The internet is littered with mythical tales of early Hollywood scandals that never saw the light of day; rape, abortions, drug abuse and suicide amongst others. Back then, the media was corralled by publicists and many deals were struck with high-ranking officials in the police department to keep most of them – from the least offensive to the quite horrible – from public knowledge.
Howard Strickland, operating in the 1940s, was almost certainly the most powerful Hollywood publicist of his time. A studio Goliath, his main line of work was to ensure that reputations were managed and that the Davids of the press failed to fire off any slings at the stars he protected. He appears in the recent Ben Affleck film Hollywoodland, played by Joe Spano, doing his level best to put the detective searching for the truth about George ‘Superman’ Reeves’ death off the scent.
Nowadays, an A List personality is more often than not caught out and promptly checked into rehab to protect them from the media onslaught. Think Russell Crowe, Hugh Grant, Robert Downey Jr. or Mel Gibson; they have all suffered slings, arrows and outrageous misfortunes and still managed to rekindle interest in their brand with public and investors alike. 60 or 70 years ago, this was far more difficult to achieve, given the more inflexible nature of public opinion.
The studio publicists, and Strickland in particular, more often than not managed to stop stories at source. Before the studios began their iron rule over the stories that kept their stars alive, however, my research suggests that a number of forgotten publicists weaved their magic to head off such situations at the pass like stage musicians, allowing their audience to marvel at the illusion without seeing the sleight of hand.
The series of scandals listed below predate studio influence, and In Search of the Sons of Barnum will be bringing you more information about them over the coming days and weeks. What’s fascinating is that many of the publicists were deeply involved in the scandals and used the raw material generated to deliver column inches to help promote another film, or director or talent.
What bearing does all this have on the suspicious death, in 1920, of actress Olive Thomas and the rape and murder charges that ruined Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s career? Where do Jean Harlow and Wallace Reid, who died in 1923 after a long struggle with morphine addiction, fit in to this? How does it relate to Errol Flynn’s alleged status as a Nazi sympathiser and Charlie Chaplin’s pursuit by tax collectors and his apparent predilection for young girls?
You’ll just have to keep reading to find out…