Stars Gone Broke
Fame and fortune don’t last forever. Even the biggest movie stars aren’t immune. But some celebrities fare worse than others especially where finances are concerned. This article from the October 2002 issue of Movieline magazine – dubbed “the Money Issue” – examined a few case studies of movie stars who lost their fortunes.
Early last September, the entertainment press reported in small postscripts here and there that an actor named Troy Donahue had died at age 65 of a heart attack. Even before 9/11 turned everyone’s attention to the same big tragedy, most people didn’t register the small tragedy of a Hollywood has-been passing on. But for those who noted the event, one detail in particular stood out and stuck in the mind–that Donahue had died with next to nothing in the way of material wealth to his name. How does someone who’s ever been as big a star as Troy Donahue was in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when he made A Summer Place and Parrish on the big screen and did “Surfside 6” on TV, squander all that good fortune and end up worse off than most ordinary 65-year-olds?
There’s uncomfortable fascination in the situation of stars–people who’ve hit the ultimate lottery in terms of winning adoration, privilege, opportunity and money–who fall back into the same mundane financial vulnerability that animates the masses. The circumstances of these personal disasters are almost enthralling, though not always in expected ways. Troy Donahue, for example, never really had much money to lose, it turns out. He was a contract player for Warner Bros, on a fairly modest salary and hadn’t had much chance to sock it away before the studio dropped his contract in 1966. He did lose what little he had. He’d never been comfortable acting, and with his clean, blond looks suddenly out of style, he fell off the radar, stumbled through substance abuse problems, and even went homeless for a while. At the end of his life, though, Donahue wasn’t some hard-luck tale of a star-gone-dim. Money was a problem, but he had 20 years of sobriety under his belt he was loved by good friends and a fiancée, and he was probably as happy as most people, including any number of stars whose bank accounts are full-up.
It’s because we think of stardom as some magical ascension from which then is no graceful way down that stars who fail even to salvage cash on their descent inspire queasy curiosity. How do they live with the knowledge that they have blown more good fortune than most other people will ever know? As it happens, far bigger stars than Troy Donahue have suffered bigger losses than his and have kept on going with greater and lesser grace.
One of the most seductively beautiful icons in the history of film, Louise Brooks, went from obscurity to world fame and back to obscurity in a cycle as short as Troy Donahue’s, but the odyssey of her life was very different. Brooks was a smoldering, lens-grabbing sexual outlaw who rose through Ziegfeld’s Follies in New York and hit Hollywood just at the end of the silent film era, for which she was a perfect, dark goddess. She became a star because her screen presence simply demanded it, and for a while she carried on like one. With the director husband she impulsively married, she lived in glamour up in Laurel Canyon and threw parties attended by mogul/studio-prince Irving Thalberg, his star/wife Norma Shearer and all other glitterati worth knowing. She drank, spent money and sought sexual entertainment not only as if there were no tomorrow, but as if to ensure there would be no tomorrow. It has always been possible to drink, spend and sleep around to positive effect in Hollywood, but Brooks did that only accidentally. She didn’t like Hollywood any more than she liked any other situation that hampered her inclination to do whatever she wanted. And unlike other beautiful actresses who excelled in willfulness, Brooks never wanted stardom enough to apply her impressive intelligence toward developing the shrewdness that Hollywood success requires. Just as she was on the verge of moving to Hollywood’s highest reaches, she walked out of contract negotiations with Paramount and went off to Germany to make movies with G.W. Pabst.
