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The Most Famous Celebrity Scandals And Gossip From Every Decade Since The Turn Of The 20th Century

Updated March 16, 2020 248.7k views12 items
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For as long as there have been celebrities, people have engaged in gossip about them. For celebrities in Hollywood, this means that putting themselves on display in movies and on television can lead fans to develop an interest in what their private lives are like off screen. Tabloids and shows like Access Hollywood and TMZ have turned celebrity news into a profitable industry. But long before television and the internet, celebrities got caught up in scandal. Whether they became involved in crimes, dared to love someone other than their spouse, or exposed another star's deepest secrets, celebrities and scandals have often gone hand in hand throughout history.

Scandals have occurred in every decade, and while some are still talked about in the present, even those that are long forgotten made huge impacts when they took place. While life in the 1900s was very different from that in the 2000s, humanity's ability to go against the values set by society hasn't changed. Having an affair in 1910 could be just as damaging as it could be in 2020, and for those who lived their lives in the spotlight, the scrutiny could be even worse. When looking at some of the biggest celebrity scandals since the turn of the century, it's clear people haven't learned anything from the mistakes of others. 

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  • 1900s: The First 'Trial Of The Century'

    Evelyn Nesbit began posing as a Gibson Girl to help support her family after her father passed. While employed as a chorus girl, she attracted the attention of architect Stanford White. His interest in her included giving money to her mother and paying for Nesbit's medical services, such as dental work. White persuaded Nesbit's mother to leave him alone with her daughter for a few days and then allegedly got Nesbit drunk on champagne and sexually assaulted her. "When I woke up, all my clothes were pulled off me," she said.

    White convinced Nesbit not to tell anyone, and Nesbit later met railroad and coal baron Harry Thaw, who wanted to marry her. Nesbit turned him down due to the belief that she was damaged, but Thaw eventually convinced Nesbit to tell him her story, and the two married. Thaw kept a secret hatred of White, and when the two men came into contact at a Madison Square Garden performance on June 25, 1906, Thaw fatally shot White. The scandal was so sensational that Thomas Edison created a nickelodeon movie about it only one week after the altercation.

    The trial that followed became the first-ever "Trial of the Century," as Nesbit had to share the scandalous story of her assault and lawyers convinced Thaw to claim he fired at White due to temporary insanity. The media's coverage of the trial was nonstop, forcing the jury to become sequestered. After the jury found Thaw innocent due to insanity, the judge sentenced Thaw to confinement in a mental hospital until 1915. Nesbit divorced Thaw shortly after his release. 

  • Photo: Underwood & Underwood / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    1910s: Major League Baseball's Black Sox Scandal  

    The 1919 World Series between the Chicago White Sox and the Cincinnati Red Sox was an eight-game event that lives on in sports history infamy. Coming into the championship series, the White Sox had a winning record of 88-52, and people believed they would easily overcome the Cincinnati Reds in the matchup. 

    Before the series took place, however, Chicago first baseman C. Arnold "Chick" Gandil and gambler Joseph Sullivan met to discuss the possibility of throwing the series in exchange for $100,000. After agreeing, Gandil recruited seven other members of the White Sox team to contribute to the rigging: Eddie Cicotte, Claude Williams, Charles Risberg, George Weaver, Joe Jackson, Oscar Felsch, and Fred McMullin.

    When pitcher Cicotte hit a player early in the count, it was allegedly a signal that the fix was on. While rumors had circulated among fans before the series took place, it's said that fans in the stadium started yelling "Fix!" after the wild pitch was thrown. Many other blunders culminated in the Reds winning the World Series 5-3. After the unprecedented loss, Hugh Fullerton wrote a piece for the New York Evening World titled "Is Big League Baseball Being Run For Gamblers, With Players In The Deal?" spurring speculation about the validity of the series. 

    The next year, the eight men were tried in a court of law but found not guilty. The newly appointed commisioner of baseball, however, banned them all from baseball. Regardless of their "clean" records, this scandal sullied the reputation of the game and set the precedent for how seriously cheating would be taken.

  • 1920s: Mary Pickford, Divorcée

    After getting her big break on Broadway at age 15, Mary Pickford turned to film. While working for Biograph film studio under the direction of D.W. Griffith, Pickford began her rise as one of the silent era's most beloved actresses. She met actor Owen Moore while at Biograph and the two married secretly in 1911 against the wishes of her mother. Pickford continued to negotiate her contracts, jump from studio to studio, and earn more money and better roles for herself. In 1916, she began an affair with Douglas Fairbanks.

    Pickford and Fairbanks managed to keep their affair secret for years, but Fairbanks's wife eventually found out and filed for divorce in 1918. Soon after, Pickford and Fairbanks formed United Artists with D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin. Pickford's life also changed, as she and Moore divorced in 1920 and she married Fairbanks less than four weeks later. Instead of reacting in horror or anger to the scandal that it was, fans instead mobbed the couple, as they now considered Pickford and Fairbanks to be "filmdom's greatest real-life romance" due to gossip publications turning the situation into a fairy tale rather than a scandalous act of infidelity.

  • 1930s: Mary Astor's Purple Diary Sex Scandal

    One year after she and her husband, Franklyn Thorpe, divorced, Mary Astor went to court in an attempt to get custody of her daughter. During the court proceedings in 1936, Thorpe introduced Astor's diary as evidence of her character since he knew she had been unfaithful. The book was filled with her stories about intimate relations with many famous celebrities, and Thorpe started leaking the gossip to the press before the hearing began. Although Astor's writing was scandalous in itself, Thorpe also fabricated entries and the media embellished them to be more scandalous and juicy.

    Newspapers from all over the country sent reporters to cover the trial as Astor feared the end of her career, and studios worried about which of their stars would be revealed and drawn into the scandal. The trial named playwright George S. Kaufman, known in Astor's diary as "G," and the media enjoyed sharing the most scandalous details of their relationship - some so explicit that they had to be edited for publication. The judge eventually ruled that evidence from the diary would not be allowed since Thorpe tampered with the entries, and gave Astor custody of her daughter during school months. The diary was burned in 1952 after never being publicly released.