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10 Disturbing Stories of Immorality, Vice, and Exploitation in Old Hollywood

Hollywood is notorious for scandal and disrepute, a reputation that dates back to its early days. The glitz and glamour of Tinseltown have always concealed the filth and vice simmering beneath the surface.

But perhaps it is this very allure that keeps people captivated. Scandals are scandalous because they captivate our attention, and Hollywood seems to have an endless supply of them. Numerous seedy stories from the depths of Hollywood’s underbelly could fill multiple lists.[1]

10 Getting Away With Murder

In the early days, film studios despised scandals involving their stars and employed individuals whose sole job was to keep such sordid stories out of the papers. These fixers, like Eddie Mannix, would cover up drunken hit-and-runs or out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In 1937, Mannix might have even helped the biggest star in Hollywood get away with murder.

Wallace Beery was once the highest-paid actor at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, attaining stardom through productions such as The Big House, Billy the Kid, and The Secret Six. He even won an Oscar for his role in The Champ. But on December 20, 1937, he was rumored to have beaten comedian Ted Healy, creator of the Three Stooges, to death.

The incident allegedly occurred after an argument between the two at the Trocadero nightclub. Along with Beery, movie producer/mobster Pasquale DiCicco and an unidentified third man were also involved in the brutal assault that led to Healy’s death. Interestingly, no charges were ever filed, and Beery left town hastily on a European vacation. Some speculate that Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM, organized a cover-up to protect his star.[2]

9 A Diet To Die For

Hollywood studios placed great emphasis on the appearance of their stars and often went to extreme lengths to keep them thin. One notorious example is Judy Garland, who, as a young actress, was put on an MGM-sanctioned diet of soup, coffee, and cigarettes. To compensate for her lack of energy, she was supplied with amphetamines.[3]

Another instance involved tenor-turned-actor Mario Lanza, who signed with MGM in the late 1940s. Despite finding success in musical films, weight issues plagued him throughout his Hollywood career due to his addictions to overeating and alcohol. He would engage in crash diets to lose weight for film roles, only to regain it after shooting. This cycle resulted in numerous health problems, causing Lanza to cancel concerts and other live appearances.

In the late 1950s, Lanza had to lose weight again for filming in Rome, where he checked into a clinic. Rumors suggest that he underwent a risky procedure called twilight sleep, which involved heavy sedation and intravenous feeding. Unfortunately, Lanza succumbed to a sudden heart attack in 1959. An uncorroborated rumor quickly spread that he had been killed by the Mafia for backing out of a concert they supported.[4]

8 Innocence Lost

During the years 1935 to 1938, Shirley Temple was the biggest draw at the box office, despite being just a child. Her success was celebrated with an honorary Academy Juvenile Award when she was just six years old. Sadly, her time in Hollywood was marred by numerous instances of attempted sexual assault.

While we are now aware of the rampant abuse of child actors in Hollywood, Temple spoke candidly about her experiences in her 1988 autobiography, Child Star. She openly named actors and executives, including comedian George Jessel and producer David O. Selznick, who mistreated her over the years.[5]

Perhaps the most shocking tale involved musical producer Arthur Freed, known for his work on hits like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain. According to Temple, Freed exposed himself to her when she was just 11 years old. She laughed in response, which infuriated the producer and ended with Temple being thrown out of his office.[6]

7 In The Garden Of Allah

Hollywood offered numerous establishments in which actors could indulge their hedonistic sides. Among these, the Garden of Allah stood out as one of the most notorious.

Originally a lavish mansion called Hayvenhurst, the property was sold to Russian actress Alla Nazimova. Nazimova, who was married at the time but had numerous affairs with women, turned it into the Garden of Allah. It became a sanctuary in Hollywood where lesbian and bisexual women could freely express their sexuality. The property was also known for its lavish parties, attracting a wide array of Hollywood stars seeking privacy away from the public eye and the press.

Legendary figures such as Marlene Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier, John Barrymore, and Greta Garbo were all regular visitors to the Garden. There are even stories, like the one about bandleader Tommy Dorsey, who allegedly brought out two naked women with pubic hair styled to spell “T” and “D” to demonstrate his popularity over fellow bandleader Kay Kyser.[7]

6 Stuck In Hedda Hell

Hedda Hopper was a powerful and feared name in Hollywood. Initially a failed actress, she began writing a gossip column in 1938 that quickly gained popularity. At its peak in the 1940s, her column reached 35 million readers.

Hopper relished her role as a powerful figure in Hollywood and took pleasure in ruining careers and marriages with a few well-placed sentences. Known as “the b—ch of the world,” she targeted communists and homosexuals in particular. As a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPAPAI), she played a significant role in the Hollywood Blacklist, which prevented individuals suspected of communist ties from finding employment.[8]

Dalton Trumbo, a screenwriter who fell victim to the blacklist until 1960, and Charlie Chaplin, who Hopper routinely denigrated for his allegedly immoral lifestyle, were among her most notorious targets. Giving a scoop to her rival competitor, Louella Parsons, was also a quick way to become Hopper’s enemy, as happened to Ingrid Bergman when she lied to Hopper about her pregnancy but told Parsons the truth.

