It is time for us to probe the dark underbelly of Hollywood once again and see what forgotten scandals, murders, and tales of depravity and abuse lurk beneath.
10. The Coogan Act
Child actors have a pretty rough time in Hollywood, but it used to be a lot worse. Not only did the studios control every aspect of their careers, but their parents controlled their finances and they didn’t always have the child’s best interest at heart, as Jackie Coogan found out to his own detriment.
Nowadays, Coogan might be most recognizable as Uncle Fester in the Addams Family TV series from the 60s, but way, way before that, Coogan was a child star in silent films. His most famous role was that of “the kid” in…The Kid, starring opposite Charlie Chaplin.
Coogan made millions as a child actor and, when he turned 21, he thought he could finally start spending some of that cash. However, he discovered that his entire fortune was almost gone. For a decade-and-a-half, his mother and stepfather had been using young Jackie as an “open all hours” piggy bank. They had splurged on fast cars, expensive jewelry, and lavish vacations, and left almost nothing for Coogan. And what was worse was that, according to California law, they did nothing wrong. Back then, all money earned by a minor legally belonged to the parents.
In 1938, Coogan took them to court but only received $126,000 out of the approximately $4 million he earned as an actor. In response, California passed the Coogan Law the following year, which placed part of the child actor’s net earnings in a trust fund. However, the bill was rushed and flawed, and it basically allowed parents to hire themselves as managers or secretaries and pay themselves out of their children’s earnings. This happened to Judy Garland and Liz Taylor, and it wasn’t until 2000 that this loophole was closed, placing 15 percent of the gross wages into an untouchable trust fund called a Coogan Account.
9. The Death of Alfalfa
Speaking of child actors with tragic adult lives, we move on to Carl Switzer, best known for playing Alfalfa in The Little Rascals, a series of comedy shorts featuring a group of neighborhood kids getting into all sorts of wacky adventures. Switzer played the role from 1935 to 1940, appearing in over 60 shorts and becoming one of the show’s most popular characters. However, Switzer encountered the problem that all child actors face – he grew up. Once he became too old for The Little Rascals, the end of Alfalfa meant, more or less, the end of his career. Sure, Switzer still appeared in dozens of movies, but they were all bit parts, many even uncredited.
By the late 1950s, Switzer was in financial trouble, and on January 21, 1959, the 31-year-old Switzer went to an acquaintance’s house to retrieve a $50 debt. A fight ensued and the other man, Moses “Bud” Stiltz, shot Switzer and hit an artery, causing him to bleed to death before the ambulance arrived.
In the trial that followed, the jury believed Stiltz’s version of events that Switzer was armed with a knife and threatened to kill him, and they ruled the case justifiable homicide. However, decades later, his stepson Tom Corrigan offered a different story. He saw the whole thing but was a minor and was never called to testify. According to Corrigan, Switzer never threatened Stiltz with a knife, and his stepfather shot him as he was leaving. He believed that Stiltz got away with the murder of Alfalfa.
8. The Dines Affair
Most movie careers are always just one scandal away from fading into obscurity. Mabel Normand was able to withstand two controversies, but the third one did her in. First, there was the Fatty Arbuckle trial for the manslaughter of Virginia Rappe. Normand had nothing to do with it, but Arbuckle had been her most frequent movie partner. The duo made over a dozen comedies together, so when Arbuckle’s movies were banned, so were some of her most successful features.
Then came the unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor. Again, Normand had no direct involvement, but she had been the last person to see him alive, and rumors sprang up that Taylor was killed while trying to help her kick her cocaine habit by threatening to expose her dealers to the police.
The straw that broke the camel’s back happened on New Year’s Day 1924. Normand was attending a party hosted by Denver oil tycoon Courtland Dines. At some point during the night, Normand’s chauffeur, Horace Greer, entered the apartment, walked up to Dines, and shot him. The businessman survived, but the whole ordeal made Mabel Normand have a nervous breakdown that required a stay in the hospital. Greer’s motive was never established clearly, although Normand herself shot down rumors that he did it out of jealousy because he was in love with her, and simply opined that he must be insane. One thing was certain – her career never recovered and Normand only made a handful of shorts and one feature in the years following the shooting.
