Kim Novak is best known for her role in the Hitchock classic “Vertigo”—but few know her darker history. After stumbling through a troubled childhood, Novak thought she’d found a new home in Hollywood. However, she was horribly mistaken. Controlled and molded into the ideal starlet, Novak found herself blinded by the glare of celebrity.
And so, determined to maintain agency in at least one aspect of her life, the tormented actress dove headfirst into the temptation of forbidden love…
1. She Was A Peculiar Child
Kim Novak was born Marilyn Pauline Novak on February 13, 1933. Although destined for stardom, her childhood was rife with struggle. For one, Novak was a rather peculiar child. She was painfully shy. Whenever company visited her family home, she’d hide behind curtains, desperate to go unnoticed. But this was only the tip of the iceberg.
2. She Struggled In School
School presented Novak with an even greater challenge and her peculiarities won her no popularity points. Constantly, daydreaming, Novak was always in her own little world, and before long, her inattention turned her teachers and classmates against her. The target of ridicule, poor Novak endured constant taunting and belittlement—but the worst was yet to come.
3. She Was Constantly Tormented
When WWII hit, going to school became a downright nightmare. Novak’s peers had discovered that her grandfather’s name was Adolph, and this information only made her tormenters crank the harassment up a notch. They took rotten pies and rubbed them in her face. She’d arrive home, covered in rancid pie and filled with shame.
Even her parents couldn’t make heads or tails of their wayward little girl.
4. She Wasn’t The Favorite
Afraid to tell her parents about the bullying, Novak stayed silent and accepted her parents’ wrath. However, despite their disappointment, she longed for their approval, especially her father’s, who obviously favored her more outgoing sister. No matter how hard she tried to win him over, her father always gave her the cold shoulder.
He was a troubled man—and for one heartbreaking reason.
5. She Inherited Mental Illness
You see, her father’s side of the family was no stranger to mental illness. And later, Novak believed that this was the root of her own mental health struggles: “I loved my father, adored my father, but [he] terrified me.” But parental friction wasn’t her only worry. Novak also grew up in a frighteningly dangerous neighborhood.
Worried for her daughter’s safety, her mother did everything in her power to make Novak disappear.
6. She Grew Up Surrounded By Danger
Growing up in a rough Chicago neighborhood, Novak constantly found herself exposed to horrific news stories of rape and homicide. Novak, who loved nature, had no choice but to stay indoors. Moreover, her mother wanted to transform her into a “plain jane” in the hopes of protecting her from being targeted. As such, young Novak lived her life in a bubble, dressed up in pigtails with not a lick of makeup. But this was all about to change.
7. She Faced Her Fears
In an ironic twist of fate, Kim Novak discovered one of her hidden talents. Although defined by her shyness, Novak decided to perform in her high school’s production of “Our Town” and excelled on the stage. Finally, she’d found something to bolster her self-esteem. She had some serious talent and won two scholarships to the Art Institute of Chicago—and that wasn’t all.
8. She Was A Stunner
As she grew, Novak not only gained some much-needed confidence but also blossomed into an undeniable beauty. Her stunning features were about to jumpstart her working career, and with luck on her side, she was more than ready to leave her trying youth behind her. With beauty and a startling stage presence, her next step seemed obvious.
9. She Was Picture Perfect
After high school, Novak dove into the world of modeling, but that didn’t mean she didn’t try other professions. In fact, she took a stab at becoming a sales clerk, a dental assistant, and even an elevator operator. But just as in school, Novak quickly realized that she couldn’t quite cut it. At the end of the day, she felt most comfortable with one occupation—modeling. But this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Little did she know, she was about to hit upon a fantastic stroke of luck—one that would lead her straight to Hollywood.
10. She Had A Lucky Break
Novak made the right choice when she traveled to Los Angeles. In 1953, she landed a very small, uncredited modeling role in RKO’s The French Line. But Novak was too gorgeous to go unnoticed, and when a casting director from Columbia clapped eyes on her—he saw pure gold. He managed to get the young model a screen test, and as they say, the rest was history.
