Gloria Grahame shot to stardom after appearing in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet if her name isn’t as well known today, maybe that’s because this ingénue never got a happy holiday ending—far from it. From her heights as a femme fatale to her jaw-dropping rock bottom, here are noir facts about Gloria Grahame, the Hollywood Temptress.
Gloria Grahame Facts
1. She Was Made For Hollywood
Even Grahame’s beginnings were steeped in stardom. Born in Los Angeles in 1923, her father Reginald Hallward was an architect, while her mother Jean McDougall went by the stage name “Jean Graham” and worked as an actress and acting coach. As a result, Grahame was exposed to Hollywood’s inner workings from a very young age…but this wasn’t always a good thing.
2. She Would Do Anything To Be A Star
Grahame had a total thirst for stardom, and she went to desperate measures to get it. She didn’t even graduate from Hollywood High School, dropping out at a tender age to better pursue her acting career. Before she was 21 years old, the ingenue was making her Broadway debut in The World’s Full of Girls. As it happened, it was a date with destiny.
3. She Got A Big Break
While the nubile Grahame was acting her little heart out on stage, she caught the eye of Hollywood bigwig Louis B. Mayer, who was in the audience one night. Mayer, who headed up MGM Studios, snapped up the emerging talent and signed her onto a contract almost immediately. It was supposed to be a dream come true for Grahame, but it was more like a nightmare.
4. Her Boss Was A Monster
Signing up with MGM and becoming a screen star was all Grahame had ever wanted. But her big break had notorious dark side. Namely, Louis B. Mayer himself. Sometimes called the “Monster of MGM,” Mayer was infamous for “discovering” starlets like Greta Garbo and Hedy Lamarr, and then mistreating them horrifically. Mayer even made child star Judy Garland go on diet pills, dubbed her “my little hunchback,” and often forced her to sit on his lap. So yes, Grahame was in for a harrowing ride.
5. She Was Deeply Insecure
Perhaps under Mayer’s sinister influence, Grahame began to feel incredibly insecure about her looks, especially next to all the seemingly perfect starlets she worked with. In particular, she started to become obsessed with her upper lip, and was insistent it was too thin and had deep, unseemly ridges. Her solution to this problem was…inventive.
6. She Had A Bizarre Beauty Trick
Without much money to permanently “fix” her lip, Grahame used to stuff cotton in her mouth while filming to compensate for its thinness, giving her mouth a plump, if strange appearance. This had mortifying consequences. Multiple co-stars got a nasty surprise when the wadding fell out of her mouth during some particularly steamy kissing scenes.
7. She Became A Seductress
In 1944, MGM plopped Grahame down in Blonde Fever, making good use of her sultry looks to have her play a romantic rival opposite screen sweetheart Mary Astor. It was the beginning of a lifelong pattern for Grahame, as she gained stardom for playing risqué seductresses and fallen women. By the end of her life, though, this dark fantasy turned into macabre reality.
8. She Was “Loony”
Around this time, Grahame started developing something of a reputation around Hollywood—and not a very good one. Sure, her collaborators, co-stars, and fans alike couldn’t help but notice her rampant sex appeal, her bottle-blonde good looks, and her drive and ambition to make it in Tinseltown. However, they also noted even then that she was “a bit loony.” If they only knew.
9. She Messed With Her Face
One of Grahame’s more avant-garde tastes was her relatively early enthusiasm for plastic surgery. Over the years, her insecurities had only grown deeper roots, and by the mid-40s she was regularly getting procedures done to make her lips a little bigger and her face a little younger. It was a slippery slope, but Grahame thought she had control of it.
10. She Fell In Love
Although Grahame’s life was slightly fraying at the edges, she did have a stroke of good luck. After meeting fellow actor Stanley Clements, she married him in 1945, walking down the aisle and then trying to settle into a life of wedded bliss. Unfortunately, they’d have a scandalous end—but not before Grahame kept on her precipitous upswing.
11. She Starred In A Classic Movie
In 1946, a twist of fate turned Grahame into a star. While on loan-out from MGM, she nabbed a role in the classic Christmas film It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Hollywood titan Jimmy Stewart. True to type, Grahame played the cheeky Violet Bick, the flirty woman who narrowly avoids a life of shame at the end of the film. Today, it’s one of her most famous roles—yet it only led to heartache.
12. Her Studio Betrayed Her
Instead of seeing Grahame’s work in It’s a Wonderful Life and being impressed, Louis B. Mayer and MGM dealt the actress a cold, hard blow. They realized the sultry starlet didn’t fit their own idea of a loveable ingenue, and they traded her off to RKO Studios in 1947, just a year after It’s a Wonderful Life came out. Well, fresh start at least, right? Wrong.
