10 Old Hollywood Deaths That Remain Mysterious
10. Paul Bern
Paul Bern was a director, producer and screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In 1930, he met actress and famed sex symbol Jean Harlow and began courting her. He convinced MGM to purchase her contract from another studio, which led to bigger movie roles and a higher level of stardom.
They married in July 1932. On September 5th, just two months after the wedding, Bern was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head at their home in Beverly Hills, California. Harlow had spent the previous night at her mother’s house, so the household staff discovered his body.
His death was ruled a suicide, as there was evidence to support that conclusion. A handwritten note was found at the scene, addressed to Harlow from Bern, in which he had written that his death was “the only way to make good the frightful wrong [he] had done” and to “wipe out [his] abject humiliation.” Investigators found that Bern was rumored to be impotent, which was a great source of shame for him and may have plunged him into depression. His butler also testified that Bern often talked of killing himself.
However, according to the book Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern by Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen, the household staff didn’t call the police right away when they discovered Bern’s body. They called MGM, who sent in two men: the head of security, Whitey Hendry, and publicity director Howard “The Fixer” Strickling. Police were not summoned until two hours later. The scene of Bern’s death may have been tampered with, and a story could have been fabricated to avoid scandal and protect Harlow’s reputation—and, by extension, MGM’s.
The most persistent theory of Bern’s cause of death involves his previous common-law wife, Dorothy Millette. The pair had lived together in New York City until Millette was overcome with mental health issues. She was committed to a sanatorium in the early 1920s, and Bern left for California. Unbeknownst to Harlow, Bern never divorced Millette. He stayed in touch and continued to support her financially.
Investigators found letters in which Millette revealed her plans to vacation in San Francisco, and Bern recommended hotels and offered to pay for her travel expenses, signing the letter “My love and best wishes always.” Not only that, the household cook claimed to have seen an unknown woman on Bern and Harlow’s property that night. She later found two empty glasses and a woman’s bathing suit that did not belong to Harlow.
Soon after the news broke that Bern had died, Millette checked out of Plaza Hotel in San Francisco and boarded a Delta King riverboat. A witness saw her on the top deck, crying and gazing down at the river. When the boat docked, she was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until a week later that two fishermen found her body floating in the Sacramento River. Harlow, in an act of goodwill, anonymously paid for her burial in an upscale cemetery.
Rumors abounded that Millette had gone to Beverly Hills, murdered Bern, returned to San Francisco, then committed suicide either out of remorse or to escape consequences. A possible motive would be that Bern had changed his will to make Harlow his sole beneficiary in the event of his death, leaving Millette without financial support. But given Millette’s history of mental illness, it’s just as likely Bern’s will, followed by news of his death, had driven her to suicide.
9. Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood began her career at age four, and earned three Academy Award nominations before she was twenty-five. She was best known for her roles in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Searchers (1956), and West Side Story (1961), among others. She was also known for her relationship with actor Robert Wagner, who she married twice. Their first marriage lasted from 1957 to 1962, while the second lasted from 1972 to her death in 1981 at age 43.
Wood allegedly drowned while on a boat trip with Wagner to Catalina Island. Her body, along with a dinghy from Wagner’s boat, was recovered from the Pacific Ocean early the next morning. Authorities determined she’d tried to ride the dinghy to shore and fallen into the water while trying to secure it. Her death was ruled accidental.
However, rumors and conspiracies have since circulated throughout Hollywood and the press, along with details that were allegedly omitted from the police report. In 2011, the investigation into Wood’s death was reopened. The following year, the cause of death was changed from accidental to undetermined. In 2018, Wagner was named a person of interest in the case.
Originally released in 2001, the book Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography by Suzanne Finstead has been rereleased in 2020, with previously unreported and unconfirmed details surrounding the circumstances of Wood's death.
Dr. Michael Franco, who’d been a young medical intern at the time, claimed the L.A. Coroner’s office covered up the true cause of death. When Wood's body was recovered from the water, she had fresh bruises, abrasions, and head wounds. Franco has stated, “Natalie Wood’s death wasn’t an accident. Somebody pushed her… She had some abrasions that I could come to the conclusion that she was pushed off whatever it was she was holding on to.”
The boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, overheard a heated argument between Wood and Wagner that evening, along with sounds of furniture being thrown around. He’d knocked on their cabin door, only for Wagner to tell him, “Mind your own business.” The next time Davern saw Wagner, he was breathless and sweating, looking like he’d been in a struggle. Davern asked about Wood, and Wagner replied, “She’s gone.”
Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, had voiced disapproval of Wood remarrying Wagner, due to his previous infidelity. She has since maintained that Wagner murdered Wood, pointing out that Wood would never have taken the dinghy to shore due to her fear of deep water. In 2019, she told The New York Times, “I think the truth about Natalie’s murder is very important to other women.”
Wood’s daughter, Natalie Gregson Wagner, has defended her stepfather, calling the allegations “outrageous and completely unacceptable.” She claimed, “I know that if my mom had been in any kind of distress, he would have given his life for her.”
8. Albert Dekker
Albert Dekker was acclaimed for both his film and Broadway roles. He also had a brief career in politics, serving as state assemblyman for the 57th district from 1944 to 1946. His attempt at a Hollywood comeback was temporarily derailed by his public criticism of Senator Joe McCarthy. After nine years of being shunned by movie studios, he finally signed on with Warner Bros. in 1955 and began acting again.
On May 5, 1968, Dekker's girlfriend Jeraldine Saunders found him dead in the bathtub of his Hollywood home. He was handcuffed and blindfolded, kneeling with a noose wrapped tightly around his neck and looped around the shower curtain rod. There was a ball gag in his mouth and two hypodermic needles in his arm. Obscenities had been drawn all over his body in red lipstick. Accounts differ as to whether he was naked or wearing lingerie.
Though money and camera equipment were missing from the home, there were no signs of forced entry. The coroner could find no evidence of foul play, and initially determined he'd died of suicide. But the ultimate verdict was accidential death by autoerotic asphyxiation.
Saunders disagreed with this ruling, believing that Dekker was murdered in a robbery. The reason there were no signs of forced entry was because it was someone Dekker knew and let into his house. Paul Lukas, Dekker's friend and co-star in the films Strange Cargo (1940) and Experiment Perilous (1944), also disagreed, saying, "Al never would leave the world in such a terrible shambles. He was a man of culture and breeding.”
In a TV documentary series in 1999, Dekker's son, Benjamin, revealed that his father—like many celebrities in the 1950s and 60s—had been a client of Dr. Max Jacobson, also known as Dr. Feelgood. The New York physician prescribed "vitamin cocktails," which were later discovered to contain amphetamines.
“[He] was able to stay up for 24, 36, 40 hours at a time," Benjamin said of his father. "I think [in] the long term, [the drugs] were very detrimental to his health. And I think that was the beginning of his, somewhat, demise.”
Of his death, Benjamin would only say, "His death was the result of an accident that was between or occurred during a relationship of two consenting adults."
7. Virginia Rappe
During her brief time in Hollywood, Virginia Rappe modeled, designed clothing, and acted in small film roles. Sadly she didn't get a chance to make a name for herself, and is now best known for the widely publicized trials of her alleged murderer, famed actor and comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.
According to Room 1219: The Life of Fatty Arbuckle, the Mysterious Death of Virginia Rappe, and the Scandal That Changed Hollywood by Greg Merritt, Arbuckle and his friends held a Labor Day party at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco on September 5th, 1921. The party had a number of uninvited guests, including twenty-five-year-old Rappe and her friend, Bambina Maude Delmont.
The next morning, Rappe's lifeless body lay on a bed in an adjoining room, with a ruptured bladder and an inflamed peritoneum. Those who knew her testified that Rappe suffered from cystitis and chronic bladder inflammations, which could have been aggravated by her alcohol consumption. Some also testified she had suffered from a venereal disease and had multiple abortions in the past, which could have been a contributing factor to her death.
