Joan Bennett lived in a time that was tumultuous and full of changes for actresses like her. The Silent Era of movies was just ending, and the Sound Era was just beginning. An actress with lesser fire and talent would not have made it through this time of rapid change, but Bennett’s tenacity and smarts made her one of the most successful and beloved actresses of her time. Still, her life wasn’t without its personal struggles, battles with the press, and scandalous moments. Here are thrilling facts about Joan Bennett, the ultimate femme fatale.
Joan Bennett was born on February 27, 1910, to a family full of superstars. Her father, Richard Bennett, and her mother, Adrienne Morrison, were both actors. Then, her older sisters, Constance and Barbara, also became actresses. With a family this talented, it’s no surprise that Bennett got into acting too. It was destiny!
At just six years old, Bennett appeared in the silent film The Valley of Decisions with her entire family. While they worked together well, not all was blissful in this family.
The relationship between Bennett’s mom and dad had a fatal flaw: her dad was extremely jealous of her mom. He saw her as serious competition in the world of theater and envied how easily she made friends with members of the industry. Her mom, sensing this resentment, began to withdraw from him. This eventually caused the two to divorce. This divorce shook young Bennett’s world and foreshadowed her own future relationship issues.
As Joan Bennett grew older, she came to terms with one important fact about herself: she didn’t want to get into acting. Acting had torn apart the relationship between her mom and dad, and both were downright miserable after the divorce. She wanted to either become a housewife or an interior decorator after finishing school. Deep down, though, there was a darker reason behind her refusal to get into theater.
While Bennett admired her family’s immense talent for acting, she feared it as well. She didn’t want to compete with her family for fame, and believed she was much too plain to actually compete with any of them in the first place. Determined to fade into the background, Bennett put her head down and quietly worked away at her studies. Then, at 15 years old, fate threw her a total curveball.
Joan Bennett was on board a boat called The Homeric to go to Le Lierre, where she would complete her education. That’s when her future changed forever. On board, she met John Marion Fox, a friend to her older sister, Constance. He was ten years older than her, and she noticed he drank a bit too much, but his worldliness impressed her.
Their relationship quickly blossomed. By the time she reached Le Lierre, she lost all interest in school, and her subsequent escape attempt nearly ended in disaster.
Bennett hated Le Lierre. She found the boarding school “oppressive,” and very much like a prison. Only Fox’s weekend visits gave her any reprieve, but soon, even that wasn’t enough. One day, she tried to run away from school in the middle of the night, only for the school to catch and expel her. Her mom was furious, but sent her to another boarding school called L’Hermitage, where she was much happier.
Fox continued to meet with young Bennett throughout her school days, which only caused friction between Bennett and her parents.
Joan Bennett let her parents know that she wanted to marry Fox, much to their disapproval. They pointed out she was too young, that Fox was too old, that he drank too much… and yet, this only made Bennett more determined to marry him. On September 15, 1926, she married Fox, went on a fabulous honeymoon, moved in with him, and became a housewife.
It was her dream come true…until it all came crashing down.
In 1927, Bennett discovered she was pregnant. The news absolutely delighted her, and Fox even managed to stop drinking… Until two days before the birth of their child. He went on a 48-hour drinking binge, before staggering his way back home to drive Bennett to the hospital. He left her at the hospital, where poor Bennett gave birth to their daughter, Adrienne, all by herself.
Being a new mom delighted Bennett, but it meant she had to finally face some harsh truths.
Unable to cope with the pressures of fatherhood, Fox’s drinking ramped up to a fever pitch—and it had dark consequences. Soon, he became so unpredictable that Bennett had to serve him a peace bond. Tragically, the peace bond made him so angry that he trashed their apartment in a fit of rage. This was the push Bennett needed to start divorce proceedings. Although she was now free of her husband, this created another huge problem for her.
