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Breathtaking Facts About John Gilbert, The Great Lover

Byron Fast

John Gilbert’s scandalous affairs with femmes fatales like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich gave him the nickname “The Great Lover,” but his deplorable treatment at the hands of Hollywood’s power brokers left him with another: “Hollywood’s Unhappiest Man.” Gilbert’s meteoric soar to superstardom included beautiful bombshells, bad bosses, and booze. No wonder it all turned out so bad. Here are breathtaking facts about John Gilbert, the dark star.


1. His Parents Didn’t Want Him

Born John Pringle, Gilbert lived a childhood of mistreatment and neglect that would haunt him well into his Hollywood years. His father was completely absent, while his impulsive actress mother claimed she never wanted him in the first place. Then it got so much worse. When Gilbert was only 14, his mother passed, leaving him more alone than he had ever been.

2. He Had A Rough Start

Desperate, hungry, and already rakishly good looking, John Pringle turned himself into “Jack Gilbert” and went to Hollywood to find his fortune. It probably wasn’t at all what he was expecting; Gilbert got his start as mere background talent, making a measly paycheck in the process. In fact, it was this extra small salary that led Gilbert to make a horrible decision.

John GilbertGetty Images

3. He Sent His Wife Packing

While working in the background of sets, Gilbert met and fell head over heels for Olivia Burwell. Ecstatic that someone was actually showing him affection, Gilbert married Burwell immediately—and then hurt her just as fast. The money coming in from Hollywood simply wasn’t enough to support two people, so Gilbert sent his new wife packing back to her hometown, with a promise to send for her once he’d finally made it. As we’ll see, that…didn’t happen.

4. He Was A Tragic Lover

With Burwell shunted off to the side, Gilbert started focusing on his acting career. He landed his first leading role in 1917’s Princess of the Dark, a tragic romance where Gilbert played a hunchback in love with a blind girl. Although the film wasn’t a huge success, studio heads started to stand up and take notice of Gilbert. Still, it came with strings attached.

5. He Became A Star

When Fox Studios took the burgeoning thespian under their wing, they had one stipulation. Gilbert had been using the spritely name “Jack,” and Fox insisted he change it back to the moody, more serious “John” to take advantage of his dark drama. Incredibly, it worked, and Gilbert soon landed a series of leads in Hollywood romances. Which is exactly when trouble came knocking.

6. He Betrayed His Wife

Now that Gilbert had finally “made it” on the silver screen, he had a promise to fulfill to his long-lost wife Olivia Burwell. Instead, he dealt her a cruel betrayal. Rather than reunite with his lawful companion, Gilbert fell in passionate lust with his co-star, the sultry starlet Leatrice Joy. And then he really rubbed salt into Burwell’s wound.

John GilbertGetty Images

7. He Was A Bigamist

With Olivia Burwell miles away, Gilbert took Leatrice Joy down to Tijuana, Mexico to make it official in one of the city’s infamous quickie weddings. Yes, you read that right: Gilbert actually tied the knot with his second wife when he already had a first wife, making him officially a bigamist. So, to avoid a scandal, Gilbert did something even more scandalous.

8. He Had Two Divorces In One Year

Right after he tied the knot with Joy, Gilbert must have woken up and realized he’d messed up big time. With two wives in his life, he needed a plan. What would a gentleman do? I don’t know about a gentleman, but Gilbert decided to divorce the two of them, and once the dust settled he quietly remarried Joy. But if you think this led to a happy ever after marriage, you are so wrong.

9. He Had A Jealousy Problem

Gilbert may have risked it all to marry Leatrice Joy, but there was a rotten core at the center of their relationship. Gilbert was intensely jealous of the popular Joy, and couldn’t stand the fact that her star was rising faster than his, not to mention the fact she had a much higher salary. Yet even if Gilbert could have gotten over the green-eyed monster, he had bigger issues.

John GilbertFlickr

10. He Had A Type

Gilbert knew he was devastatingly good-looking, and he wasn’t afraid to use his looks on women who weren’t his wife. He gallivanted around town with starlets like Barbara La Marr, Lila Lee, and Bebe Daniels, all dark-haired bad girls in the femme fatale mode. Yeah, it’s safe to say that Gilbert had a type when it came to his mistresses. And he had more up his sleeve.