But Delmont accused Arbuckle of violently raping her friend and crushing her under his weight. She told police that after a few drinks, Arbuckle pulled Rappe into the adjoining room and locked the door. Hearing Rappe scream, Delmont knocked and kicked at the door until Arbuckle emerged. Behind him, Rappe lay flat on the bed, moaning in pain. Delmont called the hotel manager and a physician while Rappe screamed, "I am hurt! I am dying! He did it!"
Arbuckle told a much different story. He said that Rappe had a few drinks, then gone into hysterics, tearing off her clothes and complaining she couldn't breathe. She went to the bathroom to vomit, and her friends took her into another room to recover. The doctor was later summoned when she suffered an abdominal attack. At no point were Arbuckle and Rappe ever alone together.
Delmont wasn't considered the most credible witness, as she had a criminal history of fraud and extortion, which earned her the nickname Madame Black. Not only that, someone at the party claimed to have overheard her conspiring to use Rappe's torn clothing to blackmail Arbuckle. At times she claimed Rappe was a lifelong friend, and other times she said they'd met just days before the party. She wore black to the coroner's inquest, perhaps to lend credence to her performance of a bereaved friend.
Arbuckle's lawyers provided documented evidence of Rappe's medical conditions, and pointed out there were no bruises or any other signs of violence on her body. They also made the case that Rappe was a loose woman, possibly suffering the effects of a botched abortion. The doctor who examined Rappe testified that she showed no signs of being sexually assaulted.
Friends of Rappe testified that she'd suffered abdominal attacks before, and she often disrobed at parties when she'd been drinking heavily, like Arbuckle said she'd done.
The first two trials resulted in hung juries. Finally, the third trial resulted in acquittal, but the damage to Arbuckle's reputation and career had been done. He was banned from appearing on screen, so he changed his name to William B. Goodrich and spent the last ten years of his life working behind the scenes as a small-time director.
6. Thomas Ince
Thomas Ince is considered the first film tycoon. After acting in and directing several movies, he built his own film studio, called Inceville, in Los Angeles, California in 1912. It was the largest film studio at the time, complete with stages, offices, commissaries, dressing rooms, props, sets, and other necessities now considered standard. He went on to found Triangle Studios, Paramount Pictures, MGM, and Thomas H. Ince Studios. During his lifetime, he was involved in making over 800 films.
As the first producer-director, Ince changed the way films were made. At the time directors and cameramen managed production, but Ince expanded the role of the producer in the filmmaking process. He also invented shooting scripts and the five-reel film, which are still in use today.
In 1924, amid rumors that he was in danger of bankruptcy, Ince began meeting with with media tycoon William Randolph Hearst in the hopes of negotiating a business deal. On his 42nd birthday, he boarded Hearst's yacht as a guest of honor. Also on the yacht were Hearst's mistress, actress Marion Davies; actor Charlie Chaplin; actress Elinor Glynn; and newspaper columnist Louella Parsons.
Everyone on the yacht later claimed that Ince suffered a sudden, intense illness—believed to be acute indigestion—soon after dinner, took a water taxi ashore, and then took a train to a hotel. He died within three days, and his body was immediately cremated.
Though his death certificate said he died of heart failure, several news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, soon ran the headline "Movie Producer Shot on Hearst Yacht.” Rumors abounded that Davies and Chaplin had been having an affair, and Hearst attempted to shoot one of them and accidentally shot Ince. A secretary on board the yacht even claimed he'd seen Ince bleeding from a bullet wound to the head.
There were also rumors that Hearst shot Ince on purpose, poisoned him, stabbed him, or even hired an assassin to kill him. Hearst set up a trust fund for Ince's wife, actress Nell Kershaw, which aroused suspicion that he was buying her silence. He also employed Parsons soon after Ince's death, which may have been a bribery to keep quiet.
None of these theories could ever be proven. The mystery surrounding Ince's death was adapted into a fictionalized mystery novel, Murder at San Simeon by Hearst's granddaughter, Patty Hearst, and Cordelia Frances Biddle. Most recently, the story was depicted in the film The Cat's Meow (2001), with Cary Elwes as Ince.
