Sex Scandals of Early Hollywood

The Original Hollywoodland Sign
The Original Hollywoodland Sign
Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle
Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the letter 'H' in 1932
Peg Entwistle jumped to her death from the letter 'H' in 1932

Hollywood has always been a highly sexed town full of attractive young people with plenty of money or needing plenty of money.

The idea of hitting it big in Hollywood has always been a powerful draw, and young innocents from all over America and the world flocked to the West Coast from 1915 onwards. Once there starstruck young hopefuls fell prey to established actors, agents, directors and producers who promised a big break in exchange for their souls or bodies. Tragedy was often the result and the situation was ripe for scandal.

Hollywood needed a huge publicity machine and the studios created stars whose public image was completely different to their real selves. Innocent young virgins were actually fast-living sex kittens with a taste for drugs and alcohol. Lovable family men were known for their sexual conquests and more than one hero who made the ladies swoon secretly found young men more to his liking.

There is a tendency in all of us to look at the past through rose coloured spectacles so its easy to think of Hollywood scandal in terms of modern stars like Michael Jackson or Hugh Grant. However the glittering facade of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood contained enough juicy scandals of its own. Rape, adultery, alchohlism, drug addiction ,murder and suicide, as in the tragic case of failed actress Peg Entwistle (pictured above right), all featured heavily in the supposed innocent days of early Hollywood. Over the decades, the names and faces have changed, but the habits and hungers have always been around. Here are some of the main scandals.

Clara Bow

Clara Bow was known as the 'It Girl' and was the screen's first megastar international sex symbol. She was the first actress who visibly flaunted her sex appeal and, in turn, became the most talked-about resident of Hollywood. Idolized by Louise Brooks in the 20s, Marilyn Monroe in the 50s, and Madonna in the 80s, Clara was an icon of sexual freedom for women everywhere.

Her acting ability has been overshadowed by the scandalous stories which followed her. Most have been generally dismissed as urban legends, but Clara did give rumormongers grist for the mill.

She scandalized image-conscious Hollywood peers by being successfully sued for alienation of affections by the wife of a doctor. In 1930, Bow herself sued a former secretary for embezzlement and, in retaliation, the secretary shocked the press with stories of Bow's USC goings on and, the same year, a newspaper ran a series of articles reporting how Bow frequently behaved inappropriately in her private life. She suffered her first nervous breakdown at age 26, and Paramount, the studio that had made a fortune on Bow, dropped the star in 1931.

The indifference of the studio added to Clara's difficult mental state already fragile from the publicity surrounding the scandals. This combined with the mental scars caused by her abusive family background (she had been raped by her father) and left Clara mentally unstable and incapacitated for the later years of her life. She died in solitude in 1965.

Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Police Mugshot
Police Mugshot
Virginia Rappe
Virginia Rappe

Roscoe Arbuckle was a gifted comedian who, during the silent film era, was considered second only to Chaplin in his talent.

Tragedy struck on Labor Day, 1921 with the arrest and trial of Roscoe on manslaughter charges. Roscoe's roommate had thrown a party in their suite which was crashed by a disreputable starlet named Virginia Rappe who fell seriously ill and died a few days later. The papers, led by the Hearst group, made this incident Hollywood's first truly major scandal. repeatedly making lurid claims, in screaming headlines, that Arbuckle had sexually abused Rappé to death with (by various accounts) a coke bottle, a milk bottle, a champagne bottle, and/or a chunk of ice. These factually unsupported charges caused an incredibly hostile environment for holding a fair trial, despite overwhelming evidence pointing to Arbuckle's innocence. Two hung juries resulted. The third jury saw sense and aquiitted Arbuckle in only six minutes. But Roscoe's career was finished as the papers printed unfounded story after story about his supposed guilt, causing a public outcry of moral outrage.

In 1932, Warner Brothers gave Arbuckle a chance to star in a comedy short called "Hey, Pop." The public loved "Hey, Pop," and its success led to five more talkie shorts. On June 30, 1933, hours after completing his sixth Warner's short and signing to make a feature-length film, Arbuckle died of a heart attack. He was only 46.

It was Hollywood's first major scandal and, tragically, the real scandal was in the injustice done to a talented and wholly innocent man.

Joan Crawford

During her long career Crawford was continually plagued by whispered salacious rumours about her financially strapped early career as a starlet in the 1920s when she danced naked in short arcade peep shows films.

When she had achieved initial fame and was still in her twenties, she made gossip column headlines by partying till all hours at the legendary Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel, where the vodka flowed plentifully her way and helped her win over 100 dance contests.

