The list of all the old Hollywood actors who were drunks and the list of all the old Hollywood actors, period, almost look like the same list at first glance. The taps flowed a bit more freely in the halcyon days before all the drunken accidents, before Errol Flynn got the Warner Bros. studio lot bar shut down, and before people realized all the terrible things alcohol could mdo to their bodies and lives.
The Golden Age of Hollywood ran from the 1920s through the 1950s, when the studio system finally collapsed under its own weight from complications due to alcoholism (and anti-trust laws). During that glamorous and oftentimes inebriated time, their contract players were given free reign to do basically whatever they wanted - as long as it could be quietly swept under the rug by a studio fixer. The old actors drank a lot at swanky parties every night; they drank when they were on set, they drank when they drove, they drank basically anytime they weren't sleeping or showering. And also probably some times while they were showering too.
Our standards for alcoholism have shifted a few degrees toward the abstentious over the years and many folks that contemporary society would deem "alcoholic" the culture of the past would have just called "fun." There are, however, some true superstars that stand out even amongst the pantheon of the old Hollywood drunks. This article recounts the hedonistic lives those Golden Era stars lived and serves as a cautionary tale for all those that want to avoid similar fates.
If you listen to the accounts of various studio publicists, Humphrey Bogart got the distinctive scar above his lip from either a childhood fist fight, after being punched by a prisoner he was transporting as a sailor in the Navy, or after taking shrapnel during a battle while aboard the USS Leviathan. If you ask his post-Navy drinking buddies, on the other hand, they’ll tell you that Bogie got the scar during one of his many barroom brawls in the Prohibition Era speakeasies of New York.
During his early years as a Broadway actor, Bogart was known for drinking until he fell asleep at the bar and then taking exception with anyone that tried to rouse him. His late-night antics got him kicked off more than one production, but that didn’t stop him from finding enough success that he was eventually able to move the bar cart out West to Hollywood.
Bogart set up shop in the infamous Garden of Allah, a housing development known for its wild clientele and the 24-hour lounge that served them even when other bars wouldn’t. Bogart’s legendary crew of drinking buddies included director and frequent collaborator John Huston, his great love Lauren Bacall, and Frank Sinatra – in fact, it was Bogart that created the first iteration of the infamous Rat Pack.
Despite everything, Bogart claimed to have only gone on the wagon once: “That was the worst afternoon of my life.”
Credits (Film): Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, + more
Age: Dec. at 58 (1899-1957)
Known as a charismatic swashbuckler onscreen and an even more charismatic drunken womanizer off of it, Errol Flynn is known as one of the original Hollywood hellraisers. His exploits with women (and men) and alcohol (and drugs) are legendary; his Curriculum Alcoholicae includes, amongst other items:
- Getting rum-drunk with a pre-rebellion Fidel Castro. The movie star said of the young revolutionary, "He will rank in history with some of the greats."
- Having the bar on the Warner lot shut down by Mr. Warner himself because Flynn kept getting too drunk on set.
- Bringing a doctor's bag with him to work every day containing his "daily medicine" - two fifths of vodka. Usually a whiskey drinker, Flynn preferred Bloody Marys in the morning to hide the scent of the alcohol, and his other favorite trick was to inject the vodka into oranges and just snack on the boozy fruit throughout the day.
- Having a bachelor pad with fellow actor/cad David Niven in Malibu nicknamed "Cirrhosis-By-the-Sea" where the tales of drunken excess are matched only by those of sexual debauchery.
That nickname, however, would turn out to be sadly prophetic. At only 32 years old, the rapidly aging sex symbol was told by a doctor that if he didn't change his lifestyle he'd be dead in five years. He didn't change - if anything he just partied harder - but he did beat the doctor's projection by a full 13 years before succumbing to a heart attack at age 50 induced by acute cirrhosis of the liver.
He was buried with six bottles of whiskey in his coffin.
Credits (Film): The Adventures of Robin Hood, Cinema Paradiso, Captain Blood, The Lady from Shanghai, They Died with Their Boots On, + more
Age: Dec. at 50 (1909-1959)
Sometimes it's difficult to tell which of the stories surrounding the classic stars are real and which are the products of exaggeration, studio spin, mythologization by overeager fans (or themselves), or just straight-up lies passed around by bitter enemies.
Clara Bow, in particular, was a victim of the latter, and many of the more sordid stories that surround her name are patently untrue. There was an almost wholly fabricated article that appeared in a newspaper called the Coastal Times that accused her of, amongst other things, bisexuality, sex with prostitutes, and bestiality. Later, in his notorious book Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger claimed (equally as accurately) that Bow regularly sexually serviced the entire USC football team after their games. There was no Snopes at the time, however, and the public was eager to believe these salacious rumors.
On the other hand, there was a reason these stories stuck so well: some of the things they printed actually were true, and the wild life that the original "It Girl" really did live made the crazier accusations seem that much more plausible. Bow helped establish the modern image of the flapper; she liked to party. She was seen at bars, she slept with men (some of them married), and she flaunted it all on screen.
Among the more credible tales about Bow's behavior is the time that Paramount President B.P. Schulberg invited her to a party celebrating a recently appointed judge. She arrived at the party already drunk and proceeded to introduce herself to the judge by aggressively frenching him in front of his wife, then dancing with him until she was unceremoniously escorted off the premises by studio personnel. So yeah - Bow could throw down with the best of them, no exaggeration needed.
Credits (Film): Wings, Red Hair, The Saturday Night Kid, Paramount on Parade, Ladies of the Mob, + more
Age: Dec. at 60 (1905-1965)
"I have never imbibed while sleeping, and I drink nothing stronger than gin before breakfast."
William Claude Dukenfield was born above a bar in pre-prohibition times, and when the great experiment started, the young drunkard hoarded literally thousands of bottles of whiskey and gin in his attic. Even after prohibition ended, he continued to keep a sizeable stash of emergency alcohol in his home, which he explained to Harpo Marx like so: "Never can be sure prohibition won't be back, my boy!"
The classic W.C. Fields drinking story is that while on set he carried a vacuum flask filled with gin martinis that he would refer to as his "lemonade" (or in other tellings, his "pineapple juice"). One time, however, some practical joker switched out his contents with actual lemonade, prompting the furious cry "Who put lemonade in my lemonade?"
Credits (Film): The Bank Dick, David Copperfield, You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, It's a Gift, Alice in Wonderland, + more
Age: Dec. at 66 (1880-1946)