William Powell was the American actor who played irresistibly suave characters on-screen. In real life, however, he was simply, irresistibly, unlucky in love.
1. He Just Wanted To Find Love
For most of his career, audiences knew William Powell as the sophisticated and debonair detective from The Thin Man series. The only mystery he couldn’t solve, however, was that of his own heart. Despite dating Hollywood’s hottest blonde beauties, his relationships always seemed to end in divorce, sudden illnesses, and fiery plane crashes.
All that bad luck, just for a man who wanted to find someone to love.
2. His Parents Had A Happy Home
William Powell was born into total obscurity in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania in 1892. His mother and father, Nettie Manila (née Brady) and Horatio Warren Powell, were humble middle class parents. By all accounts, theirs was a happy marriage and a happy home.
Poor Powell would spend the rest of his life just trying to find what his parents had.
3. He Followed His (Broken) Heart
For a while, it seemed like the world would never get to know William Powell, the debonair man-about-town. After graduating high school, he attended the University of Kansas to study law and become a lawyer—but then promptly dropped out.
He clearly had a different calling and decided to pursue his heart. Too bad it would shatter into a million pieces. Several times.
4. He Found His Calling On Stage
It was obvious to everyone who knew him: William Powell had the heart of a poet (but the luck of a dung beetle). After dropping out of university, he followed his passion for the arts all the way to New York City. He quickly found his true calling as a vaudevillian and became a distinguished actor.
Fortunately, it seems his bad luck only extended to his love life.
5. His Friend Got Him His First Film Role
Powell worked on Broadway for several years, befriending the growing clique of stage actors cracking their way into the nascent film industry. Finally, he got his big break when Hollywood legend and patriarch, John Barrymore, insisted that Powell get a starring role in 1922’s Sherlock Holmes. It was a gesture that Powell would not soon forget.
6. His Career Took Off
Powell’s success in Hollywood came almost too easily. He followed his big debut alongside John Barrymore with another 1922 box office success. This time, he starred alongside Marion Davies in When Knighthood Was in Flower. But the only thing flowering was his terrible, awful, no-good luck in love. His romances would wilt like flowers in winter.
7. He Had An Early Marriage
In 1915, before his big screen debut, Powell had tied the knot to fellow actress Eileen Wilson. Seeing as though the two actors had been virtually unknown at the time, we don’t know much about their marriage. But what little we do know clearly shows that fame was not to blame for Powell’s bad luck in love.
He was simply cursed from the beginning.
8. He Had One Son
Wilson made the move to Hollywood with Powell once he started getting film roles in 1922. Their marriage might even have been somewhat tolerable...right up until 1925 when they had a son, William David, together. Shortly after that, however, Powell and Wilson decided to part ways, finalizing their divorce in 1930.
Presumably so that Powell could make room for a bodacious blonde in his bedroom.
9. He Was Not Easy To Work With
Wilson wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stand Powell sometimes. In 1928’s The Last Command, for example, Powell butted heads with the director, Josef von Sternberg. Their disagreements became so heated that Powell rewrote his contract to include a clause that said he would never have to work with Sternberg again. But no one could deny his talent.
10. He Had A Strong Voice
Powell entered Hollywood at a tumultuous time. The advent of sound was turning Silent Era film stars into yesterday’s news faster than a film reel rolling down a cliffside. But, once again, Powell proved to be lucky in his career. His “strong stage-developed voice” only made him even more desirable to film-going audiences—and his fellow castmates.
11. He Was A Lady’s Man
In 1931, Powell starred in Man of the World alongside another one of Paramount’s biggest stars, the bodacious blonde beauty Carole Lombard. The stunning actress had confessed that, even before meeting Powell, she had been a fan of his. Seeing sparks fly between the two mega stars, Paramount paired them up together again in Ladies’ Man later that same year.
They had no clue what they were getting themselves into.
12. He Had An Unexpected Romance
Before the final edit of their 1931 films even hit theaters, Powell and Lombard sparked up an off-screen romance. The pairing of two of Hollywood’s biggest stars made headlines and drew as many readers to tabloids as eyeballs to film screens. Everyone couldn’t help but notice, however, what an odd pair the two actors made.
13. He Was Attracted To His Opposite
Powell and Lombard were living proof that opposites do, in fact, attract—and then repel. Tabloids noted that Powell and Lombard couldn’t have been any more different. He was approaching 40, sophisticated and erudite. She was barely in her 20s, cursed like a sailor, and was as carefree as a lark. According to Lombard, their differences made for “a perfect see-saw love”.
