Filmmaker Kenneth Anger, whose death was announced on Wednesday, spent his early 20s in Paris, where he became acquainted with the city’s avant-garde scene. Between producing shorts under Henri Langlois at the Cinémathéque Française, Anger managed to snag a few bylines in the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma.
Anger regaled readers with his mythic tales of Old Hollywood starlets, packing them to the brim with details of sex, drugs and murder. His editors, impressed by Anger’s flare for the dramatic, encouraged him to compile these articles into a book, and thus “Hollywood Babylon” was born.
Published in France in 1959, the release of “Hollywood Babylon” came a decade after the fall of the studio system. In 1965, the book debuted in the United States. Within two weeks, it was banned.
Ten years later, “Hollywood Babylon” was republished in the States. New York Times critic Peter Andrews described it as a “306-page box of poisoned bon bons.”
Plenty of the rumors Anger spread in “Hollywood Babylon” have since been discredited. His stories, which range from lewd to downright libelous, include persistent speculation on stars’ sexual identities and substance abuse issues — cruel tactics that today’s tabloids have abandoned in light of increasing public scrutiny.
Nevertheless, Anger’s riveting prose isn’t all fictitious. Many scandals featured in the book did actually occur. It’s some of the crude details, however, that tend to get murky.
Ahead, separating fact from fiction in “Hollywood Babylon.”
Rudolph Valentino’s “Lavender” Marriages
Rudolph Valentino was Hollywood’s first heartthrob. The legendary leading man starred in box office hits like “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” and “The Sheik” before his untimely passing in 1931. Thousands wept at the death of their “Great Lover” — some fans went as far as suicide.
Valentino may have been popular with the ladies, but it didn’t stop gossip rags and later on, Anger, from declaring that he married a lesbian…twice. At the time, many stars were suspected of engaging in these so-called “lavender marriages.” In Valentino’s case, though, was there any truth to them?
The actor’s first wife, Jean Acker, had two longterm relationships with women following her marriage to Valentino. One was with actress Grace Darmond, while the second was with Zeigfeld Follies girl Chloe Carter. Acker and Carter remained together until the former’s death in 1978.
There is little evidence supporting that Natacha Rambova, Valentino’s second wife, was gay. In “Hollywood Babylon,” Anger writes that her marriage to Valentino was “never consummated.” This claim likely originated from a highly-publicized trial involving Valentino.
Before his divorce from Acker was finalized, Valentino married Rambova in Mexico. Once the news broke, Valentino was jailed and subsequently tried for bigamy. Prosecutors argued that Rambova and Valentino had, in fact, consummated the marriage. When Rambova took the stand, she claimed the opposite.
This was probably a ploy by Rambova to strengthen Valentino’s case — and it worked. He was acquitted and the couple legally remarried in 1923.
Mae West Takes on the Hays Code
Mae West went from the Broadway stage to the big screen, but her path to stardom wasn’t without controversy. The pioneering comedienne, known for her suggestive double entendres, starred in two 1933 blockbusters: “She Done Him Wrong” and “I’m No Angel.” Both managed to get by censorship boards, who determined whether a film was too risqué for release.
By 1934, censorship on screen was rigidly enforced due to the Hays Code. Meanwhile, religious conservatives, who claimed that Hollywood films were rife with immorality, began picketing the pictures. Fearing declining ticket sales, studio executives cow-towed to the Code, which forbade everything from interracial romance to “lustful kissing.”
West’s next film, “Belle of the Nineties,” led to her first major conflict with the censors. But unlike Anger writes, it had nothing to do with the line, “Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?”
West didn’t utter these words in any of her films until 1978’s “Sextette,” which debuted years after the release of “Hollywood Babylon.”
Anger also wrote that the Hays office sent a spy to watch over West during production of “Belle of the Nineties,” but this claim is false. Censors did, however, force West to change the film’s original title, “It Ain’t No Sin.”
Charlie Chaplin’s Teenaged Brides
In a chapter entitled “Charlie’s Nymphs,” Anger writes that the actor “established his reputation as a chicken hawk,” a claim easily backed up by his first two marriages.
Charlie Chaplin married actress Mildred Harris when she was just 16. Following their divorce, “The Tramp” set his sights on Lita Grey, who was only eight when she met Chaplin. Grey went on to appear in his films “The Kid” and “The Gold Rush.” The former depicted Grey, who was then 12, as one of Chaplin’s romantic interests.
At 15, Grey became pregnant with Chaplin’s child. Knowing that he could be criminally charged, Chaplin planned to marry Grey in a hush-hush ceremony in Mexico. Their nuptials were hardly kept secret, though. News of the couple’s union broke almost as soon as they tied the knot. Like Harris, Grey was 16 at the time.
“I wasn’t old enough or bright enough to know what the feelings I had for him added up to,” Grey later wrote of her relationship with Chaplin. “What could a kid of 15, who made 15-year-old conversation, possibly have that would interest him?”
Dorothy Dandridge v. Confidential Magazine
Before People and Us Weekly, there was Confidential. The magazine, first published in 1952, detailed the (often fictitious) exploits of Hollywood stars — something that would eventually cause its own downfall.
Anger’s claim that Dorothy Dandridge was the first star to take legal action against Confidential is false. Actors Robert Mitchum and Lizabeth Scott sued the magazine for libel two years before Dandridge’s 1957 filing.
Dandridge, however, was instrumental in Confidential’s takedown. She sued the magazine over a 1955 story, in which she was accused of having “relations” with a stranger in the woods near a Lake Tahoe resort. At the time, this was considered particularly scandalous, as the man making the claims was white.
Capitalizing on the racist attitudes of the 1950s, Confidential made miscegenation claims against several stars, including Maureen O’Hara, who also went on to sue the magazine.
Dandridge denied the vicious rumor levied against her, insisting that she wouldn’t have broken the resort’s segregation policies. “Lake Tahoe at that time was very prejudiced,” the actress later testified. “I didn’t have much choice but to stay in my hotel suite most of the time.” Dandridge, who walked away with $10,000, scored the first settlement with Confidential.
Months later, Dandridge returned to the courtroom. This time, the starlet took the stand in a libel case prosecuted by the state of California. Dandridge was one of just two actresses to appear at the trial — the other was O’Hara.
The case ended in a mistrial, but Confidential didn’t come out unscathed. The magazine was prohibited from reporting on Hollywood until its closure in 1978.