Hattie McDaniel, Leslie Howard, and Olivia de Havilland: Sex Scandals and the Co-Stars of Gone With The Wind

Updated on October 17, 2018
Timothy Anderson profile image

Tim Anderson is a freelance writer/researcher with articles published in The Saturday Evening Post, Playboy magazine, TV Guide, and others.

Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award Oscar playing the lovable "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind.
Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Academy Award Oscar playing the lovable "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind.

Hattie McDaniel -- Mammy and Her "Sewing Circle" Girlfriends

Hattie McDaniel had one of the most famous roles ever by a black actor or actress when she played "Mammy" in Gone With The Wind, and was the first black actress actor to win a coveted Academy Award Oscar. She was also the first black woman to sing on radio in the United States.

The list of Gone With The Wind cast members simply had to include the lovable Mammy played by the black actress who was born for the part.

Hattie was born to former slaves in Wichita, Kansas in 1895 and her first movie role was playing a maid in a Zane Grey western, 1932's The Golden West. Her next film was with Mae West in 1933's I'm No Angel. Thus began a busy career in Tinseltown where she appeared in dozens of movies with some of Hollywood's most popular stars, including Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper, Will Rogers, Shirley Temple, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy to name a few.

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy with Melanie and Scarlett.
Hattie McDaniel as Mammy with Melanie and Scarlett.

Often criticized by the black community for playing maids in her films, McDaniel, who was making $3,000 a month or more during the Depression, would reply "Why should I complain about making $700 a week playing a maid? If I didn't, I'd be making $7 a week being one."

McDaniel would be married four times, but none of them lasted more than a few years. Some film historians say McDanield was bisexual and a member of the secretive Sewing Circle, a group of Hollywood lesbians and bisexual actresses who often met at the house of actress Dolores Del Rio. The club's members allegedly included Agnes Moorehead, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy, and Tallulah Bankhead who were all either bisexual or lesbian. McDaniel, it has been reported, had an affair with Bankhead. Some of these women, including Hattie were in "lavender marriages" which appeared normal to the public, but privately they had same sex lovers.

When she died at age 57 from breast cancer in 1952, McDaniel was single, having divorced her fourth husband in 1950 after a scant year of marriage.

"I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race, and to the motion picture industry."

— Hattie McDaniel

As I did my research for this short article on the life of Hattie McDaniels, the book I enjoyed most was Carlton Jackson's Hattie: The Life of Hattie McDaniel. Jackson goes into great detail about the struggles she faced as an African-American entertainer in the early 20th century. Her career struggles are documented, as well as the successes she achieved along the way. If you're a fan of Hattie McDaniel or interested in the challenges black actors and actresses faced in early Hollywood, I suggest you add this fascinating book to your library.

Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With The Wind.
Olivia de Havilland as Melanie in Gone With The Wind.

Olivia de Havilland -- One of Howard Hughes' Ladies

Compared to her Gone With The Wind movie co-stars Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Olivia de Havilland who played Melanie was relatively prudish. In the Gone With The Wind book, Melanie was the sweet and innocent "goody-goody" girl. In real life, the same could pretty much be said of Olivia de Havilland.

That doesn't mean she was entirely an angel. Lots of rumors swirled during her eight movies with handsome sex symbol and leading man Errol Flynn over the years. Their on-screen chemistry was undeniable, but she always maintained that while the attraction was always there, there was no love affair in private. Still, Olivia was seeing some of Hollywood's most desirable men -- some married, some not, including the notorious womanizer Howard Hughes.

Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Olivia de Havilland and Errol Flynn in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood.

In 1939 when Gone With The Wind was released, Olivia had been dating actor Jimmy Stewart who accompanied her to the 1939 New York City premiere of Gone With The Wind. They would continue romancing right up until early 1941 when patriotic Stewart enlisted in the military just months before Pearl Harbor.

So that ended that.

However, the attractive Olivia wouldn't be alone for long. Later that year when she appeared on set for the first day of filming 1942's In This Our Life with Bette Davis, de Havilland immediately found herself attracted to the writer and director of the movie -- a talented and rising actor and director named John Huston. Although married at the time, Huston was a notorious ladies' man and Olivia was caught up in her emotions. Soon the pair engaged in a lustful and passionate love affair which would run hot-and-cold through the war years.

"All of Hollywood was convinced that 'Gone with the Wind' would be a colossal disaster and rather hoped it would be."

— Olivia de Havilland

In 1945, while attending a party at David O. Selznick's home, John Huston and Errol Flynn would become involved in one of Hollywood's most famous off-camera fistfights. Both men had been drinking. Huston and de Havilland had split up and when Huston heard Flynn say something he thought impugned de Havilland's integrity, he challenged Flynn to a fight. Reports have it that the brawl lasted nearly an hour, and that Flynn got the better part of Huston, knocking him repeatedly to the ground.

Olivia, by now, had moved on from her earlier romances and in 1946 she married her first husband, Hollywood screenwriter Marcus Goodrich.

Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.
Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.

Leslie Howard and His True Love

In Gone With The Wind, British actor Leslie Howard played the role of virtuous Ashley Wilkes who was married to Melanie and fending off the amorous advances of Scarlett.

Off-screen, Howard was nothing like the man of high integrity he played in the movie. Although he'd been married to Ruth Evelyn Martin since 1916, Howard had a reputation as a ladies' man, and rumors circulated over the years suggesting he'd enjoyed the intimate company of various actresses, including Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, Merle Oberon, Conchita Montenegro, and Tallulah Bankhead.

Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy had a steamy Hollywood affair in the early 1930s.
Leslie Howard and Myrna Loy had a steamy Hollywood affair in the early 1930s.

The affair with Bankhead is curious since she was active in the New York City lesbian underground. The pair allegedly began hooking up in 1927 when they were both appearing on the London stage in Her Cardboard Lover. Howard's affair with Montenegro began in 1931 when the couple starred in Never the Twain Shall Meet. And it was just a few years later when his affair with the exotic Merle Oberon began when the pair were filming The Scarlet Pimpernel.

But Howard's most serious love affair began in 1938 just before the filming began for Gone With The Wind. The actor had met a young 27-year-old French woman named Violette Cunnington while filming Pygmalion. Cunnington was the film producer's secretary and Howard soon convinced her to become not only his own personal secretary, but his lover as well. So when Howard came to California to shoot Gone With The Wind, Cunnington was with him and the pair secretly lived together while Howard's wife Ruth and daughter were back in England.

Cunnington may well have been Leslie Howard's true love. The actor was able to get his mistress a few roles in his films "Pimpernel" Smith and The First of the Few. To keep a low profile, Cunnington used the stage name Suzanne Clair and not her real name. This serious love affair continued until her sudden death from pneumonia in November 1942. She was just 42.

Howard went into a serious depression before tragically dying himself six months later when his plane was shot down in June 1943 by World War II German fighter planes over the English Channel.

In his will, it was discovered that Leslie Howard had left his Beverly Hills mansion to his recently deceased lover, not having enough time to make changes before his own untimely death.

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    © 2018 Tim Anderson

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