Ask Betty Grable, star of the 1944 hit musical “Pin Up Girl” and poster girl for Chesterfield cigarettes. Thirty years after her studio insured her famous legs for $1,000,000 apiece, she died of lung cancer in Santa Monica, CA. Too bad no one had paid more attention to the rest of her body.
On the other hand, Gary Cooper, king of the classic Western, might disagree. After smoking his way through films like “High Noon” and “Sergeant York,” and lending his rugged image to multiple cigarette campaigns, he didn’t have lung cancer.
He had prostate cancer.
The truth is, after years of a cozy domestic partnership between Hollywood and the tobacco industry, most of those smoking-hot film stars ended up with some kind of tobacco-related disease. It wasn’t always lung cancer. But it was often fatal.
For instance, take poor Audrey Hepburn. Sadly, her elegant cigarette holder in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” mirrored a chain-smoking habit in real life. When she died of cancer of the appendix at age 63, the whole world mourned.
And then there’s smoldering Clark Gable, forever immortalized as Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind.” According to the National Cancer Institute, smokers are up to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack, and that’s what did Gable in. A lifelong smoker, he died of a coronary thrombosis ten days after a severe heart attack at age 59. Frankly, my dear, we do give a damn.
Let’s not forget Bette Davis, famed for playing psychotic nannies, deranged old maids and overdramatic hags. Never afraid to take risks, she shaved off her eyebrows and half her hair to portray the aging Queen Elizabeth in “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex.” Unfortunately, smoking was one risk too many.
It took breast cancer and four strokes to kill her. She was a tough old lady. But smoking doubles the risk of strokes, according to the National Stroke Association.
As for Lana Turner, the 1940s femme fatale who starred (and smoked) in “The Bad and the Beautiful” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” throat cancer eventually caught up with her at age 74. At least she’d had an adventurous life: she was married eight times to seven different husbands. “My goal was to have one husband and seven children,” she explained ingenuously, “but it turned out to be the other way around.”
And last but not least, the great Humphrey Bogart. After years of lighting cigarettes in character as a hard-boiled, lonely private eye, he died of esophageal cancer at age 57. It’s hard to imagine Bogey without a cigarette, but it’s easy to imagine what he could have done with 20 more years in the movies. “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
Would these stars have been quite so iconic without the cigarettes that accompanied them on the silver screen? Even with surgeon’s warnings everywhere, it’s still easy to forget that smoking isn’t glamorous anymore. But all those tobacco deaths still serve as a good reminder – black and white, larger than life – that smoking kills.
And not just via lung cancer, either. Smoke – and second-hand smoke – can cause a wide range of cancers and other diseases, from stomach cancer to cardiac arrest. As Bette Davis said in “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
Maybe AFI should launch a “100 Film Stars: 100 Smoking Deaths” list. Couldn’t hurt.
Please visit CancerInsurance.com's learning center for more information about smoker risks and cancer.