The diary too hot to handle
From childhood Mary Astor's best friend was her diary. Unfortunately she couldn't manage to be quite that faithful to her husband. Instead the brainy actress began an impassioned affair in 1933 with the urbane playwright George S. Kaufman and confided every luscious detail to her little blue book. "Once George lays down his glasses, he's quite a different man," she scribbled. The cross-country liaison had been burning brightly for 16 months when Mary's husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, found the volume in her drawer—instead of the cufflinks he was looking for. Confronted, Mary refused to end the affair, mainly because Kaufman was in town and, as she told her blue book, "I want to be able to see George for the rest of his stay here without being all upset—looking like hell." Thorpe finally grabbed the diary and sued for divorce. Later, at a custody battle for their daughter, Thorpe fed steamy sections from the diary to the press, which printed heated excerpts littered with asterisks. ("It was wonderful to **** the entire sweet afternoon away.") Mary eventually won the mansion, custody of their daughter and a smashing role in The Maltese Falcon. She married twice more, and has written a pair of autobiographies and six novels. Today at 80, in fragile health yet high spirits, Mary lives at the Motion Picture and Television Country House.
Plenty of clues but no culprit
The murder of director William Desmond Taylor remains one of Hollywood's greatest scandals, if for no other reason than the sheer numbers involved. By the end of the first year the police had 200 suspects and informants, and the case took 44 years to solve. The handsome, affable bachelor, who claimed to be 44, was found on the floor of his study on Feb. 2, 1922 with a diamond on his finger, a smile on his face and a bullet in his back. By the time police arrived, no fewer than 11 friends and colleagues were on the scene. Studio officials were removing illegal liquor, and comedienne Mabel Normand, 27, was ferreting out the love letters she had written him. Sweet-faced ingenue Mary Miles Minter, 19, also said to be having an affair with the director, appeared to be on the same mission. In spite of the impromptu housecleaning, police still turned up a cache of pornographic photos of ladies Taylor knew as well as a collection of fine silk lingerie, including one rose-colored nightie bearing the initials M.M.M. Subsequent investigations revealed that Taylor was really William Deane-Tanner, a New York antique dealer who had walked out on his wife and family 14 years before. Normand, who later was found to be a cocaine addict, saw her career nose-dive and Minter made only four more movies before she retired to obesity. The case went unsolved until 1966, when legendary film director King Vidor, a contemporary of Taylor's and in his 70s, investigated the case in the hopes of making a movie about it. Vidor eventually discovered the killer, decided to keep the solution under wraps and took the secret to his grave in 1982. Shortly after, L.A. writer Sidney D. Kirkpatrick undertook Vidor's official biography. He unearthed Vidor's evidence on the Taylor case and wrote that story instead. The best-selling A Cast of Killers, published last year, fingered Charlotte Shelby, Mary Miles Minter's ambitious stage mother, as the murderer. The motive: Taylor hadn't done enough for her daughter's career, nor did Shelby approve of the dalliance. (Vidor also believed that the studio planted the silk nightgown to hide Taylor's homosexuality.) Cut to present: Paramount has optioned the book to make it into the major motion picture it has always begged to be.
The clown who stopped smiling
A former plumber's assistant turned Keystone Kop, Fatty Arbuckle was pulling in $1,000 a day as one of the nation's most beloved slapstick comedians when he was arrested for the rape and murder of a fetching starlet, Virginia Rappe, 25. Thirty-four-year-old Fatty (Roscoe to his friends) had motored a passel of pals up to San Francisco for Labor Day weekend in 1921 to celebrate the signing of his newest deal with Paramount—$1 million a year for three years. On day three of the party, some of the witnesses said that he beckoned Virginia into the bedroom of his suite. They reported hearing strange moans and then terrifying screams. A short while later, Fatty was said to have reappeared at his bedroom door, his pajamas soaked through and Virginia's hat perched on his head, wheezing, "Take her away, she makes too much noise." Friends found the nearly nude Virginia moaning, "I'm dying, I'm dying." The state later said that her death from a ruptured bladder had been caused by "external pressure," and legend has it the pressure was from either a Coke bottle, a champagne bottle or the 266-lb. Fatty. After three trials, Arbuckle was acquitted, but his movie contract was canceled, his pictures were banned and his reputation ruined. Fatty's career was in limbo for 12 years, during which he even tried using another name to win work. In 1933, on the day he signed a comeback contract with Warner Bros., he celebrated at dinner with his third wife. That same night he died in his sleep of a heart attack, at age 46.