John GilbertWikipedia

11. He Was A Terrible Husband

Gilbert always liked to down a drink or nine, and his reckless behavior had disturbing consequences. He was an angry lush, and one night after romping around town, he got so mad that he slapped Joy clear across the face, causing them to separate temporarily. If that wasn’t bad enough for the new couple, more trouble was on the way.

12. He Had A Nasty Divorce

In 1924, the unhappy newlyweds found out that Joy was pregnant. Now, for many couples, this would mean trying to make one more honest go at the relationship, but Gilbert and his wife were so unhappy, it hardly made any difference at all. That August, still heavily pregnant, Joy filed for divorce from the actor…and her reason was chilling.

13. His Wife Caught Him Red-Handed

When Joy officially split from Gilbert, she cited his alcoholism and infidelity as her grounds for divorce. However, the whole story was even darker. Gilbert’s infidelity wasn’t just theoretical; Joy had just found out about his affair with his newest starlet, actress Laurette Taylor, and she’d finally had enough. Gilbert’s reaction was ice cold.

John GilbertWikipedia

14. He Abandoned His Daughter

That September, Joy gave birth to a baby girl, Leatrice Gilbert, while still apart from her ex-husband. Still, John Gilbert never rose to the occasion: He never saw his daughter, and, like his own father, the actor was all but an absent dad as Leatrice grew up. In case you’re wondering, this decision would very much come back to haunt him.

15. He Suffered A Humiliation On Set

In 1925, with two disastrous marriages in his rearview, Gilbert was all set to star in his next picture, The Merry Widow. Then he made a humiliating discovery. The film’s director, Erich von Stroheim, told the actor flat-out that he hadn’t wanted Gilbert on the film, saying frankly, “I do not want you, but…I assure you I will do everything in my power to make you comfortable.” If you think Gilbert blew a total gasket at this, you’d be right…

16. He Threw A Diva Tantrum

Completely mortified at von Stroheim’s alpha male “confession,” Gilbert did what any Hollywood star would do: He had a huge hissy fit. He stalked off set, ripped off his costume, and went into his dressing room to sulk. Eventually, von Stroheim calmed Gilbert down with, you guessed it, a drink. Still, Gilbert was about to enter the period of his life where no one could control him.

17. He Fell In Love At First Sight

When Gilbert was working on The Flesh and the Devil in 1926 alongside Greta Garbo, he first met the superstar at the studio’s train station set. Sparks flew immediately, and it was lust at first sight for both actors. However, that train station was an apt meeting place: Gilbert should have seen the inevitable train wreck that his life with Garbo would be.

18. He Was In A Famous Romance

The producers at Gilbert’s studio were ecstatic about the burgeoning romance between him and Garbo. After all, they couldn’t pay money for that kind of publicity. Audiences turned out in droves to see the real-life romance of their Hollywood idols played out on the silver screen…but they might not have known what was really going on behind the scenes.

19. He Was Controlling

Before striking out in Hollywood, Garbo had mostly starred in German movies, and she was more used to the style of acting popular over there. Once Gilbert got on set with her, he immediately noticed Garbo’s strange ticks, and set about trying to “fix” her. Between takes, he reportedly whispered directions to her out of earshot of the director. Gee, thanks bud. And he didn’t stop there. 

20. He Knew How To Use His Charms

To give Gilbert some credit, his incredibly controlling ways sometimes did help Garbo. The starlet was notoriously introverted; she hated people, refused to sign autographs, and wouldn’t attend the Oscars. While I want to be her best friend, this wasn’t exactly a smart move for a rising star, and the slick Gilbert taught her how to schmooze. For his help, Garbo rewarded Gilbert—but in a really weird way.

John GilbertFlickr

21. He Watched Garbo Make Love

Garbo trusted Gilbert so much, she asked him to direct her steamy love scenes in her new film The Masks of the Devil. This was actually awkward in more ways than one…because the film already had a director, Edmund Goulding. In short, it seemed like there was nothing Gilbert and Garbo wouldn’t do for each other. Well, except one thing.

22. His Lover Entranced Him

Gilbert and Garbo’s chemistry absolutely sizzled off the screen, and before The Flesh and the Devil’s three-week shoot schedule was through, they were head over heels for each other and even talking seriously about marriage, which would have been Gilbert’s third and Garbo’s first. Sadly, the lovers were doomed to an utterly heartbreaking end.