Brooks is a legend today precisely because of the films she made with Pabst, most importantly Pandora’s Box. But great as her performance in that film is considered today, it was panned on both sides of the Atlantic when it was released. Brooks might have overcome that if she’d agreed to help loop in sound on the silent film she’d made for Paramount so that it could be released as a talkie, but, preferring to pay back studio head B.P. Schulberg for insulting her in contract talks, she refused. Schulberg, forced to hire someone else and fake it, badly, spread the word that Brooks’s voice was no good, leaving her to the fate of all silent stars with ineffectual voices, though there was nothing actually wrong with hers. And that was pretty much all there was to Louise Brooks’s glamorous stardom. Within a few years she’d descended to a succession of dancing acts, gone through another marriage and several affairs with short-lived sugar daddies, become penniless, and gone back to Wichita to teach dance and raise eyebrows. Brooks would have taken stardom back in an instant at any point in the long life that continued from there. But in a way that neatly punctures the gaseous myth of stardom, she ended up redeemed in an altogether stranger destiny than Hollywood could have provided. Well into middle age, she turned for help to a lover from years ago, William S. Paley, who’d become head of the media empire CBS. Paley knew that Brooks, no longer an exceptional beauty, had always been an exceptional person. He put her on a secret stipend and encouraged her to write, whereupon she became a late-blooming, incredible writer. Everything her highly verbal, intensely opinionated brain had observed in Hollywood now became her subject. Between her own writing and the growing cult that her work with Pabst had inspired, Brooks lived her final years as a film legend.
The great comic actor and director Buster Keaton, a contemporary of Louise Brooks, followed an arc slightly different from Brooks’s, but one that left him to be similarly rediscovered late in life and raised to film legend status. Keaton hit his peak of success in the mid ’20s and shifted from a relatively modest lifestyle into high gear. He was married to the high-maintenance Natalie Talmadge, one of the three “Talmadge girls,” who, with their mother Peg, held forth over the social whirl of the early film business. Natalie didn’t act, but she lived like the divas her two acting sisters, Norma and Constance, were. This was the era of the first gargantuan Beverly Hills estates (John Barrymore’s had a skeet range and a private zoo) and Keaton hired an architect to design an Italianate villa on land up behind the Beverly Hills Hotel that made him a neighbor of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Tom Mix and Marion Davies. The finished crescent-shaped mansion included a black-and-white marble tango floor, gold-plated bathroom fixtures, a salon with painted murals, the de rigueur screening room, etc., all set on grounds that featured three tennis courts, an aviary, elaborate servants quarters, bathhouses and a brook stocked with trout. The Keaton estate became the site of famous Sunday barbecues that often went right through Sunday night, with Hollywood’s most glamorous party crowd drinking and dancing.
In financial matters, Keaton had always trusted his sister-in-law Norma’s husband, Joe Schenck, an independent mogul whose studio housed Buster Keaton Productions. Under these arrangements he never saw the money that his peers Chaplin and Lloyd made (and kept), but he did well and had creative freedom. That changed when, under the influence of Joe and his brother Nick, Keaton signed on at MGM–the biggest and wealthiest studio–in 1928. Over the next four years, his dream world evaporated. He was forced to surrender creative control of his own work, his marriage dissolved and he lost his villa in a ruinous divorce settlement, and his drinking problem became full-blown alcoholism. MGM canceled his contract in 1932 and all those who’d enjoyed his bashes at the villa kept their distance. He remarried badly to a nurse who opened the Mrs. Buster Keaton Beauty Parlor, then cleaned out his bank account and left. At his lowest point, he was taken to a psychiatric hospital in a straitjacket.
But Keaton married a third time, cleaned up and lived on for decades after his heyday. He was never destitute, though often in financial stress, despite which he continued to support his own parasitic parents, brother and sister. However much it may seem to us unimaginable that the genius who made The General receded into obscurity, Keaton himself was remarkably unbitter about his comedown. He worked willingly at any number of unworthy tasks, including television guest shots in the ’50s and ’60s, and cameos in movies like Beach Blanket Bingo. His wife said of him, “He had no artistic ego whatsoever. I would say his personality and ego might be the equivalent of a house painter’s.” By the time he died in 1966 at the age of 70, Keaton had, like Brooks, been resurrected as a screen legend.