11. She Nailed Her Audition
Novak’s very first screen test was short but memorable. Wearing an alluring Rita Hayworth dress, she posed in front of a fireplace and uttered the melodramatic line, “All I want out of life is love.” Well, that was all the studio needed. They offered her a six-month contract, hopeful that this promising new beauty might be their answer to all their prayers.
12. She Was The Next Rita Hayworth
You see, Columbia hired Kim Novak with the hope that she’d become their next Rita Hayworth. And when it came to rival studios, they also envisioned her as an echo of 20th Century Fox’s Marilyn Monroe. They could only hope that she’d reap the same box-office success as these Hollywood greats. Novak seemed like a sure thing, but right from the get-go, tensions arose.
13. She Bit Back
While her studio wanted Novak to fall easily into a tried and true stereotype, she resisted. She wanted to be original, and so, when Harry Cohn suggested that she change her name to “Kit Marlowe”—the young actress bit back. Cohn was pretty determined about the name change and argued ferociously, lamenting, “Nobody’s gonna go see a girl with a Polack name!”
But despite the pressure, Novak remained true to herself and delivered the perfect response.
14. She Refused To Back Down
Determined to keep her name, Novak shot back at Cohn and said, “I’m Czech, but Polish, Czech, no matter, it’s my name!” Novak wasn’t about to take their orders lying down, and in the end, got her way…sort of. They settled on a compromise and she became Kim Novak once and for all. With her new name, a new chapter had officially begun.
However, unfortunately for the burgeoning actress, the studio wanted to change more than just her name.
15. She Was Too Plump
Although the studio obsessed over Novak’s perfect face, they weren’t completely sold on some of her other features. She was a little too plump for their liking and wanted her to drop a startling 15 pounds. But the drastic changes didn’t end there. They were also determined to get her blonde coloring just right and dyed her hair three times over.
However, when it came to her hair, the battle had only just begun.
16. She Was Molded To Their Liking
On top of a snatched waist and a glorious updo, Columbia’s designer Jean Louis crafted Novak a brand new wardrobe. By the end of it all, Columbia had molded Novak into the perfect Hollywood specimen. However, their absolute control over the newly acquired actress went even further. You see, Harry Cohn was paranoid that his new investment might follow in Rita Hayworth’s tragic footsteps, and he wanted to keep an eye on her at all costs.
17. She Was A Chess Piece
Cohn set up Kim Novak at the Studio Club where he could monitor her every move. This dormitory had a strict curfew and, even when she left the premises, the studio had detectives watch her from afar. This was serious business and Cohn had Novak wrapped around his finger. Later, Hollywood reporter Vernon Scott commented, “Harry Cohn used Kim Novak like a chess piece. Her only problem was, in the beginning, she wasn’t a very good actress, and I think she knew that.”
But even though Novak entered into Hollywood as a complete amateur, she certainly used her charms to the best of her ability.
18. She Turned Heads
Novak didn’t exactly catapult to stardom, but after a few decent films, she finally landed the gig that made the rest of Hollywood take notice. 1955’s Picnic saw Novak rubbing shoulders with some notable greats like William Holden and Rosalind Russel. And what’s more? The film was an epic success and even won her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer.
But even as audiences grew to love her, there was still one person that refused to celebrate her achievements.
19. She Still Wasn’t Good Enough
Having disappointed her family for her entire life, one might think that Novak’s claim to stardom might finally win them over…But nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the bigger she became the more strain it put on her fragile relationship with her father. He viewed her success from afar, and his opinions were so heartbreaking—they’re unforgettable.
20. She Couldn’t Make Him Love Her
When Novak’s father looked at Hollywood, all he saw was evil. It was like her entire childhood was on repeat as he cast a suspicious eye over her celebrity. He felt sure that his daughter must have done something awful to become so great. To add insult to injury, he absolutely refused to watch her films. There was no encouragement, and certainly no “I love yous.”
But even as her father turned his back on her, Novak’s star continued to rise.
