Famous Historic Figures' Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives

Khalid Elhassan - June 3, 2020

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Jerry Lee Lewis. Encyclopedia Britannica

16. A Bad Marriage

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Jerry Lee Lewis and his child bride. Today I Found Out

15. Ignoring Good Advice

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Jerry Lee Lewis and his thirteen-year-old wife. Pintrest

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 canceled, and Lewis and his child bride fled back to America.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Jerry Lee Lewis and his wife Myra returning home from a disastrous trip. The Commercial Appeal

13. A Wrecked Public Image and Career

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
John Profumo and Christine Keeler. The Daily Express

12. The Scandal That Wrecked a Rising Star…

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“.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
John Profumo. BBC

11. … and Toppled a Government

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Mahatma Gandhi. Encyclopedia Britannica

10. Fighting For Freedom, and Liking Young Girls

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 was… a complex man. Nowhere is that complexity more evident than in his sleeping habits.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Gandhi with his grandniece Manuben, right, and his grandnephew’s wife, Abha. India Today

9. An “Experiment”

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 … the idea of experiments was developed … in the early days, there was no question of calling it an experiment“.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Thomas Jefferson. Biography

8. A “Complicated” Founding Father

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 a contrast between the man’s public image and his actual life. Jefferson pursued his happiness on 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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson. All That is Interesting

7. The Freedom Advocate’s Abused Child Slave

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC. Library of Congress

6. A Dead Wife’s Lookalike

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Albert Dekker. Film Favorites

5. Hollywood’s Weirdest Death

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Joseph McCarthy. How Stuff Works

4. A Moral Man

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Albert Dekker in ‘Dr. Cyclops’. Universal City Studios

3. A Mysterious Disappearance

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.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Katherine Hepburn and Albert Dekker. YouTube

2. A Grotesque Scene

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”.

Famous Historic Figures’ Public Image vs the Reality of their Lives
Albert Dekker’s death certificate. Imgur

1. A Bizarre Death’s Mystery

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

Atlantic, The, December, 2017 – How John Wayne Became a Hollow Masculine Icon

BBC – Fatty Arbuckle and Hollywood’s First Scandal

Cracked – 5 Famous People Whose Entire Personality Was an Act

Encyclopedia Britannica – Profumo Affair

Guardian, The, February 22nd, 2016 – Last of the Red-Hot Myths: What Gossip Over Rudolph Valentino’s S** Life Says About the Silents

Guardian, The, April 9th, 2017 – Eric Gill: Can We Separate the Artist From the Abuser?

Independent, The, September 18th, 2015 – King Edward VIII: Uncle Who Encouraged Young Queen’s Nazi Salute Plotted With Adolf Hitler to Regain Throne

India Today, November 30th, 1999 – Mahatma & Manuben: Newly Discovered Diaries of Gandhi’s Personal Attendant Reveal How His Experiments With Celibacy Changed Her Life

Live About – Jerry Lee Lewis Married His 13-Year-Old Cousin

Miedzian, Myriam – Boys Will be Boys: Breaking the Link Between Masculinity and Violence

New Yorker, September 18th, 2015 – Charlie Chaplin’s Scandalous Life and Boundless Artistry

New York Times, June 16th, 2018 – Monticello is Done Avoiding Jefferson’s Relationship With Sally Hemings

Open Learn – What is the Evidence That King Edward VIII Was a Nazi Sympathizer?

Schoenberger, Nancy – Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero (2017)

Shadows and Satin – The Life and Death of Albert Dekker

Smithsonian Magazine, November 8th, 2011 – The Skinny on the Fatty Arbuckle Trial

Ultimate Classic Rock – When Jerry Lee Lewis Married His 13-Year-Old Cousin

Vice – Charlie Chaplin Was a Sadistic Tyrant Who F*** Teenage Girls

Vox – Thomas Jefferson Spent Years Raping His Slave Sally Hemings

Washington Post, July 7th, 2017 – Sally Hemings Wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress, She Was His Property

Wikipedia – Albert Dekker

Wikipedia – Frances Cleveland