Hollywood’s past is riddled with shocking stories of debauchery and disgrace. Some of these tales, like Fatty Arbuckle’s trial, the Black Dahlia murder, or the tragic demise of Sharon Tate, remain in the spotlight. Others, though scandalous in their day, have since faded into the shadows.
The Birth of the Coogan Act
The glittering world of Hollywood has often had a troubling relationship with its child stars. Their innocence can sadly become prey for the very people they trust most – their own parents. It’s not unheard of for the earnings of these young actors to be treated like a personal treasure chest by their guardians. Famous names like Macaulay Culkin, Gary Coleman, and Shirley Temple all saw their fortunes squandered by their parents, but no case was as severe as Jackie Coogan’s.
Today, we know him as the original Uncle Fester, but in his youth, Coogan was a successful child actor. Yet, upon turning 21, he found his earnings, a whopping $4 million, completely depleted by his mother and stepfather. Worse, they declared the money rightfully theirs, stating that Jackie wouldn’t see a penny of it.
Coogan took the matter to court but ended up with only $125,000. This well-publicized trial eventually led to the California Child Actor’s Bill, popularly known as the Coogan Act.
The Fall of Superman
The film Hail, Caesar! introduces us to Eddie Mannix, a heavyweight figure from the Golden Age of Hollywood. On paper, he was an executive at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In truth, he was a ‘fixer’ – someone employed to keep Hollywood scandals from becoming public fodder.
His most notorious scandal was from his personal life – the puzzling death of actor George Reeves, his wife’s lover and TV’s first Superman. Reeves died from a gunshot wound to his head during a house party in 1959.
Officially, it was deemed suicide. Yet, many speculated that Eddie Mannix played a role in his death. Even as late as 1999, these rumors were stoked when Hollywood publicist Edward Lozzi claimed that on her deathbed, Toni Mannix confessed to arranging George Reeves’s murder.
The Madams of Tinseltown
The revelation of Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam” who had silver screen stars among her clientele, left the public in shock during the 1990s. But the trade had been around much longer.
In the 1930s, Lee Francis operated the most notorious brothel in California, the Hacienda Arms Apartments, with famous clients like Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Errol Flynn. The police were conveniently paid off to turn a blind eye.
After Francis’s arrest, she was succeeded by Ann Forrester and then by Brenda Allen. Allen’s arrest in 1948 shook up the LAPD and led to several high-profile resignations. It was revealed that Allen was not only bribing cops but had Sergeant Elmer Jackson as her business partner and lover.
Mae West, the Alter Ego Jane Mast
Mae West, one of Hollywood’s original sirens, was known for her sexually charged persona. This often led to clashes with women’s associations, religious groups, and state censors. Interestingly, her most significant controversies happened before she even appeared on the silver screen.
Before her first movie in 1932, West was already a renowned playwright and stage actress, writing under the pseudonym Jane Mast. In 1927, her play titled Sex resulted in her arrest on obscenity charges, and West was fined $500 and sentenced to 10 days in jail. She was arrested again the next year for her play, The Drag.
When West moved to films, conservative groups were up in arms, asserting her “dirt” was unfit for the movie business. Several newspapers even refused to advertise her films.
The Taylor-Fisher-Reynolds Saga
Actresses Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Reynolds were once great friends. This friendship was shattered in 1958 when Taylor stole Reynolds’s husband, Eddie Fisher. Fisher left Debbie for Liz in 1959.
Reynolds had just given birth to their son, Todd, and had a two-year-old daughter, Carrie Fisher (later to star in Star Wars). Liz Taylor was branded a “home-wrecker” in the press, and Fisher’s singing career took a hard hit. Taylor later had an affair with her Cleopatra co-star, Richard Burton.
Decades later, Reynolds and Taylor made peace. They even co-starred in Taylor’s last movie, the 2001 comedy These Old Broads, penned by Carrie Fisher, and featured numerous inside jokes, including a shared ex-lover.
