Poignant Facts About William Powell, The World's Unluckiest Lover

November 29, 2023 | Brendan Da Costa

Poignant Facts About William Powell, The World's Unluckiest Lover

William Powell was the American actor who played irresistibly suave characters on-screen. In real life, however, he was simply, irresistibly, unlucky in love.

1. He Just Wanted To Find Love

For most of his career, audiences knew William Powell as the sophisticated and debonair detective from The Thin Man series. The only mystery he couldn’t solve, however, was that of his own heart. Despite dating Hollywood’s hottest blonde beauties, his relationships always seemed to end in divorce, sudden illnesses, and fiery plane crashes.

All that bad luck, just for a man who wanted to find someone to love.

william powell

2. His Parents Had A Happy Home

William Powell was born into total obscurity in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1892. His mother and father, Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, were humble middle class parents. By all accounts, theirs was a happy marriage and a happy home. 

Poor Powell would spend the rest of his life just trying to find what his parents had.

William Powell wearing suit and looking up-  In 'Pointed Heels', 1929Eugene Robert Richee, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Followed His (Broken) Heart

For a while, it seemed like the world would never get to know William Powell, the debonair man-about-town. After graduating high school, he attended the University of Kansas to study law and become a lawyer—but then promptly dropped out. 

He clearly had a different calling and decided to pursue his heart. Too bad it would shatter into a million pieces. Several times.

B&W photo of William Powell looking at camera.Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

4. He Found His Calling On Stage

It was obvious to everyone who knew him: William Powell had the heart of a poet (but the luck of a dung beetle). After dropping out of university, he followed his passion for the arts all the way to New York City. He quickly found his true calling as a vaudevillian and became a distinguished actor. 

Fortunately, it seems his bad luck only extended to his love life.

Portrait of William Powell - in the 1920sJohn Irving, Flickr

5. His Friend Got Him His First Film Role

Powell worked on Broadway for several years, befriending the growing clique of stage actors cracking their way into the nascent film industry. Finally, he got his big break when Hollywood legend and patriarch, John Barrymore, insisted that Powell get a starring role in 1922’s Sherlock Holmes. It was a gesture that Powell would not soon forget.William Powell (left) & John Barrymore in Sherlock Holmes - cropped screenshot - 1922Albert Parker, Wikimedia Commons

6. His Career Took Off

Powell’s success in Hollywood came almost too easily. He followed his big debut alongside John Barrymore with another 1922 box office success. This time, he starred alongside Marion Davies in When Knighthood Was in Flower. But the only thing flowering was his terrible, awful, no-good luck in love. His romances would wilt like flowers in winter.Marion Davies FactsGetty Images

7. He Had An Early Marriage

In 1915, before his big screen debut, Powell had tied the knot to fellow actress Eileen Wilson. Seeing as though the two actors had been virtually unknown at the time, we don’t know much about their marriage. But what little we do know clearly shows that fame was not to blame for Powell’s bad luck in love. 

He was simply cursed from the beginning.

Eileen Wilson in the play No More Blondes  - 1920White, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Had One Son

Wilson made the move to Hollywood with Powell once he started getting film roles in 1922. Their marriage might even have been somewhat tolerable...right up until 1925 when they had a son, William David, together. Shortly after that, however, Powell and Wilson decided to part ways, finalizing their divorce in 1930.

Presumably so that Powell could make room for a bodacious blonde in his bedroom.

Publicity image of the American actor William Powell - 1936George Hurrell - MGM, Wikimedia Commons

9. He Was Not Easy To Work With

Wilson wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stand Powell sometimes. In 1928’s The Last Command, for example, Powell butted heads with the director, Josef von Sternberg. Their disagreements became so heated that Powell rewrote his contract to include a clause that said he would never have to work with Sternberg again. But no one could deny his talent.

The Blue Angel (Film) B&W Photo On Set, Josef Von Sternberg (Director) - 1930Paramount Pictures, Josef von Sternberg, Wikimedia Commons

10. He Had A Strong Voice

Powell entered Hollywood at a tumultuous time. The advent of sound was turning Silent Era film stars into yesterday’s news faster than a film reel rolling down a cliffside. But, once again, Powell proved to be lucky in his career. His “strong stage-developed voice” only made him even more desirable to film-going audiences—and his fellow castmates.

B&W photo of William Powell wearing hat is looking at side - 1930John Irving, Flickr

11. He Was A Lady’s Man

In 1931, Powell starred in Man of the World alongside another one of Paramount’s biggest stars, the bodacious blonde beauty Carole Lombard. The stunning actress had confessed that, even before meeting Powell, she had been a fan of his. Seeing sparks fly between the two mega stars, Paramount paired them up together again in Ladies’ Man later that same year.

They had no clue what they were getting themselves into.

Lana Turner factsoneredsf1 ,Flickr

12. He Had An Unexpected Romance

Before the final edit of their 1931 films even hit theaters, Powell and Lombard sparked up an off-screen romance. The pairing of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars made headlines and drew as many readers to tabloids as eyeballs to film screens. Everyone couldn’t help but notice, however, what an odd pair the two actors made.

Lobby card for the American drama film Man of the World (1931).Paramount Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

13. He Was Attracted To His Opposite

Powell and Lombard were living proof that opposites do, in fact, attract—and then repel. Tabloids noted that Powell and Lombard couldn’t have been any more different. He was approaching 40, sophisticated and erudite. She was barely in her 20s, cursed like a sailor, and was as carefree as a lark. According to Lombard, their differences made for “a perfect see-saw love”.

It was definitely “see-saw”—but it was far from perfect.

Lobby card for the American drama film Man of the World (1931).Paramount Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

14. He Was “Mr. Carole Lombard”

Powell could have tolerated Lombard’s boisterous personality and less than polite English. But he couldn’t tolerate playing second fiddle. As he put it, he was tired of everyone referring to him as “Mr. Carole Lombard” given his wife’s outsized fame as Hollywood’s #1 leading lady. 

Whatever magnetism had brought them together quickly forced them apart.

Portrait in color of William Powell looking at side - 1927oneredsf1, Flickr

15. He Was Simply Not Compatible

After just 26 months of married bliss, Powell and Lombard went their separate ways. At first, they were both quick to blame their careers for their failed marriage. But, after some years, Lombard spilled the tea. “We were just two completely incompatible people,” she revealed in an interview in 1936. They did, however, remain good friends after their divorce.

A clean break would have saved Powell from some heartache.

Lobby card for the American drama film Man of the World (1931).Paramount Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

16. He Met His Lady Luck

Powell wouldn’t be heartbroken for long. While working on the set of 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama, he met the original platinum blonde, Jean Harlow. Harlow had been there to visit her good friend, Clark Gable, but immediately fell for the swarthy, suave, and emotionally mature Powell. Likewise, Powell fell for Harlow’s innocence.

He must have felt like he had finally lucked into the right lady. If only it were that simple.

Joan Blondell FactsDonaldson Collection, Getty Images

17. He Was Reckless

Both Powell and Harlow were working under contract for the major Hollywood studio, MGM. With two of their biggest stars sparking up a romance off-screen, the studio knew that they had to cash in on the racy romance. The following year, the two starred together in 1935’s Reckless. But the only thing that was reckless was their romance.

William Powell and Jean Harlow - B&W photoADiamondFellFromTheSky, Flickr

18. He Was Harlow’s “Poppy”

Given his recent divorce from Lombard, his second in three years, Powell wasn’t in any rush to get married again. He wanted love, but he wanted to be sure before tying the knot once again. Harlow, however, fell hard for Powell—or “Poppy”, as she liked to call him—and was certain that they would be together forever. 

With Powell’s luck, however, forever wasn’t a very long time.

Jean Harlow and William Powell in Laura Loveday, Flickr

19. He Had To Get Rid Of His Lover’s Father

When Powell met Harlow, she was still very much in her mother and stepfather’s grip. Even though she was one of the biggest stars in Tinseltown, her stepfather took all of her money and, thereby, controlled all of her decisions. If Powell was ever going to marry her, he had to break the iron grip that her stepfather had over her.

Jean Harlow & William Powell in a Promo for oneredsf1, Flickr

20. He Was Finally Free To Be Happy

Powell had portrayed detectives on screen for most of his career so he was no stranger to some amateur sleuthing. He investigated Harlow’s stepfather and made a disturbing discovery: The man had completely squandered all of her money on phony and foolish investments. 

Powell finally got Harlow to see that her stepfather had to be cut out. Now he had her all to himself—but disaster was on the horizon. 

