Total Ding-Dongs Whose Lawsuits Blew Up In Their Faces
It doesn't matter how wholesome, generous, and all-around lovable you are -- if you live your life in the public eye, it's inevitable that someone will talk shit about you. (Hell, even Lin-Manuel Miranda.) Lawyering up and suing your enemies into oblivion can be both fun and profitable, but thin-skinned celebrities should beware. Sometimes, an ill-conceived lawsuit only makes the situation much, much worse.
General MacArthur's Libel Suit Exposed His Young Filipina Girlfriend
In 1932, a group of unemployed World War I veterans stormed Washington, D.C. to demand the early payment of their bonuses. In response to this fairly reasonable request from his fellow soldiers, then-Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur ignored the President's orders to stand down and led six tanks full of troops to break up the protest by any means necessary, up to and including injuring 55 of them and lighting their stuff on fire. It was generally seen as a dick move.
Journalist Drew Pearson certainly thought so, calling MacArthur "dictatorial and disloyal" and his crackdown "unnecessary, arbitrary, harsh, and brutal" in his syndicated column. With his trademark deliberation, MacArthur slapped Pearson and co-columnist Robert Allen with a $1.75 million libel suit. Pearson might have been crushed like a bug ... if he hadn't discovered MacArthur's affair with an actress named Isabel Cooper. He was 50 and recently divorced when he met her while serving in the Phillippines in 1930; she was 16 and nicknamed "Dimples." On returning to the States, he set her up in a hotel in Washington, D.C. and "bought her many lacy tea gowns, but no raincoat. She didn't need one, he told her; her duty lay in bed."
Truly, a beautiful love story, but by 1934, 20-year-old Cooper had grown sick of MacArthur. He was trying to send her back to the Philippines when Pearson tracked her down and discovered she'd be happy to make some cash by smiting her old sugar daddy. She agreed to appear as a witness in his lawsuit and also sold him some of MacArthur's love letters, which are better left undiscussed.
When MacArthur learned Cooper was on the witness list, he immediately sent his army buddy Dwight Eisenhower to find her, but Pearson had seen that coming and already had her hidden away in Baltimore. MacArthur then imagined his angry young ex-girlfriend testifying in court while Pearson published his love letters and suddenly decided a libel suit wasn't the greatest idea after all. The general not only dropped his suit, he coughed up $15,000 to buy his letters back.
Goat-Testicle Doctor John Brinkley Was Discredited And Ruined
You could say John Brinkley, a sort of Depression-era Dr. Oz, had some balls. Goat balls, to be specific. His primary claim to fame was an operation that transplanted goat testicles into human ballsacks as a cure for impotence. Of course, Brinkley's "cure" was as insanely dangerous as it was ineffective, but he always managed to smooth-talk his way out of the torrent of malpractice suits that followed him around like a medically negligent Eeyore. By 1938, he was hustling almost a million dollars a year (that's about $18 million in future money).
It wasn't entirely a good year for the bad doctor. That was the year Dr. Morris Fishbein published a two-part article about Brinkley in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled "Modern Medical Charlatans," which was even less charitable than it sounds. To protect the good name of man-goat testicular transplants, Brinkley sued Fishbein for $250,000 ... which was exactly what the AMA had hoped he would do.
The 1939 libel trial offered a golden opportunity to destroy Brinkley. Before a jury in Texas, a line-up of experts patiently explained that you can't just pop a goat ball in a human nutsack and expect anything to happen besides gangrene, while the AMA presented tests that showed the "medicines" Brinkley got rich selling were just water stained with a drop of dye. Brinkley's lawyers argued their client was a visionary genius persecuted by the establishment, like the Galileo of goat gonads, but the jury was spectacularly unconvinced. Having been officially declared a conman, the malpractice suits came hard and fast, and Brinkley was bankrupt by 1941. Don't worry; he didn't live in poverty too long. The next year, he was no doubt greeted at the pearly gates by hundreds of testy souls whose deaths he caused.