Scandal continued to follow her throughout her highly successful career. There were stories about the star's legendary relationship with Clark Gable, her countless love affairs, her marriages - three of them to gay men - and her obsession with, and voracious appetite for, rough sex.Even at the peak of her career rumours continued to surface about how her loathed mother forced Crawford to work as a prostitute, make blue movies and sleep her way to the top.

Bette Davis who had a legendary career-long feud with Crawford, also believed that Joan used sex to advance her career. "She slept with every star at MGM", she alleged later, "of both sexes."

There was some truth in this. Most of Crawford's leading men had succumbed to her sexual magnetism and she counted several female stars, including Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Stanwyck and later Marilyn Monroe, among her lovers.

It was rumoured that Crawford would have liked to add Bette to her conquests but was rebuffed by the heterosexual Davis.

In Mommie Dearest, published in 1978, the year after Crawford's death, and written by her adopted daughter, Christina Crawford, she was portrayed as a tyrranical, egotistical domestic monster, and this, tragically, is part of the reputation which remains today.

It is a bitter irony that today Joan Crawford is remembered as much for the vitriolic 'Mommie Dearest' and for the scandals of her early years, as for her 18 year reign as the box-office 'Queen of MGM'.

Jean Harlow

The phrase 'blonde bombshell' was actually coined for Jean Harlow, although she became more famously known as 'The Platinum Blonde'. Harlow's enormous popularity and "vamp" image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, scandal, tragedy, and, ultimately, her sudden death from renal failure at age 26.

Her personal life was perennially the stuff of tabloid gossip, including the suicide of her second husband, producer Paul Bern, her relationships with gangsters, nude photos at the age of 17, problems with a greedy stepfather, and a reported abortion of a child fathered by William Powell. She was the first movie actress to appear on the cover of Life magazine (May, 1937). On screen, she caused such a sensation with her easy sensuality that it led the Hays Office, the official Hollywood censors, to decree that adultery could not go unpunished, in response to her role in Red-Headed Woman.

Harlow was first touched by a public scandal that she brought on herself by openly socialising with high profile gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Abner Zwillman. In 1932, already an established star under contract to MGM, she married MGM producer Paul Bern in what may have been a joint effort by both star and studio to clean up her act. The marriage proved to be a sexual disaster due to Bern's impotence and Harlow threw herself into a torrid affair with her frequent co-star Clark Gable.

Just two months after the wedding, Bern was found naked and dead of a gunshot wound in their Beverly Hills home. MGM did its best to downplay the scandal, but Hollywood and the whole entertainment world was consumed with it. Bern's mysterious death was officially ruled a suicide but for a time the press openly speculated that Harlow had connived at the murder of her husband. Nevertheless she survived the adverse publicity and after agreeing to the studio's plan for an arranged marriage to cinematographer Harold Rosson her fame soared to greater heights.

She even found love with debonair leading man William Powell. But Powell, freshly divorced from another firecracker blonde, Carole Lombard, refused to marry her. Five years after Bern's death, Harlow, who had recently been named as a co-defendant in divorce proceedings launched by the wife of boxing champion Max Baer, died suddenly and shockingly of renal failure in 1937. She was only 26.

Lana Turner

Lana and Cheryl in 1952
Lana and Cheryl in 1952
Stompanato with Lana Turner
Stompanato with Lana Turner
Cheryl Crane
Cheryl Crane


Lana Turner was a statuesque blonde dubbed "The Sweater Girl", for the way wearing one would highlight her natural attributes. She was a gifted actress, appearing in such successful films as "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" (1941), "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946) and "Peyton Place" (1957).

But, as always with Hollywood, it was Lana's tumultuous private life which generated the most attention. She was married 8 times (twice to Steve Crane) and battled alcoholism throughout her life. In 1958, her name was in the headlines in the worst possible way, when her then teenaged daughter Cheryl stabbed to death Lana's abusive boyfriend, Johnny Stompanato, a small-time hoodlum who had made a successful living as a gigolo.

Stompananto was very jealous and possessive of Turner and severely beat her on many occasions. Turner attempted to end their relationship several times, but he always persuaded her not to do so. On the evening of April 4, 1958, Lana and Stompanato began a violent argument in Turner's house in Beverly Hills. Fearing her mother's life was in danger, Turner's 14-year-old daughter, Cheryl Crane grabbed a kitchen knife and stabbed Stompanato in the stomach, killing him. The case quickly became a media sensation. It was later deemed a justifiable homicide at a coroner's inquest, at which Turner provided dramatic testimony. Some observers have said her testimony that day was the acting performance of her life.