Poster for the 1936 MGM film Libeled Lady - 1936MGM, Wikimedia Commons

21. He Was Half Of The Hottest Couple

Powell and Harlow became the most talked-about Hollywood couple. They went out all over town together, vacationed together and frequented the hottest spots in Hollywood. But they never lived together. Harlow lived with her mother while Powell maintained his bachelor pad. 

Powell and Harlow were in no mood to rush things—little did they realize, they were running out of time.

Carole Lombard and William Powell in a publicity still for the film My Man Godfrey - 1936Universal Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

22. He Was Afraid Of Marriage

Powell loved Harlow dearly but there was just one problem. He had already tried marriage with one of Hollywood’s other blonde beauties, Carole Lombard. He simply couldn’t bring himself to get married to another one. Fortunately, Harlow was willing to give up her glamorous career for the sake of their love—if her mother would only allow it.

Carole Lombard and William Powell in a publicity still for the film My Man Godfrey (1936)Universal Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

23. He Just Couldn’t Pop The Question

Powell was very clear; he wanted a wife, not another famous starlet to have as arm candy. He was fully committed to Harlow but, as long as her mother forced her to continue acting, he simply couldn’t bring himself to pop the big question. 

That didn’t mean, however, that he couldn’t give Harlow a big, shiny gift as a token of his undying love.

William Powell, Jean Harlow in Libeled Lady - 1936MGM, Wikimedia Commons

24. He Put A Ring On It

Even if he couldn’t bring himself to go down on bended knee, Powell loved Harlow and knew that she wouldn't just wait around forever. In a gesture that indicated his love for her, he shelled out $20,000 on a jaw-dropping 150-carat ring. 

The ring was so spectacular that everyone predicted an equally spectacular wedding must have been in the future. They must have forgotten about Powell's curse.

Carole Lombard, William Powell in the American film My Man Godfrey - 1936Universal Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Had An On-Screen Wife

Powell had his romances with many leading ladies, but his greatest pairing was his purely platonic relationship with Myrna Loy. He starred opposite her in his most memorable hits, The Thin Man series and The Great Ziegfeld. “When we did a scene together,” Loy gushed to the papers, “[we] weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony”.

Unsurprisingly, their on-screen chemistry caused a stir for Powell’s off-screen romance.

Still with Myrna Loy, William Powell in The Thin Man (1934).MGM, Wikimedia Commons

26. He Was In A Weird Love Triangle

Powell’s close working relationship with Loy became a point of contention in his relationship with Harlow. The public had grown accustomed to seeing Powell and Loy together on screen and there was considerable pressure for them to take their chemistry into the real world. Even if it meant awkwardly pushing Harlow aside.

Publicity Photo for After The Thin Man, with Myrna Loy, Skippy, and William Powell, 1936eBay, Wikimedia Commons

27. He Shared A Suite With Another Woman

When Powell and Loy starred together in After the Thin Man in 1936, things got really awkward. Powell and Loy arrived in San Francisco before filming and checked into their hotel. With a wink and a nod, the hotel management at the St. Francis showed “Mr. and Mrs. Powell” to their shared suite. 

The awkward part: Harlow was standing right there.

Lobby card for the 1936 film After the Thin Man - 1936MGM, Wikimedia Commons

28. His Two Leading Ladies Were Besties

Fortunately for Powell, Harlow made light of the situation. With a carefree attitude, she quipped that she and Loy would be happy to share the room. Decades later, Loy wrote in her autobiography, “That mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships”. But the friendship, and Powell’s love for Harlow, were not going to last.

William Powell - Lobby card for the 1936 film After the Thin Man - 1936MGM, Wikimedia Commons

29. He Was “Unengaged”

Powell’s unwillingness to marry Harlow as long as she still had her career left her heartbroken. As such, she took to calling the iceberg of a ring that he had given her, her “unengagement” ring. Wanting to end her period of waiting, she vowed to quit acting altogether and start a family with Powell. 

But there was one huge problem: Her mother just wouldn’t allow it.

Jean Harlow FactsWikipedia

30. He Lost His Child

Powell was closer than he ever knew to having everything he wanted in love. Unbeknownst to him, Harlow had gotten pregnant with his child. With her career and reputation at stake, her mother and the studio mandated her to end the pregnancy. It’s unclear if she ever told Powell about their love child. But pretty soon, it wouldn’t matter at all.Jean Harlow FactsWikipedia

31. His Lover Fell Mysteriously Ill

While filming Saratoga, Harlow fell mysteriously ill. The consummate professional, she hesitated leaving the set but eventually decided, for her health, that she had no choice. Before returning home, she stopped by Powell’s set on the MGM studio lot to tell him that she wasn’t feeling well. 

