In today’s world, you can pick up any tabloid or watch an entertainment news show and read/hear about sensational stories, usually a mix of truths, half-truths and lies, about today’s Hollywood stars. We have a long-standing fascination with celebrity screw-ups in any form.
However, when it comes to Hollywood’s past in the first half of the 20th century, we have a tendency to look through rose-colored lenses. But the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood had plenty of juicy scandals, despite the efforts of studio bosses to sweep a great deal of the scandals “under the rug”.
Clara Bow – Hollywood’s First Scandal
Clara Bow was the only one of three siblings to survive past childhood in a home with a sexually abusive father and a mother with severe mental disorders. At 16, she entered a magazine’s beauty contest and won a small part in a film. By 1927 she had made a name for herself and became known as the ‘It Girl’ following the release of It. She was the silver screen’s first megastar sex symbol.
However, Clara had scandalous stories which followed her and overshadowed her acting ability. She scandalized her Hollywood peers by being successfully sued for alienation of affections by the wife of a doctor. Bow sued a former secretary in 1930 for embezzlement and, in retaliation, the secretary released stories of Bow’s private life to the press.
Clara suffered her first nervous breakdown at age 26. Paramount, the studio that had made a fortune on Bow, dropped her in 1931. She had another breakdown and entered a sanitarium. Combined with the mental scars caused by her abusive family background, Clara was left mentally unstable and incapacitated for the later years of her life, attempting suicide in the mid-1940s. Widowed by her husband’s death in 1962, Clara Bow died three years later from a heart attack.
Jean Harlow rose to fame as a sex symbol in the 1930s at the end of the silent film era. The phrase ‘blonde bombshell’ was actually coined for her.
Her personal life was fodder for the tabloids, including nude photos at the age of 17, her relationships with gangsters, problems with a greedy stepfather, and a reported abortion. On screen, her easy sensuality caused such a sensation it led the Hays Office, the official Hollywood censors, to decree that adultery could not go unpunished on film.
Already an established star in 1932, Jean married MGM producer Paul Bern in what may have been a joint effort by both star and studio to clean up her act. Just months after their wedding, Bern was found shot in the head, sprawled in front of a bedroom mirror and drenched in Jean’s perfume. Bern’s death was ruled a suicide but for a while the press speculated that Harlow had contrived to have her husband murdered. However, a note that accompanied his body confirmed rumors that Bern suffered from an impotence which he found too embarrassing to live with.
Harlow’s own death in 1937 at age 26 due to renal failure became tabloid fodder. Though the official cause of death was from kidney disease, many rumors suggested Harlow’s kidneys were damaged by beatings from her husband or that the bleach from her hair had seeped into her brain and killed her.
Peg Entwistle was an actress whose career and life just weren’t going so hot. Her widowed father died in a traffic accident shortly after they immigrated to America from Wales. Destitute, Peg went to work on Broadway and became a success. Unfortunately, the Great Depression hit and people couldn’t afford extras like the theater. Peg started drinking heavily and headed to Los Angeles in April 1932 to pursue acting. She received a role in the movie Thirteen Women, but her screen time ended up getting drastically cut. RKO Pictures decided not to renew her contract and didn’t even invite her to the première of Thirteen Women. On the night of the première, she told her uncle she was taking a walk. She headed for the famous 50-foot Hollywood sign (which still said Hollywoodland at the time), folded her coat, placed it on the ground next to her purse, climbed the maintenance ladder of the “H” and jumped. Her body was found two days later, along with a note that said “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.”. Rumor has it that the day she was found a letter arrived offering her the lead role in a stage production in which her character would have committed suicide in the last act.
If we think it’s hard for a public figure to be openly gay these days, imagine what an uproar even mere rumors would have caused in 1926. Valentino’s first wife, Jean Acker, was a lesbian who admitted she only married him to save her career. He wasn’t aware of her sexual orientation until she locked him out of their hotel room on their wedding night and fled to her girlfriend’s house. There were rumors that his second wife also preferred women and that he was a homosexual who kept marrying lesbians so he didn’t have to consummate any marriages (neither rumor was true). It was suggested that he had relationships with at least five other actors. Journalists were constantly saying he was effeminate based on his style of clothing and hair. He took great offense to this and even challenged a reporter to a boxing match (the reporter refused) when he noted that a vending machine in a men’s bathroom in Chicago was dispensing feminine pink talcum powder and blamed it on Valentino’s influence. Supposedly when he was suffering from a perforated ulcer on his deathbed in 1926, Valentino asked the doctor if he thought he was a Powder Puff. The doctor is said to have replied, “No, sir, you’ve been very brave.”
Former New York debutante Gene Tierney became incredibly successful on Broadway by the age of 20. She soon found herself in movie roles opposite stars like Rex Harrison, Tyrone Power, Clark Gable, and Humphrey Bogart. It was Bogart who discovered the depth of Gene’s mental problems while they were filming The Left Hand of God in 1953. Encouraged by Bogart to seek help, Tierney was admitted to Harkness Pavilion in New York and later to the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., where she received 27 shock treatments. The shock treaments were too much for Gene and she tried to escape the asylum, but was caught and re-institutionalized. She tried to commit suicide in 1957 by jumping off a ledge, but was stopped just in time. It was thought that her bi-polar disorder was triggered when she gave birth to her first daughter, who was born deaf, partially blind and had some mental handicaps. Tierney’s close friend Howard Hughes, whom she never admitted to having an affair with, saw to it that her daughter received the best care possible. She did have affairs with John F. Kennedy and Tyrone Power while separated from her husband, designer Oleg Cassini (Jacqueline Kennedy’s favorite designer).