5. Olive Thomas
Olive Thomas was considered the prototypical Jazz Age flapper. At age twenty, she defeated hundreds of contestants in a modeling competition for “The Most Beautiful Girl in New York City.” Soon after, she became a showgirl for the popular Broadway show The Ziegfeld Follies, in which she was popular with audiences and recieved flowers and expensive jewelry from fans. She went on to star in more than twenty films over the course of her four-year film career.
In 1916, Thomas married actor Jack Pickford. Though the media glorified them as Hollywood's power couple, Pickford was frequently unfaithful to her. He contracted syphillis and was prescribed a mercury bichloride solution, which he rubbed on his skin sores before bed each night.
In early September of 1920, the couple traveled to Paris for a second honeymoon to salvage their marriage. After a night spent partying at the bistros in the Montparnasse Quarter, they returned to the Hotel Ritz around 3 AM, tired and intoxicated.
According to Pickford's account, Thomas entered the bathroom and accidentally ingested the mercury bichloride. The label on the bottle was in French, and she may have mistook the medicine for something else in her compromised state.
"Suddenly she shrieked: 'My God,'" Pickford said. "I jumped out of bed, rushed toward her and caught her in my arms. She cried to me to find out what was in the bottle... I realized what she had done and sent for the doctor. Meanwhile, I forced her to drink water in order to make her vomit. She screamed, 'Oh, my God, I'm poisoned.' I forced the whites of eggs down her throat, hoping to offset the poison. The doctor came. He pumped her stomach three times while I held Olive."
While Thomas was hospitalized, the media erupted with sensationalized headlines and speculation. Some outlets claimed Thomas had attempted suicide after a fight with Pickford over his infidelities, or after she discovered he had given her syphillis. Others claimed Pickford tricked her into drinking the medicine so he could collect her insurance money after she died. There were even reports that Thomas was a drug addict, and that she and Pickford were involved in "champagne and cocaine orgies."
Thomas suffered acute nephritis and died with Pickford at her side, five days after ingesting the medicine. Following a police investigation and an autopsy, her death was ruled accidental. Rumors to the contrary have been denied by Pickford and those close to the couple. Pickford stated, "She didn't want to die. She took the poison by mistake. We both loved each other since the day we married."
Accidental deaths by mercury bichloride were rather common for the era. Still, Thomas's death was one of Hollywood's first heavily publicized scandals, and Pickford's reputation never fully recovered from his trial by press. He made relatively fewer films in the following years, and his next two marriages failed due to his reportedly abusive behavior.
4. George Reeves
George Reeves was best known for his role as Superman on the television show Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), which made him a national celebrity. Though he took roles in movies and made guest appearances on other shows, it became difficult for him to shed the image of Superman and prove his versatility as an actor. After two seasons, he attempted to quit the show to write and produce his own series, but was persuaded to return once he was offered a salary increase.
In June of 1959, Reeves and his fiancé, Lenore Lemmon, went out dining with their friend, Robert Condon. The three returned to Reeves and Lemmon’s home in Benedict Canyon. After Reeves went to bed, Lemmon hosted an impromptu party in their living room with Condon and neighbors William Bliss and Carol Van Ronkel. Reeves, awakened by the noise they were making, came downstairs to complain. He then calmed down, spent time with the party guests, and had a drink before returning to his room.
Soon after, a gunshot was heard from upstairs. Bliss ran into the room and found Reeves’s naked body on the bed with a gunshot wound in his temple. A pistol was on the floor, having apparently fallen from his hand.
Though Reeves’s death was ruled a suicide, conflicting stories emerged in the press, likely due to the fact that the only witnesses had been inebriated at the time. Some news outlets claimed Lemmon was with Reeves in the bedroom when he shot himself, and that she’d come downstairs and told her guests, “Tell them I was down here!” One article claimed that, when Reeves went upstairs, Lemmon told her guests, “He’s probably going to go shoot himself,” and when the shot was heard, she said, “See there—I told you!”