5 The Story Of Frances Farmer

Mental illness is a subject that is still poorly understood today, let alone during the 1940s when Hollywood stars facing such issues became fodder for tabloids. Frances Farmer’s story is a prime example.

Farmer, known for her successful stage career, made her Hollywood debut in 1936 and enjoyed several successful films throughout the 1940s. However, her erratic behavior increasingly overshadowed her career, leading to a six-month jail sentence in 1943. After assaulting two police officers and throwing an inkwell at a judge during a courtroom outburst, she was sent to a sanitarium where she was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Following multiple stays in psychiatric hospitals, she managed a modest television comeback before her death in 1970.

The story took an intriguing turn in 1978 when William Arnold published Shadowland, a biography of Frances Farmer. The book claimed she had undergone a lobotomy while institutionalized. Brooksfilms later turned this account into the award-winning movie Frances, which lent significant credence to the tale. However, during a subsequent lawsuit, Arnold admitted that his account, lobotomy included, was fictionalized.[9]

4 The Death Of Lupe

Rumors have a way of taking on a life of their own, particularly in Hollywood where scandalous rumors often overshadow the truth. This was the case with Lupe Velez.

Known for her spirited personality and fiery temper, Velez earned the nickname “the Mexican Spitfire.” After a series of affairs and a tumultuous marriage with Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller, Lupe became pregnant with the child of actor Harald Ramond. Tragically, after a fight between the two, Velez took her own life in 1944 at the age of 36.

Although the coroner ruled it a suicide and a note was found in which Lupe stated she did it because Harald faked his love, gossip continued to circulate. One rumor claimed that the baby actually belonged to Gary Cooper, who rejected it because he was married. Another suggested that Velez took her own life due to bipolar disorder.

The most scandalous rumor regarding Velez’s death came from Kenneth Anger, author of the infamous book Hollywood Babylon in 1959. The publication contained numerous salacious scandals but was accused of spreading falsehoods. One of the most notorious stories involved Velez’s death. According to Hollywood Babylon, the Mexican Spitfire’s plan to die of a drug overdose in her bed was foiled when she fell headfirst into a toilet and drowned.[10]

3 A Youthful Indiscretion

Joan Crawford’s offscreen exploits were often as attention-grabbing as her successful career in Old Hollywood. She had a bitter rivalry with fellow screen icon Bette Davis, served as Chairman of the Board for the Pepsi-Cola Company, and was accused of being an abusive parent by her daughter Christina. To add to the controversies, rumors circulated that before her rise to fame, Crawford appeared in a porno film.

These early pornography films were known as stag films. The alleged film starring Crawford was titled The Casting Couch, although there are no known copies or official records confirming its existence. While a handful of photographs purportedly showing Crawford in stag films can be found online, the truth about The Casting Couch will most likely remain a mysterious piece of Hollywood lore.

If we rely solely on legend, then not only did the film exist, but someone used it to blackmail Crawford. MGM became involved, and their fixers were dispatched to locate and destroy every copy. According to another version of the story, MGM kept one copy to ensure Crawford’s compliance.

2 An Obsession Turned Dangerous

Stalkers and deranged fans are a horrifying reality that celebrities must face. The unfortunate fate of John Lennon, Selena, and Dimebag Darrell serves as a reminder that obsession can take a perilous turn. But this kind of danger is not limited to contemporary times; it haunts Hollywood’s Golden Age as well.

Shirley Temple experienced a close call with a deranged fan when she was just ten years old. During a live radio show in 1939, a woman attempted to assassinate Temple. Fortunately, the intruder was apprehended before any harm could come to the young actress.

Devastatingly, the woman had lost her daughter on the same day, allegedly at the same hour, that Temple was born. Believing her daughter’s soul was trapped inside Temple’s body, the obsessed woman sought to release it by killing the child star. Temple, shockingly, sympathized with her assailant, stating that the tale seemed understandable to her.[11]

1 A Mother’s Secret

Hollywood studios frowned upon children born out of wedlock, often pressuring starlets to have abortions to uphold a pristine image. However, one actress who chose not to terminate her pregnancy was Loretta Young. In 1935, she gave birth to Judy Lewis and hastily embarked on a “vacation” to England to conceal her actions. Young then placed Judy in an orphanage before adopting her as her own daughter.

Judy’s father was none other than Clark Gable, a fact that remained unknown to her while Gable was alive. It was only in her thirties that Judy finally confronted her mother, who confirmed the truth. Judy later discovered that her father’s identity was an open secret in Hollywood.[12]

In 2015, Linda Lewis, Loretta’s daughter-in-law, revealed a shocking revelation. According to Linda, Loretta informed her in 1998 that Gable had date-raped her.[13] Young, unaware of the concept of date rape at the time, blamed herself for letting a man have his way with her due to her strict Catholic upbringing. Loretta refrained from making this revelation public while both Judy and she were still alive.

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Written by Radu Alexander

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