There have been endless rumors since 1958 that Turner was the actual killer. Her daughter supposedly took the blame because she was a minor and would face minimal judicial punishment under the circumstances. However, there is insufficient evidence to prove such claims.

Today Cheryl is a successful businesswoman. She recently helped produce a Lana Turner retrospective on cable television.

Lana Turner's career, which hit a plateau before Johnny's death, was rejuvenated in 1958. She went on to make many more movies and starred on television in "Falcon Crest." She died in 1995, well-respected and honored tol the end. The "Sweater Girl" proved to be a strong and capable survivor.

Thomas Ince

Thomas Ince has largely been forgotten now but he was an ambitious producer and director, and one of the early pioneers of silent films. He teamed up with D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett in 1915, to form the company which became Culver City Studios.

In 1924 he died, supposedly of a heart attack, but in decidedly mysterious circumstances, during a birthday party in his honour aboard the yacht Oneida, belonging to William Hearst, the newspaper magnate. The party guest list included Charlie Chaplin, film actress (and Hearst mistress) Marion Davies, and gossip columnist Louella Parsons.

Ince and Hearst were in the middle of tense business negotiations and Chaplin was said to be romantically interested in Davies (a rumor of which Hearst was painfully aware) so the atmosphere aboard the yacht was not calm. Prohibition was in full swing but bootleg liquor was available on board Hearst's yacht and large quantities of it were consumed.

Thomas Ince
Thomas Ince

Hollywood legend says that William Randolph Hearst shot Thomas Ince in the head by mistake. He really wanted Chaplin. As the story goes, Hearst suspected that Davies and Chaplin were secretly lovers. In order to keep tabs on the two, he invited them both on board The Oneida. Supposedly, he found the couple in a compromising clinch and went for his gun. Davies' screams awakened Ince who rushed to the scene. A scuffle ensued, followed by a gunshot and Ince took the bullet for Chaplin.

An even more colorful account of the shooting came from Marion Davies' secretary, Abigail Kinsolving, who claimed that Ince raped her that weekend on board the yacht. Of course, things became even more interesting when, several months later, the unmarried Kinsolving delivered a baby, and died shortly after, in a mysterious car accident near the Hearst ranch. Two bodyguards, employed by Hearst, found her body, along with a suspicious looking suicide note. Her baby, a girl, was conveniently sent to an orphanage supported by Marion Davies.

Charles Chaplin always denied even being on board the yacht. Published reports cited "acute indigestion" as the cause of death, but rumors began circulating immediately to the effect that Ince had been the victim of foul play. The fact that the body was cremated without an autopsy and no inquest was ever held only fuelled speculation about what "really" happened aboard the Oneida on November 15, 1924, speculation which continues to this day.

Thelma Todd

Thelma Todd rose to fame as a comedic actress alongside the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardey, and Buster Keaton. Although well known in her day, she is now remembered for the manner and mystery of her death rather than for her achievements in life.

Todd arrived in Hollywood in 1926 and over the next 9 years she made seventy films, mostly as a foil for comics such as Harry Langdon and Charley Chase, as well as six with Laurel and Hardy. Her best were two with the Marx Brothers 'Monkey Business' and 'Horse Feathers'.

Her lively and flirtatious on-screen personality was more than matched by her riotous private life. She had so many drunken car crashes going from party to party, that the studio had to insist she have a chauffeur. Her marriage in 1932 to playboy Pasquale "Pat" DiCicco quickly degenerated into a series of drunken brawls and they divorced in 1934.

In addition to her film career, Thelma was also involved in the restaurant business, where her path crossed that of Lucky Luciano, the New York mobster who was trying to gain a foothold on the West Coast.

In 1935, at the peak of her poppularity, the 30-year-old actress was found "slumped over the steering wheel of her Lincoln Phaeton Touring car." Her demise was first declared a suicide, then an "accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning." The fact that she drank heavily and often passed out in her car after a binge supported this conclusion.

With blood at the scene, a high blood-alcohol content, and clean shoes (while the area outside the car was muddy), many believed it to be murder. While the theory was largely ignored by the LAPD, suspects ranged from Todd’s highly possessive boyfriend, director Roland West (who was thought to have locked Todd in the garage to keep her from going to a party) to the most likely suspect, “Lucky” Luciano, who wanted to involve Todd’s club in illegal gambling against her wishes.

