Top 10 Celebrity Train Wrecks and Tragedies

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They had it all…beauty, fame, talent…but Fate was not kind. Through their own self-destructive tendencies, or simply cruel luck, they ended up as fallen angels, part of Hollywood’s dark legend.

10. Jayne Mansfield

Jayne Mansfield was one of Hollywood’s quintessential blonde bombshells: her hourglass figure and platinum hair were her main selling points, despite a genius-level I.Q. Her career soared during the Fifties: by the end of the decade, however, her star was already in decline. No longer under contract to 20th Century Fox, she was reduced to accepting roles in low-budget European films and doing television to stay employed.

She married three times and had five children: her daughter, Mariska Hargitay, with bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, now plays Olivia Benson on Law and Order: SVU.

Jayne never stopped trying to keep her profile high in Hollywood, performing in nightclub acts, living in an extravagant, candy-pink mansion, and staging a series of publicity stunts throughout her life, primarily by exposing her breasts in public, most notably at a special dinner held in Sophia Loren’s honor. Jayne also briefly aligned herself with the charlatan Anton LeVey, leader of the International Church of Satan, with whom she posed in photo shoots.

When Mansfield was killed in a car accident, on a dark June night in 1967, on a foggy road near a Louisiana swamp, the top portion of her scalp was sliced off as the convertible she was a passenger in slid under a tractor-trailer: three of her children were in the back seat, miraculously unharmed. In a show of shameless self-promotion, LeVey tried to take credit for her death, claiming it was the result of a “curse”: rumors of Jayne’s decapitation were as overblown as her alleged connection to the Church of Satan.

9. Judy Garland

Judy was a mercurial talent who was pushed from a very young age to earn her keep by singing, dancing, and performing. She was the standout in her musical family, and she toured America doing Vaudeville with her sisters, until her mother saw greater possibilities, and delivered her into the hands of Hollywood’s studio system. Judy’s childhood was marked with poverty, and the stigma of having a homosexual father: rumors about her father’s sexual activities were extremely painful to the young girl.

Judy’s mother was a classic stage mother, enjoying the attention and perks that came from being a part of her daughter’s entourage: Judy eventually rebelled against her controlling nature.

While still living under her mother’s watchful gaze, she signed with MGM, who asked a great deal of the teenage girl. MGM deserves some credit for their role in the destruction of this sensitive, high-strung performer. She turned to pills for the first time after they were “prescribed” to her by Studio doctors: they were meant to slim her down for the silver screen. She appeared in the Wizard of Oz in 1939: after fifteen years of toil, she was finally able to end her contract with MGM. Judy went on to play legendary concerts at Carnegie Hall and other venues.

Her childhood insecurities continued to haunt her as she aged, plunging her further into drug abuse: Judy also struggled with debt, failed relationships, and a tarnished reputation in the industry. After several unsuccessful suicide attempts, Judy overdosed and died at age forty-seven, leaving behind two daughters, Liza Minelli and Lorna Luft.

8.  Bob Crane

This actor rose to fame when he was cast as Colonel Robert E. Hogan on Hogan’s Heroes. He began his career as a musician and disc jockey: his popularity as a radio host at WICC in Bridgeport, Connecticut attracted the attention of executives at CBS radio. They hired him to jockey their morning broadcast in Los Angeles, and he made a great success of the program, interviewing A-list stars like Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope, and adding in his own, unique brand of sarcasm and wit.

Bob Crane wanted to move into television, and he made a smooth transition from radio to TV, hosting game shows and appearing in popular shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Eventually, he was cast as Dr. Dave Kelsey on the highly successful Donna Reed Show.

His pivotal role in Hogan’s Heroes began in 1968, and the show had a good run, lasting until 1971, when it was cancelled. After the show’s demise, he made a good living appearing in Disney films and television shows, as well as hosting a short-lived TV talk show, The Bob Crane Show, in 1975.

Bob Crane had an avid interest in photography, which led him to a friendship with John Henry Carpenter, who worked at Sony Electronics and had access to rare equipment. The two men would find women at local bars and film their sexual encounters with them. In 1978, Crane allegedly tried to end his association with Carpenter, calling him and letting him know he didn’t want to see him anymore: there are rumors that Carpenter tried to have a homosexual relationship with Crane, who rejected him.

