Unlike many of today’s stars, the legendary Leslie Caron doesn’t seem to have had a publicist telling to keep her lips sealed—and we are so here for it. Keep reading to uncover this humble French ballerina's wild ride: the scandalous affairs, the behind-the-scenes gossip, and the turbulent history that shaped her darkest moments.
At first glance, it seemed like Leslie Caron had won the birth lottery. On July 1, 1931, she entered the world, and what a comfortable one it was. Her French father, Claude, was a pharmacist from a well-to-do family, while her American mother—a former Broadway dancer—injected some fire into the prim-and-proper French family she'd married into.
For little Leslie, her childhood seemed like every girl's dream—but its shiny veneer hid a darker reality.
Leslie wanted for nothing. Her parents lived on the top floor of her grandparent's mansion just outside of Paris, overlooking the River Seine. They had a team of servants and young Leslie even rode to school in a chauffeur-driven limo. No need went unmet. But despite all of the material wealth, Leslie's home life was not very idyllic.
You see, Leslie's mother Margaret couldn’t be bothered with her children. To make matters worse, her favorite nanny left when she was only five years old. But although Leslie wasn't always her mother's first priority, the apple didn't fall far from the tree. In her titillating autobiography, Thank Heaven, Caron describes her early passion for dance–and it all came down to one nerve-racking childhood memory.
With every opportunity available to her, Leslie proved that she had the grace and style to follow in her mother's footsteps as a dancer. In her autobiography, she remembered standing at the top of her home’s large main staircase while her mother and her Austrian nanny, Greta, stood—two floors below—holding her panties open so that she could jump down into them. Cue the suspenseful drum roll…
In what must have been an anxiety-inducing tableau for anyone with a fear of heights (or anyone employed by child services), young Leslie took a deep breath and jumped. She was delighted by the flight and "landed lightly, my two feet passing gracefully through the leg holes!" In one fell swoop, a dancing queen was born—but sadly, not even discovering her passion could make little Leslie happy.
Unfortunately, the only thing more determined than a child starving for attention was Leslie literally starving herself for attention. At the beginning of what would be a lifetime of food issues, including seven bouts of anorexia, Leslie went on a hunger strike at the age of five—and the pounds started dropping off at an alarming rate.
Her parents consulted countless doctors, one of whom made a drastic suggestion: He recommended sending Leslie to boarding school in Switzerland. He thought the fresh air would make her hungry. We’re not medical professionals, but sending a five-year-old with an eating disorder and abandonment issues to a Swiss boarding school does not sound like the ideal cure. Oh, but this was only the beginning.
Desperate to find a solution, Leslie’s parents gave a sadistic headmistress permission to "cure" their daughter of her eating disorder. This was a huge mistake. This headmistress would sit beside her and try to force-feed Leslie. When that didn’t work, she would lock the poor girl in the bathroom, her cheeks stuffed with "hidden" food, and give her strict orders to swallow, or else.
Leslie was a fragile child consumed by her eating disorder—but fate had another cruel twist in store for her.
As if the force-feeding wasn’t bad enough, Leslie caught scarlet fever while at boarding school. So, not only did she have to have her head shaved, but she was also forced to quarantine alone. This horror show came to a disturbing climax when Leslie's mother noticed lumps in her cheeks during a visit. She pried open her daughter's bulging mouth and found a disgusting amount of old food.
For Leslie, it seemed like life couldn't get any worse. She was so, so wrong.
Leslie went from the horrors of boarding school to the horrors of WWII. In the blink of an eye, her family’s lifestyle went from champagne and caviar to potato peels and horsemeat. Leslie even had to make her own "shoes" out of her great-grandmother’s opera gloves. Even now, she sticks slivers of soap together so they don’t go to waste.
It was a brutal awakening for Leslie's entire family—and the consequences were horrifying.
Despite growing up poor, Leslie's mother was not the "at least we have love" kind of person. Devastated by the family’s newfound financial hardship, she began to drink even more than usual. To make matters worse, the family could no longer afford Leslie's dowry. Through the haze of it all, her mother managed to concoct a money-making plan…
Now, we ain’t saying she’s a gold digger, but Leslie’s mother made it her mission to ensure that her daughter would marry into money and become a princess. Leslie was a beautiful and talented dancer, and, according to her mother, the only way she'd ever become royal was if she became a professional ballerina. And so, during one fateful Sunday lunch, Leslie made a shocking announcement.