Roland West was said to have later confessed the murder to a friend, but his only punishment was a closing of ranks by Hollywood’s elite so he never worked in motion pictures again.

Who killed Thelma Todd? Officially, no-one knows, but she did cross Lucky Luciano. When discussing with him the possible use of her resaurant by his mobsters Thelma once shrieked 'Over my dead body! '

'That can be arranged', Luciano was heard to reply.

Scandal Shorts


Gore Vidal on Grace Kelly: "Grace almost always laid the leading man . . . She was famous for that in this town."

In 1920, silent film actress Olive Thomas committed suicide in Paris after being unable to find a supply of cocaine. She was 20 years old

Alan Ladd's career was in a nosedive at the time of his death at the age of 50. At first he was nearly killed by an "accidental" self-inflicted gunshot wound and then he succeeded in his mission with an overdose of sedatives.

"Put my ashes in a box and tell the messenger to bring them to Louis B. Mayer's office with a farewell message from me. Then when the messenger gets to Louis' desk, I want him to open the box and blow the ashes in the bastard's face." - B.P. Schulberg

Cary Grant and Randolph Scott were more than just roommates when they shared a house together in the 1940s.

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Comments 17 comments

William F. Torpey profile image

William F. Torpey 8 years ago from South Valley Stream, N.Y.

A truly magnificent hub, gunsock. I'm familiar with most of these stars and have heard tidbits about some of their exploits, but you've done a thorough job of telling their spellbinding stories. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed reading this.

gunsock profile image

gunsock 8 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thanks William, for those kind comments. Hollywood scandal is an interesting subject. The main difficulty lay in what to leave out!

heather92383 profile image

heather92383 8 years ago from Mt. Laurel, NJ

Excellently detailed hub. I was familiar with some of the scandals and surprised by a few of them. It was a nicely researched hub chock full of interesting information.

ludo 6 years ago

Marilyn Monroe never had sexual affair with Joan Crawford!!!

ludo 6 years ago

Neither Garbo and Dietrich have had sex affair with J.Crawford they were too much a rival for them! Garbo and Dietrich had the same mistress : Dolores de Acosta and also Tallulah Bankhead who also had sex ffair with J. Crawford !Marilyn got into trouble with J. Crawford in 1952 when this one earned her third and last oscar for best actress in sudden fear, oscar handed by Marilyn at that time in the beginning of her fame.Crawford declared later that Marilyn was vulgary dressed and was a shame for Hollywood!( My story- Marilyn Monroe-Stein and day,New York )

Bird 6 years ago

... Harlow never had an affair with Gable. they were very close, but their relationship was that of a brother and sister. I have never read/heard ANYWHERE of an alleged affair, even in numerous bios of Jean's.

Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 6 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

I thoroughly enjoyed this Hub with its well-researched information and stellar presentation. What a wonderful journey into both the beautiful and ugly of Hollywood's past.

gunsock profile image

gunsock 6 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thank you Sally's Trove for your kind comments. I'm glad you enjoyed the hub.

Erik 6 years ago

The Thomas Ince story is very well dealt with in the movie "The Cats meow" with Kristen Dunst, Eddie Izzard, Joanna lumley and Meg Tilly as Louella Parsons - recommended !

Chris Crow profile image

Chris Crow 6 years ago

Thanks for this article Gunsock. Well-written, interesting, fun, and some things I've never heard about. I didn't know anything about the Ince story. I vaguely recall a movie about an incident involving Chaplin and other big names of that era on a Hearst-owned boat. Now I kind of want to see it.

Kate 5 years ago

I thoroughly enjoyed your article! However, I noticed that the picture of Virginia Rappe has the caption "Veronica Rappe".

naaz 5 years ago

good intresting article .

from India

gunsock profile image

gunsock 5 years ago from South Coast of England Author

Thank you Kate for pointing out my Veronica Rappe error - I've now corrected it.

Brittany  5 years ago


Warren 4 years ago

Excellent read,Crawford was obviously even more rapacious than our current champion of both sexes,my friend works in the industry and is adamant that Stone rials Crawford!

Wendy 4 years ago

The thing that makes me lose faith in this otherwise interesting article is that you state without doubt that Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe were lovers. This is absolute rubbish. Either state your source or delete this libelous statement. Thank you.

raul 3 years ago

well- written. you got me hooked from the opening down to the last sentence. i'm hankering for more lol...engrossing read

by the way, i'm from the philippines

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