13. She Had A Bitter Divorce
In the late 1940s, it wasn’t just Grahame’s professional life that was falling to pieces; her private life was an absolute mess, too. Her marriage to Stanley Clements was firmly on the rocks just three years into the union, and the ill-fated couple ended up divorcing each other in 1948. Except, well, that’s just where the scandal started.
14. She Went On The Rebound
Just one day after officially divorcing Clements, Grahame gave him a brutal insult. She picked up and married her new paramour, the notoriously difficult auteur director Nicholas Ray, who would later go on to direct 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. And believe me when I say that these two illicit lovers had one controversial start.
15. She Had A Shotgun Wedding
As Gloria Grahame stood next to Nicholas Ray at the altar, she may have been trying to conceal a huge secret. See, she was around four months pregnant with Ray’s child at the time, and gave birth to a boy, Timothy, just five months after her nuptials. Still, Grahame was ready to settle down again and make the best of it. Uh, it didn’t work out that way.
16. She Mixed Business With Pleasure
Like Grahame, Nicholas Ray had been married once before, and actually had a pre-pubescent son named Anthony with his first wife. Still, the new couple was hoping the second time would be the charm for both of them, so much so that they even took a risky step and tried to work together on a film, the 1950s noir In a Lonely Place. Yeah, big mistake.
17. She Didn’t Take Direction Well
Even before filming began on In a Lonely Place, Grahame’s marriage started to unravel in the worst way. She and Ray were at each other’s throats constantly at that point, and everybody involved in the project knew the director and his lead starlet-slash-wife with were on the outs. But there was another reason things got really awkward during the shoot.
18. Her Co-Star Didn’t Want Her
As it happened, the film’s leading man Humphrey Bogart didn’t even want Grahame there in the first place. Bogart had originally suggested his then-wife Lauren Bacall for the lead role of Laurel Gray, but Bacall’s studio refused to grant his wishes and loan her out. As if that weren’t enough, there was yet another humiliation for Grahame on the horizon.
19. She Was The Last Choice For A Role
After shutting down Lauren Bacall, it wasn’t like producers went running to Grahame—instead, in a choice patently opposite to the sultry temptress, they wanted to cast dancing sensation Ginger Rogers in the role. In the end, Nicholas Ray had to stamp his foot down as director and insist the studio cast his own wife in the part. Right, off to a great start.
20. Her Husband Controlled Her
As embarrassing as Grahame’s journey to the In a Lonely Place set was, it was about to get downright horrific. See, even though Ray had stumped for her, they were still very much at odds with each other. So it’s no surprise that Ray was reportedly controlling and aggressive with Grahame on set, beyond what any director should be. And one day, he went much too far.
21. She Had To Sign A Horrific Contract
Apparently seeking out new ways to control his wife, Ray forced Grahame to sign a disturbing contract with him. In it, she had to agree that “my husband shall be entitled to direct, control, advise, instruct and even command my actions during the hours from 9 AM to 6 PM, every day except Sunday.” She then further acknowledged in writing that “in every conceivable situation his will and judgment shall be considered superior to mine and shall prevail.” All I can say is: YIKES. But…it honestly got creepier.
22. She Displayed Feminine Wiles
As a part of her indentured servitude to Ray on set, Grahame also had to promise not use her feminine wiles to needle Ray in any way, no matter what her problem was. Or, as Creepy Hollywood Stipulation #500 stated, she couldn’t “nag, cajole, tease or in any other feminine fashion seek to distract or influence him.” Then it came to a hugely tense climax.
23. She Kept A Secret On Set
After weeks of this display of utter dysfunction, Ray and Grahame separated even while In a Lonely Place was still in production. Nonetheless, they tried to keep it hush-hush—and this got awkward. Terrified that one or both of them would get the boot from the movie if the truth got out, Ray started sleeping in a dressing room under the guise of working on the script, while Grahame played along and acted like nothing was wrong. They divorced soon after.
Thing is, as we’ll see, this wasn’t quite the end of the story. In fact, it wasn’t even the only boy problems Grahame was having at the time.
24. She Had A Creepy Boss
The head of Grahame’s current studio, RKO, was none other famed playboy and mega weirdo Howard Hughes, a man known for his dating exploits, airplane feats, and controversial films. So when In a Lonely Place ended up earning Grahame rave reviews, you’d think Hughes would be happy. But, well, nothing could be further from the truth.
25. Her Studio Ignored Her
For all the blood, sweat, and literal tears that Grahame poured into In a Lonely Place, it came back to her tenfold, and critics still recognize it today as one of her best, if not the best, performances. Uh, not that Howard Hughes noticed. Grahame’s philandering boss later admitted he never even watched the movie. Oh, but Hughes wasn’t finished.
