By George, there was only one man who could hold his own opposite Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady: Rex Harrison. There was a time when critics considered Harrison the best actor in the world—not that his ego needed that boost. Despite his talent, his reputation behind the scenes was less-than-savory. Not only was he difficult to work with, but he was also a die-hard womanizer. Harrison left a trail of broken hearts in his wake—sometimes, with dire consequences. Pin a white rose on your lapel for these fatally charming facts about Rex Harrison.
1. He Thought Pretty Highly of Himself
The man we know as Rex Harrison was born Reginald Carey Harrison in 1908 in England. To say that Harrison was born for the spotlight would be an understatement. He wanted the spotlight from the time that he was just a child. As for the name Rex? He gave it to himself when he was just a child, after learning that Rex was Latin for “king.”
If you think that’s egotistical, just wait…
2. He Was Very Sick
When Harrison was just a child, he survived a terrible bout of measles—but suffered lasting damage. The illness caused him to lose almost all of his sight in his left eye, and the impairment was permanent. To lift his spirits after this crushing blow, his mother brought him to the theater. It changed the young boy’s life.
3. He Did It on His Own
Rex Harrison became determined to become an actor after seeing a production at a local theater as a child. He also wanted to do it on his own terms. Harrison refused to take acting lessons, but still managed to land his first stage role in 1924. He was just 16 years old. Many actors will continue to brush up on their craft throughout their career, but not Harrison.
He never took a single acting class throughout his 65+ year career.
4. He Worked Hard to Establish Himself
After graduating from high school, Harrison immediately took to the stage in Liverpool. He worked away for about six years before eventually moving up to the West End in London in 1930. That was the same year that he got his first film role. The wind was at his back and things were looking up for Harrison…but not for long.
5. He Wanted More
Harrison wasn’t just climbing the ranks when it came to his acting career—he was also a notorious social climber. His playboy reputation was born around this time. However, there was one woman who made him stop in his tracks: Ethel Marjorie Noel Colette Thomas. Not only was she a model, but she also came from a wealthy, upper-class background. She fell for him too—but she wasn’t the only one he had to win over.
6. It Wasn’t A Happy Wedding
Thomas’s father was adamant: He did not want his daughter marrying an actor, let alone one from a middle-class background. But there was also another reason for his disapproval. Harrison had gotten his precious daughter pregnant out of wedlock. Despite daddy’s reservations, Harrison proposed and Thomas accepted. Shortly before their son was born, Harrison married Thomas in January 1934.
Sadly, the honeymoon period didn’t last long.
7. He Fell Hard
At the outbreak of WWII, Harrison dealt his wife a cruel and heartbreaking betrayal. While she was working for the Red Cross, he began an affair with a young actress named Lilli Palmer. As a German Jew, Palmer had fled Berlin with her sisters in the mid-30s. Harrison was desperately smitten with her. He separated from his wife in 1940 as a result.
8. He Wanted to Help
When WWII broke out, Harrison was determined to join the fight—until something from his past came back to haunt him. Harrison was denied entry to the Royal Air Force as a result of his damaged eye. Regardless, he knew he wanted to help. In 1942 the Royal Air Force finally accepted him. Harrison then worked his way up to the rank of flight lieutenant. He helped guide flight crews safely back from dangerous missions.
9. They Couldn’t Keep It Together
Harrison performed a valuable service, but on the home front, his life was falling apart. His and Thomas’s relationship hadn’t exactly gotten off on the right foot. The couple faced many obstacles—including his ongoing affair with Lilli Palmer—and they eventually proved insurmountable. They divorced in 1942 after eight years of marriage. Harrison moved on pretty quickly.
10. He Gave Everything to His Work
Following his divorce from Thomas, Harrison threw himself into his work as a flight lieutenant. You might be imagining him in the cockpit of a plane. However, he actually worked in underground bunkers, directing the planes to safety from there. Harrison had been passionate about acting for his whole life. However, during this period, he said that he “never missed acting once.”