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Without Fox at her side, Joan Bennett became the sole breadwinner for herself and little Adrienne. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much work experience, so her father ended up swooping in to save the day. He offered her an acting role in the Broadway play, Jarnegan. Not having much choice, Bennett accepted. Ironically, after being so determined to avoid joining the family business, Bennett was now taking her first steps to becoming a star.
Her dad drilled her relentlessly for her role. Since Bennett had a photographic memory, she memorized her lines easily enough, but she spoke so quietly that she could barely be heard. This only made her dad work her harder. Bennett was grateful for the training, remarking that she “learned more in that one production than… a year in a school of drama.”
Ironically, the training ended up working so well that Bennett almost ended up ruining the opening night for her dad.
Jarnegan opened on September 24, 1928. By then, Joan Bennett knew her role inside-out. She spent the majority of her time calmly waiting backstage, oblivious to the high expectations the audience had for her performance. Her dad, on the other hand, was beside himself with terror, and her calmness only made him angry. He shouldn’t have worried, though—both the show and Bennett garnered great reviews. With that, the world of acting opened itself up to Bennett.
Her talent soon caught the eyes of talent scouts at a production company called United Artists. They wanted her for a film called Bulldog Drummond, where she would be the leading lady. They invited her in for a screen test—but Bennett’s reaction shocked them. She completely refused. Bennett believed that the studio should just hire her, then do everything in their power to make her look good in the film. It was a bold and reckless move, and it nearly backfired on her.
Her refusal astonished United Artists, who tried to call her out on her bluff. They went off to find another actress but couldn’t find a replacement. With no other choice, they offered the role to Bennett. This time, Bennett accepted, and in a brilliant move, even negotiated a five-year contract with them. Her future secured, Bennett began the filming process for Bulldog Drummond… and the experience was absolutely harrowing.
Her first results on film were a complete disaster. When Sam Goldwyn, the movie’s producer, saw them, he asked her, “Where’s the Bennett fire? Why don’t you come across like your sister?” And as if being compared to her sister wasn’t enough, Goldwyn further compared her to her father, questioning why she lacked his “spark.” These comparisons crushed her, and the harsh work conditions didn’t help things either.
Since Bennett worked before the establishment of The Screen Actor’s Guild, directors tended to work actors to the bone. Bennett was no exception to this. In one instance, director Richard Jones kept Bennett working until 3:00 in the morning and expected her to come back at 9:00 that same morning. When Bennett tried to sleep in, a furious Jones tore her a new one. This was the last straw for Bennett, and soon, she looked elsewhere to further her career.
While Bulldog Drummond did well critically, the movie didn’t bring Bennett herself much recognition. After doing one more movie with United Artists, she broke her contract and began freelancing. Throughout the early 1930s, she quickly made movie after movie, garnering attention in her roles as the innocent blonde ingenue.
While her sweet beauty captured the hearts of movie-goers everywhere, it was her fiery personality that caught the attention of her next love.
Remember how Joan Bennett had turned down her first movie role? Well, her fire and confidence during the negotiations attracted an executive at Feature Films studio called John Considine Jr. Considine was a “wild, attractive Irishman,” who Bennett quickly fell in love with. Unfortunately, Bennett had a bad habit of getting involved with the wrong type of men, and the dark side of her relationship with Considine quickly became apparent.
Before they officially became an item, Considine assured Bennett he had ended his previous relationship. This turned out to be an outrageous lie. Bennett caught wind that Considine planned on meeting his old flame at Palm Springs. Her reaction was unforgettable. Bennett flew there herself. She caught him in the act, and she was angry.
Bennett cursed him and his old flame out before flying back home in a rage. She didn’t break up with him immediately, however—and the reason why was disturbing.
From the professional angle, Considine was still an important contact for her. He had actually gotten her a contract with Fox Studios, where she frequently received top or second billing. From the relationship angle… Well, let’s just say that Bennett liked her relationships to have drama. Later in life, she called her rocky relationship with Considine “lively and interesting.” Unsurprisingly, the lead-up to their breakup ended up being a dramatic one.