John GilbertFlesh and the Devil, 1928, MGM

23. He Had Unrequited Love

According to Hollywood lore, Gilbert was crazy for Garbo, but the elusive and reclusive starlet was always a little shy about diving into the deep end for Gilbert. Reportedly, the actor proposed to Garbo on many occasions, but she always hemmed and hawed. One day, however, Gilbert actually managed to set a date. It ended in disaster.

John GilbertWikipedia

24. He Had A Runway Bride

On the morning of his wedding, Gilbert woke up feeling lighter than air, having convinced the Sphinx of cinema to marry him at last. He went to bed that night in utter shambles. Tragically, although Gilbert stood at the altar waiting for Garbo, the starlet stood him up and never showed. Gilbert’s response was heartbreaking.

25. He Suffered A Breakdown

Gilbert might have been famous as a Lothario, but he had no qualms about breaking down into sobs the moment he realized that Garbo wasn’t going to show up. He spent the latter part of the would-be ceremony having a breakdown in the bathroom. It was like something out of one of his dramatic movies, and it was about to go up a notch.

26. He Heard A Cruel Insult

The infamous MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer was in attendance at the failed nuptials, and he had zero time for his leading man’s hysterics. According to a witness, Mayer walked into the bathroom, saw Gilbert curled up in the fetal position, and sneered at him, “Sleep with her. Don’t marry her.” Gilbert’s next move was one for the ages.

John GilbertWikipedia

27. He Got Into A Fight At His Own Wedding

In a split second, Gilbert went from jilted lover to action movie star. Insulted for both himself and his love Garbo, Gilbert punched the MGM head honcho right in the face, knocking him over. Then it went from tense to chilling. Mayer looked up from the floor and allegedly said these immortal words: “I will destroy you.”

From many men, this threat would be empty, but not from the great Louis B. Mayer. Gilbert was now a marked man, and sooner or later, his downfall was coming.

John GilbertWikimedia.Commons

28. He Eloped To Vegas

After his life imploded in front of his eyes, Gilbert just kept making incredibly bad choices. Licking his wounds, he quickly picked up with yet another starlet, Ina Claire, and tied the knot with her in Las Vegas. Because god darnit, someone was going to marry him. Of course, this hasty revenge romance got right back to Greta Garbo…

29. Garbo Tried To Stop His Marriage

On the eve of Gilbert’s third marriage, Garbo called up his best man, Harry Edington, and begged him to put the kibosh on Gilbert’s obviously doomed plans. His reply cut to the bone. Edington told Garbo that the only one who could truly stop Gilbert was her. Unfortunately, Garbo couldn’t bear the thought of causing a scandal, and she allowed Gilbert to go ahead. He would live to regret it.

30. He Loved Complicated Women

You’d think all that anxiety around his relationship with Greta Garbo would’ve sent John Gilbert into the arms of a simpler love. But, no: His new wife Ina Claire wasn’t just a popular starlet, she was practically Broadway royalty at the time. More than that, Claire was famous for her wicked tongue…and Gilbert felt its sting not long after the wedding.

31. His Wife Gave Him No Respect

At the time, people considered Broadway stardom much more legitimate than Hollywood flicks, and Ina Claire certainly considered herself much more legitimate than John Gilbert. When someone asked the blushing bride what it was like to marry a real star, Claire’s answer dropped jaws around the world. “I don’t know,” she quipped, “Why don’t you ask Mr. Gilbert?” Ouch.

32. He Tried To Crossover

In the late 1920s, films moved from silent to the talkies, and Gilbert and his cohort had to scramble to keep their popularity in the sound era. To that end, Gilbert got advice from his directors to use correct stage diction, AKA an over-articulated voice straight out of Shakespeare rather than mumbling Brando-style of method acting. Spoiler: This was very bad advice.

33. Audiences Laughed At Him

John Gilbert took the note on correct diction a little too literally. When he starred in 1929’s His Glorious Nightthe audience had a nasty surprise for him. In one particularly schmaltzy scene where Gilbert is kissing his leading lady and saying “I love you” over and over again in his perfectly-turned-out voice, the crowd started outright laughing at him.