The very next day, Crane was found beaten to death in an apartment building in Arizona. Carpenter’s car was impounded by police, and found to contain several bloodstains that were analyzed and found to match Crane’s own blood type. Since DNA testing was not yet invented, the case went cold due to lack of evidence, and Carpenter was released from custody. Years later, the blood was tested again, using DNA methods, but it was too late: no conclusive answers could be obtained.

7. Britney Spears

Britney Spears is alive, unlike many of our top ten tragedies and train wrecks – but is she well? A classic case of a child star that grew up too soon under the glare of the media, Britney has struggled to cope with her life as an adult, no longer able to play the part of a beautiful, provocative teenager. Britney’s talent as a performer has been eclipsed by her self-destructive lifestyle, which had led her to drug abuse, mental illness, and failed relationships, most notably with Justin Timberlake, whom she allegedly cheated on with a dancer from her own tour.

After her fairytale romance with Justin ended, she took up with Keven Federline, an opportunist with no money or real career of his own. Another backup dancer, Kevin became Britney’s second husband: her first Las Vegas wedding to a high school sweetheart lasted only a few days. Kevin basked in Britney’s reflected glory, and enjoyed the spoils of her wealth. We all saw it coming: this couple was on a crash course from the beginning. When Britney had two children in quick succession, the couple quickly grew apart, and Britney started to come unglued. Their divorce started a downward spiral that found this young woman lost and alone, unsatisfied by fame, money, and motherhood. The future may find Britney happier and healthier, but noone will ever forget the sad, and often bizarre, behaviour of the pop princess.

6. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson was a gifted child from a musical family, but he was pushed into the spotlight much too soon. His father was a harsh, abusive man, who criticized Michael’s poor complexion, and the shape of his nose, even as he pushed him out into the public domain. Michael grew up shy and insecure, crying himself to sleep with “loneliness” as he toured full-time with his family. He said he hated seeing and listening to his older brothers having sex with groupies in the hotel rooms they shared together: he was only eleven years old.

The Jackson Five were extremely successful and young Michael was the centerpiece of their act: after he went solo, his musical genius became even more obvious. With the release of his Off The Wall album in 1975, fans began to realize just how singular his talent was. By the time he released Thriller in 1982, he was approaching the most pivotal moment of his career, and leaving audiences riveted by his incredible dancing and flawless vocals. Michael’s talent was his gift and his downfall: it isolated him from the pleasures of a normal childhood, and pushed him into a strange existence at Neverland Ranch, where he kept llamas, a pet chimp named Bubbles, and a series of young male guests, who would share his bed for sleepovers.

The world first took notice of Michael’s predilection for young boys when he was charged with the sexual abuse of a minor in 1993: after that accusation, his would always be plagued with allegations of pedophilia. Michael’s terrible insecurity led him to destroy the beauty in himself that he could not see: his many surgeries left him a tragic shadow of the gifted, handsome young boy who worked so hard to entertain the world from such a young age.

5. River Phoenix

River was a sensitive, talented actor who found success at a very young age. Raised in the clutches of The Children of God Cult, along with his brother Joaquin, and sisters Rain, Liberty, and Summer, Phoenix was haunted by his childhood experiences. The Children of God Cult are known for their sick attitude towards their own children: they believe it is natural for kids to have sex with adults. Many boys and girls raised in the cult have gone on to lives of depression, drug abuse, and even suicide, as they struggled with rage and sadness. River’s acting career was the main support for his parents, as he took parts in notable films like Stand By Me, The Mosquito Coast, and Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade.

River would only hint at the abuse in his past, never spelling it out: he found solace in other, self-destructive ways, through cocaine and heroin addiction. His clean-cut image as a vegetarian, an animal rights supporter, and an environmentalist, made his tragic death even more shocking to the world media. River ended his life at such a young age: he was only 23 when he he overdosed on a fatal cocktail of drugs outside Johnny Depp’s Viper Room. Joaquin Phoenix, along with his sister Rain, had to watch the older brother they loved so much die on the pavement.