21. She Wasn’t His First Choice
In 1958, Novak landed her biggest picture yet, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—but she wasn’t actually his first choice. Originally, he’d had Vera Miles in mind for the challenging role of Madeleine/Judy. Miles had a cold, distant beauty that Hitchock desired, but when his favored actress fell pregnant, he had no choice but to settle on Kim Novak…
He had no idea just how perfect this casting truly was.
22. She Was Just A Face
For Novak, Vertigo was eerily personal. The haunting transformation of her character onscreen mirrored her own descent into Hollywood. The entertainment industry, especially Harry Cohn, had molded her into the image of perfection, something that—in reality—no actress could possibly live up to. To her studio, she was only a face and the real Kim Novak didn’t really have a say in the matter.
In fact, the studio went ahead and did something she absolutely abhorred.
23. She Had A Colorful Image
Constantly obsessed with Novak’s image, her studio agreed to a bizarre publicity move. Novak’s publicist had envisioned a startling look for her…Lavender. Everything lavender. They even tinted her hair lavender. You see, there were just too many competing blondes on the circuit and the studio wanted their own buxom blonde to stand out from the crowd.
Unfortunately for Novak, it was only going to get worse.
24. She Couldn’t Escape
When Columbia allowed Paramount to borrow Novak for Vertigo, her temporary studio also decided to cash in on the star’s lavender reputation: “Miss Novak’s fetish for lavender will be fulfilled…Her suite will be lavender-scented; bed sheets and pillow slips in lavender; and while she’s tubbing in lavender-scented water she may take her calls on a lavender-colored bathroom telephone.”
But that wasn’t even the weirdest part.
25. Her Words Fell On Deaf Ears
For Novak, this was a downright nightmare. Turns out, Novak absolutely despised the color lavender. Of course, to her studio, her opinion didn’t matter. They never cared about what she wanted, only what would make them the biggest buck. And while a color scheme seemed somewhat harmless, the studio’s overarching control of Novak was about to take a sinister turn.
26. She Had A Secret Admirer
Novak obeyed her studio’s every demand, that is until she fell deeply in love with a man she was not supposed to. Enter: The multi-talented entertainer, Sammy Davis Jr. In 1957, Davis confided in Tony Curtis that he really desired an interlude with Kim Novak. Curtis told Davis exactly what he wanted to hear: “I’m going to have a party at my house. Come on by, and I’ll invite Kim.”
27. She Wanted Him Too
Curtis’ party was the perfect meet-cute setting for Novak and Davis. They hit it off immediately, chatting with total intensity and really getting to know one another. This was no small talk—this was the good stuff—deep and winding. You see, Davis wasn’t the only one that had romantic designs. In fact, Novak had had her eye on Davis long before their fateful meeting.
28. She Fell For A Charismatic Entertainer
Earlier, Novak had expressed an interest in meeting Davis. However, she wasn’t the only one who harbored a deep-seated attraction to the actor. Oddly enough, while women flocked to Davis’s undeniable charm and sensuality, men often dismissed him as unattractive. Despite divided opinions, Novak saw something special in Davis—but she couldn’t keep it a secret for long.
29. She Was The Subject Of Hot Gossip
Somebody at Curtis’ party took note of the couple’s keen tête-à-tête and ran straight to the papers with the hot gossip. One columnist wrote unabashedly, “Which top female movie star (K.N.) is seriously dating which big-name entertainer (S.D.)?” Worried by the obvious rumors, Davis immediately rung up Novak to set the record straight.
30. She Didn’t Want It To End
After getting Novak on the phone, Davis insisted that he wasn’t the reason for the raging gossip and apologized, “We can handle it any way you think best. I realize the position you’re in with the studio.” Her reaction, however, was shocking. Novak threw caution to the wind and told Davis she valued her own agency. In fact, she promptly invited him over for spaghetti dinner.
However, neither Davis nor Novak realized just how dangerous their love could be.
31. She Stuck It To The Man
There’s a good chance that Novak saw Davis as more than just a handsome, endearing face. He was also someone willing to go off the deep end with her and defy the ever-powerful Harry Cohn. Novak had grown tired of being constantly used as a pawn in Cohn’s games and wanted to follow her heart in at least one respect—love. She’d go the distance just to keep it alive.