7. The Love Triangle
Sex scandals are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so much so that there are scores of controversies that have been almost forgotten, such as the love triangle that almost resulted in murder and ruined Joan Bennett’s career.
A successful actress since the silent era, during the early 1950s Bennett was on her third husband, movie producer Walter Wanger. At the same time, she was, presumably, having an affair with her agent, Jennings Lang, although she never admitted it publicly. But her husband suspected that something was off, so he hired a PI to follow her and he reported back that Bennett and Lang spent a lot of time together in New Orleans, the Caribbean, and Beverly Hills.
On December 13, 1951, Wanger decided to confront the cheating couple. He walked up to them in a parking lot in Beverly Hills armed with a gun and fired two shots. One bullet hit Lang in the thigh, the other in the groin, but he made a full recovery. Meanwhile, Wanger was promptly arrested, but his lawyer used the “temporary insanity” defense and got his client off with a light sentence.
For her part, Bennett stuck by her husband and the couple eventually reconciled and stayed married for another decade. But public opinion was decidedly against her and her career took a nosedive, only appearing in a handful of movies in the decades that followed the scandal.
6. The Campus Killer
The name Margaret Campbell is unlikely to elicit any recognition nowadays. She was a silent-era actress with a few dozen credits under her belt who decided to hang up her acting boots and switch to teaching when the sound era started. She then stayed out of the limelight completely until 1939 when her murder once again put her name in the headlines.
Campbell had been bludgeoned to death and, initially, it was believed that she had been another victim of a killer who was stalking the Los Angeles City College campus. Dubbed simply the Campus Killer, that person was responsible for three attacks and rapes on women, as well as the murder of 32-year-old Russian dancer Anya Sosoyeva. Not only that, but police believed that the Campus Killer was none other than Campbell’s son, McDonald. He was found and arrested a few days after her death. He confessed to his mother’s murder but denied involvement in the other attacks. He was found mentally unfit to stand trial and was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Meanwhile, the true Campus Killer was eventually caught and identified as DeWitt Clinton Cook, who confessed to all the crimes except the murder of Margaret Campbell and was executed in the gas chamber.
5. The Killer King of Western Swing
During the 1940s and 50s, fiddler and big band leader Spade Cooley was one of the biggest names in country music. Dubbed the “King of Western Swing,” Cooley had a hit music career, a popular television variety show, and over 50 movie credits, most of them in Westerns. However, that’s not what he’s remembered for. Nowadays, it is believed that Spade Cooley has the dubious distinction of being the only convicted killer with a star on the Walk of Fame.
In 1961, Cooley beat his second wife, Ella Mae Evans, to death. This was hardly the first time he abused her, and the couple had already filed for divorce. Cooley flew into a rage at the idea that Ella Mae might have cheated on him with actor Roy Rogers, and on April 3, he launched into a vicious attack that lasted for hours and, eventually, proved fatal for Ella Mae. And Cooley did all of this in front of their 14-year-old daughter, Melody, although, ultimately, it was her testimony that got him convicted of first-degree murder.
4. Charlie Chaplin & Lita Grey
As we said, sex scandals were hardly a rare occurrence in Hollywood, but the affair, marriage, and eventual divorce between Charlie Chaplin and his second wife, Lita Grey, was outrageous even by those standards and fed the tabloid headlines for almost a year.
For starters, Chaplin first met Grey when she was a little kid. They worked together for the first time when she was 12 and began an affair when Grey was 15. Soon after that, Grey got pregnant and Chaplin tried to take her to Mexico to have a secret abortion. However, Grey’s mother threatened Chaplin that she would report him to the authorities if he didn’t marry her daughter, which he did in 1924, as soon as Lita Grey turned 16. The couple had two children together, Sydney and Charles Chaplin Jr., but divorced after only two years of marriage.
