For as long as we've had celebrities, we've had scandals about their lives

August 29, 1991|By Russell Smith | Russell Smith,Dallas Morning News

"Never get caught with a dead girl or a live boy."

-- Old political adage.

Beyond that one commandment, the rules that govern the private lives of celebrities are left to whim and negotiation.

Witness the case of Paul Reubens, a.k.a. Pee-wee Herman, who was arrested July 26 on a morals charge (which he denies) in a Sarasota, Fla., porno house. There was no dead girl, no live boy -- just Reubens, according to the police, engaging in a solo sex act in a dark theater.

When the news broke, Reubens' lawyer declared that the actor's career was finished, while friends and fans rushed to his defense.

Indeed, Hollywood history is littered with scandal; and, as often as not, the players have emerged only slightly bruised and, in some cases, bigger than ever.

A textbook case of sorts is that of Robert Mitchum, who, in 1949, served 60 days in jail after being convicted of marijuana possession.

"Sure, I've been smoking marijuana since I was a kid," said Mitchum, unfazed, at the time of his arrest.

Mitchum's next film, "Rachel and the Stranger," was No. 1 at the box office.

"It has to do with conditioning," says Lennie Bleecher, a Hollywood-based show-business promoter-manager and longtime student of Hollywood lore.

"Mitchum did not disappoint his public," Bleecher says. "He just lived up to his bad-boy ways. It helped to make him an even bigger star.

"The opposite, of course, was Ingrid Bergman, who was regarded as virtually a saint by the public," Bleecher says, referring to the 1949 scandal in which the Swedish actress became pregnant by Italian director Roberto Rossellini while both were married to other people.

"What she did was [considered] unforgivable, inexcusable," Bleecher says.

Bergman, in fact, was driven into exile in Rome, where she lashed out at reporters: "Leave me alone. The details of my private life are between me and Rossellini and not between me and the world."

It took seven years for Hollywood to officially forgive the actress; in 1956, she won an Oscar for her performance in "Anastasia."

Perhaps the best and most notorious example of a celebrity whose image didn't fit the scandal was Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, the silent-film star of the '20s.

It was in 1921, during what was reputed to be a wild party in a San Francisco hotel room, that a young starlet named Virginia Rappe died of a ruptured bladder after a tryst with the fat, jolly star of the "Keystone Cops." It was alleged that Arbuckle had inflicted sexual damage to Rappe with a bottle, although, after two mistrials, he was acquitted.

Arbuckle directed movies for a while, under the pointed pseudonym of William B. Goodrich, but his career in the spotlight was ruined. He took to drinking heavily and died in 1933 at age 46.

Other scandals that either rocked or titillated Hollywood during the '20s involved the possibly drug-related death of Ziegfeld girl Olive Thomas, who was the sister-in-law of Mary Pickford, and the death at an early age of drug-ravaged matinee idol Wallace Reid. And, even before the death of the era's greatest sex symbol, rumors of homosexuality haunted Rudolph Valentino.

Hollywood has at times gone to great lengths to keep scandal at bay. It has been rumored that one studio, to protect the he-man image of Rock Hudson, sacrificed the career of George Nader, another handsome but lesser star who was ruined by Confidential magazine's gay-baiting during the '50s.

"The industry has always been more frightened [of scandal] than the public," Bleecher says.

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