32. She Evaded Spies
With Cohn’s spies honed in on her every move, Novak had to get sneaky. In fact, she and Davis transformed their relationship into a covert operation and evaded both the press and their employers at all cost. While on his way to Novak’s home, Davis would even hide from prying eyes, curling up beneath a rug in the back of the car. And that wasn’t all.
33. She Risked Her Career
Tired of dodging any kind of attention, Davis pulled a power move and bought a luxurious beach house in Malibu where he could conduct his private affairs in private. But this wasn’t the only pitfall of their relationship. Both Novak and Davis had high-flying careers, and by dabbling in a forbidden romance, they risked everything. And then there was the matter of race.
34. She Had A Forbidden Love
At the time that Novak and Davis were busy falling head over heels for one another, America still upheld segregation. Conducting their high-profile romance under the watchful eye of a prejudiced industry, not to mention, a prejudiced world—this couple tested the limits. After all, this was a Black man dating a white movie star.
Not only was this risky, but sadly, it was also dangerous…And they were about to get found out.
35. Her Secret Got Out
While in New York, Harry Cohn finally caught wind of his star’s scandalous affair. While at his brother’s memorial dinner, an aide leaned down, and in a hushed voice, filled Cohn in on Novak and Davis. He was absolutely enraged by this news. And when rumors of church bells and a wedding began to swirl, his anger only deepened.
36. She Wanted To Marry Him
Chicago Sun-Times published a very threatening article about Novak and Davis. Apparently, they had already filled out a marriage application, but it hadn’t yet been filed. Gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet, responsible for the article, remembered, “It caused a hell of a ruckus at the studio when Harry Cohn picked up my column and learned that his star was about to be destroyed.”
37. She Had A Dirty Boss
You see, because of the era’s prejudices, if Novak decided to go through with marrying a Black man, it was career suicide. Cohn wasn’t about to let that happen. Determined to sabotage this romance if it was the last thing he did, he wasn’t afraid to go to extreme lengths—illicit lengths—to save his investment. Although she didn’t know it at the time, Novak’s boss was about to ruin everything.
38. She Was The Victim Of Sabotage
Cohn’s plan to destroy Novak and Davis was diabolical. With his shady ties to the underworld, he went to the mob and had Mickey Cohen corner Davis’s father, Sam Davis Sr., at the Hollywood Park racetrack. What the mobster had to say was absolutely chilling: “Listen. I got some terrible news for you. I just got a call from Chicago to hurt Sammy.”
39. She Lost Her Boyfriend To An Ultimatum
With Cohn and Cohen out for blood, Novak’s boyfriend was in immediate danger. He could have his legs broken or worse. Luckily, there was still one way out of this mess—but the solution was utterly heartbreaking. Cohen agreed to spare Sammy on one condition: “I’ll give him 24 hours. Sammy has to get married—to a colored girl.”
40. She Had A Doomed Love
Cohn had pulled the rug out from under Novak; he was a true villain in every sense of the word. Because of him, Davis had no choice but to leave Novak and marry the talented Black singer, Loray White. He even paid her to do it. It was all a lie, but at the end of the day, Cohn’s wishes came true: He got his blonde beauty back.
However, as horrifying as this whole debacle was, it helped mirror the injustices faced by Black people the world over—and Novak certainly had something to say about it.
41. She Accepted Her Fate
Resigned to the fate of her star-crossed love, Novak fell off the grid for a short time. Later, she reminisced on this scandalous chapter and said, “It was a very dangerous relationship then—a white woman and a black man, no matter his status—it simply didn’t mix publicly. I was suddenly in the eye of a hurricane…My agent told me my career would be over if I continued to see Sammy. Some of my friends wouldn’t even return my telephone calls.”
Still, as you’ll see later, this wasn’t the end of Novak and Davis.
42. She Couldn’t Stand Alone
After the antagonist of this story, Harry Cohn, passed in 1958—Novak’s success in Hollywood began to nosedive. You see, as awful as Cohn was, he was also greatly responsible for landing Novak the perfect roles. With him gone, the studio had no idea how to properly manage Novak’s career and almost all of her following films were frightfully bad.