11. They Got Their Happy Ending
Harrison was finally free to pursue Lilli Palmer, and the two wasted no time when it came to their relationship. He married Palmer in 1943, less than a year after the courts had finalized his divorce. Soon after, Palmer got pregnant, and she gave birth to a baby boy that they named Carey in 1944. He was actually born during one of the worst air raids of WWII.
Harrison had everything he wanted—but still, it wasn’t enough for him.
12. They Were a Power Couple
Ever ambitious, Harrison saw himself and Palmer as one of acting’s great power couples—like a Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford of the post-war era. They lived the glamorous lifestyle to match, and often entertained famous guests like Laurence Olivier, Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson at the villa that Harrison had built for his family in Portofino, Italy.
13. He Made His Comeback
After spending the war years appearing in small plays and then working for the RAF, it was finally time for Harrison to advance his career. He appeared opposite his own wife in a film called The Rake’s Progress, which drew controversy in the US over its racy and “amoral” content—and that wasn’t the only attention it got.
14. It Was His Big Break
Harrison’s performance in The Rake’s Progress finally caught the eye of a studio head, and he signed to a contract with Twentieth Century-Fox. At the same time, Warner Bros. recruited Palmer. The family packed their bags and moved to California, where they hoped that Harrison’s success on the stage would translate to success in Hollywood films—but it soon turned disastrous.
15. He Was Rebellious
What’s one thing directors want? To direct their actors. And Harrison? Well, he wasn’t exactly great at taking direction. On top of that, he had a short temper. On his first film, the director tried to convince the studio head to fire him, but luckily for Harrison, the studio head stood up for him. However, on his next film, the same behavior continued.
Sadly, Harrison only hurt himself, as it gave him a reputation for being difficult.
16. He Went Astray
Bad reputation or not, Harrison’s second film for the studio was a smash hit. However, his newfound A-list status quickly got him in deep trouble. Once again, Harrison was drawn to a partying, playboy lifestyle…with the wandering eye to match. And that eye fell on one fellow Twentieth Century-Fox star in particular—Carole Landis.
17. She Was Capital-T Trouble
Landis had a reputation of her own—and it was far from sterling. She was only 28 years old, but she had just recently separated from her fourth husband, and that wasn’t all. She also had a history of depression and attempts on her own life. Harrison didn’t know it yet, but he was totally in over his head.
18. He Didn’t Play by the Rules
Hollywood was no stranger to tabloids and scandal during this era. At the same time, it was still the studio system, and they expected stars under contract to adhere to strict moral guidelines when it came to their offscreen behavior. At the very least, they were supposed to hide the more “undesirable” parts of their lives. Well, Harrison conveniently ignored these expectations, and began to carry on a public affair with Landis.
To say it would come back to haunt him would be an understatement.
19. She Was On Her Way Down
Between erratic behavior on-set and their poorly concealed affair, both Harrison and Landis were on extremely thin ice. Twentieth Century-Fox owned both their contracts, and studio chief Daryl Zanuck was unimpressed with their antics—but there may have been another reason for his irritation. He’d already romanced Landis in the early 40s, and after he ended the relationship, he’d relegated her to B-movies. Ouch.
20. She Had…Unrealistic Expectations
Landis’s star may have been fading, but to Harrison, their affair was still exciting, and provided a respite from his home life with Palmer and their child. There was just one problem: Landis had quickly decided that Harrison should dump his wife and marry her. Actually, make that more than one problem, because Harrison had firmly decided that that was never going to happen.
If you just thought, “This isn’t going to end well,” you’ve hit the nail right on the head.
21. He Got Possessive
Just because Rex Harrison had carried on a very public affair in plain sight of his wife Lilli Palmer during their marriage didn’t mean that he relinquished his right to be a possessive husband. Once, at a party, he suspected that Frank Sinatra was putting the moves on his wife. In a jealous rage, he punched the crooner right in the face.
Later, after realizing that there’d been a misunderstanding, the two became friends. How mature!