4. Kurt Cobain

Kurt Cobain always felt out of place when he was growing up, trapped in a “redneck” town where he was called a “fag” and beaten up. There was so much talent inside of him, even from childhood, but it was mixed with anger and depression. In the end, this combination of melodic beauty and punk angst was like musical alchemy: the songs Kurt wrote were like nothing anyone had ever heard before, they were genius, and they resonated with an entire generation. Kurt tried to deal with fame, but it was hard for him to come to terms with being a commercial entity, and with entertaining concertgoers who might have beaten him up in high school: he felt conflicted, as though he had betrayed his punk roots. Even in his early recordings with Nirvana, for Sub Pop records, his ability to write songs that were instantly memorable, powerful, and intensely melodic was impossible to ignore.

By the time Nevermind was released in 1991, the world was ready for musical change, and Nirvana flashed like lightning through Generation X, electrifying youth and giving them a voice. Kurt tried to make peace with his choices, but enjoying fame was not possible for him. Hypersensitive to critics, of both himself and Courtney Love, his notorious counterpart, he would rage at the things he read and take them to heart. When Courtney was rumored to have abused heroin during the first trimester of her pregnancy with their daughter, Frances Bean, the world turned against the couple, and things began to spiral out of control.

Kurt went deeper into addiction, and heroin took over his life. Some say fame killed Kurt Cobain, who put a gun to his head in his Seattle home and ended his life on April 5, 1994: but no one should ignore the fatal specter of heroin addiction, which utterly enslaves its victims and breaks their spirit.

3. Whitney Houston

Of all the people on this list, Whitney Houston was quite possibly the most unlikely candidate for train wreck status. Her beauty-queen looks, mesmerizing vocal ability, and her clean-cut Christian image made her seem too polished and pulled together to fall so very far, so very fast. From her beginnings as an Arista recording artist in the 80’s, she took the world by storm, with hit records, constant video play on MTV, and acting roles in successful films like the 90’s hit, The Bodyguard, costarring Kevin Costner. But there was more to Whitney than met the eye: her marriage to Bobby Brown seemed to bring out some hidden darkness in the bright and shiny pop sensation.

When the Nineties ended, and the Millenium was ushered in, Whitney found herself on the skids, weakened by a rumored addiction to crack cocaine. She was often mocked on programs like Mad TV, where she was referred to as “Sweatney”, and her erratic, drug-addled behavior was the butt of jokes. She is allegedly clean now, after a stint in rehab, and she has had custody of her daughter since her divorce from Brown in 2006. But time has taken its toll: Whitney’s voice is not what is once was, and her reputation, once so clean and marketable, is in tatters.

2. Marilyn Monroe

Born Norma Jeane Baker in June of 1926, Marilyn Monroe traveled far from her humble roots, straight to the epicenter of Hollywood. Her hourglass figure and luminous, pale skin, accented with scarlet lipstick, made her an unparalleled icon of American beauty and sexuality.

Marilyn’s childlike quality added some vulnerability to her image, striking a chord with millions of men and women. Her roles in films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot put her over the top, creating a cinematic icon that will live forever. Her deft comedic ability and platinum-blonde allure masked an anxious, depressed young woman, who had difficulty showing up at the set on time, and even more difficulty sustaining the relationships that were so very important to her.

Marilyn was mercurial and mutable, always changing for the men she was with, trying desperately to find the happiness that eluded her. Failed marriages to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, and acclaimed playwright Arthur Miller left her feeling lost and alone. Marilyn took a lot of pills to ease her pain, and her reputation for being difficult to work with intensified. Ill-fated affairs with the Kennedy brothers stained her image even further, as she spiraled downward, facing the prospect of life as an aging beauty, with a history of health problems and miscarriages. Marilyn died of an overdose of barbiturates in Brentwood, California, on August 5, 1962. Although her death is the subject of countless conspiracy theories, the medical examiner labeled her death a “probable suicide”.