It was the beginning of Gilbert’s end…and Louis B. Mayer may very well have been behind it.

34. Mayer Got His Revenge

Mayer was as good as his word, and he had been working tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure that John Gilbert never saw the light of stardom again. Sensing blood in the water after Gilbert’s flop in His Glorious Night, Mayer refused to loan the actor out even for promising films, hoping to keep him on this downward spiral. And, if you believe the whispers, Mayer went even further.

John GilbertHis glorious night, 1929, MGM

35. He Had One Deep Insecurity

There’s a story that Mayer was so intent on destroying Gilbert, he actually paid the sound technicians to make his voice sound “squeaky” in His Glorious Night. While this likely isn’t true, MGM—and Mayer himself—reportedly kept Gilbert insecure over his relatively “light” voice and his supposed inability to nail speaking parts.

Either way, this reversal of fortunes devastated Gilbert, but at least he had a supportive wife to turn to. ….Right?

36. His Wife Squandered His Money

Ina Claire always had expensive taste, and this didn’t stop just because Gilbert’s films started losing money rather than making it. In fact, while Gilbert’s life fell apart around him, Claire kept busy by dipping into their meager funds to completely redecorate their house. It was one of the last things she ever did as his wife; in 1931, the pair divorced.

John GilbertWikipedia

37. He Had A Crazy Ex-Girlfriend

Between his marriages and various engagements, Gilbert still had time for more ill-advised romance than you can shake a stick at. He briefly gallivanted around with the “Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez, a notoriously hot-headed starlet who had just shot her ex, the heartthrob actor Gary Cooper, with a pistol after he had ended things. Buddy, you’ve got bad taste in women.

38. He Spiraled Downward

With his career and his love life in shambles, it’s not surprising that Gilbert turned even more toward to booze. After all, he wasn’t prepared to go back to rags after experiencing such riches, and his heart was still hurting from Garbo, not to mention Ina Claire. In short, his mental and physical health were in serious trouble, and they led him to an unhinged decision.

39. His Fourth Marriage Was A Disaster

When in doubt, John Gilbert always seemed to find himself walking down the aisle. In 1932, he took up with his recent co-star Virginia Bruce—and the details of his wedding are eyebrow-raising. Forget quickie Vegas nuptials; Gilbert married poor Virginia in a hasty ceremony in his dressing room. Proving everyone right, this union only lasted a pitiful two years.

At this point, it was undeniable: Gilbert was clearly spiraling. And then a ghost from his past came to help him.

40. Garbo Tried To Save Him

Of all his lovers, Greta Garbo took the most pity on John Gilbert. Still firmly on the Hollywood A-list, Garbo defied all the worried bean counters at the studio and demanded that the failing Gilbert star alongside her in her newest film Queen Christina. For once in his later career, Gilbert got a break, and the film was a critical success.

Even better, Garbo had helped him get sober on set, and he was in a better position than he had been in years. Yet it couldn’t save him.

41. He Fell Into Bad Habits

In 1934, Gilbert got another chance at a comeback with The Captain Hates the Sea, a comedy starring The Three Stooges that had Gilbert ironically playing a bitter writer trying to quit drinking. Unfortunately, for all Gilbert’s teetotaling on screen, behind the scenes was one big party, and he plunged back into his alcoholism. It was a long way down.

42. His Last Fling Was With Marlene Dietrich

Gilbert was almost at rock bottom, but he still had one last scandal in him. At the end of his career, he took up with the brash, bold starlet Marlene Dietrich, romancing the femme fatale starting from 1935. It was the stuff that dreams were made of, especially for an actor going to seed. Yet behind closed doors, there was something more salacious going on.

43. His Exes Were Frenemies

Whether coincidence or not, Marlene Dietrich and Gilbert’s beloved ex Greta Garbo had a very complicated history together. They were not only notorious enemies in Hollywood, some even whispered that they carried on a steamy love-hate affair together when the cameras weren’t rolling. Oh, John Gilbert, you naughty boy.

John GilbertWikipedia

44. He Got One Last Chance For Success

Like Garbo before her, Dietrich tried to help get Gilbert’s career up and running. The Teutonic goddess earned “The Great Lover” a part opposite her in the upcoming movie Desire, and even tried to get Gilbert back on the wagon without a drink in his hand. Once more, things were looking up for Gilbert. As usual, fate had other plans.

