Facts About Old Hollywood Power Couples That Reveal What They Were Really Like
Photo: 20th Century Fox / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

Facts About Old Hollywood Power Couples That Reveal What They Were Really Like

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Vote up the most insightful stories about the celebrity couples of Hollywood's Golden Age.

Since the very early days of Hollywood, fans and the press have been obsessed with following the lives of the stars. The first true Hollywood power couple was probably Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were mobbed by the media and fans alike on their honeymoon in 1920. The Pickford-Fairbanks romance was considered scandalous, as both stars were married when they first became involved; in fact, the state of Nevada tried to claim that Pickford's divorce from first husband Owen Moore was invalid. But the fans didn't seem to care; they just wanted to learn about the stars' lives - what were they like?

In the 21st century, a lot of information about the lives of the rich and/or famous (or infamous) is found and shared on social media. But during Hollywood's "Golden Age," people turned to magazines like Photoplay and scandal rags like Confidential (which NPR called "the National Enquirer of the 1950s") to get the scoop on famous couples like Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, William Powell and Jean Harlow, or Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall - stories like some of the ones found below.

  • Rita Hayworth Suffered From Early Alzheimer's Disease And Couldn't Recognize Ex-Husband Orson Welles
    Photo: Liberty Magazine Inc. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The beautiful Rita Hayworth was one of Hollywood's most glamorous stars in the 1940s. Orson Welles, meanwhile, was regarded as a wunderkind - he was just 22 when he and John Houseman founded the stage company Mercury Theatre, and 24 when he signed a lucrative two-picture deal to write, direct, produce, and act in two films for RKO; those pictures turned out to be Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons - both of which are widely considered to be two of the greatest films in Hollywood history. But he was also a bit of an outcast in Hollywood, thought of as too demanding and difficult to work with.

    Welles was in the midst of working on The Magnificent Ambersons when he stumbled upon a magazine photo of Hayworth, who at the time was one of the top pinup girls for American soldiers as well as an up-and-coming actress. Hayworth - who was in the midst of divorcing her much older, controlling, first husband - turned Welles down multiple times when he phoned to ask her out. But she finally agreed to a dinner date.

    The insecure Hayworth, who had been seen as little more than a money-making machine by both her father and husband, appreciated the fact that Welles, who also experienced a rough upbringing, listened to her and tried to understand her. In turn, she enjoyed taking care of him. Hayworth was in the midst of filming Cover Girl when she and Welles eloped, marrying in Las Vegas on September 7, 1943. Although Hayworth's studio head was angry over the marriage, the press ate it up, dubbing Hayworth and Welles "the Beauty and the Brain."

    In If This Was Happiness, Barbara Leaming's biography of Hayworth, Shifra Haran told the author:

    I never saw a happier, more tickled, more delighted, adorable couple in the world.

    The couple had a daughter in December 1944, but the marriage soon fell apart over, among other things, Welles's infidelity, his workaholic tendencies, and both his and Hayworth's financial troubles. The money issues were so bad that even though she had left him, Hayworth agreed to star in Welles's film The Lady from Shanghai. She moved back in with him, but the reconciliation was brief; the couple divorced in November 1947.

    Both Welles and Hayworth had chaotic lives after their split. But Hayworth's was significantly more troubled; she married and divorced several more times and battled mental health problems and alcoholism. She was finally diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1981.

    When Welles went up to her at a party, it took her several minutes to recognize her former husband, the one she had called the "great love" of her life. As he later recalled:

    I came over to her table, and I saw that she was very beautiful, very reposed looking, and didn't know me at first. After about four minutes of speaking, I could see that she realized who I was, and she began to cry quietly.

    Welles passed in 1985. Hayworth, whom Welles described as "one of the dearest and sweetest women that ever lived," died two years later.

    755 votes
  • Carole Lombard was a very popular film star, known for her ability to play screwball comedy heroines as well as her down-to-earth manner off-screen. She first met Clark Gable in 1932 when they worked together on the film No Man of Her Own. At the time, Lombard was married to film star William Powell, so she didn't become romantically involved with Gable until reconnecting with him at a party in 1936. By that time, Gable had become the biggest male star in Hollywood.

    They quickly became inseparable. But Gable was still legally married to his second wife. It took nearly three years before he finally was able to reach a divorce settlement in early March 1939; a few weeks later, he and Lombard were married.

    In January 1942, the United States had just entered WWII and Hollywood celebrities were being asked to do their part for the war effort by selling war bonds. Lombard was quick to throw herself into this effort. On January 15, she was in Indianapolis, IN, where she had a huge day selling bonds, drawing approximately 12,000 people to an event.