It was definitely “see-saw”—but it was far from perfect.
14. He Was “Mr. Carole Lombard”
Powell could have tolerated Lombard’s boisterous personality and less than polite English. But he couldn’t tolerate playing second fiddle. As he put it, he was tired of everyone referring to him as “Mr. Carole Lombard” given his wife’s outsized fame as Hollywood’s #1 leading lady.
Whatever magnetism had brought them together quickly forced them apart.
Sign up to our newsletter.
History’s most fascinating stories and darkest secrets, delivered to your inbox daily. Making distraction rewarding since 2017.
15. He Was Simply Not Compatible
After just 26 months of married bliss, Powell and Lombard went their separate ways. At first, they were both quick to blame their careers for their failed marriage. But, after some years, Lombard spilled the tea. “We were just two completely incompatible people,” she revealed in an interview in 1936. They did, however, remain good friends after their divorce.
A clean break would have saved Powell from some heartache.
16. He Met His Lady Luck
Powell wouldn’t be heartbroken for long. While working on the set of 1934’s Manhattan Melodrama, he met the original platinum blonde, Jean Harlow. Harlow had been there to visit her good friend, Clark Gable, but immediately fell for the swarthy, suave, and emotionally mature Powell. Likewise, Powell fell for Harlow’s innocence.
He must have felt like he had finally lucked into the right lady. If only it were that simple.
17. He Was Reckless
Both Powell and Harlow were working under contract for the major Hollywood studio, MGM. With two of their biggest stars sparking up a romance off-screen, the studio knew that they had to cash in on the racy romance. The following year, the two starred together in 1935’s Reckless. But the only thing that was reckless was their romance.
18. He Was Harlow’s “Poppy”
Given his recent divorce from Lombard, his second in three years, Powell wasn’t in any rush to get married again. He wanted love, but he wanted to be sure before tying the knot once again. Harlow, however, fell hard for Powell—or “Poppy”, as she liked to call him—and was certain that they would be together forever.
With Powell’s luck, however, forever wasn’t a very long time.
19. He Had To Get Rid Of His Lover’s Father
When Powell met Harlow, she was still very much in her mother and stepfather’s grip. Even though she was one of the biggest stars in Tinseltown, her stepfather took all of her money and, thereby, controlled all of her decisions. If Powell was ever going to marry her, he had to break the iron grip that her stepfather had over her.
20. He Was Finally Free To Be Happy
Powell had portrayed detectives on screen for most of his career so he was no stranger to some amateur sleuthing. He investigated Harlow’s stepfather and made a disturbing discovery: The man had completely squandered all of her money on phony and foolish investments.
Powell finally got Harlow to see that her stepfather had to be cut out. Now he had her all to himself—but disaster was on the horizon.
21. He Was Half Of The Hottest Couple
Powell and Harlow became the most talked-about Hollywood couple. They went out all over town together, vacationed together and frequented the hottest spots in Hollywood. But they never lived together. Harlow lived with her mother while Powell maintained his bachelor pad.
Powell and Harlow were in no mood to rush things—little did they realize, they were running out of time.
22. He Was Afraid Of Marriage
Powell loved Harlow dearly but there was just one problem. He had already tried marriage with one of Hollywood’s other blonde beauties, Carole Lombard. He simply couldn’t bring himself to get married to another one. Fortunately, Harlow was willing to give up her glamorous career for the sake of their love—if her mother would only allow it.
23. He Just Couldn’t Pop The Question
Powell was very clear; he wanted a wife, not another famous starlet to have as arm candy. He was fully committed to Harlow but, as long as her mother forced her to continue acting, he simply couldn’t bring himself to pop the big question.
That didn’t mean, however, that he couldn’t give Harlow a big, shiny gift as a token of his undying love.
24. He Put A Ring On It
Even if he couldn’t bring himself to go down on bended knee, Powell loved Harlow and knew that she wouldn't just wait around forever. In a gesture that indicated his love for her, he shelled out $20,000 on a jaw-dropping 150-carat ring.
The ring was so spectacular that everyone predicted an equally spectacular wedding must have been in the future. They must have forgotten about Powell's curse.
25. He Had An On-Screen Wife
Powell had his romances with many leading ladies, but his greatest pairing was his purely platonic relationship with Myrna Loy. He starred opposite her in his most memorable hits, The Thin Man series and The Great Ziegfeld. “When we did a scene together,” Loy gushed to the papers, “[we] weren't acting. We were just two people in perfect harmony”.