MGM’s Ruthless Regime on Judy Garland
Judy Garland was barely 17 when The Wizard of Oz catapulted her to stardom. Unfortunately, by then, she was already struggling with an eating disorder and drug habit, thanks to MGM.
Signing with the studio at 13, she was quickly deemed too plump for stardom. MGM insisted on a strict diet and grueling work schedules, which involved amphetamines and barbiturates to control her appetite and energy levels.
David Rose, Garland’s first husband, was horrified to find her daily diet consisting of soup, black coffee, and numerous cigarettes – all enforced by MGM bigwig Louis B. Mayer. Tragically, Garland battled addiction her whole life and ultimately died of an overdose at age 47.
The Mysterious Deaths at Greystone Mansion
Greystone Mansion is more than just a plush setting for TV shows and films. This luxurious residence, crafted by Gordon Kaufmann in 1928, has its own chilling tale. Its list of appearances in Hollywood hits like The Big Lebowski, Alias, and The Bodyguard is as impressive as any star-studded resume.
Oil tycoon Edward Doheny’s son, Ned, was the first owner of the mansion. But only four months after settling in, a ghastly scene unfolded: Ned and his secretary, Hugh Plunkett, were found lifeless.
The official explanation was a murder-suicide, with unstable Plunkett pinned as the culprit. Yet, some whispered that the evidence suggested a different story. As the rumor went, Doheny Sr. hushed the case to guard his son’s name. Whispers hinted that Ned was the real killer or that his wife committed the double homicide upon discovering their affair.
Stan Laurel’s Bitter Breakup
Stan Laurel, one half of the Laurel & Hardy comedy duo, was a different person off the stage. Behind the lovable, bumbling persona, he was a fiery womanizer who often lost his cool.
His tumultuous divorce from his third spouse, Vera Shuvalova, exposed this side of him. Both had a penchant for loud and fiery exchanges that sometimes escalated into physical altercations.
Their reckless behavior landed them both in court for drunk driving. During her trial, Shuvalova claimed that she drove away to escape Laurel, who had threatened her with a gun. Reports also suggested that she was once rescued by friends from a grave Laurel had allegedly dug for her in their backyard. The dust of their stormy divorce settled quickly, thanks to a clause in their agreement silencing Shuvalova.
The Tragic End of Alfalfa
The Little Rascals, with its cast of child actors, seems an unlikely backdrop for a Hollywood scandal. One of its most beloved characters was the endearing Alfalfa, known for his trademark cowlick.
Carl Switzer, the boy behind Alfalfa, had a rough journey to adulthood. His life took a grim turn with alcohol, a failing marriage, and a fatal encounter over a $50 debt. The shooter, Moses Stiltz, was acquitted after claiming self-defense.
Years later, Stiltz’s stepson, Tom Corrigan, alleged that Stiltz had intentionally killed Switzer. Despite his readiness to testify, Corrigan was never called. Rumors suggested that Switzer was so disliked that the police were eager to close his case. His death barely made the news, overshadowed by the demise of acclaimed director Cecil B. DeMille on the same day.
Hollywood’s Forced Abortions Scandal
Perhaps the most shocking among Hollywood’s long list of scandals were the studio-enforced abortions. In the early days, studios dictated if and when an actress could become a mother. An unexpected pregnancy led to hush-hush hospital visits for an “appendectomy” or “ear infection.”
Prominent actresses like Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, and Bette Davis underwent abortions to protect their careers. Tallulah Bankhead reportedly had abortions as regularly as most women visited the hair salon. Jean Harlow not only had to “get some rest” but was also allegedly banned from marrying the baby’s father, actor William Powell, as MGM didn’t think a married woman could play a “blonde bombshell.”
Judy Garland, sadly, also fell victim to this practice. At just 19 and pregnant, the studio and her own mother decided that she couldn’t portray the innocent young girl on-screen and be a mother. She was forced into an abortion, and history repeated itself two years later.