Revisiting Hollywood's Macabre Fascination With the Young, Dead, and Famous

Dorothy Stratten, posing with a poster of herself in 1980. Image: AP
Dorothy Stratten, posing with a poster of herself in 1980. Image: AP

Hollywood loves a dead girl—beautiful and etched forever in collective memory at the peak of youth.


For this week’s Dirtcast, we sat down with Karina Longworth, the host of the excellent You Must Remember This, a podcast that explores the oft-forgotten history of Hollywood’s golden age, to discuss three celebrity deaths of Hollywood in the 20th century.

The deaths we discuss range from exceedingly tragic to accidental; Thelma Todd, a beautiful starlet of the 1930s, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, found slumped behind the wheel of her car by her maid, Mae Whitehead. The death was ultimately ruled an accident, but more nefarious theories abound—was Todd killed by mobster Lucky Luciano? Was it her boyfriend Roland West or her ex-husband, Pat DiCicco? Or, did she simply get very, very drunk at the Trocadero on old-fashioned gin and climb into her car to fall asleep, turning the engine on for warmth, and thus accidentally ending her own life?

While Todd’s death likely was an accident, the other two discussed are markedly more tragic. in 1958, Lana Turner’s daughter Cheryl Crane stabbed her mother’s ex-boyfriend Johnny Stompanto to death, informing police that she did it to protect her mother from his bouts of violence and rage. At the trial, a friend of Stompanato stood outside, yelling, “It’s a lie. The girl was in love with him. There was jealousy between her and her mother. He was a gentleman. That’s more than the rest of you Hollywood people are.” Crane’s 1988 autobiography revealed that part of the reason she had stabbed him was because he was sexually abusing her.

Our final story is the most tragic—Dorothy Stratten, ethereal blonde Canadian Playmate, dreamed of being a Hollywood star. She was discovered at age 17 by the man who would become her husband, Paul Snider. Three years later, after one star turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s They All Laughed and securing the title of 1979's Playmate of the Year, she was dead.

DirtCast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, and iHeart Media.

Our show is produced by Levi Sharpe with editorial oversight by Kate Dries. Mandana Mofidi is our Executive Director of Audio. Our theme music is by Stuart Wood. This episode was mixed by Jamie Collazzo. Listen to our politics podcast, Big Time Dicks, here.



Megan, this is v. serious, I think we all need to see what the Tupac mirror looks like.