No fingerprints were recovered from the pistol. Oddly, though the witnesses said they only heard one gunshot, two bullets from the pistol were embedded in the bedroom floor, while the bullet that killed Reeves was recovered from the ceiling. There were also unexplained bruises on his face and chest. But ultimately there were no signs of forced entry, or any evidence that a second person had ever been in the room, so the suicide ruling remained.
However, several of Reeves’s friends remain skeptical, including actor Rory Calhoun, who told a reporter, “No one in Hollywood believed the suicide story.” While Lemmon claimed Reeves was depressed due to his career struggles, most who knew him claimed he showed no signs of being suicidal. Reeves’s mother petitioned for the case to be reopened as a possible homicide.
In 1996, the book Hollywood Kryptonite, written by Sam Kashner, made the case that his death was ordered by film studio executive Eddie Mannix, who had ties to the mafia. Mannix’s wife, Toni, had an extramarital affair with Reeves, starting in 1951 and ending in 1959, just five months before his death. In 1999, Hollywood publicist Edward Lozzi confirmed this theory, claiming Toni had confessed on her deathbed back in 1983.
3. Thelma Todd
Silent film star Thelma Todd—nicknamed “Hot Toddy” and “The Ice Cream Blonde”—appeared in about 120 feature films and shorts throughout her nine-year career. Slapstick comedy was her forte, as she often starred alongside Wheeler and Woolsey, Laurel and Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. She even formed a comedy duo alongside actress ZaSu Pitts, who was later replaced with Patsy Kelly. Alongside Pitts and Kelly, Todd was often cast as the levelheaded protagonist having to deal with an embarrassingly ditzy sidekick.
In addition to being an actress, Todd was a businesswoman. She and her lover, film director Roland West, opened a restaurant called Sidewalk Café in Los Angeles, California. They shared ownership with West’s wife, Jewel Carmen. The three of them also lived in the same duplex above the restaurant. Sources claim Carmen did not object to West’s affair with Todd, though West displayed jealousy over Todd’s affairs with other men.
On the morning of December 16th, 1935, twenty-nine-year-old Todd was found dead in her car, parked in West’s garage. The garage was closed and the car was running. She had a broken nose, two cracked ribs, and bruises around her throat. Police officers determined she’d been dead at least twelve hours.
The coroner determined Todd died of carbon monoxide poisoning. She’d spent the previous night with friends at a popular Hollywood restaurant. It was believed she returned home sometime after 2 AM and found herself locked out. Unable or unwilling to wake West or Carmen, she apparently returned to her car and turned on the engine. Perhaps her death was accidental: that Todd had simply turned on the engine to warm up and fell asleep. But authorities had many reasons to suspect foul play.
Three months prior to her death, two men had been arrested in New York for making threatening phone calls to Todd, demanding $10,000 under penalty of death. Not only that, Todd had once been involved with mobster Lucky Luciano, who allegedly beat her, fed her amphetamines, and demanded that she let him open a gambling casino in her restaurant. On the night she died, witnesses claimed she had a brief, unpleasant encounter with her abusive ex-husband, Pat DiCicco, who was believed to have underworld connections. West and Carmen were also subject to speculation that one or both of them killed Todd.
Despite the people who had reason to harm her, Todd’s official cause of death was determined a suicide. Indeed, Todd had reasons to be unhappy. She’d never wanted to be an actress—her mother forced her into a beauty pageant that led to a Hollywood contract. In addition to her abusive exes, she was abused by her father growing up. Sources also say she was hooked on diet pills and had a drinking problem.
In 1989, a book called Hot Toddy: The True Story of Hollywood's Most Sensational Murder was released. Author Andy Edmonds made the case that Todd was murdered by a hitman sent by Luciano, based on the testimony of an anonymous source.
2. William Desmond Taylor
William Desmond Taylor was a popular and prolific actor-director, having acted in twenty-seven films and directed sixty throughout his nine-year career. On the morning of February 2nd in 1922, Henry Peavey, who worked as Taylor's chef and valet, arrived at Taylor's home on Alvarado Street in Monteray, California to find his body on the floor. He'd been shot in the back.