In 1932, Bennett was on the set of Fox Studio’s She Wanted A Millionaire when she got into a terrible accident. She and a fellow actor were riding on horses to the filming site. A skilled rider, Bennett had no issues with her horse. Her fellow actor, however, didn’t have much experience with horses, and his own mount was getting skittish. She suggested switching horses—and her kindness almost ended up costing her life.
The horse, growing increasingly terrified, took off in the wrong direction almost as soon as Bennett sat in the saddle. Her crew, seeing the trouble she was in, hopped into a car to chase them down. Bennett managed to get the horse under control, but the approaching car caused Bennett’s poor horse to go completely out of control.
It reared and threw Bennett into the air. Time stood still. She flew through the air and smashed into a tree. Things almost ended for Bennett then and there.
Joan Bennett sustained horrific injuries from her fall. She broke her hip, three vertebrae, and got a black eye. The crew rushed her to the hospital, where she underwent intensive surgery. Luckily for Bennett, the surgery went perfectly well, and the hospital staff assured her that she would make a full recovery. Her friends and family showered her with love during her hospital stay, which she appreciated greatly.
What she appreciated a whole lot less was the attention her two-timing boyfriend was giving her.
While at the hospital, Bennett received flowers, phone calls, and messages from Considine. She knew that he was still seeing someone else though, even as he played the role of the worried boyfriend. For Bennett, what should’ve been a romantic gesture turned into her final straw. Despite his obvious cheating, he proposed to her.
Not only did she turn him down, but she even called up the woman he was cheating on her with and told her, “He’s all yours!” Of course, Bennett didn’t stay single for long. As one relationship ended, another one began.
One of the fans that wrote to her while she was recovering was Gene Markey, a novelist and scriptwriter. His charm, wit, and warm manner quickly won her over. He too was head-over-heels for her, and he visited her often in between work. With their chemistry, it didn’t take long for the two to wed. The happy couple married on March 12, 1932. Thus began one of the happiest chapters of Bennett’s life.
In 1933, Joan Bennett hit the jackpot with the film Little Woman. The movie rocketed her into stardom, but the way she got the role was a happy little accident. The director, George Cukor, first met Bennett at a party. Bennett was a little tipsy, but something about her still impressed Cukor, and he hired her on the spot. Normally, this kind of rash decision would end with regret, but not this time.
Despite this unconventional meeting, Bennett knocked her role out of the park, and her career quickly snowballed.
Joan Bennett’s acting prowess in Little Woman earned her the attention of independent filmmaker Walter Wanger. Impressed, he offered her a lucrative contract that still allowed her time to be with her family. She accepted, and he began to manage her career. To cap things off, Bennett gave birth to her second daughter on February 27, 1934, to her and her husband’s delight. Despite Bennett’s happiness though, something sinister made its way into her life.
Despite her perfect life, there was one disturbing fact she couldn’t escape: perfection bored her. Bennett and Markey’s life had “settled into a kind of dull, lusterless routine.” The relationship slowly and quietly fell apart, until things between them ended with a whimper in 1937. With her relationship ended, Bennett felt the itch to escape Hollywood for a while, which led to her rediscovering a past love.
Joan Bennett returned to stage theater for the first time since her days of acting in Jarnegan. She loved every minute of it, and toured for about six months. During her time back on stage, a theater critic, Windsor French, wrote a scathing article about her in The Cleveland Press, going so far as to make up a story about her demanding a private elevator while staying at hotels. Bennett didn’t take this lying down.
Bennett wrote back to French with guns blazing. In a strange twist, The Cleveland Press actually ended up publishing her fiery response. They were actually delighted that she responded. You see, her father also had a bit of a reputation for attacking his critics, and as a result, the press almost expected her to pull the same sort of stunts her father did. Unfortunately, this meant that Bennett spent much of her free time fending off gossip-mongers.
