5 Celeb Myths That Won't Die
Many of us have mysterious pasts and refuse to answer any direct questions about our current locations and alleged criminal ties, but you can't say the same for celebrities. They're the people who've had every part of their lives spilled open and reported on. Any mystery about them should, you'd think, be dispelled easily. And yet when rumors about them are born, and we really want to believe, there's nothing they can do to escape them.
No, Elon Musk's Fortune Didn't Come From An Apartheid Emerald Mine
When it comes to the very rich, we have this popular myth of the self-made man who came from absolutely nothing. On the other hand, if your skepticism armors you against that particular form of inspirational tale, there's an alternative: The billionaire inherited his wealth, and the family business that provided the wealth was pure evil. Those are the two options; there is no middle ground. So, if you happen not to be one of the die-hard disciples in the church of Elon Musk, you might be happy to see the following story going around:
The truth is, Elon's father Errol Musk was rich. But if you're looking for a clean story of billionaires begetting billionaires, things get muddy. Errol divorced Elon's mother before he was 10, and the boy lived with his father for some years, but he ended up living with his mother. Elon tells a story about them struggling and would later break into tears, and while we're don't expect anyone to take him at his word, here's what we do know.
Elon ended up going into debt personally to pay for college. His father came back to help fund his first venture (the software company Zip2), and that sounds like all that matters, right? But while Elon has been vague about the amount involved (sometimes falsely claiming his father invested nothing), the media finally nailed down a dollar figure: Errol funded Zip2 to the tune of $28,000, as he was just one of several investors. The company was worth $300 million when Elon later sold it, putting him in good shape to secure funding for his other ventures, which would also soar in value, and making the original one-tenth his dad contributed to one round of investment not terribly game-changing.
$28,000 is … not much, not even in 1995. It's a lot for, say, an internet writer, but it's not a large amount when we're talking tech startups, and it's actually not even that much when talking typical upper middle class generational wealth—there are people reading this whose whole lives would change if they got $28,000 but also people reading this who could count on getting that much from their own parents and who'd still not consider themselves rich. Errol could have afforded to put up much more, and probably later wishes he did, if only because he would have gotten a huge return on that investment.
Errol could have afforded to put up more … because he owned an emerald mine, right? Well, sort of, but he also had that amount and more anyway from his engineering company. He'd had a share in (didn't fully own) an emerald mine for a while, and though both father and son like to tell stories about carrying those crazy gems, because they think it sounds like something out of a fairy tale, he bought that share when already rich—it cost half of the proceeds of a £80,000 plane he was selling—and the mine eventually ran dry. So, Errol would have had $28,000 to throw around even without mining. Also, the mine was in Zambia, not South Africa. Presumably it wasn't a beacon for worker rights (it was a mine), or racial equality (it was the 1970s, in a country that had been a British colony a decade earlier), but Zambia didn't operate under literal Apartheid, c'mon, why throw in that detail.
So why are we splitting hairs about the origin of the Musk fortune? Is it because we want everyone to pay Musk more respect and put more faith in him? Lord no. No no no no, we don't want that.
Mostly, we're writing this because our job is to bust every misconception, and the more popular the misconception among our readers, the harder we must bust it. But also, it's because this quest to attack his origins is misguided and ultimately self-defeating. If Errol did get rich thanks to Apartheid (his non-mining business was in South Africa, wasn't it?), and he funded Elon's first company even a hundred times as hard, Elon's subsequent business success would still be unprecedented … and even then, every criticism of Elon would be just as valid.
“Don't blindly listen to Elon's views, he got his money from an Apartheid mine” doesn't actually attack the myth of the messiah self-made businessman, because it implies that if Elon really were good at business, then he would be an expert on all these topics. And he wouldn't. He could be the most successful entrepreneur in history, a genius in business, and still be spectacularly ignorant about language, or civil engineering, or social dynamics, or epidemiology, or macroeconomics, or any number of other subjects.
Also untrue: the idea that someone who builds their fortune from humble beginnings is good and honorable while someone who inherits their fortune is a fraud. Actually, an heir who makes no money could be a saint, while someone like Elon who grew a tiny bit of money into billions could be a fraud (in fact, that might explain how they grew their money so successfully). The question of whether the original company money came from the founder's inheritance or from investors doesn't matter compared to all the other information you can find digging into the company's history. As it happens, Musk's companies have done all kinds of shenanigans you should rip him over, even if the original seed money didn't just directly come from something so exaggeratedly evil as apartheid gems.
And speaking of the worst things ever, and people named Errol ...
Errol Flynn Was Not A Nazi
"Beloved Hollywood icon Errol Flynn was a Nazi spy who reported directly to Hitler!" So said a 1980 biography of the man, and though it certainly seemed horrifying that the man who played Robin Hood could be a Nazi, it's the sort of nutty story that seems vaguely plausible. “Errol Flynn was very white, right?” one reader might point out. And Robin Hood was clearly a socialist, and the Nazis were national socialists, so the truth was really staring us right in the face, sheeple. Here's a 2009 headline relaying the news to anyone who may not have heard it:
Read the whole article, and tell us if there's any indication that the "controversial biography" they're talking about in this ostensible news piece was 30 years old and that the article contains no updates since then. Controversial celeb biographies, by the way, always deserve your skepticism. Think of them as tabloid articles, except without what little oversight even a tabloid provides. The author of the Errol Flynn biography, Charles Higham, also wrote biographies of Howard Hughes and Cary Grant, accusing them of having sex with boys, and these were so full of contradictions that people easily picked them apart.
With Flynn, Hingham ended up admitting, "I don't have a document that says A, B, C, D, E, Errol Flynn was a Nazi agent, but I have pieced together a mosaic that proves that he is." Other biographers say he misquoted what documents he did have, and Flynn's family sued him for libel. They lost. You can't libel the dead.
Flynn was close friends with someone who, unbeknownst to him, was a Nazi spy. And he did share the occasional sentiment that America would be better off if Nazis came over and killed some of the Jews here ... okay, we're definitely not painting a very nice picture of the guy, but the big defense against the Nazi spy allegation came decades after the biography was published. Classified documents revealed that Flynn had actually been a secret spy against the Nazis. He helped British security services during World War II and also offered to help the OSS (the proto-CIA). That should be the final nail in the coffin for this Nazi story, unless in 20 years it's revealed that he was a double agent for the Nazis, at which time we will update this article accordingly.
People Really Want To Believe Mr. Rogers Killed Dozens As A Sniper
Hope you like getting your information from your dependable older brother or random images on bloody Pinterest because here's an urban legend that refuses to die, no matter how many times people try to shoot it down (with a .308 Winchester precision rifle). Fred Rogers served in Vietnam. In fact he was in the Marines and/or was a Navy SEAL, was an expert sniper, received a bunch of medals, and racked up scores of kills.
Maybe some people like this idea because while they want to respect the man, "kind and gentle" really aren't qualities worthy of respect, while "raging badass" totally is. Or maybe it's the opposite—people respect how someone with such a history of violence can put all that behind him and change into a totally different person. Or maybe we relish the idea that the loving children's entertainer persona was just an act, and rage burned inside him every day ("that sweater covers up sick tattoos!" says one version of the myth).
Military service is part of the public record and can be easy to verify. Fred Rogers was not in the military. He did try to enlist a little after World War II—he was around 40 at the height of Vietnam, so that's one more reason the myth doesn't pass muster—but though he was listed to join at first, he was found to be unfit after a physical. His biography is thorough and leaves no gaps for secret years in the military. Also, "confirmed kills" isn't an actual thing. Anytime anyone is said to have some impressive number of confirmed kills, that's the sign of an urban legend.
The Rogers myth got in a nod in the Showtime series Kidding, where Jim Carrey's entertainer character is said to have been a deadly sniper ... which turns out not to be true, but he does harbor secret darkness because Showtime never would have greenlit the show otherwise. It makes for an entertaining story, but not everyone has a secret tortured side (even Kidding eventually dropped the idea that Jim's character was about to explode, and the show got even better after that). Some people are exactly as nice as they seem. Like Fred Rogers, or fellow patron saint of niceness Bob Ross, who, whoops, really did have a badass military career, never mind.