After a couple of years floundering, struggling to find her footing, Novak had a difficult decision to make.
43. She Had Eccentric Interests
By 1962, Novak’s career had fizzled out and she finally escaped Hollywood, moving to Northern California. Nature had always been one of her greatest loves, and she now had time to devote herself to some of the simpler things in life: long walks, horseback riding, painting, and weirdly enough, even fashioning flutes out of kelp.
But even as she reveled in this newfound freedom, she still bore the scars of Hollywood’s shackles.
44. She Blacked Out Her Trauma
Eventually, Novak decided it was time to put her experiences down on paper—but the task proved much harder than expected. You see, while she remembered most of her troubling childhood, she seemed to have forgotten large swathes of time during her working career. Not only would her past elicit overwhelming emotions, but to protect herself from traumatic memories, Novak had unintentionally blacked most of them out.
45. She Couldn’t Confront Her Demons
Novak’s distress over her working career never truly left her, and sometimes it resulted in disaster. In 1996, she emerged from retired bliss to promote the re-release of Vertigo. But when it came time for the interviews, she was at a loss for words. Whenever the media asked Novak about her success in Hollywood or her star-studded past, she’d go blank and resist the topic with every fiber of her being.
With old demons nipping at her heels, Novak ran away in the only way she knew how.
46. She Went Into Isolation
Novak craved isolation more than anything and, looking for an even more distant place to call home, she fled to the Pacific Northwest. Having shaken off the shadows of all that drama, Novak found real peace. One of her closest friends, Norma Herbert, noted, “She is very happy in her forest.” However, even as she devoted herself to new passion projects, Novak would never forget Sammy Davis Jr.
47. She Never Forgot Him
Although they parted ways in 1958, fate would bring Kim Novak and Sammy Davis Jr. back together on two separate occasions. And the story behind each reunion is utterly heartbreaking. The first time, the old lovebirds reconnected when they attended the Academy Award…together. Although they were a part of a larger party, she still showed up at his front door. They shared a private moment in his backyard before heading off to the ceremony. And it didn’t end there.
48. She Held Him One Last Time
After the awards, Novak and Davis went to the Governors Ball where they shared one last dance. Davis couldn’t believe that absolutely nobody paid any mind to their dancing together: “Not one picture. Nobody even took one picture!” Times were definitely changing, but sadly, for this star-crossed couple, the timing was never right. It was already too late.
49. She Said Goodbye
Shortly before his passing in 1990, Novak visited Davis at the hospital in Los Angeles. Even while battling throat cancer, he wanted to make a good impression and requested a set of his finest silk pajamas. He wanted to look as resplendent as possible. Novak sat next to her old love and shared one last, sentimental moment. But even still, their story didn’t end there.
50. She Meant The World To Him
After his passing, two of Davis’s closest friends—Shirley Rhodes and Murphey Bennett—frequently visited his grave. Later, Rhodes revealed a startling new insight into Novak and Davis: “Murphy would always stop on the way and buy a white rose and leave it for Sammy from her because that’s what Sammy always gave Kim. And Murphy—he knew everything.”
51. She Destroyed Her Face
Hollywood had done Kim Novak dirty, but even in her old age, they weren’t through with her. In 2014, on the rare occasion that she showed her face, the press went into attack mode. The elderly actress had arrived at the Academy Awards looking completely different. Whispers of botched plastic surgery ran rampant and incited downright meanness.
52. She Spiraled
In response to the criticism about her appearance, Novak said, “It really did throw me into a tailspin and it hit me hard.” Unsurprisingly, even Donald Trump had something nasty to say and tweeted, “Kim should sue her plastic surgeon!” However, in trying to put all of the hateful comments behind her, Novak believes that all humans are guilty of doing “stupid things.”
53. She Found Her One True Passion
Despite her the ups and downs of Kim Novak’s sensational life, she eventually found solace in her true passions. She honed in on her artistic talents and became an accomplished visual artist, thriving in her own unique way. At the end of the day, the best decision she ever made was cutting ties with Hollywood and its toxic hold on her.