Unsurprisingly, their on-screen chemistry caused a stir for Powell’s off-screen romance.
26. He Was In A Weird Love Triangle
Powell’s close working relationship with Loy became a point of contention in his relationship with Harlow. The public had grown accustomed to seeing Powell and Loy together on screen and there was considerable pressure for them to take their chemistry into the real world. Even if it meant awkwardly pushing Harlow aside.
27. He Shared A Suite With Another Woman
When Powell and Loy starred together in After the Thin Man in 1936, things got really awkward. Powell and Loy arrived in San Francisco before filming and checked into their hotel. With a wink and a nod, the hotel management at the St. Francis showed “Mr. and Mrs. Powell” to their shared suite.
The awkward part: Harlow was standing right there.
28. His Two Leading Ladies Were Besties
Fortunately for Powell, Harlow made light of the situation. With a carefree attitude, she quipped that she and Loy would be happy to share the room. Decades later, Loy wrote in her autobiography, “That mix-up brought me one of my most cherished friendships”. But the friendship, and Powell’s love for Harlow, were not going to last.
29. He Was “Unengaged”
Powell’s unwillingness to marry Harlow as long as she still had her career left her heartbroken. As such, she took to calling the iceberg of a ring that he had given her, her “unengagement” ring. Wanting to end her period of waiting, she vowed to quit acting altogether and start a family with Powell.
But there was one huge problem: Her mother just wouldn’t allow it.
30. He Lost His Child
Powell was closer than he ever knew to having everything he wanted in love. Unbeknownst to him, Harlow had gotten pregnant with his child. With her career and reputation on the line, however, her mother and the studio forced her to terminate the pregnancy. It’s unclear if she ever told Powell about their love child. But pretty soon, it wouldn’t matter at all.
31. His Lover Fell Mysteriously Ill
While filming Saratoga, Harlow fell mysteriously ill. The consummate professional, she hesitated leaving the set but eventually decided, for her health, that she had no choice. Before returning home, she stopped by Powell’s set on the MGM studio lot to tell him that she wasn’t feeling well.
Powell promised to visit her later but he clearly had other plans.
32. He Tried Seeing Other Women
With Harlow’s health on the decline, Powell should have held out hope that it would be a wake-up call for her to finally give up acting. But, as her health continued deteriorating, he seemed strangely uninterested. While Harlow was checking into the hospital, he was checking out other women.
When he finally came to his senses, it was too late.
33. He Made A Terrible Mistake
At first, Powell simply believed that Harlow had fallen ill with the flu—but his luck was never that good. When he finally found the time to visit her in the hospital, he saw that he had made a terrible mistake. The love of his life was clearly drawing her last breaths. He knew at that moment that he had missed his chance at love.
34. He Couldn’t Keep Himself Together
Powell had gotten his chance to say a final goodbye to Harlow, but it was of little comfort. At Harlow’s funeral, he simply couldn’t keep himself together. He was so distraught and crying so hard that his whole body began shaking. Try as he might, he couldn’t keep his suave composure.
He collapsed under the weight of his regret and his elderly mother had to escort him out.
35. He Had To Get Away
Powell was so distraught at Harlow’s passing that he couldn’t even bring himself to attend the premiere of her final film, Saratoga. He just couldn’t believe his bad luck and his foolish hesitancy. Instead of going to the highly anticipated red carpet event, he skipped town and caught a steamship to Europe to mend his broken heart.
He should have been concerned about his bum.
36. He Returned Heartbroken
Powell and Loy had been filming the ironically titled film Double Wedding at the time of Harlow’s unexpected accident. When he finally picked up the pieces of his shattered heart, he returned to set—but both he and Loy found it extremely difficult to complete the film. Putting it lightly, Powell said it was “very difficult under the circumstances”.
37. He Couldn’t Let Harlow Go
Even after Harlow passed away, Powell simply couldn’t let her go or forgive himself for being so stubborn about her career. In a show of grief, he shelled out tens of thousands of dollars for her elaborate funeral. He even left a lasting symbol of his undying love for her at her grave site, ensuring that there were always fresh flowers near her tombstone.
But he was closer to joining her in the dirt than he thought.
38. He Was Rotting From A Broken Heart
In 1938, Powell received some devastating news of his own. From the sounds of it, he had so internalized Harlow’s passing that it made him sick to stomach—or to his bum. On the outside, he looked like the very image of health. He was debonair, suave and sophisticated. But on the inside, he was rotting away.
