They were on every movie magazine cover again and again. We apparently cared enough about their comings and goings that they made press coverage for showing up at some Democratic fundraiser or charity ball. If you went to the movies and were in your seat for the World News of the Day, there could certainly be a segment about them, all glammed up at a premier, perhaps for the flick you were about to see.
It didn't take a lot to glam up either one of them. Beauty was no stranger to the Curtises. Solo each was breathtaking to look at and together your eyes almost hurt. They were crazy about one another's looks and could not keep their hands off the other from the time they met on the RKO lot where she was filming Howard Hughes' Jet Pilot with John Wayne.
Each was famous before they met. He was a brash, young stud muffin from lowly Universal-International and had made no really important films up to this point. She, on the other hand was a pretty, wholesome, well-regarded ingenue at the Taj Mahal of movie studios, MGM, where she had done some admirable work in some good films.
Before they were married there would be breathless accounts reported by Hedda and Louella and Sheilah about whether or not it would happen. Maybe the beautiful ones would have a teensy little spat and there would be rapid reporting that the engagement might be called off. Would he stop his playboy ways (he wouldn't) and would she wise up (she would)? If this were a horse race, we would have to clear a path for Debbie and Eddie who captured almost as much space as our subjects and soon thereafter R.J. and Natalie would horn in on some of the action.
The fans were perhaps divided on whether they should marry. I think most people wanted them to do so but there were fans of his who wanted him to remain single and available. They screamed for him, tore off pieces of his clothing and fainted. The respective studios thought they were shameless publicity hounds but liked the money all that publicity brought in.
But marry they did. He had turned 26 the day before and it would be his first marriage. She would turn 24 a month later, and while not always well-known (what? no Google?), it would be her third. They would honeymoon in Paris and the cameras followed them everywhere. Marriage or not, the glut of news coverage on the Curtises would continue throughout their 10-year union.
They schmoozed with the Rat Pack. They were involved in many liberal political activities and became quite friendly with the Kennedys. She would join Share, a charity organization formed by Hollywood wives, and their gatherings were legendary and heavily covered by the media. They hosted (she would become one of the best) and attended many glittering parties. He seemed to be having every bit as good of a time as she did but when they divorced he would complain that she always wanted to attend them more than he did. He claimed she was unwilling or uninterested in seeing his exhaustion after a hard day's work.
Although they both came from poor backgrounds and he didn't have much formal education, Curtis claimed that Leigh relished correcting him in front of others and coaxing him to get that subject and verb agreement right. Nonetheless, much of this was not known until their divorce.
|As the Houdinis|
The public clamored for them to make a movie together and they wanted to, although it would not be easy being under contract to different studios. Still, they kept their eyes open for a suitable property. That came about in 1953 when he was loaned to Paramount for Houdini, something he was dying to do. It apparently took some work to bring Leigh aboard as Bess, his wife and frequent partner, but come aboard she did. It is the only one of their five films together than I own, a completely fun and entertaining movie.
Both would go on to make the best work of their careers while married to one another. She would excel in Scaramouche, The Naked Spur, Pete Kelly's Blues, Touch of Evil, Psycho and The Manchurian Candidate. He would give exciting performances in Trapeze, Sweet Smell of Success, Kings Go Forth, The Defiant Ones, Some Like It Hot, Spartacus and The Outsider.
Other than Houdini, the only other film of any note they did together was The Vikings in 1958. Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine costarred in the manly tale. The Black Shield of Falworth, The Perfect Furlough and Who Was That Lady? were all lesser films, unworthy of their talents, but sometimes a husband and wife who want to work together have to take what's offered. A few years later Liz and Dick could attest to that.
They were together long enough to have two daughters but a great deal of their marriage was spent apart. They would visit one another's movie sets when possible and travel to foreign locales when they could, but more often they couldn't. Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder.
Years after their divorce he would claim to have been a proliferate philanderer and although he was certainly gaga over women, he had some affairs with men as well (which he admitted in a 2004 Attitude Magazine article). Apparently when one looked like Tony Curtis, it was a quick jump to being susceptible to flattery. It is publicly unknown whether Leigh knew of his infidelities but I suspect she was too savvy not to have known.
Toward the end of their marriage, they engaged in some terrific fights on money. He wanted to buy a Rolls Royce, which he felt befit his status, and she thought it was too extravagant. He bought it anyway. She wanted to loan her father some money and Curtis had a fit about that. The father did not get the money and he committed suicide shortly thereafter. (I do not know whether the two events are related but suspect they were.) Regardless, things were taking a turn in the famous marriage.
She had come to find him to be a bit moody and keeping more to himself than he usually did. The always well-oiled Curtis sense of humor had been less in evidence. She had wondered what was going on but had not particularly ventured into those areas when he came home and announced rather forthrightly, I think we should get a divorce. As she was preparing a response or at least gasp, he made it clearer... I don't want to be married anymore.
Their marriage ended with a bit of the same light up the sky feeling from which it began. That is to say... lots of publicity. At the time of the separation and eventual divorce, Curtis had begun an intense affair with German actress Christine Kaufmann, with whom he was making Taras Bulba. They would eventually marry and so the public scorned them both for wreaking havoc on poor Janet Leigh, which wasn't the case.
Leigh would go on to acknowledge that Curtis always wanted more private time. He would say all he wanted to do was come home and make love to his wife. Maybe she had learned hostessing a bit too well. She would say, too, that after fame, fortune and some kudos for some good acting, Tony had become the new Tony and she wasn't altogether sure who this person was. She realized for some years he had been eschewing responsibility and routine. He wanted nothing whatsoever to do with anything he regarded as his old life and she came to realize that included her.
And so the joint magazine covers stopped. The publicity machine grounded to a halt. She would go on to one more marriage... her longest at 30+ years. He would go on to four more marriages. Neither would ever again have the public life they once shared for those 10 years.