With her mother's encouragement, Leslie told her entire family, "I want to be a ballet dancer". Her grandfather’s reaction was not what she was hoping for. In what could be a scene out of The Royal Tenenbaums, Leslie's grandfather growled sotto voce from the head of the table: "Margaret, you want your daughter to be une prostituée?" Of course, Leslie heard him, and even today, his words are one of her crystal clear memories.
Luckily, Leslie didn't pay him any mind. The young girl finally had a goal in mind. Rising out of the darkness of her childhood, she reached toward the light.
Ooh, see that girl…Caron must have inherited her mother’s genes because she loved to dance—and she was good at it. Young and sweet, and only 16, she joined Roland Petit’s influential ballet company in Paris. Not only was she having the time of her life, but she was also now, unbeknownst to her, firmly on the path to stardom.
You couldn’t have planned this next moment better if you wished upon a star. When Leslie was 17, a vacationing Gene Kelly—yes, the legendary dancing movie star—saw her dance in Paris and was extremely impressed. A mere 18 months later, this little Parisian girl traveled to America to star in a feature film called An American in Paris. There was no turning back now.
Leslie Caron loved ballet and didn’t know very much about American movies, so she was definitely not singing "Hooray for Hollywood!" We can almost imagine the scene where she says farewell to her mother: Margaret is wearing a tattered silk robe and sloshing a drink around as she breezily (and actually) says, "Whatever you do, don’t marry Mickey Rooney".
No commercials or catalog modeling for Leslie—she plunged right into the lead role in An American in Paris and she definitely packed a punch with her French feistiness. In fact, her stubbornness stunned the studios. She wouldn’t let the film’s stylist pluck her brows or do anything to make her look like the other MGM stars. Much to everyone’s shock, Leslie even tried to demonstrate the look she wanted.
With a flourish, Leslie hacked off most of her hair with a pair of nail scissors. Let’s just say the studio didn’t appreciate her aesthetic. In a later interview, Leslie remembered the occasion fondly, saying, "So I arrived for the first day of shooting looking like a drowned cat". Well, when the newly-shorn actress stepped on to set, she got quite the dramatic reaction.
Everyone on set was horrified by what Leslie had done to her hair. They placed her in front of a lineup of disappointed studio heads. As they stood there shaking their heads, Gene Kelly suggested they shoot other scenes to give Leslie’s hair some time to grow. In private, Gene admonished her and said that the studio had fired girls for less. Unfortunately, this wasn’t her only misstep.
We’re not ones to encourage stereotypes, but Leslie herself admits that the French are a bit laissez-faire with time, and when she arrived late to set, Gene Kelly asked if she had an alarm clock. After apologizing and saying she didn’t even own a watch, Kelly said, "Honey, the war is over, you can go into any drugstore and buy yourself an alarm clock".
If those on-set shenanigans aren’t bad enough, the tardy actress also had other issues…
To top it all off, Leslie came down with mononucleosis during filming and had to power through it. It is hardly a surprise if you consider her malnutrition compounded by the stress of a high-stakes job in a new country. "I had never spoken in my life on the stage," she said, "and having to act out loud was a nightmare for me. A nightmare".
No one puts Leslie in the corner—not even mono. Long before the wet chair scene in Flashdance, Caron had her own sexy chair number. Leslie innocently says that all she did was imitate what the choreographer was suggesting, but her moves were way too hot for the censors. The choreographer cleaned up the dance (and Gene Kelly picked his jaw off the floor).
Luckily, all of her toil and trouble was about to pay off in the best way possible.
To Leslie's delight, An American in Paris went on to win six Oscars, including Best Picture, which is surprising once you realize that it was up against A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. MGM even ran an ad showing their embarrassed lion mascot saying, "Honestly, I was just sitting in the sun, waiting for a streetcar".
Leslie had dominated her very first romance, but her real-life romance wasn't exactly a fairy tale.