John GilbertWikipedia

45. He Met A Tragic End

Gilbert tried hard to stay on the straight and narrow, but his body was simply too battered and bruised. By late 1935, Gilbert suffered his first heart attack, and just a month later, he succumbed to a fatal cardiac episode, passing on January 9, 1936 at the age of just 38 years old. All of Hollywood seemed to mourn him…but it was Marlene Dietrich who really got tongues wagging.

46. His Lover Never Forgot Him

As frosty as she could be on screen, Marlene Dietrich’s heart went out to John Gilbert, particularly to his long-lost daughter Leatrice Gilbert. Days after Gilbert’s passing, Dietrich reportedly sent the girl a large bouquet of flowers with a note inside. Its contents were incredibly touching. “I adored your father.” Dietrich wrote, “Let me adore you.” The pair then began a years-long friendship.

47. His Daughter Wrote A Book About Him

Gilbert’s daughter Leatrice had every reason to hold a grudge against her father, but that isn’t how it turned out. In the very last year of his life, Gilbert reconnected with Leatrice, and their bittersweet reunion was “intense, tender, and ephemeral.” Leatrice was so moved, she wrote the book Dark Star to clear up some of the misunderstandings of Gilbert’s life.

48. He Was Pretty

Unlike stars in the macho mould of the time, Gilbert was intensely pretty. He often competed for roles with the likes of international heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. He also had a particular knack for wearing ornate clothing and helped change the way culture looked at screen stars and sex symbols. But he was more than just his looks…

John GilbertWikipedia

49. He Earned His Nickname

It was his love scenes that really earned Gilbert the name “The Great Lover.” Gilbert was an over-the-top emoter, and he wasn’t afraid to use exaggerated gestures of romance or to contort his face to show his passion. The fans—as well as many of his co-stars—ate it up, and Gilbert became famous for his ability to act convincingly “in love.”

50. He Got A Stamp Of Approval

As The Great Lover, Gilbert had more than his share of experiences with the walk of shame. But in Hollywood, he will be forever remembered on The Hollywood Walk of Fame. He got a star on the famous boulevard and, as a further acknowledgment of his success, Gilbert’s handsome face made it onto a US postage stamp in 1994.

51. He Got Down And Dirty

There was a steamy reason why Gilbert and Greta Garbo were such a hit on screen. See, before the iconic film duo worked on The Flesh and the Devil, movie love scenes had to be standing or seated to make sure audiences didn’t get too excited. All that went out the window in Flesh, as the two actors got horizontal together for one of the first times in movie history.

52. He Blew His Big Chance With Garbo

Although Gilbert’s runaway bride episode with Garbo is now famous in Hollywood, some say it was Gilbert who first rejected the starlet. In this version of events, Garbo allegedly offered to quit Hollywood and become Gilbert’s wife. Gilbert responded that he would certainly be her husband, but that he wanted Garbo to keep her career.

Sadly, Garbo took this to mean that Gilbert was only interested in her as a star and as an acting partner, and backed off from then on.

53. His Wife Gave Him A Vicious Goodbye

Before Gilbert and his third wife Ina Claire completely threw in the towel,  Claire had one last bitter insult for Gilbert. After the split, the starlet publicly gave a reason for the demise of her union. She destroyed him with just eight words. Paraphrasing one of Greta Garbo’s famous phrases, Claire sniped: “He said he wanted to be left alone.”

54. Garbo Didn’t Attend His Funeral

Marlene Dietrich might have been overflowing with love for Gilbert, but one person was suspiciously dry-eyed. His great love Greta Garbo didn’t even attend his funeral, since she was back home in Sweden at the time. Many must have thought it was a cold-hearted act, but Garbo did eventually set the record straight about her feelings for Gilbert.

55. His Great Love Made A Heartbreaking Confession

Every woman in America must have wondered why Garbo never married Gilbert, and the actress finally revealed the reason. “I froze,” she apparently admitted, “I was afraid he would tell me what to do and boss me. I always wanted to be the boss.” Still, Garbo once tenderly told a friend that Gilbert had been her “great love.” She never married.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12e


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