When looking into old Hollywood, there's something extra special about the romance that these stars enjoyed. Many of them met on set, adding to the magic of their films together.
Let's look at the real-life romances that were sometimes sweet, sometimes tragic, and sometimes tumultuous. While not all of these lasted, they sure were iconic while they did.
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall
This love affair and marriage did last until Humphrey Bogart died in 1957. Lauren Bacall was 19 when she met her co-star, the 45-year-old Bogart starring with her in the film To Have and Have Not in 1944. Although Bogart was married, sparks flew and they married shortly after the film's release and his divorce in 1945.
Watching them together in their first film holds a magic you don't often see in other films. While actors do their best to convince us of their affection for each other, for Bogey and Bacall, it was real.
According to Film Historian Leonard Maltin, “It’s one of these instances where it’s quite possible that we are eyewitnesses to an actor or actress falling in love, and while good actors make us believe that all the time, there has to be some extra kick when it’s real.”
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz
While Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are famous for their ups and downs, including the fact that they divorced in 1961 after nearly 21 years of marriage, they still maintained an affection for each other. Arnaz reportedly had a drinking problem, and rumors of infidelity, but the two worked hard to stay together for that long.
They met in 1940 while filming Too Many Girls and had an immediate connection. They eloped just six months after meeting. Their most famous collaboration, I Love Lucy, aired from 1951 through 1957 and was supposedly an attempt to spend more time together and save their marriage.
According to their daughter Lucie, “They did the show so they could be together because my dad was always on the road, and they never saw each other. So my parents thought, ‘Well, this is going to save our marriage, and we can have a family.' ”
Despite their issues, they loved each other until the end. Arnaz died from lung cancer in 1986, and Ball followed just three years later. Their last conversation took place over the phone. Lucie was with her father and overheard him on the phone with Ball, “I could hear her say, ‘I love you.' She said it five times in a row. And he was nodding and saying, ‘I love you too, honey.' ”
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard
The love story of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard is one of the most tragic in the history of Hollywood romances. They were one of the most glamorous Hollywood couples for five years before Lombard died in a plane crash on the way back from a war bonds promotion tour in 1942.
They initially met while filming No Man of Her Own in 1932, but didn't like each other during filming. Four years later, they encountered each other at a party and danced together, and the sparks began to ignite. Lombard enjoyed his favorite hobbies, like fishing and hunting, and the two seemed made for each other. Gable was heartbroken when she died at just 33.
Michelle Morgan, author of Carole Lombard: Twentieth Century Star, wrote, “He would ride his motorbike around the Hollywood Hills with no care for safety.”
Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh
Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were a popular couple. They were married from 1951 to 1962. The couple met at a party in 1950, and Curtis fell for her quickly. According to Curtis' autobiography, “Her face was exquisite…and there was a sweetness about her that I found most appealing.”
Despite being considered one of the greatest couples in Hollywood, they had a rough marriage. Eventually, they forgave each other for not being what the other needed. In the meantime, they had two children and starred together in five films.
On Jamie Lee Curtis' Instagram, she shared a photo of them with this caption, showing that there must have been some good at some point, “My sister sent me this. Once in a while, when their images find me unexpectedly, I'm caught by not only their extreme beauty but their deep love and ambition… There are only a couple reminders to me that I was born from love and not resentment, competition, jealousy, and rancor which are the cornerstones of any unpleasant divorce. I also forget that they were famous and loved worldwide.”
Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier
As if a real-life fairytale, Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier in 1956 and changed from an actress to a princess at 26. They were married until her death in 1982, in a tragic car accident, which may have resulted from a stroke while driving, but the details are unclear.
The two met when she was filming To Catch a Thief in France. While en route to the Cannes Film Festival, Kelly met Olivia de Havilland and her husband Pierre Galante, who decided to introduce Kelly to Rainier. Although Rainier was late to their meeting, his charm captivated her. The couple corresponded via mail before marrying less than a year later. Kelly's last film was High Society with Frank Sinatra before her retirement.
The royal wedding and union left a lasting impression. In an interview with People, Prince Albert said, “It was such an incredible affair, and it’s left such a mark on people…What it has meant for people has been incredible. For us, it was — and you’ll have to ask my sisters [Princess Caroline and Princess Stephanie] — for us, it was our parents getting married. But what it’s meant for Monaco, for people around the world, and how their story continues to fascinate people, that’s something unimaginable.”
Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman
As one of the longest-lasting classic Hollywood unions, we have Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, who were married for over 50 years until his death from lung cancer in 2008. The two actors met in 1952 while working on a Broadway production of Picnic.
They didn't see much of each other until 1957, when they starred together in The Long, Hot Summer. They fully hit it off at that point. By the end of production, they were living together, discreetly since Newman wasn't yet divorced.
Although working together sometimes caused stress throughout their marriage, they remained strong. They regularly defended their marriage to the press.
In an interview with Today, Woodward said that someone asked her what their marriage was based on. She said, “…he's very good-looking and very sexy and all of those things, and what finally is left is if you can make somebody laugh.” Newman responded, “And I keep her laughing.”