22. He Didn’t Care for His Nickname
Harrison may have given himself his royal stage name of “Rex,” but when he first saw success in Hollywood, the press gave him a nickname that he absolutely despised. Much to his chagrin, they often referred to him as “Sexy Rexy.” It’s surprising that he didn’t like it, given his outsized ego.
23. A Lot Was Happening
During his affair with Landis, Harrison began work on a film titled, appropriately enough, Unfaithfully Yours. However, in the film, he was the one who suspected his wife of cheating on him. Acclaimed director Preston Sturges was at the helm, and Twentieth Century-Fox had great expectations for the project. However, Harrison’s high-maintenance side piece proved to be a constant distraction.
As a result, he turned in a lackluster performance. It would get worse before it got better—actually scratch that, it only got worse.
24. He Broke Her Heart
On the afternoon of July 4, 1948, Landis threw a small party to celebrate the holiday, which Harrison skipped. However, that night, Landis and Harrison had dinner together, just as they had many times before. They fought too, as they had before—only this time, it ended in a horrifying tragedy. During the course of the evening, Harrison told Landis in no uncertain terms that he would never leave his wife for her. Landis’s reaction was chilling.
25. She Kept Her Promise
In the past, Landis had threatened to hurt herself when faced with heartbreak and disappointment. She repeated this routine once again with Harrison, but with one major difference—this time, she meant it. After he left, Landis dropped off all the souvenirs of her time with Harrison at a friend’s house, along with a note.
Early the next morning, at her home in Pacific Palisades, Landis swallowed a handful of barbiturates. She made her way to the bathroom, where she collapsed.
26. It Was Cold-Blooded
Harrison and Landis were supposed to have lunch on July 5, 1948, but he couldn’t find her. Finally, he went to her home around 3 pm. Enlisting the help of her maid, they checked the bathroom, where they made a chilling discovery—Landis was slumped over on the floor. Harrison’s reaction to the gruesome sight was utterly disturbing.
Instead of immediately calling a doctor, he simply left her there—and that’s not even the worst part.
27. No One Knows Why He Did It
Harrison spent the afternoon going between his former lover’s home and his own. However, there was one thing he didn’t do—contact either a doctor or law enforcement. It’s impossible to know what could’ve gone through his mind. Not only had he been the last to see her, he had been the one to find her body. Some have speculated that he couldn’t decide which doctor to call—Landis’s, his own, or another.
Either way, the sad and mysterious circumstances made Landis’s tragic end the subject of speculation for decades afterward.
28. They Couldn’t Get Their Stories Straight
Immediately, the tabloids reported on Landis’s demise and the note she’d left for her mother, writing that she had left “no clue to reason for her suicide.” However, it was impossible to hide Harrison’s involvement—it was not only made public that he’d been the one to find her, reports also mentioned that the two had been dating during a period of separation between Harrison and his wife. Harrison denied it—but Landis’s maid claimed otherwise.
29. He Carried It With Him
There was no way for Harrison or his handlers to dispel the stench of scandal that surrounded his involvement in Landis’s final months and moments on Earth—and it all spelled doom for the actor’s career. The film he’d been working on, Unfaithfully Yours, was supposed to be released that July, but the studio immediately pushed in back to November.
On top of that, Harrison and Twentieth Century-Fox mutually agreed to terminate his contract. He was back at square one.
30. It Was the End of His First Act
Landis’s funeral was a star-studded affair. Since he’d had such a fruitful “business” relationship with her, Harrison attended—with his wife at his side, of course. The pair left before the viewing of Landis’s body. With such juicy details at their disposal, the tabloids continued to speculate on Harrison’s involvement with Landis—and it eventually drove him out of Hollywood.
31. They Escaped
Following the dissolution of his contract with Twentieth Century-Fox, Rex Harrison and his wife wanted to escape the scrutiny of the tabloids. So, they left the Hollywood film studios for the bright lights of the stage. They settled in New York City, mostly appearing in productions there, although they also spent time in London.
After the upheaval of WWII and his first few years in film, it was a relatively calm time—but Harrison’s love for drama didn’t just extend to plays, and it was bound to disrupt his life again eventually.