26. She Got A Cold Rejection
Despite the fact a bunch of despicable men kept trying to hold her down, Grahame still knew her worth. In 1951, she even begged Hughes to loan her out to star in A Place in the Sun, the now classic Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift joint. Hughes’s response was ice cold. He didn’t just refuse, he also forced her to act in a small supporting role in the film Macao instead. Honestly, it’s enough to drive any woman to the edge…
27. She Did A Lot With A Little
Grahame knew better than anyone that success is the best revenge, and she set about proving it. In 1953, just a year after her divorce with Nicholas Ray officially went through, she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for The Bad and the Beautiful. Best of all, she only had a little over nine minutes of screen time in the film. Then she just kept the vengeance coming.
28. She Rushed Back Into Marriage
You know what they say: The best way to get over a man is to get under one, and Grahame did just that, jumping back into matrimony with television producer Cy Howard, even having a daughter with him, Marianna Paulette, in 1956. Only, know this: Grahame was her own worst enemy, and even her happiest moments were streaked through with darkness.
29. She Had An Illicit Affair
From almost the moment she married Cy Howard, Grahame kept something huge from him. While filming the sensual noir Human Desire in 1954—the same year she married Howard—Grahame struck up an affair with her co-star Glenn Ford, a magnetic actor who was also one of the first-class womanizers in Hollywood. Granted, Ford was tame compared to Grahame’s future transgressions, and she soon had another thing to worry about.
30. She Made A Huge Mistake
By the early 1950s, Grahame was becoming a hot ticket and turning into Hollywood’s go-to femme fatale…until it all came crashing down. In 1955, she took a role against type and starred in the good-time, comedic musical Oklahoma! as a humble and innocent farm girl. When the dust settled, it couldn’t have been more disastrous for Gloria Grahame.
31. She Was A Huge Diva
Oklahoma! was far from a hit for Grahame, and audiences complained that her femme fatale good-looks didn’t match up with the country bumpkin she was playing. Besides that, people whispered that Grahame had been horrendously difficult on set, feeling she was better than some of her co-stars and alienating everyone in the cast. Still, there was something even worse.
32. She Ruined Her Face
By the time Grahame was filming Oklahoma!, her obsession with plastic surgery had reached terrifying proportions. She had undergone even more operations on her face, and the most recent surgery had paralyzed her upper lip, affecting her speech and performance in the musical. Then, after all that, there was yet another snag coming for the starlet.
33. She Had A Fatal Flaw
Grahame had a pleasingly high-pitched twang to her raspy voice, but her singing voice? Not so much. According to one source, the actress was utterly tone deaf, leading to a very embarrassing moment. In Oklahoma! (her only singing role that wasn’t dubbed over by someone else) sound editors had to painstakingly splice her recordings together practically note for note. In short, it was the beginning of the end for Gloria Grahame.
34. She Became A Has-Been
Over the next decades, Grahame’s career opportunities plummeted, and she began to take on television roles instead of securing plum parts on the silver screen. And that wasn’t all. In 1957, her third marriage to Cy Howard likewise fell apart, and she divorced him for “mental cruelty,” sharing custody of their daughter together. Then the other shoe dropped.
35. She Got A Harrowing Diagnosis
In 1974, doctors gave Grahame terrible news and diagnosed her with breast cancer. However, the dark prospect had a strange effect on the actress. Considering it a wake up call, Grahame immediately stopped smoking and drinking, and changed her diet and exercise regimen while undergoing radiation therapy. Miraculously, it worked, and less than a year later, her cancer went into remission. Boy, did she get her groove back.
36. She Had A May-December Romance
Starting in 1979, Grahame found herself romancing a much younger lover when she met Liverpudlian actor Peter Turner, who was nearly 30 years her junior and who hadn’t even been born yet when she starred in In a Lonely Place. The scandalous pair carried on their affair for two long years. Ahem, not that this was even Grahame’s most disturbing romance.
37. She Was A Work-A-Holic
After keeping cancer at bay, Grahame was ready to have a second lease on life. Besides throwing herself into bed with Peter Turner, she also threw herself into her work like the Old Hollywood workhorse she was. In fact, the minute she found out her cancer was in remission, she went back on set, ready to make her triumphant comeback. Yet as far too many people know, remission doesn’t mean “cured.”
38. She Had Bad Luck
In 1980, what little luck Grahame had ran out. Her cancer had come back with a vengeance after six years in remission, and doctors wanted to put her through more rounds of radiation treatment to tackle the disease once more and save the starlet from a certain end. After all she’d been through, however, Grahame’s response was utterly heartbreaking.
39. She Ran Away From The Truth
Grahame was simply unable to confront the reality of her second cancer diagnosis, so rather than facing it head-on…she simply ignored it. She stubbornly refused to admit she was sick, and didn’t even receive treatment this time around. Instead, she buried herself in stage work all over the United States and Great Britain. But remember: we all have to pay the piper eventually.