The press was quick to sensationalize his death and give credence to the many conspiracy theories. Taylor's neighbor reported seeing somebody leaving the house the night before. One suspect was Taylor's former valet, Edward Sands, who had been fired for stealing from him, but police were unable to locate him.
Apparently, the last person to see Taylor alive was actress Mabel Normand, who he was rumored to be romantically involved with. Taylor had tried to help Normand get treatment for her cocaine addiction, and had even gone to the police to report her dealers. Police suspected that either Normand or one of the dealers had shot Taylor because of his involvement, but no evidence was recovered.
Perhaps the biggest suspect was Charlotte Shelby, former stage actress and mother of young actress Mary Miles Minter. Minter—who had begun her career as a child star and by this time had been nineteen—had professed her love for Taylor, and he's said to have rejected her, citing their 30-year age difference. But there were still rumors of a relationship between them, and of Minter's belongings being found in his home. Shelby disapproved of Taylor seeing her daughter, and she was reported to have owned a revolver similar to the one used to kill him.
Shelby was questioned but never convicted due to lack of evidence. But the scandal ruined Minter's reputation and ended her career. Some accounts claim she later confessed to those she trusted that her mother did kill Taylor, and might even have killed another director under similar circumstances.
Back in 1914, Taylor acted in four films alongside actress Margaret Gibson. Gibson went on to have a criminal record, which included allegations of drug dealing and an arrest in connection to a nationwide blackmail and extortion ring. In 1964, at the age of 70, Gibson suffered a heart attack. On her deathbed, she confessed to a priest and to the neighbors who had gathered around her, “I killed William Desmond Taylor!”
Investigators never even considered Gibson as a suspect. Her confession is the only evidence that she had any contact or association with Taylor after 1914.
1. Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe was the iconic sex symbol of the 1950s and early 60s. She rose to fame from a difficult childhood spent in and out of foster homes and orphanages to become a top-billed actress and fashion model. Her nude photo spreads and flirtatious persona reflected the era's changing attitudes towards sexuality in media.
Behind the scenes, Monroe's life was far less glamorous. She suffered from depression, anxiety, and chronic insomnia, as well as addiction to amphetamines, barbiturates and alcohol. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Ralph Greenson, enabled her by providing a steady supply of prescription drugs, despite knowing of her addiction. Not only that, her second husband, Joe DiMaggio, was jealous, possessive, and physically abusive to her.
Monroe also resented her heavily sexualized public image and objected to being typecast as a stereotypical dumb blonde. She told an interviewer, “I want to be an artist, not an erotic freak. I don't want to be sold to the public as a celluloid aphrodisiac.”
On August 4th, 1962, when Monroe was thirty-six, she was found naked and unresponsive in bed in her Los Angeles home. Her death certificate listed probable suicide by barbiturate overdose. But many biographers and journalists have put forth their theories of the truth behind her demise.
Some conspiracy theories focus on her romantic involvement with President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Author Frank A. Capella wrote that Monroe threatened to reveal her affairs with them, which would have harmed their reputations. Journalist Anthony Scaduto wrote that Monroe acquired highly confidential government information from the Kennedys, and had recorded these secrets in her diary. In both possible cases, Monroe would have been a liability that the Kennedys hired to have killed.
In 2019, private investigator Becky Altringer, who spent years looking into Monroe's death, publicly declared that Greenson murdered her on the orders of Bobby Kennedy. On the night she died, she'd had a fight with Kennedy, and Greenson was called to the scene to calm her down. He then gave her a lethal injection through the heart, and the police aided in covering it up. There is indeed evidence that Monroe died through a fatal injection, as the autopsy revealed no pills in her stomach.
Others have theorized that Monroe was murdered by the mafia. According to Darwin Porter, author of Marilyn At Rainbow’s End: Sex, Lies, Murder And The Great Cover-Up, Monroe had a relationship with Johnny Roselli, henchman of Chicago mafia boss Sam Giancana. Giancana granted Monroe her first Hollywood contract, on the condition that she seduce powerful men he wanted to blackmail. He then had Monroe killed because she was “threatening to blow the lid off his operations."