32. It All Became Too Much
After ten years of marriage, a public affair, the death of her husband’s alleged mistress, and one battered and bruised career, things finally fell apart for Harrison and Palmer. They divorced in 1957. Despite all of the abovementioned turmoil, it was amicable. While there had, at one time, been jealousy and secrecy in their relationship, it had long since dissipated.
Palmer had already fallen for another man. And Harrison? Well, he had his own thing going on…
33. It Happened Again
Harrison and Palmer had been spending most of their time on the stage, but they did make a return to the screen. They appeared in two films together in the early 50s. Then, Harrison got a part in a film called The Constant Husband, about a man with six wives…and once again, life imitated art. He began an affair with co-star Kay Kendall—but this time, there was more to it than simple lust and excitement.
34. She Was Unwell
This time, Harrison and Palmer separated—leaving Harrison free to move in with his mistress, two decades his junior. However, it wasn’t all fun and games. Kendall was ailing and seeing a doctor about her symptoms. One day, the doctor decided to tell Harrison something that he hadn’t been able to tell Kendall directly—she had a form of leukemia that would most certainly take her life in a matter of months.
35. His Reaction Was Bizarre
The news was shocking—but what Harrison decided to do about it was even more jaw-dropping. He didn’t tell her a thing. They told Kendall that her symptoms were due to an iron deficiency. She never knew that she was dying. However, Harrison did decide to tell one other person about what was happening behind closed doors with Kendall.
36. They Came Up With a Plan
Harrison called up his estranged wife Lilli Palmer and explained the gut-wrenching situation—and her reaction was just as surprising as his. She told Harrison that they should get divorced, and that he should marry Kendall and take care of her until her inevitable passing. She even left the door open for them to reunite after Kendall was gone.
Harrison agreed—and so began one of the greatest performances of his life.
37. Their Time Together Was Brief
Before, Harrison had been unwilling to leave his wife, but this time, he insisted on it. Within months of his divorce from Palmer, Harrison married Kendall—never once letting on that their time together would be limited, but at the same time, playing the devoted husband and paying for her care. For once in his life, Harrison was exhibiting altruism and love…although some could question his methods.
38. They Had a Brief Shining Moment
The next two years were heavenly. Harrison and the witty, pretty Kendall were living as newlyweds. On top of that, Harrison was appearing in a Broadway musical for the first time—and it was a smash hit, by the name of My Fair Lady. Still, a dark cloud hung over Harrison’s head. He knew what was coming.
39. The Loss Was Doubly Devastating
In 1959, the inevitable happened. Kay Kendall passed away at the age of 32 from leukemia, never knowing once what was happening to her. For the past two years, Harrison had worked day and night to make Kendall happy—and now, she was gone. He’d known it would happen eventually, but there was also an unexpected dark twist.
Remember the part where his ex-wife had promised they could get back together after Kendall had passed? Well, she’d already remarried. Harrison was all alone for the first time in decades.
40. The Lows Were Low But the Highs Were High
After years of mourning, Harrison finally found love again in 1961 and married actress Rachel Roberts. They were even nominated for acting Oscars in the same year—awww. But behind the scenes, this romance was no fairytale. Roberts was plagued by depression, and both were big drinkers. Soon, they became known for their public fights—but at this point, nothing could stop Harrison.
He’d just been cast in a career-making film, and the part was familiar. He was reprising the role he’d originated on Broadway in the film version of My Fair Lady. It would finally make him a legend.
41. He Wasn’t Exactly Mr. Congeniality
Rex Harrison helped Audrey Hepburn brush up on her etiquette in My Fair Lady. Offstage, he was wasn’t so refined. Many of his co-stars disliked him and considered him “egocentric, abusive, disagreeable, and generally odious.” If I ever heard my co-workers say that about me, I’d crawl into a hole. I’m guessing it didn’t bother Harrison.
