Hedy Lamarr Publicity shot for The Strange Woman.

The Hidden Lives of Old Hollywood’s Brightest Stars

From the Roaring Twenties to the Swingin’ Sixties, Hollywood actors lived and worked under the strict control of their studios. Each actor’s public persona was carefully shaped by the studio, often starting with a brand new name.

An actor’s offscreen life was managed by the studios as well, including the clothes they wore or even the people they dated. As a result, many of the most fascinating leading ladies of Old Hollywood led double lives, quite at odds with their onscreen images, that were not revealed until after their deaths.

Hedy Lamarr: Most Beautiful Woman in the World

Hedy Lamarr & George Sanders in The Strange Woman.
Photo Credit: film screenshot United Artists, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Her luscious face appears to be sculpted from porcelain. She was dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World.” Before becoming a famous Hollywood beauty, she starred in “Ecstasy”, a film so scandalous that it was banned in America and Germany. What more do you want?

Hedy Lamarr: Secret Inventor

Hedy Lamarr Patent next to Hedy Lamarr publicity shot.
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The secret life of Hedy Lamarr was even more fascinating than her public one. For a start, her birth name was Hedwig. To escape the rigid control of her husband Friedrich Mendl, a Nazi collaborator, she fled to America (some say she was disguised as a maid, others say she was wearing all of her jewelry as emergency currency.)

When she was not busy on set in Hollywood, she whiled away the hours in her home laboratory. She tinkered and experimented with various ideas to improve everything from traffic lights to carbonated drinks to guided torpedoes. She patented a Secret Communication System in 1941. At the time, she was married to Gene Markey, and the patent listed her married name.

“Any girl can be glamorous. All you have to do is stand still and look stupid.” – Hedy Lamarr

Barbara Stanwyck: Destiny in High Heels

Hollywood Star Barbara Stanwyck publicity photo 1944.
Photo Credit: Whitey Schafer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Barbara Stanwyck was once described as having “an erotic charge that would straighten a boa constrictor.” Her on-screen career was blazing, both as a femme fatale or a comic foil, but she was never a typical pin-up girl. Barbara didn’t flirt; she smoldered. If you look up “dame” in the dictionary, you should find her picture there.

Barbara Stanwyck: A Hard-Knock Life

Hollywood Star Barbara Stanwyck Film screenshot.
Photo Credit: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

By the age of four, Barbara Stanwyck (born Ruby Catherine Stephens) had lost both of her parents. Her mother was killed after being knocked off a streetcar by a drunk, and her father had gone off with a work crew to dig the Panama Canal (she never saw him again.)

Barbara was raised by older sister Mildred for a time, but when Mildred took a job as a showgirl, Barbara was placed in foster care. Scrappy and headstrong, Barbara was known for running away from these placements. At school, she was more interested in brawling in the hallways than completing her studies.

“Whatever I had, it worked, didn’t it?” – Barbara Stanwyck

Theda Bara: The Original Celluloid Vamp

Theda Bara publicity photo Theda on a couch in a long beautiful gown.
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Few living people have ever heard her voice, but you may have seen her face. Certainly, no one could forget those eyes. Theda Bara was introduced to audiences as an exotic Egyptian Vamp, the daughter of a French artist and his Arabian mistress.

Her stage name, Theda Bara, was purportedly an anagram for “Arab Death.” She starred in over forty films in the 1910s, and although the films were silent, her smoky eyes spoke volumes. You could call her the Original Fairy Gothmother.

Theda Bara: The Reluctant Temptress

Theda Bara in pretty gown as Cleopatra.
Photo Credit: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Theda Bara (born Theodosia Goodman) was publicized as an exotic, wanton woman, but in actuality, she hailed from Cincinnati, had never even visited Egypt, and was raised in a typical middle-class Jewish home. She received thousands of letters from fans proposing marriage, but her marriage to husband Charles Brabin lasted 32 years, only ending in her death.

She quickly grew fed up with her trampy public image, but remained dedicated to her craft. Her image is indelible, but sadly, only a few of her films have been preserved, the rest lost or in tatters.

“I have the face of a vampire, but the heart of a feminist.” – Theda Bara

Anna May Wong: The World’s Best Dressed Woman

Actress Anna May Wong and children at a tree planting in Los Angeles.
Photo Credit: Andrew Hugh Arnott, Los Angeles Times, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hollywood wasn’t ready for Anna May Wong (born Wong Liu Tsong). In the first half of the 20th century, actors in yellowface often played Asian roles onscreen, and miscegenation laws banned even the portrayal of interracial couples, but Anna May Wong’s grace and dignity couldn’t be overlooked.

Despite the stereotypical roles the American-born actress was handed, Anna May Wong made every minute count, breaking down barriers to become a successful actress and style icon.

Anna May Wong: “I Died a Thousand Deaths”

Publicity photo of Anna May Wong dancing in the 1937 film Daughter of Shanghai.
Photo Credit: Paramount Productions, Inc. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As her career progressed, Anna May Wong looked for opportunities outside of the limited “dragon ladies” and courtesan roles that Hollywood offered. Wong pushed back against anti-Asian narratives by documenting her own journey to her family’s ancestral village in China, and accepting roles that showed Chinese-Americans in a positive light.

She became the first Asian-American to play the lead in an American television show in a series written specifically for her: The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. Sadly, all known footage from this series was dumped into the Hudson River after a legal dispute.

“This is such a short life that nothing can matter much either one way or another. I have learned not to struggle but flow along with the tide. If I am to be rich and famous, that will be fine. If not, what do riches and fame count in the long run?” – Anna May Wong

Merle Oberon: The Glamorous Enigma

Hollywood Stars - Merle Oberon in a Publicity Shot.
Photo Credit: United Artists Studio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Merle Oberon’s silky voice and “butter-wouldn’t melt” poise made her the ideal candidate to play English royalty or French aristocracy. Her talent earned her an Oscar nomination for the film Dark Angel, but no matter what role she occupied, there was just something about Merle. One writer called her “bizarre, bewildering and different.”

When questioned about her family background, Oberon explained that she had been born in Tasmania, Australia, but her birth records were destroyed in a fire.

Merle Oberon: Hiding in Plain Sight

Film screenshot of Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas in That Uncertain Feeling.
Photo Credit: United Artists, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was only after her death that the truth about Merle Oberon’s background came to light. In fact, Merle Oberon (born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson) had been born in India, under British rule, to a teenage mother of Sinhalese and possibly Maori descent. At a private school in Calcutta, Oberon was taunted by her classmates for her mixed heritage, but a promising career in entertainment paved her way out of poverty – so long as she could pass as a white woman in Hollywood. 

“I couldn't dance or sing or write or paint. The only possible opening seemed to be in some line in which I could use my face. This was, in fact, no better than a hundred other faces, but it did possess a fortunately photogenic quality.” – Merle Oberon

More Unexpected Entertainment

Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-wai in In the Mood for Love.
Photo Credit: 2000 – USA Films.

Many of the romantic films we love follow a somewhat predictable plot – and that can be really enjoyable. However, sometimes the best part of watching movies is when they surprise you.

These 15 romance movies defy traditional plotlines, and we love them for it.

Author: Amelia Bowler

Amelia Bowler is a writer, behavior consultant, illustrator, parent, and logic puzzle enthusiast. She's always been happiest in the company of odd ducks, rule-breakers, and scatterbrains. A bit of an odd duck herself, Amelia took a teaching degree in the hopes that she'd be able to create learning environments where kids like her could thrive.

Amelia has a Master's Degree in Applied Disability Studies and has worked in clinics supporting children with developmental disabilities, specializing in teens with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder.