This sort of inquiry is fun and diverting from a soul-crushing job — so fun and diverting, in fact, that you can quickly forget that not so long ago, paternity was a deadly serious business. In the pre-TMZ age, it was a lot easier for celebrities to conceal their comings and going, and we didn’t have Google image search to help the public conduct their wild speculations. But being born a “love child” was more of a source of shame and worry, not a thing to be joked about. Here are five stories of love children of that prior era, before everybody could find out everything about everybody with the aid of cheap facial recognition software and Facebook.
Roberto Rossellini, Jr.
Rossellini’s arrival in the world was just the last stage of a brewing scandal. His mother, Ingrid Bergman, was married to a neurosurgeon when she conceived. But she’d been having a torrid public affair with the director of her latest movie, Roberto Rossellini. The press first got wind of it during shooting on the volcanic Italian island of Stromboli. Bergman’s husband, Peter Lindstrom, flew out to try to rescue the marriage, but ultimately, he failed.
Thereupon followed some epic legal wrangling; an Austrian divorce was contemplated, then a Mexican one. And all the while, Bergman denied rumors that she was pregnant, right up to the day she gave birth to Roberto Rossellini, Jr., in a Rome hospital. Because she was still married, even her lawyer told the press the baby might have to be named Lindstrom. But eventually the divorce decree came through, and Bergman married Rossellini, though not until after a lot of saber rattling by errant senators about how her moral turpitude would prevent her from ever being readmitted to the United States. She would divorce Rossellini seven years later, which seems like a bit short of a marriage to waste such sturm und drang on. At least she got Roberto — who would later go on to date Princess Caroline of Monaco — and his twin sisters, Isotta and Isabella Rossellini, out of it.
Rhonda Ross Kendrick
Berry Gordy and Diana Ross clashed tempestuously over the management of the Supremes, but it was a love-hate sort of thing. According to his wife at the time, Ross only married her personal manager, Bob Silberstein, two weeks after first putting an ultimatum to Gordy to do the same. When Ross became pregnant, according to unauthorized biographies, she and Silberstein still felt it was only right to present the child as their own. Gordy, for his part, says it took him years to realize how much that child, Rhonda, resembled him. She was only told her true parentage at 13, and apparently adjusted well to learning that her father was the man she and her two sisters called “Uncle BB.” Try to imagine the therapy bill that came out of that one.
When Lewis was conceived, her father, Clark Gable, was married — don’t worry, not to Carole Lombard, who Hollywood aficionados usually cite as the love of his life — but to a Texas heiress. Her mother, the actress Loretta Young, was his onscreen love interest in 1935’s The Call of the Wild. There’s a whole mythology about their love affair that has them holed up in the snow together, filming, but it’s likely a bit of an exaggeration.
Still, Young was a devout Catholic and never considered ending the pregnancy. She had the baby in secret instead, and sent her to a broad range of caretakers, including an orphanage. Lewis only came to live openly with her mother at 19 months old, when Young managed to get some fabricated adoption records. Even as a small child, Lewis strongly resembled Gable. Children at school often teased Lewis about how her ears stuck out — one of the aspects of her appearance that linked her to Gable. Her mother, still determined to conceal her parentage, had them surgically altered. And in fact, though she’d admit the truth to Lewis when she was 31, Young never spoke publicly about either being her daughter’s biological parent or the paternity issue. She’d only admit the truth in a posthumously published biography. When Lewis came forth with the story herself in 1994, her mother refused to speak to her for three years. Young died in 2000; Lewis in 2011.
Stage director Lindsay-Hogg’s father was Orson Welles, and his mother the actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. The two were both married, unhappily, to other people, when Welles directed Fitzgerald in a production of George Bernard Shaw. Fitzgerald even went to live with Welles for a time, but ultimately went back to her husband, and apparently repented of the affair.
Fitzgerald refused, for her whole life, to acknowledge her son’s true parentage, even to him. But the lovers were not precisely estranged. Fitzgerald ultimately acted in more of Welles’ films. Lindsay-Hogg had intermittent contact with Welles and his family nonetheless. Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder has said it was always clear to her that Lindsay-Hogg was her brother. He worked as Welles’ apprentice at one point, and ultimately became a director like his father. (He is responsible, among other productions, for the BBC miniseries Brideshead Revisited — yes, the one with Jeremy Irons.) Lindsay-Hogg finally took a paternity test in 2010, which confirmed that he was indeed Welles’ son.
Born just five days after Hank Williams, Sr., died of an overdose in his car, Jett Williams was the result of an affair between the famous country star and a Nashville secretary named Bobbie Webb Jett. Once she learned she was pregnant, the secretary worked out a deal with Williams — who was soon to marry — and his mother. She would surrender the baby, as Williams intended to raise the child as his own with his new wife Billie Jean. But once he died, things fell apart. The baby was surrendered to Hank Williams’ mother, who adopted her. But within two years, the mother died and tiny Jett, then named “Cathy Stone,” was put up for adoption.
When Jett discovered the true nature of her parentage, at age 21 — rumors dogged her childhood, as she’d arrived in foster homes with Hank Williams sheet music — she was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the family. The Williams estate is worth a lot of money, his sister who administered it had a drug problem, and Hank had another wife before Billie Jean who felt entitled to some share in the catalog. Meanwhile, the litigation over the estate was ongoing as Jett was growing up, and judges had decided that her adoption meant she’d been disinherited. The thing was so snarled in competing claims that by the time she got involved in the litigation, Jett had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get her hereditary rights in the catalog acknowledged. But Hank Williams, Jr. fought her all the way, and reportedly, as of today, still won’t speak to her.