Bennett drew a line in the sand when it came to a reporter named Hedda Hopper. Hopper started writing gossip articles that slandered Bennett’s children and attacked her actor friends. The articles enraged Bennett and drew the ire of an industry professional named Harry Crocker as well. He later wrote an article about the need for “responsible reporting.” Seeing this, Bennett got an idea and hatched the mother of all revenge schemes.
On Valentine’s Day, Bennett bought a full-page ad in The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, where she reprinted Hopper’s and Crocker’s articles side-by-side. She had the papers outline the articles with little hearts, and had the words “CAN THIS BE YOU, HEDDA?” printed in all capitals across the top of the ad—and she didn’t stop there. But since public humiliation couldn’t satisfy Bennett, she also had a live skunk delivered to Hopper’s door.
The lesson everyone learned that day was to never, ever make Bennett your enemy.
Despite her little stunt, Bennett’s career on stage continued to go swimmingly. After her theater run officially ended, the theater troupe’s manager asked her if she wanted to stay on for an extended run. Bennett considered this, but Wanger, the filmmaker who had signed her on after her success in Little Woman, resisted the idea.
He probably had professional reasons for doing so, but there was a bigger reason he wanted her to return to Hollywood: he had fallen in love with her.
Bennett had been painfully oblivious to Wanger’s affection for her. Wanger didn’t technically need to appear on set for Bennett’s films, but, as a friend of hers pointed out, “[When] you are [working], he’s always around.” Once she realized the depths of his affection, she returned to Hollywood and began working (very) closely with him. The beginnings of this relationship also marked the beginnings of a shift in her career.
Her career took a sharp turn when she starred in Trade Winds in 1938. Up until then, she had mostly taken on roles as the endearingly sweet but dumb blonde. For Trade Winds, she needed to sell herself as cunning, dangerous, and seductive, so Wanger put a dark wig on her. This change in appearance, along with her stellar acting, transformed the public’s perception of her overnight. Suddenly, she was a dark seductress.
Bennett’s next several, and most famous roles, saw her acting as a femme fatale. Under the direction of filmmaker Fritz Lang, Bennett made her name as a film noir star. Bennett successfully became a convincing seductress, blackmailer, and villain on the big screen. She was so successful that she, Wanger, and Lang formed their own independent production company. Unfortunately, success turned out to be a double-edged sword.
As it turned out, the more successful they became, the bigger Lang’s ego became. Bennett clashed frequently with Lang on set, even saying that when Lang “was in a successful period, he was impossible.” According to her, he was a “real Jekyll-and-Hyde character,” frequently flip-flopping between being perfectly calm one moment, and flying off the handle the next. In a dark twist, Lang didn’t think twice about putting Bennett’s life in danger either.
On top of being argumentative and temperamental with Bennett, Lang created terrible working conditions on set—which were occasionally deathly dangerous. Once, he made Bennett run through a house that was actually on fire for a film scene. A terrified Bennett did as Lang commanded, but then he made her do it again and again to get the perfect shot.
It became all too much for Bennett, and the three eventually dissolved the company. Fortunately, things looked a lot better in Bennett’s family life.
On January 12, 1940, Bennett and Wanger officially married. In 1943, Bennett gave birth to Stephanie, who was closely followed by another daughter, Shelley, in 1948. The entire family, along with her children from her previous marriages, lived in Bennett’s house. Between that and her ongoing successful career, Bennett’s life was a dream come true. Unfortunately, a nightmare lurked within all that perfection.
On November 20, 1940, just a few months shy of Bennett and Wanger’s anniversary, tragedy struck. Bennett’s mother had a heart attack in her New York City apartment. A maid later found her body. Just four years later, in September of 1944, Bennett’s father also suffered a serious heart attack that landed him in the hospital and sent him into a coma. Tragically, he didn’t make it past the following month.
The years that followed the loss of both her parents were ones of dark changes for Bennett.
