Monday, December 1, 2014

Five of the Biggest Classic Hollywood Scandals

Celebrity scandals undoubtedly get exposed quicker these days thanks to tabloid TV and social media. However, they have always provided rich fodder for gossip columns and literary exposes such as Kenneth Anger's notorious Hollywood Babylon. Today, we take a look at five of the biggest classic Hollywood scandals. We focused our attention on the rich and famous, as opposed to sensationalized events featuring lesser-known people (e.g., actress Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by jumping off the "H" in the Hollywood Sign).

 Johnny Stompanato and Lana Turner.
Lana Turner and the murder of Johnny Stompanato. Lana was still a major star in the late 1950s when she met Stompanato shortly after her divorce from Lex Barker. Alas, "Handsome Harry" (one of his nicknames) was a bodyguard for gangster Mickey Cohen and prone to violence. Lana's tumultuous relationship with Stompanato came to an end on August 4, 1958 when Turner returned home from the Academy Awards. She and Stompanato engaged in a heated argument and, fearing for her mother, Lana's fourteen-year-old daughter Cheryl stabbed Stompanato to death with a kitchen knife. The incident was eventually ruled a justifiable homicide. 

Arbuckle's mug shot.
Fatty Arbuckle and the Death of Virginia Rappe. Perhaps the most notorious of all Hollywood scandals, the 1921 death of model-actress Virginia Rappe has been the subject of entire books. Rappe died from a ruptured bladder and secondary peritonitis after attending a party in a hotel room with Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle and others. There are various accounts of what happened at the party, although the one seized on by the tabloids was that Arbuckle raped Rappe and his weight caused her bladder to rupture. The police arrested Arbuckle and charged him with manslaughter. His first trial was declared a mistrial after the jury deliberated for over 40 hours and could not reach a verdict. A second trial with the same judge included new evidence, but also resulted in a deadlocked jury and no verdict. Arbuckle testified in the third trial and was found not guilty--the jury only deliberated for six minutes. The jury also issued a formal apology that began: "Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel that a great injustice has been done him. We feel also that it was only our plain duty to give him this exoneration, under the evidence, for there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime."

Cooper and Velez.
The Suicide of Lupe Vélez. Best known for the Mexican Spitfire "B" film series, the Mexican-born Vélez played leading roles earlier in her career. Still, she was probably best known for her public persona; she once said: "Even though the public thinks I'm a pretty wild girl, I'm really not. I'm just me, Lupe Vélez, a simple and natural Lupe." After a stormy affair with Gary Cooper, she married Johnny Weissmuller in 1933. It was her only marriage and ended after five years. There are varied accounts about how Vélez--who was four months pregnant and unmarried--died in 1944. Today, it's generally believed she took an intentional overdose of barbiturates and died on her bed or the floor. She left two suicide notes, the first being to Harald Ramond, whom she mentions as the father of her child (there are rumors identifying others as potential fathers--to include Gary Cooper). Lupe's second note was to Beulah Kinder, her secretary and companion. It ended with: "Take care of Chips and Chops." They were her two dogs.

Jerry Giesler and client Errol Flynn.
Errol Flynn's Statutory Rape Trial. In 1942, at the height of his silver screen fame, Flynn was charged with two counts of statutory rape. The most intriguing version of the scandal was offered by Kenneth Anger, who alleged that powerful Los Angeles politicians trumped up the charges in retaliation for studios not paying to keep their stars out of trouble. A more likely account is the one offered by Flynn, who spends a chapter describing the trial and its consequences in his autobiography My Wicked, Wicked Ways. In any event, Warner Bros. hired famed attorney Jerry Giesler to defend Flynn. Giesler discredited the alleged victims and their accounts of the incidents. Flynn was found not guilty; he also fell in love with the young woman who worked in the snack bar at the courthouse. He married Nora Eddington in 1943.

Newlyweds Oona and Charles.
The Child Brides of Charles Chaplin. Although recognized as a comedic legend, Chaplin spent much of his life dodging controversies surrounding his marriages. His first wife, Mildred Harris, was 17 when she married the 30-year-old Chaplin after telling him she was pregnant (it turned out to be a false alarm). His second wife, Lita Grey, was just 16 when they were wed in Mexico after learning she was pregnant. His third wife, actress Paulette Goddard, was 21 when they married (although there are discrepancies regarding when she was born). After he and Goddard separated, actress Joan Barry filed a successful paternity suit against Chaplin--despite blood tests that indicated he was not the father of her baby. His affair with Barry also led to a criminal charge that he violated the Mann Act; he was acquitted after a two-week trial. Around the same time as those legal troubles, Charles Chaplin married Oona O'Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O'Neill. She was 18 and Chaplin was 54. They remained married until Chaplin's death in 1977 and had eight children.

Honorable mentions:  Robert Mitchum's two months in jail for possession of marijuana; producer Thomas Ince's death aboard William Randolph Hearst's yacht; and the mysterious suicide of actress Thelma Todd.


  1. This was an interesting, and sad, read. Despite the glamour and the glitz, it was not always wonderful to be famous.

    1. Toto, I wouldn't want to be famous in any area--but especially with today's social media.

    2. had no idea that Charlie chaplin had been married to so many young girls and had all those children. really was a big shock of the circumstances of Lana Turner's story

  2. Frank leaving his wife and mother of his three children for Ava was another big scandal - hugely damaged his rep which hurt his career. But Ol' Blue Eyes came back...

    1. That's a great addition, Eve. And, although it wasn't a scandal, the kidnapping of Frank Jr. attracted a lot of attention, too.

  3. These are pretty big scandals, but sad, too. I think sometimes those Hollywood publicity & legal departments worked non-stop!

  4. I've always disliked scandal stuff -- you can never know what is true and what is not. Particularly now, as you said. Everyone is in a strong spotlight and that must be awful. I've always thought the Errol Flynn trial was strange -- he had women throwing themselves at him all the time, and he never before or after acted like a man who would force anybody. Why bother when it came so easily? LOL! Oh, and another scandal was Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher. Eddie leaves Debbie Reynolds and children for Elizabeth, and then she leaves him for Richard Burton, who leaves his wife for Elizabeth. What a mess!