    She was supposed to travel back to Hollywood by train the next day. But she was anxious to get home, in part because Gable was reportedly having an affair with Lana Turner. She demanded to take a flight back to LA. The flight originated in New York and hopscotched across the country before arriving in Albuquerque, NM. There, most of the commercial passengers were bumped in favor of Army Air Corps flyers. But Lombard pulled the "I'm a star" card and refused to get off the flight.

    After stopping to refuel, the plane took off for Burbank, CA, shortly after 7 pm. It never got there, instead crashing into Mt. Potosi 15 minutes after takeoff. Gable was headed to meet his wife at Burbank Airport when he heard an urgent radio broadcast:

    We interrupt this broadcast to bring you an important news announcement. The transport plane bearing Carole Lombard and 21 others has been found. They are all believed dead.

    When he got to the airport, the stunned star was bundled onto an airplane along with several MGM executives and the wife of Gable's press agent, who had been on the flight with Lombard and her mother. When they got to Las Vegas, Gable wanted to know how he could get to the crash site. The executives managed to convince him to wait for news, but after about an hour a group set off to make its way up the mountain.

    They climbed for hours until they saw bits of the wreckage. An official stopped them from going any further, explaining that not too far away were the mangled bodies of the victims, including Lombard. The rescue party returned to Las Vegas, where Gable locked himself away in his hotel bungalow until the day of the funeral service for his wife, mother-in-law, and press agent.

    Lombard was just 34 when she perished. A grief-stricken Gable finished filming his current project, and in August 1942, he joined the US Army Air Corps. Much to the dismay of MGM, he ended up seeing combat duty before being discharged in June 1944. He remarried twice before dying of a heart attack in 1960. His only son, John Clark Gable, was born four months after the actor's demise.

    571 votes
  • William Powell Paid $25,000 For Jean Harlow's Crypt And Reportedly Planned To Be Buried Alongside Her
    Photo: Libeled Lady / Loew's Inc.

    William Powell and Jean Harlow were two of MGM's biggest stars in the 1930s. Powell had actually been a star since the latter days of the silent film era, and found his greatest success at MGM, often playing intelligent, sophisticated, witty parts in films like The Great Ziegfeld, Manhattan Melodrama, and The Thin Man. By the time he got to MGM in the mid-1930s, Powell had two marriages in his past, including one to film star Carole Lombard. At MGM, Powell successfully teamed with Myrna Loy on many films - so successfully that fans and the press believed, erroneously, that they were a couple off-screen as well as on.

    In reality, Powell was romantically involved with Harlow. The actor with the platinum blonde hair was considered one of Hollywood's first true "sex symbols" and is said to have been a model for Marilyn Monroe's career. Harlow's private life was heavily covered, and often criticized, by the press for years. Although she was still in her mid-20s when she got involved with Powell, she'd already been married three times - and in 1932, she had been involved in a huge scandal when her second husband - producer Paul Bern - evidently took his own life just two months after they were wed.

    The two MGM stars likely started dating in 1934. He later gave her a star sapphire ring that she wore on her right hand, although there were conflicting reports about whether they ever were officially engaged. In June 1937, Harlow was working on the film Saratoga when she fell ill and was sent home. 

    In 1964, Powell gave a rare interview in which he talked about going to see Harlow a few days later. He explained that, at first, no one thought that her illness was serious:

    She startled me and said, "You look fuzzy." "I don't, really?" I joked. But I was suddenly worried. I held up my hand. "How many fingers can you see?" I asked her. She couldn't see any. This was very disturbing.

    Powell added that he quickly sent for a doctor. When the doctor examined Harlow, he immediately called for an ambulance. Powell and Harlow's mother accompanied her to Good Samaritan Hospital, where she was put in an oxygen tent:

    We spent the night in the hospital, but Jean was in a coma and didn't know we were there. In the morning [of June 7, 1937], she died.

    Harlow was just 26 years old when she died of kidney failure. The grief-stricken Powell bought a $25,000 crypt at Forest Lawn Memorial Park for Harlow (and eventually her mother) to be buried in. Some reports claimed that Powell planned to be buried in the same crypt

    However, the actor married starlet Diana Lewis in 1940, and ended up being buried in Cathedral City, CA, when he passed in 1984. Lewis was buried alongside Powell when she died in 1997.

    507 votes
  • Paul Newman Said It Took Him A Long Time To Persuade Joanne Woodward That He 'Wasn't As Dull As [He] Looked'
    Photo: 20th Century Fox / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    At the time of his passing in September 2008, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward had been married for more than 50 years. But it wasn't exactly love at first sight - at least not on her part.

    Newman was married with three children when the two actors met for the first time in 1953. As Woodward told the Today show in 2002, she was not impressed by the handsome man with blue eyes:

    What looked like an ad for an ice cream soda... there was Paul... And I thought, "Ick... that's disgusting."