The Guess Jeans Guy Got Sued Into Oblivion By His Employees
Georges Marciano, co-founder of the Guess clothing brand and Anna Nicole Smith's career, moved from France to California in 1977 and soon amassed a fortune beyond his wildest dreams, only to blow it after sinking into addiction and paranoia. It was a bit like Scarface, if Tony Montana had popularized acid-wash jeans and went down in a hail of lawsuits rather than bullets.
By 2007, following a divorce and the acquisition of a $3,000 a week pill habit, he started acting strange, even for him. With no real evidence, he decided five former employees had stolen from him. Not just a bit of garden-variety fraud, either: In Marciano's imagination, they'd already swiped $413 million of assets, and they were plotting an Ocean's Eleven-worthy art heist. His accountants and then the police assured him otherwise, but he sued for embezzlement anyway, only to be swiftly dismissed as a rich asshole in the midst of a chemical freakout. Then the employees sued back.
After a jury awarded the five defamed employees a cool $370 million in damages, everyone else who'd had to deal with his bullshit decided to get a piece for themselves. A month later, the accountant who'd originally investigated Marciano's claims won a payout of his own, his wife, and his business partner -- all of whom were implicated in the supposed scheme by Marciano after they refused to play along -- scored another $55 million, adding up to a grand total of $425 million in damages. While an appeal reduced the bill to a mere $260 million, it was more than enough to force Marciano to flee to Montreal and sell his famous Italian-Revival mansion in Beverly Hills for $24 million. It boasted seven bedrooms, a sunken tennis court and magnificent gardens, not to mention all the schadenfreude a lucky buyer could ever need.
Jonathan Aitken Ended Up Destroying His Own Life
In 1995, the future looked bright for British politician Jonathan Aitken. The Conservative MP was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and even had a decent chance of becoming prime minister someday, but things went south when the Guardian and Grenada TV made a documentary about his shady dealings with Saudi Arabia. Among many allegations, they claimed Aitken scored prostitutes for Saudi bigwigs and that aides of Prince Mohammed Bin Fahd had paid his 1,000 pound hotel bill at the Paris Ritz.
Aitken came out swinging the day it aired. He slapped the Guardian with a libel suit, then assaulted his own Queen's English with a godawful metaphor, announcing that "If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play, so be it." Before the High Court, Aitken insisted that it had been his wife, not the Saudis, who had settled his Ritz bill after visiting Paris with their teenage daughter. Both his wife and daughter signed statements backing up his story, and he even promised a "ladies' day" of the trial when they would testify on his behalf. Things looked grim for the Guardian -- after all, surely Aitken wasn't such a horrifically prolapsed asshole that he'd make his own kid lie to the High Court?
Fortunately, the trial didn't last long enough for that. The Guardian had the receipts -- literally, from British Airways and a rental car agency in Geneva -- that proved Aitken's wife and daughter weren't even in France that weekend. They dropped their evidence-shaped anvil on the court and flattened the lying bastard like Wile E. Coyote. The failed lawsuit left Aitken with a 1.8 million pound bill, and his wife divorced his bankrupt ass while Granada TV trolled him with a new documentary called The Dagger of Deceit. Everyone in Britain was judging him, including an actual judge, who sentenced him to 18 months in jail for perjury and perverting the course of justice.
It soon emerged that his downfall was even dumber than it seemed. Before the trial began, the Guardian had offered to settle the case. Aitken refused, opting instead to battle on with a "sword of truth" about as impressive as a neckbeard's ornamental katana.
Alger Hiss's Slander Suit Revealed Him As A Soviet Spy
In 1950, former State Department official Alger Hiss was jailed for perjury after lying to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) about his Communist past. It's hard to exaggerate the shitstorm this triggered at the time. The verdict suggested Soviet spies had infiltrated the US government, which helped kick off the paranoid McCarthy era. Hiss's supporters claimed their man had been framed by a right-wing conspiracy, but these days, most historians think Hiss was probably guilty. But the most contentious case of the Cold War might never have happened at all if it wasn't for a slander suit.
