The writer of a new book about the comedy pair explains how their multiple marriages were crazier than any of their movies
New Year’s Day, 1938, and the comedian Stan Laurel – one half, with Oliver Hardy, of the most beloved comedy duo the world has ever known – is snoozing in bed with his new bride. He is hung over, and possibly even still drunk, because he would not have married this woman otherwise.
Her name is Vera Ivanova Shuvalova, but she usually goes by her stage name of Illeana. She is a Russian gold-digger of the worst stripe, as well as an appalling alcoholic.
She travels with a woman named Countess Sonia, who claims to be descended from Russian royalty and may or may not be Illeana’s mother.
While Laurel and Hardy often appeared innocent, even child-like, on screen, their personal lives were difficult, complicated and laced with tragedy
Laurel’s introduction to these women has come through Roy Randolph, a Hollywood dancing master only recently acquitted of sexually assaulting a young actress. There is little money for Randolph in giving dancing lessons, but more in introducing his Russian friends to a movie star, especially one who is building up a track record of broken marriages. Which is how Laurel has ended up in Yuma, Arizona, married to a woman he barely knows. His head is thumping.
He thinks it may be the booze, until he opens his eyes and realises that the sound is coming from elsewhere. Someone is knocking. Someone is shouting. There are many ways in which a man might wish to be woken on his wedding night, but a voice screaming ‘Bigamist! Bigamist!’ at his hotel room door is almost certainly not one of them.
Illeana, the third Mrs Laurel, is about to meet her predecessor. While Laurel and Hardy often appeared innocent, even child-like, on screen, their personal lives were difficult, complicated and laced with tragedy.
Hardy, Laurel and Ruth Laurel in 1947. Even after quickly marrying Ruth, he continued trying to woo Lois back, which may explain why that second marriage lasted only two years
Johnny Weissmuller, Mary Gordon, Brenda Joyce, Oliver Hardy and wife Lucille Jones, Stan Laurel and wife Ruth Rogers and Mickey Rooney (front) in 1941
Now, as they are set to be rediscovered by a new generation with the release next year of the film Stan And Ollie, with Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as Oliver Hardy, it is ironic to view the pair’s films and see how often their characters are depicted in unhappy marriages, given the misery both men suffered – and sometimes caused – in their personal lives. As their lawyer, Ben Shipman, put it after their deaths: ‘Such sweet men. But oh, the problems they could get into! Particularly Stan, but Babe [Hardy’s nickname] too.
And most of it was women trouble…’ Oliver Hardy was married three times. His first wife was an older woman named Madelyn Saloshin, whom he divorced messily in 1921 in order to marry a younger actress, Myrtle Reeves. He should have been careful what he wished for. If there is such a thing as a genial alcoholic, then Myrtle Reeves wasn’t it. She spent their marriage repeatedly being committed to, and escaping from, sanatoriums.
At one point she locked herself in a hotel room and threatened to jump from a window, all in full view of police, firemen and a gaggle of newspaper reporters. Hardy did his best for Myrtle but found her alcoholism impossible to live with, and by 1929 he had commenced an affair with a divorcee named Viola Morse, who had a young son.
Hardy’s relationship with Viola would persist, on and off, for a decade, until he eventually divorced Myrtle and married his third and final wife, Lucille Jones. Heartbroken at the break-up of their relationship, and depressed by the sudden death of her son, Viola took an overdose of sleeping pills and crashed her car, though she survived.
But Hardy paid a high price for any sins he might have committed against his ex-wives. Madelyn returned to pursue him for money, as did an increasingly unhinged Myrtle, leaving him virtually broke by the end of his life. Even as he lay on his deathbed in August 1957, deprived of the power of speech and reduced by illness to a thin, frail figure, Myrtle tried to have legal papers served on him.
The process server she sent was so ashamed that he left the house with the papers still in his pocket.
But if Hardy’s relationships with women were complex, Stan Laurel’s were so convoluted as to be almost beyond belief. In 1919, when he was still Arthur Jefferson, he met an Australian actress, Mae Dahlberg, while working on the vaudeville circuit in the US and Canada.
Mae claimed to be a widow, despite the fact that her husband Rupert was alive and well, if conveniently elsewhere. Mae became Jefferson’s common- law wife. When he changed his name, she styled herself Mae Laurel, although they never married.
Mae was older than Laurel, and nowhere near as talented. When he moved to Hollywood, she came with him, but by 1925 Laurel was in love with another actress, Lois Neilson. When it became clear to everyone that Mae was holding Laurel back both in his career and his love life – to everyone, that is, except Mae – she was paid to disappear.
It is ironic to view the pair’s films and see how often their characters are depicted in unhappy marriages, given both men’s dramatic personal lives. A colourised scene from Liberty, 1929
Laurel, baby Lois and wife Lois in 1929. Even as he and Lois were expecting their first child together, Laurel had already begun an affair with a French actress, Alyce Ardell
And then Laurel’s love life started to get really complicated. It’s worth going back to those early Laurel and Hardy films (many of them can be viewed online) to get an idea of just how handsome Stan Laurel was in his younger days. He had very blue eyes, and women seemed to find him irresistible.