1. Elvis Presley

The teenage Elvis Presley was a gentle, Southern momma’s boy with a polite manner and a burning desire to escape from a life of driving trucks and being dirt-poor. Elvis had respect for authority, but it warred with his uncontrollable urge to push the envelope with his wardrobe, his music, and his stage moves. Elvis started out on the Gospel circuit in the South, gaining acclaim for his velvety, rich voice and his energetic performances. He grew into a style that was uniquely his own, a mixture of R & B and country, that became the first true rockabilly music.

Elvis really revealed his brilliance and individuality while recording his first songs at Sun Records, in Memphis, Tennessee. His first single, “That’s All Right (Mama)” caused a sensation on local radio, with kids calling in to find out who was singing. In time, Elvis became the biggest recording artist in America, with classics like “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and so many others.

Elvis worked hard and took care of his family: he loved his mother, and he devoted himself to her. But life had its problems: he was constantly being attacked by the establishment, for his provocative dancing, and he was stifled by the control of Colonel Tom Parker, his manager. He married and had a child, acting in films to augment his income, at Parker’s urging. Music seemed to take a backseat to Hollywood, and Elvis turned to food, drugs, and alcohol to soothe his problems. When his mother died, he seemed to lose the will to fight, sinking deeper into obesity and drugs, and becoming a sad caricature of himself: Elvis died of an overdose on August 16, 1977.


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46 Comments

  1. Hi Tony,

    John Belushi is an excellent suggestion, sorry there was not room for everyone. There are plenty of others who could go on here, too, as well.

  2. I agree, it would be interesting writing about Tyson, he would be an excellent addition to any train wreck list 🙂 Happy Holidays!

  3. Heather Matthews on

    she's never done any work of note: she's a train wreck, but I can't even think of anything she's been in. She's definitely a train wreck, though 🙂

  4. Heather Matthews on

    You’re right, poor Heath. I guess the answer is that some of these people captured my imagination more than others, and that’s why I thought of them when I was writing. But I do think Heath was a good actor, very good, and I really feel awful for his family. So, yeah, Heath should probably be here, too. I need top 100 for this list LOL

  5. Heather Matthews on

    Great idea about Jim, wish it had occured to me at the time. I'm actually a fan of the Doors. Thanks for your feedback. There were so many people to choose from on this one – there is certainly no shortage of tragic tales and sad stories in the worlds of Hollywood and Rock N Roll.

  6. Really, no James Dean the ultimate “Rebel Without a Cause?”

    Unfortunately, it seems many of our beloved entertainers could make the list.

    I agree with Belushi…what about Chris Farley, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin?

  7. jayne mansfield was hot. Love the ladies from the 50s' good size, not like todays waif thin girls. And I'm only 26!

  8. Really? Marilyn Monroe? Someone above mentioned that Anna Nicole Smith shouldn't be included because she really did nothing; same with Monroe. She starred in some terrible movies and dated big celebrities. Once baby boomers pass Monroe will be forgotten. She's a pretty girl whose looks don't stand up with age.

    It's sad really. Like saying Megan Fox is timeless and the quintessential idea of beauty and sexuality. Cheap, forgettable floozy with too much hype.

    Other then that, and the exclusion of some obvious celebs already mentioned above, fine list.

      • I’ve always felt the same way about Monroe… It disgusted me in university to see so many girls with posters and shirts and handbags featuring her image. Really? She’s famous 50 years after her fatal drug-overdose for being a chunky whore. Not someone I’d want my daughter modeling her life after.

        Either way, great list. I agree that you could make a good top 25 of this, or even write a decent book.

    • I disagree. Everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Rhianna are posing in look alike photos. I don’t think they know much about her. They assume she was a party girl whose time was up too soon. There is more to MM than that, but the 20 something celebrities seem to think they could be just like Marilyn. Only not dead.

  9. Heather Matthews on

    Hi Grubmel,

    Marilyn is a legend, and her comedic timing is quite good in films. She's influenced culture in a way that Anna Nicole could never do. I don't think the two celebrities can be compared at all, but thanks for your take on things. I personally don't think Marilyn will ever be forgotten, she is simply too iconic. Images of her are a part of Americana now, and they always will be – even worldwide, her appeal and allure remain very powerful.