Powell promised to visit her later but he clearly had other plans.

Jean Harlow FactsWikipedia

32. He Tried Seeing Other Women

With Harlow’s health on the decline, Powell should have held out hope that it would be a wake-up call for her to finally give up acting. But, as her health continued deteriorating, he seemed strangely uninterested. While Harlow was checking into the hospital, he was checking out other women. 

When he finally came to his senses, it was too late.MGM publicity still of William Powell and Myrna Loy in the film Double Wedding - 1937Clarence Bull, Wikimedia Commons

33. He Made A Terrible Mistake

At first, Powell simply believed that Harlow had fallen ill with the flu—but his luck was never that good. When he finally found the time to visit her in the hospital, he saw that he had made a terrible mistake. The love of his life was clearly drawing her last breaths. He knew at that moment that he had missed his chance at love.

Promotional still for the film The Thin Man starring William Powell - 1934Crowell Publishing, Wikimedia Commons

34. He Couldn’t Keep Himself Together

Powell had gotten his chance to say a final goodbye to Harlow, but it was of little comfort. At Harlow’s funeral, he simply couldn’t keep himself together. He was so distraught and crying so hard that his whole body began shaking. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep his suave composure. 

He collapsed under the weight of his regret, requiring his elderly mother to guide him out.

Promotional Photo of Jean Harlow in Red-Headed - 1932MGM, Wikimedia Commons

35. He Had To Get Away

Powell was so distraught at Harlow’s passing that he couldn’t even bring himself to attend the premiere of her final film, Saratoga. He just couldn’t believe his bad luck and his foolish hesitancy. Instead of going to the highly anticipated red carpet event, he skipped town and caught a steamship to Europe to mend his broken heart.

He should have been concerned about his bum.

William Powell walking to Jean Harlow's funeral service, Los Angeles. - 1937Los Angeles Daily News, CC BY 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

36. He Returned Heartbroken

Powell and Loy had been filming the ironically titled film Double Wedding at the time of Harlow’s unexpected accident. When he finally picked up the pieces of his shattered heart, he returned to set—but both he and Loy found it extremely difficult to complete the film. Putting it lightly, Powell said it was “very difficult under the circumstances”.

Cropped screenshot of William Powell from the trailer for Another Thin Man - 1939web.archive.org, Wikimedia Commons

37. He Couldn’t Let Harlow Go

Even after Harlow's demise, Powell simply couldn't release his hold on her memory or forgive himself for his stubbornness regarding her career. In a display of mourning, he spent tens of thousands of dollars on her extravagant funeral. He even left a lasting symbol of his undying love for her at her grave site, ensuring that there were always fresh flowers near her tombstone.

But he was closer to joining her in the dirt than he thought.

Cropped screenshot of William Powell from the trailer for the film Libeled Lady (1936).Trailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

38. He Was Rotting From A Broken Heart

In 1938, Powell received some devastating news of his ownFrom the sounds of it, he had so internalized Harlow’s passing that it made him sick to stomach—or to his bum. On the outside, he looked like the very image of health. He was debonair, suave and sophisticated. But on the inside, he was rotting away.

William Powell in Film poster/lobby card for the 1937 film The Emperor's CandlesticksMGM, Wikimedia Commons

39. He Received Terrible News

Powell had been unlucky in love. But in March of 1938, he was unlucky in health as well. That's when his doctors gave him a truly devastating diagnosis: He had rectal cancer, and if he didn’t get treatment—and soon—then his career and life would certainly end. 

But it gets worse: The treatment options were almost just as bad as the disease.

Man Mountain Dean And William Powell In The Film Reckless - 1935Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

40. He Was Too Vain For Surgery

To combat his diagnosis, Powell could have undergone a pretty standard (if somewhat dangerous) procedure. He could have opted for a colostomy, a procedure that allows waste to bypass the typical waste removal process and collect in an external bag. But having a colostomy bag stuck to his person wasn’t exactly in keeping with Powell's sophisticated image. 

So he chose another, still terrifying, treatment option.