Leslie was no country bumpkin, but she did say she was a "virgin princess" when she first got to Hollywood. This may explain why shortly after her arrival, at the age of 20, she married Spam meatpacking heir Geordie Hormel. Unsurprisingly, her first kick at the can (of everyone’s favorite shelf-stable meat product) did not go very well…
Leslie tied the knot with Geordie in Las Vegas. Shortly after rousing the minister at the Little Church of the West, she heard herself saying "I do". In her book she describes "grotesque old ladies pulling endlessly on one-armed bandits in a city where sunshine is replaced with electric lights—vice, vulgarity, decadence hit me straight in the face".
It was a wild moment of excitement, but it burned out as quickly as it had ignited.
In just a short time, Leslie morphed from a virgin princess into a desperate housewife. She admitted that she was pious enough to wait until marriage, but then added, "What I learned was so disappointing, I had to get out". Her "childhood marriage," as she calls it, was over. But even though Leslie's marriage was over, the ensuing fallout was a full-blown mess.
To escape her disappointing marriage, Leslie fled to New York to reunite with Roland Petit and her true love—dancing. While she was there, the news broke that her husband was a drug addict. The ensuing divorce was nasty, complete with high-priced lawyers accusing her of cheating so that Geordie wouldn’t have to pay alimony. Behind closed doors, the actress suffered, but out in the spotlight, her performances were unshakable.
Even though Leslie's personal life was fraught, her film career plugged along impressively. In 1955, she starred alongside Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs, making her part of a small club of only six women who have danced with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in movies. Now, if only her love life would straighten up and fly right.
Falling for the boss is never a good idea, but the way Leslie describes her director Peter Hall makes him sound hard to resist: tall, handsome, brilliant, charming, ambitious, beguiling, and persuasive. She met him in 1956 when he was directing her in a stage version of Gigi, and let’s just say things were intense right from the get-go.
On Gigi’s opening night, the tension between Leslie and Peter came to a dramatic climax. They'd been attracted to one another for a long time, but they kept their relationship professional while working together. All that was about to change. That night, their magnetism couldn't be denied, and they finally acted upon their repressed desires.
Although Leslie and Peter didn’t get hitched in Vegas, they did get married later that year after Leslie became pregnant with her first child. Talk about a whirlwind romance! Domestic life was blissful, despite the fact that Leslie broke her contract with MGM to move to London. It was a huge sacrifice to make. But would this delightful honeymoon phase last?
After the success of the stage play Gigi, Leslie was able to play a 14-year-old at the age of 27 in the 1958 film adaptation. Even though they had to finesse some of the costumes to hide her curves, it was still quite the feat—especially considering that Leslie was a mother herself. The film went on to sweep the Oscars. This golden girl could do no wrong...at least for now.
However, when it came to her marriage, the flourishing actress had a rude awakening.
Perhaps this golden couple was only gold-plated because, over time, their romance began to tarnish. Although Leslie and Peter now had a daughter and a son, the perfect millionaire’s family, there was nothing perfect about Leslie’s state of mind. She wanted better roles in her hubby’s productions, while he wanted her to be a dutiful little housewife.
Growing restless, Leslie decided to make a great escape.
Would you rather be cleaning dirty underwear in gloomy London or living it up in glitzy Hollywood? Seems like a no-brainer, right? In what seemed to be a pattern in her marriages, Leslie escaped to Tinseltown to film Father Goose in 1963. While attending a glitzy party, she found herself sitting across from one of the hottest heartthrobs in the business.
The champagne was flowing, the air was electric, and Warren Beatty, one of the most striking men in Hollywood, had the spotlight of his attention pointed squarely at Leslie Caron. Talk about intoxicating. After a night of flirty repartee, Warren offered to take her back to her hotel. What was an unhappily married movie star to do?
Our little Leslie was no longer a virgin princess, but she was clearly facing a formidable opponent. Warren Beatty did not seduce over an alleged 12,000 women by accident after all. So of course he didn’t just drop her off at her hotel. In her book, she writes, "I lingered another week in Beverly Hills and had what they call ‘a good time.’" But this fantasy couldn't last forever.
It must have been hard for Leslie to leave her paramour's side after an illicit week of red-hot romance—especially considering what she would face back at home in England. After confessing to her husband and telling him she wanted to separate, he suggested a trip to Marrakech to save the marriage, as one does. It did not go well.
