tales from tinseltown

Rachel Shukert on the 5 Things About Old Hollywood She Wants To Forget

Hello, Vulture readers. My name is Rachel Shukert, and you can usually find me on this site recapping Smash. Today, though, I am here to tell you that I have written a book called Starstruck, and it’s the first in a YA trilogy about three young, ambitious starlets clawing their way to the top in thirties Hollywood. It has been termed by New York’s own storied Approval Matrix as “lowbrow, brilliant, and vampire-free,” although this isn’t strictly true — there are vampires in my book, but they’re just called “agents.” (Thank you! I’ll be opening for Alan King at Grossinger’s next week!)

There are also secrets. Many, many scandals and secrets, some of which are based on real-life events (or rumors). For me, Hollywood secrets from this period fall into three categories. There are the ones you absolutely love knowing, like how a pre-MGM, pre–Joan Crawford Joan Crawford apparently gave the most virulent case of pubic lice the West Coast has ever seen to every man, woman, and child west of Glendale. Then there are the fun rumors with a gruesome twist; for example, it’s delightful to know that Ramon Novarro kept a black lead, Art Deco replica of Rudolph Valentino’s cock on his nightstand. It’s less delightful that he was beaten, penetrated, and ultimately asphyxiated with it by two young hustlers looking for a quick buck And then there are the things you would have just rather not known at all, because they ruin everything. I came across many of these loathsome tidbits in my research. Here are five:

* There was a lot of raping.
We all know that in a pre-feminist age, many if not most powerful men behaved pretty terribly toward the seemingly pliable females in their midst. But some of this stuff goes way beyond an unwanted tushy pat. One story I came across was of the huge male star that brutally raped a teenage Natalie Wood (her rape has never been in question, merely the identity of the perpetrator, although Robert Downey Jr., or someone like him, seems to have all the answers). Legendary silent screen comedian Fatty Arbuckle was almost certainly innocent of the rape and murder charges that shocked the public in the twenties (imagine if Steve Carell got caught in bed with a dead hooker — it was that surprising ) and ruined his career, but the fact remains that the starlet Virginia Rappe died of a punctured bladder and other internal injuries, so somebody did something pretty unpleasant to her. Errol Flynn was indicted on charges of sexual assault, and Charlie Chaplin kept one step ahead of the law by marrying his mistresses, because …

* Jailbait was pretty popular.
They liked ‘em young in Tinseltown. Those two girls Charlie Chaplin married just ahead of potential statutory rape charges? They were 16 and 15 years old. (The 15-year-old one, Lita Grey, was pregnant. Chaplin was 35.) He lived out his last days peacefully in Switzerland, with his third and final wife, the former Oona O’Neill, daughter of Eugene, whom he married when she was 18 and he was 54. Yum!

Chaplin wasn’t even close to the only dirty old man on the back lots. According to Piper Laurie’s memoir, she slept with Ronald Reagan when she was 17 and he was 39. (Apparently, he told her that he used a very expensive condom and boasted of staying power up to 40 minutes.) Sixteen-year-old Natalie Wood had an affair with Nicholas Ray, the 44-year-old director of Rebel Without a Cause. Errol Flynn’s girls were of the statutory variety as well, although at his trial, one of them noted that when it came to him handling her, she “didn’t have no objections.”

* Clark Gable had the worst breath.
Apparently, this was due to a terrible gum infection he had in 1932, which led to all of his teeth being pulled out and replaced with dentures. Obviously, this has no bearing on him as a person whatsoever, but it does put a slight damper on all of those ultra-romantic, passionate face murmuring kissing scenes in Gone With the Wind. Poor Vivien Leigh. Her head was tilted back for a reason!

* Louis B. Mayer had an affair with Jeanette MacDonald.
Okay, I’m not sure why this bothers me so much, except that the warbling nightingale (and model for Wanda, as in “Wayne and” of The Muppet Show fame) is the epitome of the bland “All-American” type that L.B. Mayer, the original short-fingered vulgarian, loved so dearly. On the other hand, I am immensely fond of his later choice of celebrity mistress, the lusty hoofer Ann Miller, who was a national treasure and whose brave choice to remain in full stage makeup until her tinted blue eyelids closed for the last time I heartily admire.

* Ginger Rogers was the Victoria Jackson of her time.
There’s something a little more depressing about a swan like Ginger Rogers, a truly gifted comedienne and feminist icon, ending up bloated, hateful, and wheelchair-ridden, spewing crazy conspiracy theories about the “Communists” who used to sign her rather sizeable checks. Better to remember her glorious and glowing in Top Hat, tapping away in that luminous gazebo in the rain.

Isn’t that all fascinating? Please buy my book.

5 Old Hollywood Stories I Wish I Could Forget