History is littered with riches-to-rags tales of celebrities and artists who recklessly spent their fortunes on their extravagant lifestyles and were left with nothing when the flame stopped flickering. It’s also full of cases in which people only achieved fame and financial success posthumously, earning millions after their deaths but still dying penniless and in relative obscurity. Here’s a look at ten of the most shocking and depressing fame casualties. Easy come, easy go, as the saying goes…
1. Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990)
Sammy Davis Jr. was a legendary showman. He was a brilliant Broadway and film actor, tap dancer, and singer who shattered the color barrier of the 1950s and went on to become one of the world’s most popular stars, and a member of Frank Sinatra’s legendary ‘Rat Pack.’ However, despite earning an estimated $50 million during his career, by the time he died from throat cancer on May 16, 1990, the great entertainer was over $15 million in debt. This was partly due to his declining popularity in the late ‘60s, and partly due to his struggles with substance abuse. But mostly, like so many riches-to-rags celebrities, Davis had been living beyond his means. He was making money but spending it even quicker, building up huge amounts of debt from which he would never escape.
2. Joe Louis (1914–1981)
Joe Louis held the heavyweight boxing title from 1937-1949, which is the longest reign in heavyweight boxing history. It also made Louis one of the greatest and most popular American fighters of all time. However, his sporting successes didn’t bring him financial security. Despite estimated career earnings of $4.6 million, Louis only received around $800,000 – of which much was spent on presents to friends and family, donations to the US army, and bad business investments. The IRS also regarded the money earned from the boxer’s charitable bouts as taxable earnings, and continued to pursue him after World War II. Having fallen on hard times, Louis was reduced to performing as a wrestler and worked as an “official greeter” at the Caesars Palace casino in Las Vegas. In the years leading to his death by cardiac arrest on April 12, 1981, Louis suffered a “physical breakdown” (induced by cocaine) and was later placed in a psychiatric hospital for five months, while suffering from severe paranoia and the belief that there was a plot to destroy him.
3. Judy Garland (1922–1969)
Judy Garland is most famous for her role as Dorothy Gale in the light-hearted 1939 classic movie The Wizard of Oz, but her personal life was one long parade of disasters – both emotionally and financially. Billed as the ‘girl next door,’ she didn’t have the typical glamorous Hollywood leading lady looks, which led to producers extensively altering her appearance. This no doubt contributed to a lifetime of insecurity and depression, as well as her struggles with drug abuse. By the late 1940s, she had become increasingly difficult to work with, often arriving late or not at all. As years wore on and Garland's financial situation became precarious, she turned more and more to television appearances. Her personal life was also going downhill, with the break-up of both of her early marriages leading to a number of suicide attempts. Garland died on June 22, 1969 of an accidental barbiturate overdose. By the time of her death, she was heavily in debt to the IRS.
4. Bela Lugosi (1882-1956)
Bela Lugosi transitioned from a brilliant career in Hungarian theater to being Hollywood’s go-to horror villain, appearing as a diabolical mastermind in movies like the 1931 version of Dracula, Son of Frankenstein and White Zombie. For a generation of filmgoers, in the 1920s and 1930s, Lugosi was the embodiment of all of the horrors of the silver screen. However, typecasting affected the actor badly, limiting him mostly to roles as Gothic villains. Lugosi's accent, which was a huge part of his image, also held him back. He was also plagued by substance abuse and issues related to a change of management at his company, Universal, which, for a time, entirely dropped its line of monster movies. By the 1950s, Lugosi’s star had sunk so low that he was living in “poverty” and was reduced to appearing in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, a Z-grade clunker widely regarded as one of the worst films ever made. The actor died of a heart attack on his couch at his Los Angeles home on August 16, 1956. He was 73 years old.