Leslie agreed to go on a Hail-Mary-moon to Marrakech but, sadly, the only heat during that trip came from the desert sun. Caron called the trip "disastrous" and was overcome with guilt about her children. "Depression settled in my heart," she wrote, "the beginning of a long, intimate relationship". Disheartened by another failed marriage, Leslie admitted defeat.
But luckily, she had a brand new love interest to ease the pain.
The newly divorced Leslie Caron was flying on an oxytocin high. "In Hollywood there was a place for me, parts were coming up," Leslie remembered, "I was one of the queens of Hollywood. Warren and I were like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie". Leslie was more high-profile than ever before, and her relationship with Warren showed no indication of slowing down.
If you’ve got a serial womanizer suddenly proposing to you, you must have some sort of je ne sais quoi, oui? Despite Beatty popping the question repeatedly, Leslie declined each time. Warren loved drama and media attention, but Leslie wanted nothing to do with it saying, "I just couldn’t accept that kind of life". Soon, their opposing personalities began pushing them toward the deep end.
Leslie's relationship with Beatty eventually fizzled out after a couple of years, and, in 1969, she married Hollywood producer Michael Laughlin. In 1975, the couple moved to Paris, but in a strange twist, Laughlin changed his mind a few days later. Leslie, however, stayed in France. Something was amiss. It became the beginning of a very long and very dark period for her.
The 80s were a great time for yuppies, but not for Leslie Caron. Her third marriage had ended, her looks were fading—despite having cosmetic surgery in her 40s and 50s—and the movie roles were drying up. As the dark clouds of depression rolled in, Leslie started to worry that she was heading down the same dangerous path as her mother...
Leslie Caron was always an actress torn between two countries—France and America. While trying to adjust to her new life in Paris, she came to a disturbing realization. She felt like she was not French enough for French filmmakers and that they were punishing her for her success in America. She regretted returning to France and began drinking to numb the pain.
What does a single, aging movie star with some time on her hands do? She starts restoring an old inn in Burgundy. But it wasn't exactly as dreamy a project as it seemed. There was just a lot of work, loneliness, and worries about money. To make matters worse, Leslie's growing sadness couldn't be contained. When opening day finally arrived, her melancholy dulled the celebration.
In 1993, the inn opened—but sadly, Leslie was too exhausted and anxious to be proud of all that she had accomplished. She was drinking heavily so that she could "pass out as quickly as possible and forget the anxiety". She feared that she’d end up like her mother who'd tragically taken her own life in 1967, but she couldn’t do anything to stop it. Then the worst happened.
One morning, Leslie Caron woke up, and just wanted to end it all. She washed down too many pills with too many drinks. She later described this move as "a bit of a gamble. You toss it up in the air to see if you’re going to wake up". Thankfully, she pulled through. The distraught actress woke up two days later and decided that it was finally time to seek help.
After this terrifying episode, Leslie Caron spent a month in the hospital. It was exactly what she needed to begin healing. She started therapy, went to AA, and began to write her memoirs. Surprisingly, she said it was the writing that really helped her come to terms with her past. Her words though? Absolutely scathing. She realized she had been "eaten up by the personality of my mother," and that she had finally "severed the umbilical cord".
The Covid-19 pandemic caused a lot of people to reevaluate their lives and Leslie Caron was among them. Despite taking on occasional acting gigs—and even winning an Emmy for a 2006 appearance on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit—Leslie decided to retire. It seems like she finally managed to find her "happily ever after": She hasn’t touched a drink for decades, hangs out with her dog, and loves being able to stay up late and sleep in. Sounds pretty good to us.
As any movie star knows, diamonds are a girl’s best friend, and this is especially true for Leslie Caron. Her mother’s modest diamond ring once saved her from getting her finger cut off by a garage door. As for her three wedding rings? She had them melted into cufflinks for her two grandsons. Waste not, want not.
Legendary costume designer Patricia Field has said that her main inspiration for Emily in Paris was an An American in Paris. One cheeky BBC journalist seems to disagree, writing: "Film fans will find Emily’s outfits bear little relation to An American in Paris’ lavish costuming; instead her look is very much a rich American millennial tourist in Paris".
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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