Top Ten Old Hollywood Scandals You Probably Forgot About
Before celebrities began spending their free time scrolling through feeds and getting into arguments on Twitter, in the 20th century, they were the ones out there creating news headlines. From illicit affairs to mysterious deaths and a way-too-frequent male tendency to wed underage girls, Old Hollywood was practically more dramatic off the screen than on it.
(This was sort of the basis for the 2022 Margot Robbie-Brad Pitt film, Babylon.)
Impossible to put into order by anything other than an arbitrary assortment, each of the scandals below warrant their own film adaptations. Or books, at the very least.
1. Charlie Chaplin’s Lolita Complex
Long before Leonardo DiCaprio was dating only models half his age, silent film actor Charlie Chaplin was busy wooing women way younger than him. He was married four times in total, and all of his wives were young, to say the least. In 1918, when he was 29, he married a 16-year-old teen named Mildred Harris; they were divorced by 1920. Then in 1924, he married 16-year-old Lita Grey, which only lasted three years. Basically, these marriages lasted just long enough for them to become legal adults. Gross.
Chaplin took a little break from walking down the aisle for the next decade or so. Then in 1936, he wed actress Paulette Goddard, who was at least in her 20s (though he was in his 40s by then). That one didn’t stick either. The fourth time was apparently the charm: In 1943, when Chaplin was 53, he married an 18-year-old named Oona O’Neill. She was a legal adult, so that was a step in the right direction, although the age gap had progressed substantially by this point; the man was old enough to be her grandfather. They stayed married until his death in 1977.
If that isn’t scandal enough for you, Chaplin was also banned from the U.S. in 1952 due to communist leanings and did not return until 1972 to collect an honorary Oscar. The tabloids must have loved him!
2. Elizabeth Taylor’s Love Triangle(s)
Elizabeth Taylor was the queen of scandal back in the day. Married eight times, Taylor made headlines for years when she began seeing fellow actress and friend Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, also an actor, after her third husband died in a plane crash in the late 1950s. Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher had two children together (Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher being one of them), but they soon divorced, and Fisher was married to Taylor for five years, until Taylor began having another affair, this time with Richard Burton, who she would end up marrying (and divorcing) twice. Quite the spicy love life!
Though both Fisher and Taylor were vilified by the press at first, only Fisher’s career was negatively affected by this notorious affair, in the long-term; Taylor and Reynolds continued on to A-list stardom, and even made up eventually in 1966 because of a chance encounter on a cruise line.
The “family business” is alive and well with stars like Lily-Rose Depp (Johnny Depp's Daughter) making headlines.
3. The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood
The 1981 death of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood is probably the greatest mystery and scandal of Tinseltown history. On a boat ride with actor and husband Robert Wagner — who was twice her age, of course, and who she married twice, in 1957 and 1972 — and fellow actor Christopher Walken — who she may or may not have been having an affair with — Wood drowned under very mysterious circumstances at the age of 43. Somehow, no one has ever figured out exactly how she died, which is partly what makes it so memorable. Initially ruled as an accidental drowning, the case was reopened in 2011 after the boat captain alleged that Wagner was responsible, though no one was ever charged and the case went cold. Wood’s death certificate was amended in 2012, citing the cause as “drowning and other undetermined factors.”
I sure would like to be a fly on the wall when Wagner and Walker get together, as surely one of them knows the answer to this mystery.
4. The Mysterious Death of Jean Harlow’s Husband
Before she died at the very young age of 26, actress Jean Harlow had already lived quite a life of scandal and intrigue. Her first marriage, which began when she was only 16, lasted just two short years (I am sensing a pattern here). Then, at 22, at the height of her success, Harlow married a middle-aged German film executive named Paul Bern. Two months later, he was found dead of a (supposed) self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Studio execs at MGM were called before the police and were there for two hours before law enforcement arrived to investigate what was left of the scene. Harlow was at her mother’s house (supposedly). To make the story even more bizarre, Bern was already married to another woman when exchanging vows with Harlow. Her name was Dorothy Millette, and her body was found in the Sacramento River nine days after Bern’s death. She lived in a sanitarium at the time and may or may not have visited Bern the night of his death.
It’s all very, very weird.
© Everett Collection
5. Jerry Lee Lewis’ Lolita Complex
In 1958, rock ’n’ roller Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin. It was his third marriage and she was thirteen years old. That would probably not fly these days at all (legality aside, it’s just ick), but even then, it caused his career to tank. It probably didn’t help that he was still legally married to his second wife at the time. (Sensing another pattern here.)
6. Lana Turner’s Daughter Shot Her Boyfriend
Also in 1958, actress Lana Turner‘s 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed and killed Turner’s boyfriend, a mobster named Johnny Stompanato, in order to save her life. (The original Dirty John?) Claiming that she had defended her mother, who Stompanato was threatening to kill, Crane was exonerated by a verdict of justifiable homicide.
7. More Affairs!
It’s hard to keep up with all these scandalous Hollywood liaisons. I guess throwing a bunch of beautiful people together for long periods of time to film scenes where they have to pretend to be in love can have some undesirable outcomes! But another one for the headlines was when actress Ingrid Bergman had a very public affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini after meeting him on the set of the 1949 film Stromboli. They were both married at the time and, after she got pregnant with his child, they left their spouses for each other. They were divorced by 1957.
8. Clark Gable’s Secret Child
Clark Gable, notorious for his womanizing as much as his acting, met actress Loretta Young on the set of Call of the Wild (pictured above), during which they had an encounter that left her pregnant at age 23. Still married to his first of five wives at the time, Gable refused to admit parentage and had no interest in meeting his daughter with Young, who kept her child’s parentage a secret for her whole life; it was only revealed in a posthumously published memoir who her daughter’s father was. Young also eventually admitted their relationship was not consensual. Scandal wrapped in scandal!
9. Even More Affairs!
In the early 1960s, Marilyn Monroe was one of the hottest starlets in Hollywood, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy was deemed by many as the most handsome president in U.S. history. Their paths crossed at public events, but a secretive hookup in Palm Springs, California, in 1962 got the scandal ball rolling. Some say that after Kennedy ended their rumored affair, Monroe went into a downward spiral that ended in her suicide. Others still insist her death wasn’t a suicide at all.
10. Roman Polanski’s Lolita Complex AND Infamous Death Of Second Wife
It’s crazy enough that film director Roman Polanski‘s second wife, actress Sharon Tate, was tragically murdered by the Manson family in 1969 (the subject of yet another Margot Robbie-Brad Pitt film, 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), but Polanski then got wrapped up in a very sketchy 1977 saga involving the statutory rape of a 13-year-old female whom he plied with drugs. Although he admitted to having sex with the girl, Polanski insisted she was a willing participant. No one with a brain was buying that story, and Polanski was about to be sentenced in February 1978 when he fled to Europe.
There have been several unsuccessful extradition attempts, the most recent in 2015. And so, the story lingers on. And more stories continue to be created! As long as there will be beautiful people on our screens who are worshipped like royalty — and as long as people will continue to be people — celebrities will continue to do what they do and keep journalism afloat.