5. George Best (1946–2005)
George Best’s tenures with Manchester United and Northern Island are still remembered as legendary passages in the annals of British football. A natural “genius” winger, Best was famous for his ability to penetrate the defenses of his opponents. On May 15, 1971, he scored one of the most famous “goals” of his career against England. When keeper Gordon Banks released the ball to kick it into the air, Best beat him to it (the shot was disallowed). However, the striker also suffered from chronic alcoholism and an inability to manage money. When asked what had happened to his career earnings of $100 million, Best was often quoted as saying: “I spent 90 percent of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted.” The great football player was diagnosed with severe liver damage in 2000 and died from the side effects of his immune-suppressive drugs five years later, at age 59.
6. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Controversial German writer Friedrich Nietzsche, born in 1844, was notorious for proclaiming “God is dead,” and for asserting the belief that conventional morality was obsolete in the modern world. He based his alternate philosophy not on compassion but on the “will to power” and the “Übermensch,” who cares nothing for the feelings of anyone “lower” than him. In a twist of cosmic irony, Nietzsche met his end following a mental breakdown that first became apparent during a scene when he saw a horse being whipped in the street. Witnesses reported that he ran up to the animal and put his arms around it to protect it. Before his death, on August 25, 1900, Nietzsche was cared for and supported by his aging mother and, after her death, by his sister, Elisabeth.
7. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890)
Vincent van Gogh is regarded as one of the greatest post-impressionists in history. Yet, despite having produced masterpieces like “The Starry Night” and “Sunflowers,” he only sold one painting during his lifetime. The artist frequently struggled with money and produced much of his most famous work in a lunatic asylum. Believed to be suffering from a bipolar disorder, van Gogh was hampered by a nervous disposition and frequently experienced depression, paranoia and hallucinations. In one famous instance in 1888, following a heated row with French painter Paul Gauguin, van Gogh removed his left ear with a razor and handed it to a prostitute. On July 27, 1890, van Gogh attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. He survived, but died two days later from the wound. Bizarrely, no gun was ever found. Van Gogh died penniless. His masterful work gained him praise and notoriety only after his death.
8. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)
Oscar Wilde is one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 19th century. As a poet and a writer, Wilde was famous for his cutting wit. Secretly, however, he was living a double life.
He was involved in liaisons with many younger men, including male prostitutes and Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. In 1895, after unwisely bringing a libel prosecution against Lord Douglas’ father, who called Wilde a 'posing sodomite,' Wilde was arrested for gross indecency and sentenced to two years’ hard labor – first at Pentonville Prison, then at HM Prison Wandsworth, and finally at Reading Gaol. After his release, he fell into a depression and his literary output declined. He ended his days on November 30, 1900, in a shabby hotel in Paris after contracting cerebral meningitis. Reportedly, he hated his room so much that his last words were: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.”
9. Oskar Schindler (1908–1974)
Oskar Schindler began as an ordinary, hard-headed businessman and joined the Nazi party in 1939. Disagreeing strongly with the party’s persecution of innocent Jewish people, Schindler moved to Poland in order to employ, and save, indentured Jewish workers in one of his factories. Unlike most opportunistic German businessmen, Schindler paid enormous bribes in order to save the Jews who worked for him, spending most of his personal fortune on food and protection for his charges. Despite his heroics, his post-war business ventures went down in disaster. He was vilified by the German general public who sometimes threw stones at him in the street. In an epilogue which is both heart-warming and heart-breaking, the great businessman spent the rest of his life living off the good graces of Jewish charity organisations. He died in Hildesheim, West Germany, in 1974.
10. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849)
Alongside H.P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe was one of the most influential early writers in horror. Gothic tales like The Tell-Tale Heart and Poe’s legendary poem “The Raven” are still widely read today – and have even been adapted into episodes of The Simpsons. His master detective C. Auguste Dupin was a forerunner in the literary genre, informing Arthur Conan Doyle’s work almost 50 years before Sherlock Holmes picked up the magnifying glass. Despite this, Poe’s life was “a constant struggle to make ends meet.” He was unable to hold a regular job at the Southern Literary Messenger due to his prickly personality and struggles with alcoholism. And despite “The Raven” making him a literary sensation, he was paid only a few dollars for its publication. He died in 1849 after collapsing in Baltimore. Much like his eerie narratives, the cause of his death is steeped in mystery.