Betty Grable and Harry James
When Betty Grable and Harry James married in 1943, they were considered the largest power couple since Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Both were prominent stars, James as a bandleader and Grable as the ultimate pinup girl. They initially met in 1940 but didn't go for each other until filming the musical Springtime in the Rockies in 1942.
Things got tricky when James found himself out of a job, thanks to the onset of Rock N' Roll. Grable solely supported them, and also had to fund James' horse betting habit. The couple was married for 22 years before calling it quits.
Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer
Audrey Hepburn and Mel Ferrer were married for 14 years. They initially met in 1953 at a party in London when Gregory Peck introduced them. According to their son Sean, “My father was a difficult and demanding man. She was looking for a father figure, and they were happy and lived a life of Riley for the first decade… He spent the rest of his life regretting losing that relationship.”
Unfortunately, things fell apart after that. What started as a promising beginning crumbled, and Hepburn remarried just the year after divorcing Ferrer.
Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds
Although Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds were married for just four years, they had four children during that time, including the famous Carrie Fisher. Both were popular when they met overseas while entertaining troops during the Korean War in 1951. Things moved quickly for them. Reynolds said, “He asked me to marry him on our third date.
“Then, about a month later, he gave me the biggest diamond ring I’d ever seen in the history of the world, something like 11 carats.”
Unfortunately, four years later, Reynolds discovered he was having an affair with her friend Elizabeth Taylor. This betrayal formed one of the most notorious love triangles of the classic movie era.
Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher
Elizabeth Taylor lost her husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash in 1958 and was devastated. Taylor, Todd, Reynolds, and Fisher had all been great friends, so when Todd died, Reynolds encouraged Fisher to comfort Taylor. It proved to be a mistake.
Reynolds said, “Suddenly, a lot of things clicked into place,” she said. “I could hear her voice asking him who was calling — they were obviously in bed together. I yelled at him, ‘Roll over, darling and let me speak to Elizabeth.'”
Taylor and Fisher insisted that Reynolds grant the divorce because they were in love. This love lasted for five years of marriage until Taylor met Richard Burton. Taylor and Reynolds reconciled and became friends again years later.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton
Although still married to Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth Taylor began yet another affair in 1962 when romance bloomed between her and Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton. It wasn't the first time they had met. About ten years earlier, they had met at a party, but Burton had a reputation for being a womanizer. Taylor decided at the time, “I’m not gonna become a notch on his belt.”
They were considered Hollywood’s most striking couple and were married twice. Once from 1964 to 1974. Then, they remarried less than a year later for about nine months. Although they divorced twice, Taylor wrote in a 1988 article for People, “When I saw him on the set of Cleopatra, I fell in love, and I have loved him ever since.”
Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier
As once the most glamorous couple in Hollywood, Vivien Leigh and Lawrence Olivier were married for over 20 years. They appeared to have it all, both love and successful careers and were the envy of many.
In his book, Stephen Galloway sums up their relationship well: “Their passion was famous, but this was not the soft, sentimental kind of Hollywood movies — it was the sort that engulfs, overwhelms and sometimes destroys.”
Despite being married at the time, Leigh saw Olivier in the comedy Theatre Royal for the first time and decided she would marry him. They met about a year and a half later, and began an affair in 1936. They married in 1940, but two miscarriages pushed Leigh into depression, and later on, her mental health deteriorated further.
Eventually, Olivier and Leigh divorced, and he married someone else. But when he died in 1989, 22 years after Leigh died of tuberculosis, he was found watching one of her movies.
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner
While we may never know what happened the day Natalie Wood died in 1981, her romance with Robert Wagner is iconic. The two were married twice, once from 1957 to 1962 and then from 1972 until her death.
Wood first saw Wagner in person when she was just a child. She told People in 1976, “I was 10, and he was 18 when I first saw him walking down the hall at 20th Century Fox. I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him.’” The studio set them up in 1956 as a publicity stunt, but the attraction was real.
The legacy of their romance has now shifted to the mysterious circumstances of Wood's drowning while on vacation with Wagner and Christopher Walken.
Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli
Despite balking at the thought of being forced back into another kid/teenager role, Judy Garland took on the part of Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis at director Vincente Minnelli's urging. He sold her on the story and helped develop her signature look.
Even though they appeared to be compatible, Garland plunged into postpartum depression after Liza was born, and her growing problems with drugs didn't do them any favors. They were unable to salvage their marriage. Minnelli struggled with how to help her.
According to his biography, Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, he said, “If I'd loved Judy less, I could have been dispassionate enough to laugh her out of the moods that resulted in pill-taking. Sympathy that came too readily just didn't seem to help.”
George Burns and Gracie Allen
George Burns and Gracie Allen were married from 1926 until her death in 1964 from a heart attack. Their love story was one for the ages. Burns wrote in his memoir from 1988 entitled Gracie: A Love Story, “Gracie was my partner in our act, my best friend, my wife and my lover, and the mother of our two children…We had a good marriage.