40. Her Marriage Unraveled
Grahame had an utterly scandalous life, but her most infamous moment was truly jaw-dropping. Although she went through a vicious divorce with her second husband Nicholas Ray, most people don’t know the real, awful reason behind their split. The actress and her husband-director didn’t get along on the set of In a Lonely Place, sure, but it really all unravelled when Ray made a whopping, deal-breaker of a discovery. You’re going to want to sit down for this.
41. She Slept With Her Teenage Stepson
Until the end of his life, Nicholas Ray claimed that one day, he came home and found his wife Gloria Grahame in bed with his 13-year-old son, Anthony. Yeah, I wasn’t kidding about the “deal-breaker” part—Grahame got with her teenage stepson. And if you think that’s the end of that, read on. Somehow, this freaky Mrs. Robinson situation gets a whole lot weirder.
42. She Had A Twisted Romeo And Juliet Story
Today, Grahame’s biographer claims she never slept with the young Anthony Ray, and that Nicholas Ray just made up the accusation to…make himself look good, I guess? But then more damning evidence emerged. In 1958, eight years after Nicholas supposedly caught them red-handed, Grahame and Anthony got back in, er, “touch” and started up a full-blown adult relationship. Double ew. How could this get worse? Um…
43. She Married Her Stepson
Two years after reconnecting, the dubious lovebirds made it official, tying the knot in a wedding ceremony in Tijuana, Mexico—a well-known destination for highly respectable, pre-planned unions. By this point, even Gloria and Anthony knew they were doing something risky, and they actually kept the ceremony a secret for years. Until, that is, the bottom dropped out.
44. Her Secret Got Out
Grahame and Anthony kept their forbidden love under wraps for as long as they possibly could, but the secret leaked in 1962. The revelation (obviously) ignited a blaze of tabloid speculation and scandal-mongering, with widespread denouncements of the union. Almost overnight, Grahame’s fading Hollywood star turned into total box office poison. The most biting blow, however, came from closer to home.
45. Her Exes Attacked Her
Grahame’s Tijuana wedding wasn’t just tabloid fodder; it also united a bevy of her bitter ex-husbands against her. Cy Howard, her third husband, was so incensed and disturbed that he charged her with being an unfit mother and tried to win sole custody of their daughter Marianna. Likewise, Nicholas Ray also entered into a long, protracted legal battle with the star over the custody rights of their son Timothy. It was all too much for Grahame to handle.
46. She Suffered A Total Breakdown
In 1964, faced with a career on the downslide and a handful of scandals at her doorstep—not to mention the army of exes gathering at her door—Grahame suffered a massive nervous breakdown. Things got so bad that she even submitted herself to electroshock therapy to try to rid herself of her nerves. Grahame never fully recovered, either professionally or personally.
47. She Surprised Everyone
Though it had completely disastrous (and gross) beginnings, Grahame’s relationship with her stepson-lover Anthony Ray might actually have been her most functional. It was certainly the longest lasting by far: The couple made it just shy of 14 years, and only divorced in May 1974, right around when Grahame got her first cancer diagnosis. About that…
48. Her Past Caught Up With Her
In 1981, Grahame couldn’t outrun fate any longer. She became acutely sick during rehearsals for her latest performance in Lancaster, England, prompting her cast to rush her to the nearest hospital. While there, she got the news she had been dreading. Grahame’s cancer was now so advanced, they wanted to perform surgery immediately…but Grahame said no again. After all, she had one final escape to make.
49. She Made An Odd Request
Desperate and alone, Grahame made a bizarre decision: She called up her old lover Peter Turner and asked him if she could spend her little remaining time on Earth at his mother’s house in Liverpool. As strange as this request was, Turner could hardly deny it, and he set her up there. Indeed, this time of her life is reflected in Turner’s book Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool, which got the Hollywood treatment in 2017.
Yet when it came to Grahame’s last wishes, Turner couldn’t possibly deliver.
50. She Tried To Deceive Her Family
While staying at Turner’s family home and rapidly failing, Grahame begged him not to tell either her family or any medical professionals about her condition. He betrayed her instantly. Terrified for Grahame, Turner notified her family within days, and they flew right over to England to visit. This would have drastic consequences.
51. She Made A Sinister Homecoming
In the end, maybe Grahame was right to have avoided telling her family. Once Timothy and Marianna flew over, they began to insist she come back to America with them, even though Grahame, Turner, and her current doctors were staunchly against it. In the end, the children won out, and they transported Grahame back on October 5, 1981. She wouldn’t survive the night.
52. She Met A Swift End
Although Timothy and Marianna were certainly in a difficult position, it’s also certain they made the exact wrong choice. Gloria Grahame made it stateside and was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, but the journey had destroyed what little reserves she had left. The 57-year-old femme fatale passed just mere hours after she arrived.