    Again, comparing Marilyn Monroe to Megan Fox seems a little cruel with regard to Marilyn. The films Marilyn appeared in were often more memorable than Transformers.

    Thanks for commenting, it's always interesting to read other people's views. I'm glad you enjoyed the list.

  10. Heather Matthews on

    Thanks to both people for the corrections. I do the best I can to check things, but there are many websites and I don't always cross reference. Usually, I am trying to capture some essence of the person in a short block of text. Often, my focus is on emotions and what their life meant to others, etc. I appreciate your feedback. I hope you got something out of the list, despite these errors.

    • Yes Heather,this list was quite interesting. And we all make mistakes on things,& my intention of pointing out someone's error is strictly to be helpful & not rude or superior in any way as some folks can be. Like I said,we all are guilty of making mistakes.

  11. Heather Matthews on

    Thanks Mike 🙂 I'm interested in Errol Flynn – there is a life with some drama! I have a weakness for Old Hollywood 🙂 Have a great night, I hope to add a new top ten list in a week or so 🙂

  12. Darby Crash – LA punk rock legend who OD'd on heroin in December of 1980. Not a celebrity in the classic sense(of being widely recognized), yet his style and lyrical giftedness would prove hugely influential to the evolution of punk and all its offshoots(e.g. hardcore, alternative). I was not at all surprised to find out that Kurt Cobain idolized Darby Crash, only that he knew so much about him.

    • Heather Matthews on

      I read an article about Darby Crash recently – it was very interesting. This is a great suggestion, actually. thanks.

  13. PATSY CLINE!!!!!!!! How she could not make this list but Whitney Houston and Britney Spears, who are still alive, could is CRAZY!!!!

  14. Very interesting list, you should make another with all the suggestions. Florence Ballard of the Supremes would be a good addition as well. She died just as she was getting her career back on track.

  15. Michael Jackson shouldn't be on this list, Plastic surgery and accusations do not make you a train wreck, its the media thats the trainwreck for torturing Michael and creating sensationalized storys.

  16. It’s a shame that all the people on your list are American, maybe it should be relabelled American Celebruty Train Wrecks and Tradgedies. Some of the people I would add to the list are, Keith Moon, Sid Vicious and Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers.

  17. John Belusji would definitely be on my list. A comic genius who just couldn;t get his life in control.
    Chris Farely was a serious wreck, also.

  18. if you update the list or make it longer i think you should consider corey haim, lindsey lohan, and maybe all the different strokes kids.

  19. Umm Anna Nicole Smith has lots of notible work

    She was 1992 Playmate of the month
    1993 Playmate of the Year
    Guess model/Spokesperson from 1992-1994
    Leading lady In Naked Gun 33 1/3
    Illegal Aliens
    Skyskrapper
    had the #1 rated show on E! ( the Anna Nicole Smith Show)
    Spokesmodel for Layne Byrant from 1995-1997 and again from 2000-2003
    Spokes Model fro Trim Spa from 2003-2007
    + she did modeling for “Con-Aire , Coca-Cola , Peta, Penthouse , H&M , St Ives , FHM, and most major Canadain Retailers threw 1997-1999

  20. If you examine the list, and then also look at other suggestions from readers, nearly every case involves serious drug abuse. This is not to be judgemental, or take a cliche shot at drugs, simply to point out that many creative and sensitive persons, especially those making considerable $$, are in a position to consistently abuse drugs- but many do not have the make up to use them without drowning. I am sure also that the general populus is littered with such train wrecks, especially in terms of prescription meds, and I am sure we all know a few persons who are being propped up or stupified. Perhaps there are many on these celebrity lists who did not understand their own demons or understand how they slid down the paths to being addicts. Though one gets the sense that there may have been some who did understand and perhaps thats a reason, in itself, for all the more drugs. Drugs may be alot of fun to begin with, but weve lost alot of great folks everywhere as a result of them. As a culture we tend to vilify train wrecks at times, vicariously gaining a passing or envious pleasure or even good chuckle at a dark headline. But regardless, at least many of these persons gave alot of joy and entertainment to others regardless of their frailties, and that is to be deeply admired.

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