Copyright © 2008 by Harold Jaffe. All rights reserved.
Found dead in bed in his Los Angeles house in August 1956; the official diagnosis: myocardial infarction. Lugosi had a morphine, Demerol and methadone habit since he injured his back in World War 1, and it was assumed that his drug intake contributed to his death. He was buried in his Dracula cape, with his hair dyed black, in Culver City, California. Because Lugosi was virtually destitute, Frank Sinatra, whom Lugosi never met, reportedly paid for the funeral. Bela Lugosi was 74-years-old.
At Bela Lugosi’s burial in full Dracula regalia (except for the fangs), his fellow Hungarian Hollywood émigré, Peter Lorre, was supposed to have glanced at Vincent Price and quipped:
“Should we plant a wooden stake in his heart just to make sure?”
It was commonly assumed that Lugosi and Boris Karloff were rivals because when they opted for roles Karloff invariably got them.
When they acted in the same movies like The Black Cat, The Raven and Son of Frankenstein, Karloff received top billing.
Karloff had an odd lisp, but Lugosi’s thick Hungarian accent proved a greater impediment.
Karloff was an imbiber of fine wines.
Lugosi’s addiction to morphine is well-documented.
As a young man, Lugosi was a successful stage and silent screen actor in Hungary, where, perhaps surprisingly, he was an active member of the actor’s union and a declared communist.
When the war came he served as an infantry lieutenant in the Austro-Hungary army and received a serious back injury — not in action, allegedly in the throes of venery.
Initially, the injury was treated with non-opiated agents, such as asparagus puree and single malt scotch with cream, but they didn’t work, so in 1919 Lugosi was prescribed morphine, which developed into a “habit” he was never able to shake.
He’d be strolling with an acting colleague on the Hollywood set of one of his horror flicks when he would excuse himself, step into a sheltered doorway, raise the trouser of his left leg, inject himself with morphine.
He would then continue his stroll with great good humor which however was obliquely rather than directly addressed to anything his colleague might utter.
On the set Lugosi would camouflage his habit by sipping red wine (laced with morphine or, depending on his need, Demerol).
Lugosi was married five times and reputedly was a beast in the bedroom; nonetheless, his penchants for morphine, Demerol, methadone and single malt scotch contributed to the breakup of each marriage.
The preceding amounts to a commonly accepted summary of Bela Lugosi’s life and times.
Another version, much more evocative, has to do with Lon Chaney.
The “man of a thousand faces” and Lugosi were born just six months apart, in 1883 and 1882.
They met in 1920 soon after Lugosi arrived in Hollywood from Hungary with his morphine addiction intact.
Chaney’s penchant for odd creatures and freaks is well-known and the two ghoul-admiring actors hit it off.
Both of Chaney’s parents were deaf, which meant learning pantomime at a very young age.
In a rare interview in 1929, Chaney said, “In my character roles I want to remind people that the lowest types of humanity may have within them the capacity for supreme self-sacrifice. The dwarfed, misshapen beggar of the streets may have the noblest ideals. Most of my roles since The Hunchback have carried the theme of self-sacrifice or renunciation. These are the stories I wish to do.”
Every cinephile knows that Bela Lugosi’s big break came in 1931 when he was cast in the featured role of Todd Browning’s Dracula.
Much less well-known is that the immensely resourceful Lon Chaney was originally penciled in for this role, but “died” before the movie began shooting.
The story is that Lon Chaney died of throat cancer at the age of 47 in 1930, in good part because of the toxic makeup he had devised and painstakingly applied for his hundreds of freakish roles.
But did he actually die?
After his first wife, the singer Cleva Creighton, who birthed “wolf-man” Lon Chaney Jr, attempted suicide in 1913 by swallowing mercury bi-chloride, Chaney made a fateful decision.
He would take a busman’s holiday by “becoming” Bela Lugosi.
Not immediately, but as soon as circumstances complied.
What then happened to the “actual” Bela Lugosi?
He died in 1930 in the guise of Lon Chaney.
The two reprobates — Chaney and Lugosi — fast friends, were having a night out in a squalid dive on the wrong side of town, shooting morphine into their thighs, drinking peaty single malt scotch laced with Demerol, making witty comments to déclassé females.
Inevitably they ended up in a disreputable hotel room: Chaney, Lugosi, and four females.
It might have been five.
For obscure reasons, Lugosi fastened a 12-inch-carrot to his fly.
Chaney employed his actual penis, though with a metamorphizing genius like Chaney one was never sure.
Long story short: Bella died in the throes, myocardial infarction.
As always, Chaney thought fast — he paid and dismissed the women, then transported the dead Lugosi to his studio, where it took him three and a half hours to make up the vampire to look like Lon Chaney.
Next Chaney planted a rumor with a Hollywood columnist that Lon Chaney, suffering from throat cancer, was on the verge of death.
Bela Lugosi it was then who was interred ceremoniously with a Marine Corps honor guard salute and mourned by thousands of fans in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California, disguised as Lon Chaney.
Lon Chaney’s former career prematurely over with his “death,” the great transformer devoted his gifts exclusively to playing Bela Lugosi playing Hungarian-accented demons.
Ygor, the sinister, snaggle-toothed peasant with a broken neck — having been unsuccessfully hanged — was a tour de force which upstaged smooth Basil Rathbone playing the Son of Frankenstein.
Chaney could have done Ygor in his sleep.
The various Dracula-like roles were nearly as easy, never mind the Hungarian accent which Chaney duplicated effortlessly.
Only once, to my knowledge, did Chaney resemble himself (whoever that was) for an instant in the 1931 Dracula when he is about to bite the lovely pale throat of Mina Harker (Helen Chandler).
Chaney (as Lugosi) and Chandler were having an affair in real time, and as the undead count bends towards her the alert film viewer will observe his sudden massive tumescence along with a lecherous eye dazzle which lasts a few seconds, no more.
It turned out that Lon Chaney adored morphine, Demerol, and methadone as much as Lugosi did.
One difference — negligible — was that Chaney-Lugosi injected himself in the right not the left thigh.
When the marginally egomaniacal but discerning Karloff matched horror platitudes with Lugosi in a particular movie he had no idea that Lugosi was Chaney.
When weird Ed Wood rescued an aging, nearly derelict Lugosi, and cast him in campy movies he had no idea that Bela was Lon.
When the last three of “Lugosi’s” wives married him and marveled at his zest before the inevitable divorce, they had no idea it was Chaney’s real live carrot.
When Bela Lugosi finally passed in 1956 and arrayed like Dracula was set into the coffin at Frank Sinatra’s expense,
When the coffin was lowered into the ground,
When Peter Lorre made his amusing quip to Vincent Price,
No one witnessed the great prestidigitator slip from the coffin and slink into the woods.
What did Lon Chaney do after the “death” of Bela Lugosi in 1956?
He disguised himself as Mother Teresa.
Like Lugosi, the Mother died of a heart ailment — obviously not in the throes of venery with or without a carrot, but while faithfully serving in Bengal State.
She was interred quietly in Calcutta.
Lon Chaney donned her nun’s habit.
Bent, he devoted himself to the lowest of the low, which, after all, was his first calling.
Virulent Calcutta didn’t scare him.
Xenophobic Hindus didn’t scare him.
He mastered Hindi and Bengali.
He already knew how to pee while sitting.
He baptized the dying Hindu “untouchables” solely at their requests.
He traveled to the Vatican and circled the globe raising money for the cause.
He continued to inject morphine into his thigh, of course, but always out of sight.
After doing great good, it was as the saintly Mother that he died at last.
And by Papal fiat was sanctified.