told a Spanish diplomat that peace could be had if England was bombed effectively. Two weeks later, the Germans began bombing Britain.
British officials told Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Edward, who was living in Portugal at the time, was “well known to be pro-Nazi and may become a center of intrigue“. Churchill forced him to return to Britain with the threat of prosecution. The Prime Minister then hushed up the scandal – and preserved the treasonous former monarch’s public image – by bundling him to de facto exile, as governor of the Bahamas.
For a while in the 1950s, American singer-songwriter, pianist, and musician Jerry Lee Lewis (1935 – ) was bigger than Elvis. An early pioneer of rockabilly – a blend of “hillbilly music” as country was called then, and rhythm and blues, which led to “classic” rock and roll – Lewis was a superstar. A Louisianan, Lewis began recording in Memphis in 1956, and the following year he shot to global fame with his hit There’s a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. He followed it soon after with his signature song, the insta-classic Great Balls of Fire, which made it to Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Songs.
By 1957, Jerry had already gone through two marriages, including a technically bigamous one to his second wife, 23 days before the divorce from his first wife had been finalized. He divorced his second wife to wed for a third time, after falling head over heels in love with Myra Gale Brown. It would destroy his public image and career: she was his cousin – once removed, but still – and thirteen years old. Myra still believed in Santa Claus when Lewis married her.
In Louisiana back then, marrying a thirteen year old girl, or marrying one’s cousin, were not exactly commonplace, but neither were they too unusual. Where Jerry Lee Lewis grew up, it simply was not that big of a deal, so he did not think his new wife’s age, or her blood relation to him, would prove scandalous. To the extent that he was worried about potential scandal, it had more to with the timing of the wedding. Just as he had done with his second marriage, Lewis had married his third wife before his divorce from his second wife had been finalized.
In short, Lewis did not realize that marrying his thirteen year old cousin might offend a lot of people, and destroy his public image. People from his record label warned him against taking his child bride with him on his first European tour. Lewis ignored them, and took Myra with him to England. It was a huge mistake.
14. “You Can Marry at Ten, if You Can Find a Husband“
Upon his arrival in England in May of 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis introduced his child bride Myra to British reporters. However, in a sign that at least some of the warnings communicated to him had sunk in – although not nearly enough – he fibbed a bit, and claimed that she was fifteen. That was still shockingly young, and when Myra was asked, she did not help by remarking that fifteen was not too young to marry where she came from. There, she stated: “You can marry at ten, if you can find a husband“.
It was not long before the press on both sides of the Atlantic discovered Myra’s true age. The backlash was fierce and immediate. The British press in particular went after Lewis hard, labeling him a “baby snatcher” and “cradle robber”, urging a boycott of his concerts, and calling for his deportation as a pervert and child molester. Tour dates were cancelled, and Lewis and his child bride fled back to America.
When he got back to the US, Jerry Lee Lewis discovered that things back home were not much better. The scandal was waiting for him when his plane landed in New York, and the American press was no gentler than the British had been. Jerry Lee Lewis had experienced a meteoric rise, and at the peak of his career, he was a legitimate rival to Elvis Presley. Now, seemingly overnight, that promising career was snuffed out, and his public image was destroyed.
Lewis’ personal appearance fees took a nosedive from the then princely sum of $10,000 a night, to $250. His career had a bit of a revival a decade later, when he reinvented himself as a country singer, performing for audiences less offended by child brides who also happened to be blood relatives. However, his days as a rock and roll star were over and done with, for good.
In 1961, British politician John Profumo was the country’s Secretary of State for War and a rising star in the Conservative Party. Then his public image took a nosedive, after he met and had a brief fling with an aspiring model, nineteen year old Christine Keeler.
In and of itself, the affair was not a big deal – then as now, politicians having affairs were as common as sand on a beach. What transformed the affair into a scandal with far reaching consequences, that destroyed Profumo’s public image and his career, was the coverup. When asked about his relationship with Keeler in the spring of 1963, Profumo told the House of Commons that there had been “no impropriety whatever“.
It did not take long for the paparazzi and tabloid press to prove that John Profumo had lied to Britain’s House of Commons about his affair with the teenaged Christine Keeler. Even then, his public image and career might have survived the hit – politicians lying to hide affairs being a dime a dozen – were it not for bad timing.
There had been a string of recent spy scandals, and it emerged that Keeler had also had a fling with a naval attache at the Soviet embassy. Ten weeks after lying to Parliament, Profumo confessed and resigned. The scandal shook the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan, who resigned a few months later on health grounds. A few months later, the reeling Conservatives lost the 1964 elections to the Labor Party, and were ousted from power.
It is fortunate for Mahatma Gandhi’s public image that his private life did not garner widespread coverage during his lifetime. One of the most revered figures of the twentieth century, Gandhi famously led India’s struggle for independence. Along the way, he perfected the strategy and tactics of nonviolent civil disobedience, and inspired other independence and civil rights movements around the world.
The ranks of those inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent civil disobedience included Dr. Martin Luther King, who studied the Indian leader’s methods, and put them to use in America’s Civil Rights movement. However, in his personal life, Gandhi wasâ¦ a complex man. Nowhere is that complexity more evident than in his sleeping habits.
Mahatma Gandhi liked to sleep naked with young girls. The story put out by those in his circle was that he did so in order to test his willpower and strengthen his resistance to the temptations of the flesh. In reality, it was probably less about spiritual experimentation, and more about Gandhi gratifying his primal desires.
As one of the early acolytes who shared his bed described it after his death, it was all about protecting Gandhi’s public image. As she put it: “Later on, when people started asking questions about the physical contact with women â¦ the idea of experiments was developed â¦ in the early days, there was no question of calling it an experiment“.
Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, to put it mildly. On the one hand, he penned some of the most stirring words in advocating freedom, liberty, and equality. Jefferson’s phrase in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” has moved and inspired idealists for centuries.
On the other hand, there was the contrast between the man’s public image and his actual life. Jefferson pursued his happiness in a hilltop plantation, Monticello, leading a life of luxury that was only made possible by the labor of hundreds of chattel slaves. He also engaged in conduct that would be seen as clear-cut violent sexual criminality today. In Monticello, the famous Founding Father also abused his dead wife’s underage lookalike half-sister.
America’s third president had a creepy relationship with his slave, Sally Hemings (1773 – 1835). However, straightforward abuse might be a more accurate description than a “relationship”. Sally Hemings was a slave, kept in bondage by a brutal system in which violence, including deadly violence, was used to coerce its victims and secure their compliance. She had as much choice in submitting to Jefferson’s carnal demands as does a modern kidnapped victim, who finds herself chained for years in some psycho’s basement.
Even if she had not been a slave, there would still have been something super creepy about the age disparity between Sally Hemings and the famous Founding Father. A further contrast between Thomas Jefferson’s public image as a prominent Enlightenment figure and his actual life is the fact that he was 44 years old when he started having intimacy with Sally. She was thirteen or fourteen. Even if she had been a willing participant, it would be considered criminal today.
Sally Hemings was not just Thomas Jefferson’s child concubine: she was also his dead wife’s sister and lookalike. Sally was the daughter of a slave woman and John Wayles, Jefferson’s father in law. That made her the biological half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Jefferson (1748 – 1782). Sally, who was nine when her sibling died, bore a striking resemblance to the deceased Martha. The resemblance only increased as she grew. Jefferson missed his dead wife, so when her lookalike sister was thirteen or fourteen, he began raping her.
In short, Thomas Jefferson abusing Sally Hemings would be an epic scandal if it had happened today, hitting just about every icky button there is, and destroying his public image beyond repair. Pedophilia? Check. Incest? Check. Violence, coercion, and assault? Check, check, and check. Adding another layer to it all is that Jefferson fathered six children upon Sally, and kept them as slaves. He eventually got around to freeing his children, but he never freed his concubine: Sally Hemings was still Thomas Jefferson’s slave when he died in 1826.
The accidental death of actor David Carradine in 2009 from autoerotic asphyxiation was weird. The end of the Kung Fu star’s life stood in odd contrast to the public image he had maintained throughout his life. However, it was pretty tame compared to the death of another famous actor, Albert Dekker (1905 – 1968).
Dekker was one of America’s greatest character actors, with a career that spanned 40 years in the theater and on the silver screen, with a filmography of over 110 credits. He won accolades for notable performances in East of Eden, The Killers, Dr. Cyclops, Kiss Me Deadly, as well as in his final acting role in The Wild Bunch. Unfortunately, he is probably best remembered today for an extremely bizarre death, whose manner stood in jarring contrast with his public image.
In addition to his acting, Albert Dekker won acclaim (eventually – at the time, it damaged his public image) for his moral courage. During the hysteria of the Red Scare early in the Cold War, he actually had the guts to stand up to and denounce the demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).
Dekker was one of the few actors brave enough to do so, and it got him blacklisted in Hollywood. His career was derailed for years, during which he could find no work. Eventually, the anticommunist hysteria subsided, and he returned to acting.
In 1968, Albert Dekker completed his final role in The Wild Bunch, left the set, and fell off the map. Friends and family grew worried after days passed without anybody hearing from him. After failing to show up for a date with his fiancee, fashion model Geraldine Saunders, she tried calling, but got no response. That was unusual for Dekker, whose public image as a staid and reliable man matched his private life when it came to punctuality.
So Saunders went to Dekker’s apartment and pinned a note on a door already covered by other notes from friends and acquaintances. When she returned later that evening and found things still the same, she convinced the building manager to let her in the apartment. Inside, they found the bathroom door chained from the inside, and had to break it open. There, they discovered a dead Dekker, hanging from a leather belt.
The scene of Albert Dekker’s death was so bizarre and grotesque, that his fiancee collapsed upon witnessing it. The building manager needed minutes to overcome the shock and gather his wits to call the police. There was nothing in either Dekker’s public image or private one that would have prepared anyone for the sight. He was naked in the bathtub, with a ball gag in his mouth, a scarf covering his eyes, and his hands cuffed behind his back. In addition to the belt around his neck, there was another belt around his waist, tied to a rope binding his ankles. That rope, in turn, was looped around his wrist and clasped in his hand.
Sun rays were drawn around his nipples in lipstick, which was also used to draw a vagina on his stomach. A hypodermic needle was sticking out of each arm, and his right butt cheek had two needle punctures, above which the word “whip” was written in lipstick. His body was covered in other words written in lipstick, including “slave”, “cocksucker”, and “make me suck”.
Albert Dekker’s death was initially ruled a suicide. However, after S&M toys and porn were found in his apartment, it was changed to accidental autoerotic asphyxiation while masturbating. Despite the coroner’s ruling, foul play was suspected. For one, his fiancee knew that he had been keeping $70,000 cash in the apartment to buy a new house. The money, as well as expensive cameras and filming equipment, was never found.
It also seemed incredible that Dekker could have tied himself in the manner in which he was discovered, all on his own. Whether he acted alone, or had a partner who panicked and fled after a scandalous game went terribly wrong, or he was murdered, is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Unfortunately, that weird ending that did more to shape Dekker’s public image and memory than his decades of stellar work and moral stands.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading