Urban Legends of the Stars

“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about,” wrote Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “and that is not being talked about.” For decades, this has been the de facto credo of movie stars such as Humphrey Bogart (among others) who said, “I don’t care what you print about me as long as you spell my name right.”

Good thing Bogie isn’t alive today, because if he read what people write about modern stars, it would kill him. Either it’s a rumor campaign to “out” allegedly gay and lesbian actors, or it’s a whispered defamation against a romantic leading man who—according to the friend of someone’s sister who works in a hospital emergency room—came in one night to have a gerbil removed.

But truth has never stopped a good story, as these enduring examples from Hollywood’s past can attest (since you can’t defame the dead, names are used where that qualification exists):

  • Myth: Before she was a star, Joan Crawford made a porno movie called Ballin’ the Jack. Whenever Mommie Dearest acted temperamental on the set of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), her costar, Bette Davis, would whistle the song of the same name to put Joan in her place.
    Truth: If such a movie exists, you’d think it would have turned up by now.

  • Myth: Clara Bow, the “It” Girl, once held an orgy with the entire USC Football Team.
    Truth: Not proved. The legend was started in the pages of a New York scream sheet called The GraphiC (sic) by Daisy DeVoe, a secretary whom Miss Bow fired for behavior that, today, would be labeled stalking. One of the Trojans (that’s the name of the USC team) was Marion Michael Morrison, later to be rechristened John Wayne. Bow sued DeVoe and won, but by then the damage was done. It didn’t help that, in 1931, Bow made her sound debut in a racy film called The Wild Party.

  • Myth: Jayne Mansfield was decapitated in the 1967 automobile accident that took her life and that of her dog.
    Truth: False. The rumor started because, in a well-known photograph of her totaled car, her blond wig is seen on the windshield, and early newspaper reproduction allowed people to confuse it with a severed head.

  • Myth: William Randolph Hearst murdered Thomas Ince aboard the Hearst yacht.
    Truth: It will never be known exactly what happened on November 15, 1924, as newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, his mistress Marian Davies, and guests such as Charles Chaplin, writer Elinor Glyn, producer Thomas H. Ince, Hearst reporter Louella Parsons, and others embarked from San Diego, California, on the Chief’s 280-foot pleasure cruiser, the Oneida.

    By the time the ship put back ashore, Ince was dead. Hearst’s own paper printed that he was felled from acute indigestion, and not on the yacht, but at the Hearst ranch. No official inquest into Ince’s death was ever held. He was cremated on November 21 as his family, Davies, Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Harold Lloyd mourned. Finally, San Diego D.A. Chester Kemply held an inquest, but only Dr. Daniel Carson Goodman, who worked for Hearst, agreed to testify, and he echoed the “acute indigestion” story.

    So what really happened? Time has sifted the following: Hearst abhorred drinking, but Marian Davies (who was truly beloved within the film industry) could be counted on to sneak liquor to party guests without the Chief knowing about it. Thus, as the Oneida floated away, so did the party. A jealous lover, Hearst owned a diamond-studded revolver and was an expert shot, using it to pick off sea gulls for his own amusement. Somewhere in international waters he realized that Chaplin and Marian were missing. Knowing that Chaplin had a reputation as a satyr, he stalked off to find them.

    When he discovered both tramps in flagrante delicto, Hearst shot at Chaplin. Anger ruined his aim, however, and the bullet went out the porthole and into the forehead of Thomas Ince, who happened to be passing by. Hearst instantly swore everyone on the Oneida to secrecy, especially gossip columnist Parsons. By the time she stepped off the gangplank, Parsons had a lifetime contract with Hearst.

  • Myth: Fatty Arbuckle raped a girl with a Coke bottle.
    Truth: False, and this remains one of Hollywood’s saddest scandals. Over Labor Day weekend, 1921, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, the screen’s second most beloved comedian (after Chaplin), hosted a booze-drenched party in San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. One of the many guests was an actress (and likely call girl) named Virginia Rappe. At some point, wearing nothing more than pajamas and a leer, Arbuckle took Rappe into the bedroom. According to witnesses, there ensued screaming, after which Arbuckle emerged and impatiently ordered those present to remove Rappe “to the Palace [Hotel]” where a satellite party was going on. Instead, the young woman was taken to the Pine Street Hospital where she later died.

    Arbuckle was picked apart in the newspapers, primarily by the Hearst press, which had just introduced the tabloid format in 1919 and needed a big story to establish it in the marketplace. Hearst later boasted that Arbuckle sold more papers than the sinking of the Lusitania. Somewhere along the way it was suggested that Arbuckle, too drunk to “perform,” used a glass soft-drink bottle as his stand-in.

    After three trials (two hung juries and a third that not only acquitted him but issued an unheard-of apology), Arbuckle was finished. Will H. Hays, Hollywood’s newly appointed censor, cared only about cleansing the movies’ reputation, and banned Arbuckle from the screen.

    The truth behind the scandal has only gradually surfaced. Arbuckle’s producer, Adolph Zukor, who had to absorb $1 million in shelved films, wrote in his 1953 memoir that the pressure to make feature films, rather than short comedies, killed most silent comedians, and implied that the official banning abrogated Arbuckle’s expensive studio contract. Writer David Yallop (in The Day the Laughter Stopped) revealed that Rappe was not molested in any way, but a doctor’s report to that effect was not allowed at trial. He also suggested that Rappe died from a bungled abortion, which was not her first. Historian Kevin Brownlow added that Pine Street was a maternity hospital.

    Nevertheless, the mental image of the 300-pound Arbuckle and the tiny Miss Rappe swirls around the whole sordid affair more than 80 years later. In the late 1920s Arbuckle attempted a comeback as a director (using the names “William Goodrich” and “Will B. Goode”), but he died in 1933—some say of a broken heart.

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