“We knew it was a good marriage because we never read anything bad about it in the papers.”
When the two met, they were playing jokes right from the start. Allen learned that Burns' act with William Lorraine was breaking up and that Lorraine needed another partner. Mistaking Burns for Lorraine, Allen asked him about forming a team, and he didn't reveal the truth of who he was until three days later.
Although she was initially engaged to someone else, Burns kept asking until she agreed to marry him, and one of the best comedic couples was born.
Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond (and Nelson Eddy)
Jeanette MacDonald and Gene Raymond were considered one of the happiest couples at the time. They were married from 1937 until her death in 1965. The world was initially shocked because she had been seeing Nelson Eddy. They were supposedly engaged, but Eddy wanted her to give up her career, so they broke up but apparently continued on and off.
Despite this, MacDonald and Raymond were married for a long time. Raymond remarried nine years after her death but still seemed to hold her in high regard, even with the drama surrounding their union.
Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles
Check out Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles' story if you're looking for a whirlwind of forbidden romance. After Welles saw Hayworth in a magazine, he was mesmerized and started calling her. Although she initially refused, she finally agreed to go out to dinner, and the two found common ground in talking about their rough upbringing. She was in the middle of a divorce from a dominating man, so to find someone who listened, to her, felt like true love.
Since she knew that Harry Cohn, her boss, wouldn't be happy about their union, Hayworth snuck away on her lunch break while filming Cover Girl in 1943. She hopped into a car with Welles, drove to Las Vegas, and married. Dubbed “the Beauty and the Brain” by the press, the marriage only lasted three years until Hayworth found out Welles was cheating on her.
She thought she was putting work into her marriage, but he found her clingy and became distant. Toward the end of his life, Welles said Hayworth was “the dearest and sweetest woman that ever lived” and that he would have stayed with her until she died.
Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra
The love story of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner was a legendary and passionate affair. They were intense but ultimately doomed. They met in 1950 at a party while Sinatra was still married to his first wife and mother of his children, Nancy.
In her autobiography Ava: My Story, Gardner wrote, “`And who should arrive at my elbow, dry martini in hand, but one of those guests. The blue eyes were inquisitive, the smile still bright and audacious, the whole face even friendly and more expressive than I remembered. Oh, God, Frank Sinatra could be the sweetest, most charming man in the world when he was in the mood.”
When the affair went public, Nancy divorced him, and Sinatra quickly married Gardner.
There's no doubt that they had passion, but they not only loved hard, but they fought hard and were known to fight in public. Married just six years, the two divorced in 1957. Despite this, they remained close for the rest of their lives.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
The lasting bond between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is one for the ages. Although they never married, they were together for 27 years. Being Roman Catholic and not wanting to cause his family a scandal, Spencer refused to get a divorce from his wife. He would spend the weekends with them and the weekdays with Hepburn.
Tracy and Hepburn met on the set of 1942's Woman of the Year. There was an instant attraction on both sides, and Hepburn stayed with him despite his heavy drinking, once saying, “You don’t pick who you fall in love with.” If that doesn't sum up their love affair, nothing does.
Esther Williams and Fernando Lamas
Esther Williams and Fernando Lamas had both been married before. This one was the third marriage for her and his fourth and last. He was with her until his death in 1982 from pancreatic cancer.
They met in 1953, while filming Dangerous When Wet, but it wasn't until 1960, when he appeared in her television special Esther Williams at Cypress Gardens that they fell in love. Even though Lamas was notoriously jealous of her previous husbands and even her children at times, they had a dramatic love story.
Williams wrote in her autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid, “He loved me so intently. It was wonderful . . . He lost his father when he was 1, and his mother when he was 4. And he was looking for that woman who would fill that empty place in him.”
Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio
Married less than two years, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had a dramatic love story following DiMaggio years after her death. They were a popular couple, at the height of their success, when they got together. They met in 1952 when DiMaggio asked an acquaintance to set up a meeting with Monroe.
She wrote of their first meeting, “I expected a flashy New York sports type, and instead I met this reserved guy who didn’t make a pass at me right away… He treated me like something special.”
DiMaggio even thought of her at the end when he died 37 years after her. His last words reportedly were, “I'll finally get to see Marilyn.”
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks
America's Sweethearts, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, were married for over 15 years before divorcing in 1936. The legend of their romance is heightened by the vow from Fairbanks that he would never spend a night away from her, even when on location.
They met at a party in 1915, and although both married, they struck up a friendship that turned into an affair. While initially worried that fans would reject them, they married shortly after Pickford's divorce. Fans embraced the union, and they went on to throw lavish dinners for their Hollywood friends together. Despite their divorce, their love story burned brightly while together.
Pickford once wrote, “I had been living in half shadows, and now a brilliant light was suddenly cast upon me.” Fairbanks returned in kind, writing, “Oh, I am simply wild about you. I feel positively sure that no man could love a woman more than I love you. You have completely taken possession of me, I cannot live without you.”