The disaster began with Wanger’s production of a film called Joan of Arc, released in 1948. The film failed and nearly sent him into bankruptcy. In the meantime, Bennett was as successful as ever, and even made successful forays into the emerging television industry. She became the family’s sole breadwinner, and Wanger resented this. The rift between them widened, and soon, it drove him to insanity.
In January of 1951, Joan Bennett and her husband traveled to New York, with the intent of discussing a television series for her. Her agent, Jennings Lang, arranged the trip—but there was a chilling dark side to it all. Despite being a long-time friend of theirs, Wanger suspected Lang of trying to “break up” his household by stealing Bennett away from him. As his jealousy grew, and Bennett’s interest in their relationship waned, his suspicions drove him to commit a horrific act that ended Bennett’s career.
On January 13, 1951, Bennett and Lang were in a parking lot, discussing her upcoming television series, when Wanger showed up with a thirty-eight automatic in his hand. Wanger opened fire twice on Lang, causing horrific wounds to his thigh and groin. With the deed done, Wanger left a stunned Bennett behind to turn himself in.
Bennett, through her shock, immediately drove Lang to a hospital with the help of a parking lot attendant. When the press caught wind of the incident, everything broke into chaos.
The press coverage of the incident took a dark turn that caused Joan Bennett to become a complete professional outcast. They painted Bennett as the bad guy in a love triangle between herself, Wanger, and Lang. If not for Bennett, some of the papers claimed, Wanger never would’ve been driven to his horrific act of desperation.
Despite Bennett’s best efforts to fight back against this version of events, Hollywood effectively blacklisted her. From there, she lost everything.
In the years that followed, Bennett’s acting career dried up. Before the scandal, Bennett made 65 films over a 23-year career. In the decade following, she barely made five. Soon, her dire financial situation forced her to sell her beloved house. During all this, Bennett and Wanger stayed together for the sake of the children. It made for an unhappy household, and Bennett’s life was about to be unhappier still.
In early August of 1958, Joan Bennett received a deeply unsettling letter from her sister, Barbara. Barbara lived in Canada at the time, and was unhappily married to a journalist. In the letter, she begged Bennett to help her get back to California, but Bennett never got the chance. Only a few days later, Barbara died by suicide. It broke Bennett’s heart, and tragically, another heartbreak followed right on its heels.
On July 24, 1965, Bennett lost her eldest sister, Constance, to a cerebral hemorrhage. At this time, Bennett had found some work in television and theater, and was right in the middle of work when she received the news. In a heartbreaking twist, Bennett didn’t immediately stop working. She knew that Constance, a true professional, would expect her to finish her work onstage before leaving for a personal matter, so she pushed through the rest of the evening.
Bennett needed a break from all this tragedy. A year later, she finally got a little bit of happiness.
In 1966, ABC offered Joan Bennett a role in their new daytime television soap opera, Dark Shadows. At first, Bennett was unsure of the offer. After some consideration, she went ahead and accepted the job. She really had no idea what she got herself into. The show turned out to be unlike anything Bennett could’ve imagined.
Dark Shadows became famous for its inclusion of supernatural characters, like vampires and werewolves, alongside its dramatic plot twists and stellar acting. Bennett gained a newfound appreciation for the inner workings of television, and stayed with the show from 1966-1971. It was also during this time that she fell in love, one last time.
Joan Bennett met David Wilde, a writer and publisher, during the filming of Dark Shadows. They dated for 10 years—but he was hiding a secret. Eventually, Wilde revealed to Bennett that he had a penchant for crossdressing. This initially caused her some dismay, but she did get over it eventually. They got hitched on Valentine’s Day in 1978.
Coming from a family of serious actors, Joan Bennett was something of a rebel. While she took her job seriously, she learned quickly not to take herself too seriously, and many of her peers appreciated it. Of course, this extended to her personal life as well. Bennett remained with Wilde for the rest of her life. Bennett passed on due to heart failure on December 7, 1990. She lived to the ripe old age of 80 years old.
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