Before we get to the juicy stuff about Herbert Marshall—like the time where he terrorized an overzealous photographer at a nightclub, got decked by a screenwriter at a Beverly Hills mansion, or scandalized all of Hollywood by carrying on an openly adulterous affair with Gloria Swanson—let’s give the man his due as an actor.
In his day, he was a bona fide A-Lister. One of the first stars of the sound-picture era to merit the title of “leading man,” Marshall was a reliable box-office draw who could hold his own onscreen with the likes of Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, and Katherine Hepburn. He also happened to be a World War I veteran with a wooden leg, a fact that he never kept secret—and that never diminished his appeal to audiences or to the beauties he performed with. “The demand for Herbert Marshall’s talents continues to spread far and wide,” wrote one industry columnist in the mid-1930s. “Even the newer and younger leading women, it is felt, need to have his proficient romanticism displayed in their pictures.” And in their bedrooms too, oftentimes.
Born in London to a pair of actors, Marshall only turned to performing himself after failing as an accounting clerk and business manager. He made his professional debut in about 1909 and quickly worked his way to London’s big-time stages, appearing alongside British theatrical luminaries such as Noel Coward, Gerald du Maurier, and Nigel Playfair. When the Great War commenced in August 1914, Marshall (then 24 years old) enlisted and spent more than a year manning the trenches. Eventually a German bullet shattered his left knee, leading to amputation of the limb high above the knee in 1917.
Depressed, bitter, and in great physical pain, Marshall spent more than a year bemoaning the loss of his promising career. An uncle, Leopold Godfrey-Turner, ultimately helped the young actor start living again. “Uncle Bogey had lost his first-born son in the war,” he later recalled. “By his fine courage and by his gorgeous humour, which not even grief could crucify, he showed me how a man may know irreparable loss and still inherit the earth. When I learned to walk again, I returned to London, healed in spirit if not in body.”
Marshall’s body never did truly heal. He dealt with wracking pain (both phantom and otherwise) for the rest of his life, dulling it with alcohol on a periodic basis. But he adapted well enough to return to London stages by 1919 and make his US debut on Broadway in 1922. During this period Marshall shared top billing in a London play with a rising star named Edna Best. They played a couple onstage in multiple productions during the 1920s and finally got married in real life in 1928. The following year Marshall made his first Hollywood picture, The Letter, playing a charming adulterer—a character he knew perhaps too well. Over the next decade, he collected starring roles and high-profile lovers in equal abundance. Rumor has it that he bedded both co-stars of his 1932 hit Trouble in Paradise, in which (ironically) he plays a handsome devil at the fulcrum of a love triangle.
Things got really interesting two years later when he took up with Gloria Swanson, Hollywood’s diva of divas. Swanson was married at the time to a fellow named Michael Farmer, while Marshall was still hitched to Best (who had given birth to the couple’s first child in 1933). Their affair first made headlines in September 1934, when Marshall and Swanson showed up together at a private Hollywood party. At some point that evening, Marshall and Swanson were playing ping-pong with screenwriter John Monk Saunders and his wife, King Kong star Fay Wray. Marshall took offense at a remark Saunders made about Swanson (or, perhaps, at an immodest glance down Swanson’s neckline); he voiced his displeasure, Saunders replied with a fist, Marshall hit the deck, and it all wound up in the newspapers.
With their affair now a matter of public record, Marshall and Swanson carried on openly and unapologetically for several more years. They were regularly pictured as a couple and made no attempt to hide it, to the delight of tabloid writers. “At this moment, Gloria Swanson is in town,” one scribe wrote in Modern Screen. “So is Herbert Marshall. So are the gossips and rumor hounds. And an enjoyable time is being had by some, though we doubt if G.S. and H.M. are among them.” The article goes on to recount how Marshall flew into a rage at a cabaret in New York after a photographer committed some breach of decorum or another. None other than Ed Sullivan witnessed the actor chasing the lensman in between the tables of the club’s crowded dining floor.
Swanson was already quadruply divorced by then, and Marshall was in the process of ruining his second marriage, but the pair’s affection for each other was apparently deeper than the average Hollywood fling. “I was never so convincingly and thoroughly loved as I was by Herbert Marshall,” Swanson wrote in her autobiography. Her collected papers at the University of Texas contain hundreds of love notes and telegrams that he sent her. Yet when she demanded that Marshall divorce Best in 1936, some gentlemanly impulse (guilt over breaking up his daughter’s home, it was rumored) prevented him from going through with it. Their affair fizzled out, and Best finally ditched Marshall in 1940. He would marry another three times before his death in 1966.
Without making a big deal of it, Marshall was a lifelong supporter of the amputee community, particularly men who lost limbs during World War II. “Herbert Marshall gave me my life back,” one soldier told Motion Picture Magazine in 1945. “When I found out I had a metal claw instead of a hand, I was completely broken. While I was in the hospital, we were told Herbert Marshall, the film star, was coming to talk to us. I was disgusted with the idea [of him] coming to give us a Pollyanna speech. It turned out to be anything but that. Mr. Marshall talked real sense into us. Before he left, we were convinced that if he had been able to lead a normal life, we could do the same.”
That role—peer mentor—may be the greatest one Marshall ever played.