It all started in 1948, a year when Brylcreem was big, Frank Sinatra could have gotten it from your great-grandma, and an ex-Communist named Whittaker Chambers told HUAC that Hiss was part of his 1930s network in Washington, D.C. Hiss appeared before the committee to deny it, claiming at first that he'd never even met Chambers, but after a grilling from investigators -- including young Richard Nixon -- he conceded he'd known him by a different name. Still, Hiss insisted, he never knew him well, and they sure as hell weren't secret comrades. He then dared Chambers to repeat the allegations away from Congress so he could sue his ass. When Chambers did just that in a radio interview, Hiss filed a $75,000 lawsuit to prove his red, white, and blue bona fides.
Now, let's back up a bit. In his testimony to HUAC, Chambers hadn't accused Hiss of spying. In fact, he'd straight-out denied his group had committed espionage. All he'd told them was that Hiss had been a Communist in the 1930s -- a perfectly legal thing to be -- and he hadn't even produced much evidence of that. But now, as part of the lawsuit's deposition, Hiss's attorney demanded Chambers hand over any correspondence between the two men.
It turned out there was quite a lot. Chambers readily forked over an envelope containing handwritten notes from Hiss and copies of classified State Department documents and then led investigators to his farm, where his field of fucks lay barren, and gave them some incriminating microfilm he'd hidden inside a pumpkin. The "Pumpkin Papers" (seriously) seemed to prove that not only had Hiss been bullshitting about his dealings with Chambers, but he'd actually been sneaking information to the Soviet Union.
Although the statute of limitations for espionage had expired, Hiss was sentenced to nearly four years in jail for lying to HUAC. He went on to argue his innocence right up until his death in 1996, but in the meantime, the Reagan administration made Whittaker Chambers's pumpkin farm into America's lamest historic landmark. Only about two people visit it each year.
Henry Ford Was Called "Ignorant" And Then Proved It
Ask someone about Henry Ford's political views today, and they'll probably remember him as the anti-Semitic loon who earned a shoutout in Mein Kampf. But years before he became Adolf's favorite American, Ford was pissing people off in a much nobler way with his pacifism. In 1916, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune slammed him as an "ignorant idealist" and "anarchistic enemy of the nation" for opposing a troop deployment to the Mexican border. It also wrongly claimed Ford wouldn't hold a job for deployed workers, but the tycoon was mostly upset about the name-calling.
The Tribune's lawyers had to prove the veracity of their claims to fend off the libel charges, and the way they did it was borderline genius: They subjected Ford to six days on the witness stand answering questions about history and politics. It turned out that one of the most powerful men in the country thought the American revolution happened in 1812 and Benedict Arnold was a writer. He also claimed to have voted for James Garfield, who'd been inconveniently assassinated years before Ford was even old enough to vote. Sure, Ford was a wildly successful businessman, but the guy would have been deadweight on your bar quiz team.
Of course, the media lapped it up. Cartoonists drew Ford in a dunce hat, and the Nation labelled him "pitiful." A New York Tribune journalist called him "deliciously naive and omniscient and preposterous," almost certainly while sipping a martini and chortling to himself. A jury finally decided the Chicago Tribune was guilty of libel for calling Ford an anarchist but only awarded him six cents in damages.
The tycoon was reportedly so upset by the outcome and the media coverage that he muttered "never again" as he left the courtroom. Most biographers agree that it marked a turning point in his life: After the trial, Ford grew darker, weirder, and cranked his anti-Semitism up to eleven. Oddly enough, the scandal only boosted his popularity with ordinary Americans. The big-city media mocking a controversial businessman for his ignorance had only made him seem more relatable to a lot of people. Fortunately, nothing like that has ever happened since.
You can serve Blair with a frivolous lawsuit on Twitter.
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