    Newman, on the other hand, was immediately attracted to the 22-year-old Woodward. Shawn Levy, author of Paul Newman: A Life, quotes the actor as stating:

    She [Woodward] was modern and independent, whereas I was shy and a bit conservative. It took me a long time to persuade her that I wasn't as dull as I looked.

    Woodward had no interest in breaking up Newman's marriage, but the two actors became friends. They reconnected in 1957 when they were both cast in the film The Long, Hot Summer. By this time, Woodward had won the Oscar for best actress for The Three Faces of Eve, while Newman was a rising film star who'd recently played the boxer Rocky Graziano in the biopic Somebody Up There Likes Me.

    The couple moved in together during filming. Newman's wife soon agreed to a divorce, and he and Woodward were married in January 1958. They ended up having three children.

    In 2002, Woodward told the Today show what she had said once when asked what her relationship with Newman was based on:

    He's very good looking and very sexy, and all of those things. But all that goes out the window finally. And finally what is left is if you can make someone laugh. That's very important.

    628 votes
  • Lauren Bacall Coined The Term 'Rat Pack' After Bogart And Sinatra Spent Four Days Living It Up In Vegas
    Photo: Warner Bros. Studio / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Lauren Bacall was a 19-year-old model turned actress when she met Humphrey Bogart in 1944. He was 25 years her senior and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood after appearing in films like The Maltese Falcon, High Sierra, and Casablanca. He was also married (to third wife Mayo Methot).

    Still, he convinced Bacall to write her phone number down on a matchbook cover. The couple fell in love working together on the film noir To Have and Have Not. He divorced Mayo in February 1945; three months later, on May 21, 1945, he and Bacall were married. As Bacall recalled:

    As I glanced at Bogie, I saw tears streaming down his face - his "I do" was strong and clear, though. As Judge Shettler said, "I now pronounce you man and wife," Bogie and I turned toward each other - he leaned to kiss me - I shyly turned my cheek - all those eyes watching made me very self-conscious. He said, "Hello, Baby." I hugged him and was reported to have said, "Oh, goody." Hard to believe, but maybe I did. Everyone hugged and kissed everyone else and more tears were shed. Bogie said it was when he heard the beautiful words of the ceremony and realized what they meant - what they should mean - that he cried.

    Bacall and Bogart made four films together. They also had two children together. According to their son, Stephen, Bogart was the leader of an "in" group that consisted of actors who lived in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles, including Frank Sinatra. In his memoir, Stephen Bogart claimed it was Bacall who tagged the group with what eventually became an iconic nickname:

    The story is that Frank Sinatra had flown Bogie and Bacall and a bunch of other friends over to Las Vegas for Noel Coward's opening there... In Vegas they debauched for about four days straight, drinking, dancing, partying, and gambling. Apparently they didn't get much sleep, and after a while, they all looked like hell. On the fourth day my mother said, "You look like a goddamn rat pack."

    Bogart and Bacall remained married until the former passed from cancer in 1957.

    591 votes
  • Spencer Tracy Was With Katharine Hepburn For 26 Years - But Still Spent Weekends With His Wife And Children
    Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy first met in 1941 on the set of the film Woman of the Year. At the time, they were two of the biggest stars in Hollywood; Tracy was a two-time winner of the Academy Award for best actor for his performances in Captains Courageous and Boys Town, while Hepburn - who'd once been labeled "box office poison" - had revived her career with her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1940 film The Philadelphia Story.

    In 2021, Hepburn's friend and biographer Christopher Andersen told Closer Weekly that Hepburn immediately fell for her co-star:

    It was one of those love-at-first-sight things. I don’t think it hurt that she admired him tremendously as an actor... [but] there was an instant attraction on her part.

    But while Tracy felt the same way about Hepburn, there was a problem - he was married. He and his wife Louise had two children - a son, John, who was deaf, and a daughter, Susie. Despite his love for Hepburn, he refused to break up his family. So for the next 26 years, Tracy would spend weekdays with Hepburn and weekends with his family.

    Andersen stated:

    Everyone thinks it was because he was a religious Catholic, but that wasn’t it. He felt that Louise was like a saint. He didn’t want to put her through any unnecessary scandal or pain.

    Hepburn claimed that she was fine with the arrangement - that she had no interest in marrying or having children with Tracy. The relationship wasn't easy; aside from his marital status, Tracy was an alcoholic who was prone to fits of rage, especially when drunk. He also cheated on Hepburn, most prominently with the actress Ingrid Bergman.

    According to Christopher, when Hepburn was asked why she put up with Tracy's behavior, she replied, "You don’t pick who you fall in love with."

    Hepburn was with Tracy when he passed in 1967. But out of respect for his widow, she didn't attend the funeral. Instead, Andersen said:

    She went to the mortuary... She watched while they took the coffin out of the mortuary and put it into the hearse. She said goodbye to him there.

    512 votes