The Fruits of Forbidden Love: Star-Crossed Scandals in Biographies

In her lifetime, Nelly Ternan went by nearly a dozen names and nicknames, including “the Princess” and “the Dear One.” Yet in her death, she is unknown. The man who loved her, meanwhile, is known to millions as one of the most famous writers in history – Charles Dickens. In “The Invisible Woman,” biographer Claire Tomalin rescues the nearly-erased record of Ternan, who was an 18-year-old actress when the almost-twice-her-age writer met her, fell in love, and changed her life. This being Victorian England, their affair (Dickens was married at the time) was a scandal and Ternan was excluded from biographies of the novelist, though they were not the first, nor the last couple to pursue a doomed romance. Here’s a list of other famous star-crossed lovers.

Andrew Jackson and Rachel Donelson
American Lion by Jon Meacham

When Rachel Donelson met future President Andrew Jackson, she was already married to another man, Lewis Robards. By the time she married Jackson she believed Robards had divorced her, but when it was revealed her first marriage was still intact, Jackson’s opponents used the fact to launch a vindictive smear campaign against the candidate and his wife, who they accused of being a bigamist. Despite the scandal, Jackson won the election, but his beloved wife died suddenly three months before his inauguration, leaving Jackson so heartbroken he refused to surrender her body the night she died, in case she miraculously came back to life. In “American Lion,” Meacham writes about both the private and political life of Jackson, and how his personal life affected his campaign and policies after he became president.

Heloise and Abelard
Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge

Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these 11th century lovers, who met when Heloise became a student of the philosopher Abelard. After she bore him a child and their affair was discovered, Heloise’s uncle had Abelard castrated, and the distraught couple took religious vows and spent the rest of their lives apart in monasteries, though they continued to write steamy love letters for the remainder of their lives. For centuries, only eight of these letters had been published, but a discovery of more than one hundred additional fragments give Burge the basis for his book, in which he examines the letters and details the lives of the doomed lovers.

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
Spencer Tracy by James Curtis

Spencer Tracy was a married father of two when he met Katharine Hepburn, but the chemistry they shared in movies like “Adam’s Rib” and “Woman of the Year” wasn’t confined to the screen. Though Tracy never left his wife, he lived with Hepburn for nearly thirty years, and played her husband in the final film of his career. In his biography of the great actor, Curtis casts an equally sympathetic eye towards Tracy’s relationship with Hepburn, who he says represented the family he never had, and his wife Louise, who he felt duty-bound to stay with despite his love for another woman.

Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini
Ingrid: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

The Swedish movie star whom Humphrey Bogart told “we’ll always have Paris” in “Casablanca” nearly lost everything when she fell in love with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Ingrid Bergman was a darling of Hitchcock and David O. Selznick when she took a role in the married Rossellini’s film. When Bergman, who was also married, became pregnant with Rossellini’s child, the ensuing scandal almost destroyed the actress’s career. She was denounced on the floor of the U.S. Senate and couldn’t find work outside Rossellini’s films. She moved to Italy, divorced her husband, and married Rossellini, and they had twin daughters (the actress Isabella and Isotta, a professor.) In her biography, Chandler quotes George Cukor describing Bergman as a “romantic who fell in love intensely,” which, he says, “may have been her undoing.”