Hollywood’s Most Famous & Scandalous Couples of the Golden Age
While we flocked to theaters to watch our Hollywood heroes and heroines melt into each other’s arms, gossip magazines told us — sometimes boldly, other times in whispers — of passionate affairs between the actors who filled those shoes. Here are some of the most legendary hookups of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
The King And Queen Of Ye Olde Hollywood
“Everybody’s Hero” — as Douglas Fairbanks was known in Hollywood’s silent era — met “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford at a party in 1916. Their embrace soon became a match made in Hollywood heaven. They toured with Charlie Chaplin selling war bonds, and the three soon became the highest-paid actors in Hollywood. Fairbanks and Pickford were both married, however, and it was several years before they each were granted divorces from their respective spouses. In 1920, the two were joined in a ceremony the press titled “The Marriage of the Century.”
After honeymooning in Europe, where they were mobbed by fans in London and Paris, the couple returned to settle at Pickfair, their 18-acre Beverly Hills estate. Hollywood royalty supped and partied through the night at legendary Pickfair events. In 1927, in the first ceremony of its kind, Fairbanks and Pickford placed their hand and footprints outside the newly opened Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. Fairbanks and Pickford made their first talkie together playing Petruchio and Kate in The Taming of the Shrew (1929). But gold can turn to dust, and the two separated in 1933.
Hollywood’s “It” Couple
In the 1930s, Clark Gable was “the King of Hollywood.” Carole Lombard and Gable had acted together once, in No Man of Her Own (1932), but Lombard was then married to William Powell. In a few years, Lombard had graduated from screwball comedies to Academy Award-caliber dramas, and she became the best-paid and most popular actress in Hollywood. When Gable and Lombard met up again at a 1936 Hollywood party, Lombard was divorced and Gable, while still married to Rhea Langham, was interested. Sparks flew, and the two officially became an item in 1939 when Gable finally divorced. The two eloped to Kingman, Arizona, to make their vows and then settled on a 20-acre ranch in Encino, California, where they kept barnyard animals and went on hunting trips.
Lombard tried unsuccessfully to have children, but the couple stayed happy in the limelight as Hollywood’s “it” couple. They were not, however, fated to remain together for long. In early 1942, Lombard was killed in a plane crash while on a junket in support of war bonds. She was just 33. Gable was inconsolable; he kept Lombard’s bedroom unchanged and drank recklessly. He soon joined the U.S. Army Air Forces, heading a six-man motion picture unit attached to a B-17 bomber group and flying five missions himself. When he died in 1960 at age 59, he was buried next to Lombard at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Keepers Of The Flame: Tracy And Hepburn
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn costarred in nine films, from Woman of the Year (1942) to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). With their fast repartee and meaningful looks, the screen chemistry between the two was undeniable. So it’s not surprising that the two pulled considerable double duty in their offscreen romance. But like any good screwball comedy, there were complications — Tracy, a strict Catholic, was married, and Hepburn was highly independent — so they managed their lifelong love for each other at arm’s length. Tracy kept his affair with Hepburn secret, and she in turn never asked him to divorce. Still, Tracy lived largely apart from his wife, and he and Hepburn saw each other discreetly.
It was an arrangement that apparently satisfied all the parties; as Tracy told Joan Fontaine, “I can get a divorce whenever I want to, but my wife and Kate like things just as they are.” Tracy’s lifelong habit of drinking and smoking caught up with him in his early 60s, and Hepburn moved in with the ailing actor to care for him for the last years of his life. After Tracy died of a heart attack at age 67, Hepburn did not attend the funeral out of respect for his family. Hepburn was once asked why she accepted such rigorous conditions for their affair. “I honestly don’t know,” she replied. “I can only say that I could never have left him. [We] just passed 27 years together in what was to me absolute bliss.”
Big Love With Bogie And Bacall
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were paired in Bacall’s first movie, Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not (1944). She was 19, he was 44 and married, but sparks flew anyway. It was Bogart’s first relationship with a leading lady, which was unusual for Hollywood. Due to the discrepancy in their ages, they assumed a mentor/student dynamic, with Bogart coaching and Bacall the eager pupil. They paired up again soon after in The Big Sleep (1946), and the heat of their offscreen relationship, which had become Hollywood lore, was used in promotion for the film.
Bogart divorced in 1945, and soon after it was Mr. and Mrs. Bogie and Bacall. Until Bogart’s death at age 57 in 1957, the two had a great marriage. And despite their differences — he was a homebody who liked to sail, she loved the nightlife and got seasick — they raised a couple of kids. If there’s a standard for Hollywood happiness, look to the way Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall so enjoyed blowing smoke at each other.
The Gypsy Of Hollywood And Ol’ Blue Eyes
Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra first met on the MGM lot in the early 1940s. Nothing happened — Sinatra kept a respectful distance — but Gardner was immediately taken by the crooner’s arrogant confidence. When they met up again in 1949, Gardner was only 26 but had already been married twice, to Mickey Rooney and then bandleader Artie Shaw. Sinatra was married and had three children. The two soon found they loved three things in common — jazz, booze and sex. Sinatra divorced in 1951 and passed the ring to Gardner. Their marriage was passionate and stormy, with spectacular drunken fights, suicide attempts and affairs.
After they divorced in 1957, Sinatra soon released his album Where Are You?, one of the saddest collections of love ballads ever recorded. Gardner turned to drink, apparently also suffering greatly from their divorce. Every year after, Sinatra sent her a floral bouquet, and Gardner kept on her bedside table a photograph of the two of them from the early days. After she suffered a massive stroke leaving her unable to speak, she would only take calls from Sinatra, who while nurses held the phone to her ear would say how he loved her. Gardner died in 1990 at age 67, and Sinatra died eight years later, at age 82.
Dick And Liz’s Jet Set Romance
Two of Elizabeth Taylor’s eight marriages were to gruff Welsh actor Richard Burton. When husband No. 3 Mike Todd was killed in a 1958 plane crash, grief chased the starlet into the arms of her friend Eddie Fisher, who soon became husband No. 4 after Fisher divorced then-wife Debbie Reynolds. Three years later, Taylor and Burton were cast as the love-tossed Egyptian queen and Roman general in the 1963 blockbuster Cleopatra. The ancient romance quickly bubbled over into present passions. Publicity about their white-hot affair led to the Vatican accusing the two of “erotic vagrancy.” After divorcing their respective spouses and marrying, “Dick and Liz” became the “it” couple of the ’60s, starring in 11 films together while lavishing their combined fortune on furs, diamonds, paintings and a yacht. The media fell all over themselves reporting salacious details of the couple’s “open” marriage and glamorous lifestyle.
The continued exposure took a toll on the couple. Burton and Taylor divorced in 1974, reconciled, remarried a year later, and divorced a second time a year after that. Taylor went on to marry twice more, but she later said, “After Richard, the men in my life were just there to hold the coat, to open the door. All the men after Richard were really just company.” Burton would also marry twice again, but by then, alcoholism was taking its toll. Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 58, but before he died, Taylor claims he sent her a letter professing a desire to come home to her. In a Vogue interview, she said, “I was still madly in love with him the day he died. I think he still loved me, too.” Though Burton’s wife says it was not possible for him to have sent such a letter to Taylor, it was reportedly buried with Taylor when she died in 2011.