39. He Received Terrible News
Powell had been unlucky in love. But in March of 1938, he was unlucky in health as well. That's when his doctors gave him a truly devastating diagnosis: He had rectal cancer, and if he didn’t get treatment—and soon—then his career and life would certainly end.
But it gets worse: The treatment options were almost just as bad as the disease.
40. He Was Too Vain For Surgery
To combat his diagnosis, Powell could have undergone a pretty standard (if somewhat dangerous) procedure. He could have gotten a colostomy, a procedure that lets waste bypass the rectum and deposit in an external bag. But having a colostomy bag stuck to his person wasn’t exactly in keeping with Powell's sophisticated image.
So he chose another, still terrifying, treatment option.
41. He Was Willing To Try Anything
Wanting to maintain his carefully constructed public image, Powell bowed out of the spotlight while he sought treatment for his diagnosis. In a desperate attempt to protect his vanity, he agreed to an experimental treatment. One that could either save his life or turn him into an irradiated hunk of decaying flesh. After the loss of Harlow, he didn’t fear anything.
42. He Took The Nuclear Option
Powell agreed to undergo an experimental treatment to cure his rectal cancer (there was nothing the doctors could do for Bad Luck in Love Disease). He agreed to have doctors insert “platinum needles containing radium pellets” into his body. The new radiation treatment was either going to save his life...or make him grow a third arm.
Honestly, with the state of medical science back then, it was anyone’s guess.
43. He Cured His Disease—Not His Bad Luck
While he waited for the treatment to take effect, Powell took the time to heal. He wasn’t just focused on beating the cancer but also on recovering from the loss of his soul mate. Fortunately, after less than two years with irradiated pellets in his body, Powell’s cancer went into full remission and he managed to mend his broken heart.
Too bad there's no radiation treatment for his Bad Luck in Love Disease.
44. His Luck Came Crashing Down
Even after their divorce, Powell and Carole Lombard had remained close friends. A clean break in their relationship, however, might have spared Powell from even worse heartbreak. Just as he thought that he had put the pieces of his broken love life back together again, his bad luck shattered it like Humpty Dumpty falling from the wall.
Or like a plane crashing into a mountain.
45. He Lost Another Lover
Powell’s bad luck was contagious. Based on a coin toss, Lombard decided to fly back to Los Angeles instead of taking a train as she had planned. On that brisk morning in January of 1942, her plane went nose first into Potosi Mountain, ending her life instantaneously. It was one emotional blow more than Powell could take—but fate still wasn't done with him yet.
46. He Lost The Person Who Mattered Most To Him
So far, all of Powell’s romances and marriages ended in utter devastation. All, that is, except for his first marriage to Eileen Wilson. But, in 1968, even that distant but happy memory would end in tragedy. This time, his bad luck would claim the life (in bloody and brutal fashion) of the person he loved most in the whole world.
47. His Son Bled Out In The Shower
Powell suffered yet another devastating loss of a loved one in 1968. This time, it was his one and only son from his first marriage to Eileen Wilson, William David. William had been suffering from depression for years and made the horrifying decision to end it all. While in the shower, he repeatedly knifed himself in the upper body.
All that he left behind was his body, his blood—and a harrowing letter.
48. His Son Went To A Better Place
Powell rarely got the chance to say goodbye to the ones he loved. With his son’s passing, he might have been grateful for less closure. Before taking his own life in the shower, William David had written a lengthy goodbye letter to his father.
The devastating final lines made their way into the tabloids: “Things aren't so good here,” he had written, “I'm going where it's better”.
49. His Luck Turned Around
With so much bad luck in love and tragedy in his life, Powell’s fans would have understood if he simply gave up. But, when he least expected it, his luck finally made a turn for the better. MGM studio executives just so happened to send the up-and-coming actress, Diana Lewis, to Powell’s pool for a photoshoot because they believed he was out of town.
It was his good luck (for once) that he wasn’t.
50. He Finally Had Some Good Luck In Love
As he looked out to his garden, Powell caught a glimpse of the young (she was almost thirty years his junior) Lewis, posing in the sun. He knew immediately that his bad luck days were over. Less than a month later, he and Lewis escaped to Nevada and eloped. As it turns out, the third time was the charm for Powell. They remained married until his passing in 1984 at the ripe old age of 91.
Bad Luck in Love Disease cured.