Checks and imbalances
If anything has changed over the years, it's that money has replaced sex as the root of all scandal. Ten years ago this month, Cliff Robertson uncovered Hollywood's last great scandal. Columbia Pictures exec David Begelman, now 65, had ordered a $10,000 check for Robertson, then forged the actor's signature and cashed it himself. He did the same with other checks totaling $65,000. Columbia was reluctant to act; after all, the man had made $100 million for the company in recent years. Begelman was suspended but later reinstated to his old job. Calling the embezzlement "a temporary period of self-destructive behavior," he went into therapy and paid back the money plus a $5,000 fine. Since then he has been head of MGM films and United Artists. Now he has his own production company, Gladden Entertainment, which is responsible for the current movie Wisdom. Today there is little hesitation about working with Begelman, particularly since he controls millions of dollars that can be used to make new movies. "David is the consummate businessman," says one longtime associate, "and works harder than anyone I know."
A perfect match turns sour
When Jean Harlow, the Blonde Bombshell, married Paul Bern, a conservative, agreeable MGM executive in July 1932, Hollywood applauded a respectable union. Two months later Bern's butler found him dead, a bullet through his head. A suicide note to Harlow explained his violent act as "the only way to make good the frightful wrong I have done you and to wipe out my abject humiliation." Though Harlow remained mum, her agent later told the sordid tale: Hopelessly impotent and frustrated, Bern had beaten Jean with a cane on their wedding night. She had been seeking a divorce; he had been in search of medical help. Subsequent attempts to prove that Bern was actually murdered (the studio having planted the note to save Harlow's career) met a dead end.
Suicide squeeze for a sex siren
Carole Landis was curvy, blond, vulnerable and unfettered by talent. She was 29 and not yet disengaged from her fourth husband when she fell hard in 1948 for the suave Rex Harrison, then 40 and married. Her career was slipping, and her thoughts were waxing domestic. Rex often snuck over for meals while Carole dreamily "just sat there and watched him," said her maid. On July 4th, Harrison told Landis he was declaring his independence; the next day he found her dead of an overdose of barbiturates, a suicide note to her mother stuck among the perfume bottles. Harrison flew in his actress wife, Lilli Palmer, from New York for the funeral to show that Landis had been a close friend to the couple. Then Rex left Hollywood and never lived there again.
A dutiful daughter to the rescue
Even before she met Johnny Stompanato, Lana Turner liked her guys on the wild side. She had been thrown down the stairs, slapped in public and drenched with champagne, all by assorted paramours. When the handsome, 31-year-old small-time hood introduced himself to Lana, she was 37 and had had a run of film flops. Their on-and-off courtship lasted for a year, marked by noisy lovemaking and violent battles. They were involved in a particularly heated argument on Good Friday 1958, when Johnny threatened to disfigure her as she tried to throw him out of the house. Lana's terrified daughter, Cheryl, 14, ran to the kitchen for a butcher knife, then returned to her mother's boudoir where she plunged its eight-inch blade into Stompanato's stomach. He died on the carpet. At the inquest the next week, clad in gray and clutching a crumpled hankie, Lana gave a magnificent performance, which was broadcast live on national TV. Voice trembling, she said, "I swear it was so fast, I—I truthfully thought she had hit him in the stomach...I didn't see the knife until after Mr. Stompanato had crossed the room and dropped." A coroner's jury ruled the crime a justifiable homicide; a judge made Cheryl a ward of the court and placed her in the custody of her maternal grandmother. For Lana the incident was a box office boon. Crowds swarmed to see Peyton Place, and her next movie, Imitation of Life, was the biggest money-maker of her career. Her daughter did not fare so well. After various scrapes, she entered a home for troubled girls in the San Fernando Valley and later sought treatment at a Connecticut psychiatric center. A former real estate broker in Hawaii, Cheryl is now 43, single and living in San Francisco, where she is writing a book about her life. Mother and daughter are said to be on very good terms.
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