The dignity that Keaton and Brooks achieved despite losing all their Hollywood riches was, of course, a rarefied state. The delicately beautiful, blonde star Veronica Lake, whose memorable films Sullivan’s Travels, The Glass Key and I Married a Witch were all made in a brief period in the ’40s, kept none of her money and little enough of her dignity over the next quarter century. During her marriage to her second husband, Hungarian director Andre De Toth, Lake lived the Hollywood good life, owning a farm where she attempted to raise wheat, a 23-acre ranch outside Los Angeles, a vacation house, a yacht and a plane. She had no business sense, however, and, more disastrously, no man sense either. “I’d always been attracted to the sick or unattractive, and still am,” she would later say, rather amazingly, in the autobiography she cowrote. De Toth, who meddled controllingly in her career and stalled in his own, spent money compulsively. “[He] kept spending everything we had,” wrote Lake in the same autobiography. “He found it increasingly difficult to get rid of the money at home so he started taking long and frequent trips abroad, reportedly in search of properties and future film stars. I accepted it as necessary and stayed home to continue my acting career. Also to make money to support the farm, ranch, airplane and [his] travels.” With or without De Toth’s help, Lake developed alcohol and emotional problems that quickly undermined her career. When her own mother sued her for financial support, there was none to be had. Lake separated from De Toth in 1951 and declared bankruptcy. Her home was seized for back taxes.
Lake claimed to have left Hollywood on her own steam (“To hell with you, Hollywood,’ I said to myself. ‘And fuck you, too'”), but no one was trying to stop her. Back east, she scraped by with stage, TV and radio work for a while, but no comeback materialized. At one point, she worked in a factory pasting felt flowers on lingerie hangers. In 1959, a reporter came upon her working as a barmaid in the Colonnade Room, the cocktail lounge in the cheap residence hotel for women where she lived. She eventually married a merchant seaman whom she claimed to love deeply, though it seems to have been a profoundly alcoholic relationship that finally killed him and left her at rock bottom. She moved to England for a few years, where she “wrote” her autobiography and remarried, but despite the fan appreciation that her U.S. press tour for the book generated (she referred to herself in TV appearances as “a former sex zombie”), she died of acute hepatitis, broke and alone in 1972. Veronica Lake was a classic victim of Hollywood and the men she chose, and seemed to play the victim right to the bitter end.
Two later female stars had husbands at least as bad as Lake’s, but they played their fates out very differently. Doris Day, born Doris Mary Ann Von Kappelhoff in 1924, lives in luxurious retirement today on an estate in Carmel, California, from which she carries on her various animal advocacy activities. But in 1968, when her husband of many years, Marty Melcher, died, she was–despite her enormous success as a singer and star in movies like Lover Come Back, The Pajama Game and Pillow Talk–facing financial ruin. Melcher had been his wife’s manager for years and had, through a mix of fraud and negligence, lost all her money and more. On top of that, he had committed her to do a television project she knew nothing about. Day bounced back from the trauma of those revelations to take creative control of her television venture and turned into the successful “The Doris Day Show,” which ran for five years. That toughness and victory in a long court battle over money owed to her put Day in the position where she can, today, watch out for furry little creatures more carefully than she once looked out for herself.
Doris Day’s contemporary Debbie Reynolds was equally trusting in her early years. As a young MGM starlet, Reynolds was personally cast by Louis B. Mayer opposite Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, and began a career ascent that reached a new high when she married singing star Eddie Fisher. She hit major pay dirt when she starred in the smash Tammy and the Bachelor and sang the hit title song. Reynolds then was featured in the tabloids when Elizabeth Taylor stole Fisher away in 1958, a humiliation she bounced back from by marrying wealthy entrepreneur Harry Karl in 1960 and appearing to establish a privileged, Hollywood-style life for herself and her two kids, Carrie and Todd. With an Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964, Reynolds seemed to have settled into a charmed life. But husband Harry Karl was secretly gambling, and over the next several years, while Reynolds assumed he was brilliantly handling her money and making much more himself, he was actually draining their combined resources.