42. He Was Walking a Fine Line
He may not have won any popularity contests on set, but he certainly did when the film was released. It was a smash hit, and Harrison won his first Oscar, for Best Actor. He’d once been run out of Hollywood and still had a reputation as being horrible to work with…but now, he was a fixture. There was just one small problem: his wife, Rachel Roberts, who’d become known for her disorderly behavior.
Their relationship was about one drink short of the awards ceremony scene from A Star Is Born, if that paints a picture.
43. There Was Payback for His Behavior
When making Doctor Doolittle in the mid-60s, many of Harrison’s co-stars accused him of being boorish and rude. Even worse, there were accusations of racism—but nature has a way of working these things out for themselves. When filming a scene in a field of sheep, the sheep repeatedly urinated all over Harrison, forcing multiple retakes. Now that’s karma.
43. He Turned on Her
Harrison tried to save his marriage to Roberts—and her career—by appearing with her in a film in 1968. It didn’t go well. The sting of that failure would be nothing compared to the cruel act of betrayal that followed. When Harrison and Roberts divorced, he immediately jumped into the arms of another woman—her close friend, socialite Elizabeth Rees-Williams.
Devastated, Roberts left Hollywood to try and get away from her memories with Harrison—but she never forgot him.
44. He Finally Settled Down
When Harrison married Rees-Williams, he was suddenly thrust into life as a stepfather to three young sons. It did not go well. Their marriage lasted all of four years before they divorced. Ever the serial monogamist, a 69-year-old Harrison met a woman named Mercia Tinker in 1977. He married her the next year—and this time, it lasted.
45. He Believed The Show Must Go On
Harrison couldn’t be kept from the stage in the next decade of his life. However, behind the scenes, things were rapidly declining. Not only was he plagued with awful dental pain and a failing memory, he was also suffering from terrible glaucoma. It was quickly robbing him of his sight. Nevertheless, he would memorize his stage positions, and continued to appear in plays well into his final years.
46. He Became a Spy…Sort Of
Earlier in his career, Harrison’s studio had produced molds of his face—but they ended up in an unexpected place. The CIA acquired them, and for many years, they produced and used masks of Harrison for covert operations. That’s right, the CIA provided their spies with bona fide Rex Harrison masks to wear on missions.
47. He Became Sir Harrison
In 1989, Harrison was given the best honor a Brit could hope for. Queen Elizabeth II knighted him—but he was lucky it even happened. Harrison was the first person to be knighted who’d spent that much time away from the motherland. He was also the first to have been divorced. Despite playing it cool, he was elated—but sadly, tragedy was lurking around the corner.
48. He Went to Be With Her
Less than a year later, doctors diagnosed Harrison with pancreatic cancer. It took his life quickly, and he passed on June 2, 1990, at the age of 82. His family scattered some of his ashes in Portofino, where he’d built a home for his second wife, Lilli Palmer. They scattered the rest on her grave in Glendale.
49. They Covered It Up
There were always elements of Harrison’s involvement in his lover Carole Landis’s tragic end that didn’t add up. For one, reports circulated that Landis had written more than one note before overdosing. She’d addressed one to her mother, and the papers printed that note. But many said that she’d also left one for Harrison. Apparently, an interloper had bribed law enforcement to get a hold of it, and then destroyed it. The alleged culprit? Harrison’s wife at the time, Lilli Palmer.
50. They Think It Was Him
Years after Carole’s demise, the Landis family made a truly disturbing accusation. Her family has spent decades claiming that Rex Harrison was directly responsible for the starlet’s end. According to them, it was malicious negligence on Harrison’s part, by refusing to immediately call for help when he found her. But they also claim that it’s possible that he murdered her.
51. There Was More Than One
Harrison’s playboy ways left in his wake a trail of broken hearts and destruction—but Landis wasn’t the only victim. In 1980, his fourth wife, Rachel Roberts, tried to win him back. He’d divorced her a decade before, and remarried twice since then, but she thought she’d give it a shot. It didn’t work, and she was heartbroken. Roberts then took her own life, and passed on at the age of 53.