Alice Cooper Was (Not) Secretly A Child Actor From Leave It To Beaver
Sometime in the '70s, a college newspaper was interviewing rocker Alice Cooper, and they asked him what kind of a kid he'd been. He said that when he was a boy, he'd been "obnoxious, disgusting, a real Eddie Haskell." This was a joke, one that's probably lost on anyone reading this today. Eddie Haskell was a character on the old sitcom Leave It To Beaver, and he was a very polite, clean-cut boy, exactly the opposite of what Cooper was describing.
Or maybe Cooper was saying that he was phony like Eddie Haskell. Or maybe he was calling himself polite, and calling that sort of thing disgusting. We admit it, we never watched Leave It To Beaver to know what he meant, we're just skimming its fan wiki for info. C'mon, that show was from decades before we were born.
The student interviewers didn't understand Cooper any better than we did. They were a good 40 years closer to Leave It To Beaver as a cultural reference than us today, but they still misunderstood what Cooper was saying, and they thought he was revealing that he'd played Eddie Haskell as a kid. That's what the published version of the article said anyway, and so a ridiculous myth was born. A myth like that was slightly more forgivable in those days, since there was no way to quickly check the internet to get the complete life story of recording artists/'60s sitcom characters.
Plus, "Alice Cooper" was clearly a fake name (Cooper was born Vincent Damon Furnier), so he was definitely covering up something in his past. A few decades later, a similar urban legend would pop up, assuring us that Marilyn Manson was the grown-up version of the nerdy kid in The Wonder Years. Cooper repeatedly denied the Beaver rumor, even wearing a shirt reading "NO, I'M NOT EDDIE HASKELL," but that couldn't have been a very effective way of countering it. It must have come across like, today, The Weeknd walking around with a shirt reading, "NO, I'M NOT ABEL TESFAYE"—people would see it and say, "Oh. Guess he's saying that's who he was before he became who he is, but he's a different person now."
Eddie Haskell was actually played by actor Ken Osmond, who died in May 2020. It wasn't the only Haskell-related switcheroo rumor he had to deal with. Around the same time Alice Cooper was getting big, a porn actor was getting credited as "Eddie Haskell" in movies. Osmond sued, and the actor changed his stage name to "John Holmes." Osmond really needn't have bothered—Eddie Haskell clearly hadn't grown up to do porn. He was too busy performing rock onstage.
Fans Had A Pretty Good Explanation For Why Marisa Tomei Won That Oscar
The Academy often honors odd picks. Usually, we know why. Maybe they skip over the consensus best film in favor of whatever historical film features royal costumes, or they go with whichever Holocaust movie was released this year, or whichever film solved racism this year, or whichever movie is produced by the guy who procured for them the youngest prostitutes the night before. Maybe they give it to whoever's due regardless of who deserves it right now, or maybe they just give it to whichever of the nominees they've heard of because no one bothered to watch all the films this time around.
None of the usual excuses explained why Marisa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress for My Cousin Vinny in 1992. The movie was the opposite of Oscar bait. It was a comedy—as in, an actual comedy, with jokes, not a "comedy" about a family reconciling over loss or whatever. She was a newcomer. The movie addressed no social issues, unless you count the cruel prejudice against those with Brooklyn accents. The movie's good, but Oscar voters don't care about that. The movie's also known for being surprisingly accurate in its portrayal of legal procedure, but if anything, accuracy makes you less eligible for awards.
And so came a conspiracy theory: She hadn't won the award at all. The presenter, Jack Palance, couldn't read the results right, possibly because he was drunk or high. So he just read the first name he saw, which was the final name on the nominees' list, Tomei. The Hollywood Reporter traced the myth to someone a few degrees of separation away from the show, some winner's ex-son-in-law. Everyone denied it, but it seemed fairly plausible. After all, what would the Academy do if a presenter actually did read the wrong name, and the wrong winner came up and accepted the award and everything? They'd probably just let it go rather than expose the error and ruin the show, right?
We got the answer to that question a couple years ago when the show's auditors stepped in and stopped the broadcast short to say Moonlight had won Best Picture, not La La Land as a presenter had announced. So, no, a presenter's mistake can't actually lead to the wrong person getting the award.
Unless, you know, that whole Moonlight mix-up was staged, just to give the whole ceremony some counterintuitive legitimacy. Hold on. We need to look into this.
Top image: Steve Jurvetson