Frame from film Fashions of 1934 ,showing Bette Davis and William Powell - 1934Warner Bros, Wikimedia Commons

41. He Was Willing To Try Anything

Wanting to maintain his carefully constructed public image, Powell bowed out of the spotlight while he sought treatment for his diagnosis. In a desperate attempt to protect his vanity, he agreed to an experimental treatment. One that could either save his life or turn him into an irradiated hunk of decaying flesh. After the loss of Harlow, he didn’t fear anything.

William Powell and Hugh Herbert in a scene from the American film Fashions of 1934 - 1934First National Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

42. He Took The Nuclear Option

Powell agreed to undergo an experimental treatment to cure his rectal cancer (there was nothing the doctors could do for Bad Luck in Love Disease). He agreed to have doctors insert “platinum needles containing radium pellets” into his body. The new radiation treatment was either going to save his life...or make him grow a third arm. 

Honestly, with the state of medical science back then, it was anyone’s guess.

Publicity Photo for After The Thin Man, with Skippy, and William Powell, 1936eBay, Wikimedia Commons

43. He Cured His Disease—Not His Bad Luck

While he waited for the treatment to take effect, Powell took the time to heal. He wasn’t just focused on beating the cancer but also on recovering from the loss of his soul mate. Fortunately, after less than two years with irradiated pellets in his body, Powell’s cancer went into full remission and he managed to mend his broken heart.

Too bad there's no radiation treatment for his Bad Luck in Love Disease.

Lobby card for the film After the Thin Man - 1936MGM ,Wikimedia Commons

44. His Luck Came Crashing Down

Even after their divorce, Powell and Carole Lombard had remained close friends. A clean break in their relationship, however, might have spared Powell from even worse heartbreak. Just as he thought that he had put the pieces of his broken love life back together again, his bad luck shattered it like Humpty Dumpty falling from the wall.

Or like a plane crashing into a mountain.

Carole Lombard factsWikimedia Commons

45. He Lost Another Lover

Powell’s bad luck was contagious. Based on a coin toss, Lombard decided to fly back to Los Angeles instead of taking a train as she had planned. On that brisk morning in January of 1942, her plane went nose first into Potosi Mountain, ending her life instantaneously. It was one emotional setback more than Powell could handle—but fate still hadn't finished with him yet.Carole Lombard FactsWikipedia

46. He Lost The Person Who Mattered Most To Him

So far, all of Powell’s romances and marriages ended in utter devastation. All, that is, except for his first marriage to Eileen Wilson. But, in 1968, even that distant but happy memory would end in tragedy. This time, his bad luck would claim the life (in bloody and brutal fashion) of the person he loved most in the whole world.

William Powell wearing black suit and hat in movie The Thin Man.Laura Loveday, Flickr

47. His Son Bled Out In The Shower

Powell suffered yet another devastating loss of a loved one in 1968. This time, it was his one and only son from his first marriage to Eileen Wilson, William David. William had been suffering from depression for years and made the horrifying decision to end it all. While in the shower, he repeatedly knifed himself in the upper body.

All that he left behind was his body, his blood—and a harrowing letter.

William Powell wearing suit an cowboy hat - in ''Nevada'' -1927John Irving, Flickr

48. His Son Went To A Better Place

Powell rarely got the chance to say goodbye to the ones he loved. With his son’s passing, he might have been grateful for less closure. Before taking his own life in the shower, William David had written a lengthy goodbye letter to his father. 

The devastating final lines made their way into the tabloids: “Things aren't so good here,” he had written, “I'm going where it's better”.

Cropped screenshot of William Powell from the film The Ex-Mrs. Bradford - 1936Trailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

49. His Luck Turned Around

With so much bad luck in love and tragedy in his life, Powell’s fans would have understood if he simply gave up. But, when he least expected it, his luck finally made a turn for the better. MGM studio executives just so happened to send the up-and-coming actress, Diana Lewis, to Powell’s pool for a photoshoot because they believed he was out of town.

It was his good luck (for once) that he wasn’t.

Cropped screenshot of Diana Lewis from the trailer for the film Cry 'Havoc' - 1943Unknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

50. He Finally Had Some Good Luck In Love

As he looked out to his garden, Powell caught a glimpse of the young (she was almost thirty years his junior) Lewis, posing in the sun. He knew immediately that his bad luck days were over. Less than a month later, he and Lewis escaped to Nevada and eloped. As it turns out, the third time was the charm for Powell. They remained married until his passing in 1984 at the ripe old age of 91.

Bad Luck in Love Disease cured.

Ann Blyth, William Powell, - ''Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid'' - 1948John Irving, Flickr

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