Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh were young and in love when they decided to throw caution to the wind and get married. For a decade, they were Hollywood’s golden couple. Unfortunately, it was not meant to last.
Classic Hollywood Central takes a look at some of Classic Hollywood’s real-life love stories and continues this journey with the story of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh.
Janet was the bigger star when she met Tony. She had already starred in such pictures as Little Women and That Forsyte Woman. Tony was being marketed as a young heartthrob by his studio. Although he already had teenage girls screaming at the sight of him, he still had not caught his big break. But none of this mattered when the pair met at an RKO publicity party in 1950. ‘Her face was exquisite,’ Tony remembered in his autobiography. ‘She had an incredible figure, and there was a sweetness about her that I found most appealing. It just devastated me to look at this woman’. ‘At one point I was introduced to a devastatingly handsome young man – beautiful really – with black unruly hair, large sensitive eyes fringed by long dark eyelashes, a full sensuous mouth – and an irresistible personality,’ Janet recalled in her book. They exchanged numbers and Tony soon called Janet. To test her. He was known for his great Cary Grant impression and put on his Cary Grant voice and asked her out. Janet caught on and said she already had a date…with Tony Curtis.
Tony was not the only one pursuing Janet though, Howard Hughes also had a thing for her. But Janet and Tony soon became inseparable and Hughes knew a lost cause when he saw one. ‘Our relationship was very hot, very physical in those early years. That was a major part of it – the actual touching and holding. We both needed each other physically, and we were a perfect match,’ Tony later recalled.
Tony also admired Janet. She was better educated and had a lot more experience in Hollywood. Some problems that would later plague their marriage already began to arise: Tony would get very jealous at every press report about Janet flirting with another actor. Still, their relationship was gathering steam. In 1951, Tony felt pressured by his studio to marry co-star Piper Laurie for publicity. Janet was signed to a different studio and his bosses did not like that. According to Tony, this made him realize that what he truly wanted was to marry Janet. He was in the middle of a promotion tour when he called her and proposed. She excitedly accepted. Both of their studios tried to dissuade them, but it was no use. On June 4, 1951 the pair were married in a small ceremony, with comedian Jerry Lewis as their witness. The pair moved into the same apartment building as Elizabeth Taylor and started their life as Hollywood’s golden couple.
As soon as they were married, Tony and Janet did interviews and magazine shoots together and fans embraced them wholeheartedly. This was an especially good move for Tony’s career, which soared after the wedding. They were seen as the perfect couple and they played into that image happily.
Their popularity was not lost on Hollywood and the pair was cast together in the films Houdini in 1953 and in The Black Shield of Falworth in 1954. But cracks were already starting to show in the relationship. Janet was annoyed at Tony’s lack of etiquette at parties and events, while Tony felt that Janet was always correcting his manners. He compared the way she talked to him to the way his mother would ‘boss around’ his father. Tony was very jealous and would suspect Janet of having affairs. He subsequently started to sleep around with other women, reportedly with actresses like Gloria DeHaven and Natalie Wood. He was also a frequent guest at Hugh Hefner’s parties. ‘I was 30 years old, in my prime and… beautiful girls with fantastic figures were constantly throwing themselves at me,’ Tony later lamented. In 1956 their daughter Kelly was born and Tony and Janet continued to try to make the marriage work. But their careers got in the way too. While Tony was a little jealous of the good roles Janet was getting, Janet felt that Tony was changing as he became more famous. Their growing fame made Janet uncomfortable, but Tony thrived on it. Aside from that, Tony had been heavily impacted by the death of his father and was reportedly already dabbling in drugs. Janet felt that he was not the man she had married anymore. They starred in more films together, like The Vikings in 1958, but the damage had been done. In 1958 their second daughter, actress Jamie lee Curtis, was born. She later called herself a ‘save-the-marriage’ baby, saying that she ‘failed’.
In 1962, while she was filming The Manchurian Candidate, Janet got word that Tony had filed for divorce. Tony believed Janet may have been having an affair with her co-star Frank Sinatra, but that was not the reason he filed for divorce. He had fallen for 17-year old German actress Christine Kaufmann. Janet was devastated and felt humiliated about being left for a 17-year old girl. The divorce was settled in Mexico to get it over with swiftly.
Tony did not waste any time and married his girlfriend Christine the year after the divorce with Janet was finalized. He had two daughters with Christine, but their marriage was not made to last either. They divorced in 1968. He would go on to marry four more times and have two sons. One of them Nicholas, died of a heroin overdose in 1994. Tony struggled with addiction himself and he went to rehab in the 1980’s. He ultimately found love with his last wife Jill when they met in 1993. His relationships with his children were complicated. Some of them commented that Tony was never really interested in being a father and that he would never open up to them. He died in 2010, but not without leaving a little controversy. His children were surprised to find out that he had disinherited them all and left everything to his wife.
Janet had a more stable life: while still recovering from her divorce, she met stockbroker Robert Brandt. They instantly hit it off and they were married only six months later. They stayed together until her death in 2004. ‘The one big secret to our enduring marriage is establishing priorities. My husband and children have always come before my career,’ Janet explained. After her parents’ divorce, Jamie said there was a lot of ‘hate’ between her parents.
But the final word goes to Tony and Janet. According to Tony: ‘I was very dedicated and devoted to Janet, and on top of my trade, but in her eyes that goldenness started to wear off. I realized that whatever I was, I wasn’t enough for Janet. That hurt me a lot and broke my heart’. While Janet put things in perspective by later saying: ‘Tony and I had a wonderful time together; it was an exciting, glamorous period in Hollywood. A lot of great things happened, most of all, two beautiful children’.