We’d like to think that everything was well back in the golden age of Hollywood: when talkies were starting to replace silent films, the Hays code was in full effect preventing even a kiss being shown, and the first Academy Awards were held at the Roosevelt Hotel. But in truth, the film industry is full of sordid tales that not even the best noir screenwriter could’ve come up with.
The sirens of the time, who were portrayed as virginal ingénues and sexpots at the same time, were also treated as such off-screen. Child marriages were abundant, many which included teenagers with stars in their eyes looking to make it. Here are some of the craziest crimes and mysteries that happened during the era.
If you’ve seen films from the Marx Brothers, then you probably recognize this funny lady and bombshell of the thirties. Despite her bubbly persona, Thelma had a thing for bad boys. Not like some dude who wears leather jackets, hates his mom, and talks about obscure German New Wave films. More like guys who threatened her life more than once. She was found dead in her car in 1935. The official report was that it was suicide by carbon monoxide, but there were some troubling details that make the story unlikely. First, she was badly beaten, had several bruises, two cracked ribs, and her nose broken. Second, she had a string of lovers and exes that did not seem the guys to mess with. She’d left her agent husband because of physical abuse, had an on and off relationship with her married business partner, and at the time was seeing a mob guy who wanted her club to get involved in illegal gambling. The sad part is that, according to some accounts, she never wanted to be in film in the first place.
Until 1949 the famous sign on the Hollywood Hills spelled Hollywoodland and was a marketing tool for real state of the area. It’s also the place where this screen siren ended her life. It’s a story so LA, so tragic, and so cinematic that if it had been a film, people would’ve rolled their eyes because of how on the nose this starlet’s death was. After crossing the pond from her native Wales, she became part of the theater world in the American East Coast. She eventually made it to Hollywood and tried to break into the industry. But then, the film that was intended to be her vehicle to stardom, Thirteen Women, bombed. On September 16, 1932 her body was found by a hiker. In her purse was a note: “I am afraid, I am a coward. I am sorry for everything. If I had done this a long time ago, it would have saved a lot of pain. P.E.” Coroner and police investigation concluded that she climbed a ladder on the H of the sign and then fell to her death. To this day there are tales of Peg haunting the LA landmark.
Before Marilyn, Hollywood had plenty of sirens who fit the bill of sexy femme fatales. Jean Harlow was one of them. She was quoted once on why she thought she was famous saying, "Men like me because I don't wear a brassiere." She was also known to do risqué things in a very censored film era. One of which was putting ice on her nipples before a love scene. This got her in trouble with producer Irving Thalberg who was worried about how the morality police would react. In 1932 she married MGM producer Paul Bern. There were several rumors floating around about the couple: had Harlow married him to boost her career and was Bern impotent as several claims assured? Whatever the case, two months after the marriage, Bern was found dead in his bed with a gunshot to the head. Beside him was a note to Harlow that said it was the only way to make good on the wrong he had done to her. Then the PS read: “You understand that last night was only a comedy.” It would’ve ended there, but then more information came out about Bern having a common-law wife he continued to support. Not long after the incident, his other wife also committed suicide, which raised questions on what actually happened.
This crime occurred during the silent film era, but still remains in the vein of the others because it includes a death whose official cause, given by authorities, is not believed by many. She began her career in beauty pageants, theater, and modeling. However, Olive’s dreams where on the budding film arts. As she set her sights she came across Jack Pickford, brother to Mary Pickford, the most famous silent film actress. They were madly in love, giving each other expensive outlandish presents, only to burst into massive fights. On September of 1920, four years after their wedding, they were finally able to go on their honeymoon to Paris. One night when they couple came back late after partying hard, Jack went to sleep. Olive then proceeded to drink a glass of mercury bichloride solution. The police ruled that it was accidental and she simply mistook her husband’s syphilis medication for water in her intoxicated state. However, some believe it was an impulsive and deliberate act against his affairs and receiving the STI by her husband.