Even as he and Lois, whom he married in 1926, were expecting their first child together, Laurel had already begun an affair with a French actress, Alyce Ardell. Laurel and Lois divorced in 1934, a decision he always regretted.
Even after quickly marrying Ruth Rogers, a young widow, in 1935, he continued trying to woo Lois back, which may go some way towards explaining why that second marriage lasted only two years.
The disastrous union with Illeana followed. It endured for a year, during which Ruth followed her gatecrashing of the honeymoon by repeatedly sending fire engines to the couple’s home to put out non-existent blazes in the dead of night, and Laurel dug a grave in his back yard with the stated intention of killing Illeana and burying her in it, possibly along with Countess Sonia and Roy Randolph.
Oliver Hardy divorced his first wife Madelyn Saloshin in 1921 in order to marry a younger actress, Myrtle Reeves. Above: Hardy with Myrtle and Laurel
Laurel’s 1938 wedding to Vera Shuvalova. She is a Russian gold-digger of the worst stripe, as well as an appalling alcoholic
Incredibly, after divorcing Illeana, Laurel and Ruth remarried. It was clear that they’d made a mistake, but the marriage still dragged on for five years. Yet even as she was divorcing Laurel for the second time, Ruth described him to the court as a ‘swell fellow’. He just, she said, didn’t know what he wanted. Laurel’s final marriage, to another widow, Ida Raphael, lasted for almost two decades, and it was she who was beside him when he died.
He spent his last years living in a three- bedroom apartment in Santa Monica, California, writing letters, greeting fans and creating routines for his late partner that would never be performed. When he died, his old friend Buster Keaton wept uncontrollably at the funeral. ‘Chaplin wasn’t the funniest,’ Keaton said. ‘I wasn’t the funniest. Stan Laurel was the funniest.’
‘he’ by John Connolly is published by Hodder & Stoughton on August 24 at £16.99
Back on the big screen… aha!
With Steve Coogan as put-upon Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as tubby, overbearing Oliver Hardy, Stan And Ollie has an unusual take on comedy’s most famous double-act. Produced by BBC Films, the recently completed biopic focuses on a tour of Britain the bowler-hated duo mounted in 1953.
They didn’t know it yet but this was to be their swansong. The turbulent circuit of regional variety halls would unearth long-buried resentments, but also remind them what it was that bound them together. ‘It’s a love story between two guys who realise they can’t live without each other,’ explains director Jon C Baird (Filth).
With Steve Coogan as put-upon Stan Laurel and John C Reilly as tubby, overbearing Oliver Hardy, biopic Stan And Ollie has an unusual take on comedy’s most famous double-act
In researching their story, screenwriter Jeff Pope was amazed to find little information about their off-screen lives. ‘I have not treated the boys with kid gloves or looked at them through rose-coloured specs,’ he says. For the actors it presented a big challenge. Not only embodying the deep emotional bond that made the comedy possible, but mimicking those distinctive mannerisms that made them Laurel and Hardy.
Step Brothers star Reilly’s physical transformation is uncanny, with the actor wrapped in a fat suit and given a prosthetic double chin. Coogan was always Baird’s first choice as Laurel, the ‘tortured genius’ who obsessed over the material while the laid-back Hardy was off playing golf or betting on horses.
Coogan was just as obsessed with the Lancashire-born Laurel. Says Baird, ‘He’s very serious about playing this guy. Stan Laurel was a workaholic and his life was dedicated to making people laugh. Steve understands that, he understands how difficult that is.’
‘Stan And Ollie’ will be released in 2018
Comedy’s dynamic duo
It is almost impossible for us to conceive of just how famous Laurel and Hardy were in their prime. When they travelled to England for the first time in 1932, thousands waited to greet them at Southampton docks, all whistling in unison the pair’s theme tune, Dance Of The Cuckoos.
Ten thousand people crowded the streets of Birmingham to catch a glimpse of the stars. Unlike later duos such as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, who became estranged over money, Laurel and Hardy only grew more fond of each other as the years went by.
Stan Laurel would outlive Oliver Hardy – ‘Babe’ to his friends – by eight years, but he never worked again after his partner died. Laurel was born Arthur Jefferson in Ulverston, Lancashire, in 1890. He made his stage debut at the age of 16 and never looked back, eventually finding his way to the vaudeville circuit in the United States. Norvell Hardy was born in Harlem, Georgia, in 1892.
He worked as a film projectionist and a singer before finding work as a jobbing actor. Laurel was more driven, with a greater array of skills – acting, directing, writing and editing – but had never been able to find a character or role that captured the public imagination. Only when producer Hal Roach paired him with Hardy did he realise that stardom lay in sharing the limelight. So Laurel would come up with most of the gags, the situations, the stories, and the two men would bring them to life.
Hardy was the better actor: his time as a projectionist had taught him that even the smallest of gestures would appear huge onscreen. Laurel, with his theatrical background, had to learn this subtlety, but there was no bitterness between them. They never argued over money, screen time or women. In fact they hardly ever argued at all.