Reynolds’s film career was already over by the time she got rid of Karl. Forced to take her Unsinkable persona to heart, she developed a stage show and sweated it out in Vegas to pay bills. She stayed afloat, whereupon she met the man who would become her third bad husband. With developer Richard Hamlett, Reynolds built her own Vegas hotel and casino in the ’90s, and for a while, things were all right. In the end, as she later described it, she “went down in a blaze.” The bankruptcy that followed led her to comment, “The men I marry seem to love the money I make more than me.” Reynolds had been banking on her Unsinkability shtick for so long by this point, she just took it up a notch to deal with the newest calamity. These days, with the recurring role she did on “Will & Grace” as Grace’s overbearing mother, her advocacy of the drug Detrol as part of a consumer education program about a problem she knows personally (overactive bladder), the cross-country tours of her live shows and her position as the mom of Princess Leia/screenwriter Carrie Fisher, Reynolds is a Hollywood figure of sufficiently camp proportions that she can get away with saying, “I think the only other person I know that is dumber than I am about love or romance is Burt Reynolds. Maybe I should marry Burt. I wouldn’t have to change my last name and we could share wigs.”
Debbie Reynolds does indeed have things in common with Burt Reynolds, the only star, perhaps, who outdoes her in boom-and-bust dynamics. Burt Reynolds, whose most recent financial woe took place in the late ’90s after he filed Chapter 11, has had, at various times, all the luxuries that tabloid readers imagine stars to have. Even in the realm of Hollywood’s hyper-brand of conspicuous consumption, Reynolds’s consumption has been conspicuous. After starting out with his own TV series, “Dan August,” in 1970 and making a few films of widely varying quality, Reynolds began a five-year box office reign in 1977 with Smokey and the Bandit. When he got a record $5 million for The Cannonball Run in 1981 he was well into a Rolls-Royce, mansion-strewn lifestyle, as he describes in his autobiography: “The more money I made, the more homes I acquired: two in California, three in Florida, plus a mansion in Georgia that looked exactly like Tara in Gone With the Wind.” Add to that the Burt Reynolds Theatre in his hometown of Jupiter, Florida, a restaurant chain, a yacht, a jet and a helicopter. Reynolds weathered the first bust when a series of box office bombs (beginning with the memorable Stroker Ace in 1983) coincided with a pill addiction and business failures to leave him owing $15 million to creditors.
With the devotion of new companion Loni Anderson (as unlikely a follow-up to Sally Field as Field had been to Dinah Shore), he cleaned up and slogged through some mediocre flicks that paid him well. The big leap back to boom-land, though, would come via television with “Evening Shade.” On the strength of that success he bought a 15,000 square-foot house on Mulholland Drive–tennis court, gazebo, “marble floors, Hearstian fireplaces” included–without even showing it to Loni. Anderson, though, did her part for Reynolds’s spend ethic. He credits her with maxing out a new platinum card she’d gotten one morning with $45,000 in purchases by noon, and notes her disciplined way of never wearing a gown more than once, but buying all everyday outfits in triplicate. Baby Quinton, the adopted son of Reynolds and Anderson, became a new way to absorb cash. For Quinton’s first birthday, Reynolds gave him a $10,000 carved rocking chair, and from his crib Quinton graduated into a corvette-shaped bed.
Reynolds’s expensive divorce from Loni (he claimed to be paying the highest child support in California history) was followed by a botched syndication deal on “Evening Shade,” all at about the same time he went on national television in a purple suit and, among other things, challenged Loni to take sodium pentathol. By ’96 he was declaring Chapter 11 with debts of $10 million. But Reynolds has a habit of stardom the way some people have a gambling habit. Boogie Nights brought him back to respectability and turned the light on at the end of his financial tunnel.
Buster Keaton’s colleagues Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd were no more talented than he, but they were savvier with money and died with their fortunes intact. Stars like Greta Garbo and Fred MacMurray got wealthier from non-Hollywood business than their stardom could have made them. But when you consider the probable correlation between star quality and financial savvy–let’s just say it’s by no means one to one–it’s hardly a surprise that some actors who’ve managed to make fortunes from their iffy occupations have also managed to lose them. Moreover, given the number of charlatans loose in the world of Hollywood personal and financial management, you have to wonder how any star succeeds in keeping flush. And as if the game were not already slightly fixed, there is always this comment from Veronica Lake’s memoir to think about: “Money was so plentiful if often seemed that much of it was spent in desperation moves to get rid of it.”