All of this came out during the divorce proceedings, which lasted for nine months. Besides the attempted abortion, Grey also revealed multiple other young actresses whom Chaplin slept with, as well as the “degrading” and “bestial” sexual demands he had, some of which were even illegal in 1920s California. The salaciousness of the scandal was like ambrosia for the newspapers, but it also paid off for Grey. She was awarded a settlement of $825,000, a record in America at the time.
3. The First Hollywood Murder
Pioneering director Francis Boggs probably holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first Hollywood figure to be murdered. This happened in 1911, way before Los Angeles turned into the Mecca of moviemaking.
Starting out as a stage actor, Boggs made his way to Chicago where he found a job with the Selig Polyscope Company, one of the first motion picture companies in America. After impressing head honcho William Selig with his talents, Boggs was allowed to step behind the camera, and in 1909, he traveled to Los Angeles where he shot one of the first movies in the city, a short titled In the Sultan’s Power. Soon after that, the Selig Company opened a Los Angeles branch in Edendale, where Boggs acted as manager.
On October 27, 1911, Boggs was in his office in Edendale, having a meeting with William Selig and a few other men, when a janitor named Frank Minnimatsu burst through the door, brandishing a revolver, and opened fire. The first bullet pierced Boggs’s heart and killed him shortly. Minnimatsu fired off four more shots before the other men subdued him, managing to hit Selig in the right arm.
As to the janitor’s motive, some newspapers of the time speculated that he had been driven crazy by drink, while others reported that he harbored a grudge against Francis Boggs and went into that room with the specific intent of killing him.
2. The Deaths at Greystone Mansion
You might not recognize the Greystone Mansion by name, but it is almost certain that you’ve seen it at some point. Located in Beverly Hills, this estate is one of the most popular filming locations in the country. It’s been featured in over 100 movies, TV shows, music videos, and commercials, including The Prestige, The Muppets, Spider-Man, Ghostbusters, The Big Lebowski, House, ER, Knight Rider, Columbo, and many, many more. The house has a rich history that includes glitz and glamour, but also scandal and murder.
The Greystone Mansion was built in 1928 by oil tycoon Edward Doheny as a gift for his son, Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr. Ned and his family moved into the palatial estate towards the end of the year and, just four months later, he was lying dead in a guest bedroom in a pool of his own blood, next to the body of his secretary, Hugh Plunkett.
The official story labeled it a murder-suicide – Plunkett shot his employer and childhood friend before turning the gun on himself. As to why, there is only speculation. Plunkett might have been mentally unstable and angry at Doheny who wanted to commit him to an asylum. Or maybe Plunkett heard that the Dohenys wanted him to take the rap for a bribery charge in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal. Or maybe the two were in a secret relationship together.
Or maybe Plunkett didn’t kill Doheny at all. Rumors appeared immediately that the story was nothing but a coverup orchestrated by Doheny Sr., and, in fact, Ned was the one who killed Plunkett and then himself. But Doheny was one of the most powerful men in the state, so his preferred version of events became the truth.
1. Death of a Stooge
Unless you’re a massive fan of slapstick comedy, you probably don’t know the name “Ted Healy.” He was a vaudeville performer, actor, and comedian, best remembered nowadays for creating The Three Stooges alongside his childhood friend Moe Howard. He was also known for dying suddenly and mysteriously, following what may have been an attack involving fellow movie star Wallace Beery and the Mafia.
All of this is Hollywood lore. Officially, Healy died of nephritis brought on by alcohol abuse, which was why the police never investigated the matter. However, his personal physician saw enough suspicious signs when he first inspected the body that he refused to sign the death certificate and ordered an autopsy. On the night of his death, December 21, 1937, the comedian staggered out of the Cafe Trocadero on the Sunset Strip all battered, bloody, and bruised, and managed to make his way to a taxi that took him to the hotel where he died.
Allegedly, Healy got into a fight with actor Wallace Beery, who was at the Trocadero with mobster Pat DiCicco and producer “Cubby” Broccoli of James Bond fame. Again, going strictly by rumors, the three beat Healy so badly that they caused his death, and MGM fixers later kept the whole thing hush-hush to protect Beery, who was one of their biggest stars.