From Hollywood greats Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, music legends Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston to hedonistic politician John Profumo and flawed football genius George Best, addictions, scandals and secrets have led to public disgrace and even death.
Author and journalist Carol King has tracked down some of the most famous burned-out trailblazers in this gripping and often gruesome story of sex, sleaze, addiction, corruption and self-destruction.
Many of the world’s most successful people have seen their career take a nosedive in the wake of revelations and scandals, some public figures bounced back, were forgiven and rehabilitated while others, like singer Amy Winehouse, died haunted by the demons that plagued them in their tragically short yet spectacular lives.
Fallen Idols charts the demise of the powerful and popular who once had the world at their feet and then threw it away either through weakness, vice, frailty or intolerable pressures.
The most famous female star to slide to an early death was undoubtedly Marilyn Monroe whose wiggle and wide-eyed look made her a legend in her lifetime and whose dramatic drugs-related end helped to turn her into a cultural icon.
Not long before her death aged 36 in 1962, she said: ‘Everybody keeps tugging at you. They’d all like a chunk of you. This industry should behave like a mother whose child has just run in front of a car. But instead of clasping the child – they punish it.’
The following year, the Profumo affair became the biggest political scandal to explode in Britain in a century when the Conservative Secretary of State for War John ‘Jack’ Profumo became embroiled in revelations of high society orgies, lies, adultery, drugs, guns, call girls, suicide and espionage.
The story threatened to bring down the government and brought 48-year-old Profumo’s glittering career crashing down. He devoted the rest of his life to charity by working for the homeless in the East End of London and was rewarded with a CBE in 1975.
The most famous casualty of the Swinging Sixties was Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones whose drink and drug fuelled body was found in the swimming pool of his Sussex mansion in 1969.
His early departure at just 27 marked the first death in what has been called the ‘27 Club’, a macabre reference to the early demise of some of the most talented musicians of modern times and to a group which includes Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain.
Cobain, lead singer with hit 90s band Nirvana and regarded as a spokesman for his generation, was a classic example of the dangerous pressures of celebrity and fame.
Shy and reserved, he found success an unbearable burden, suffering from depression and a debilitating medical condition that saw him self-medicate with heroin. When he shot himself in 1994, he left a note which read: ‘I don’t have the passion any more, and so remember, it’s better to burn out than to fade away.’
The prodigiously talented Amy Winheouse’s road to destruction has become as talked about as much as her musical gifts. A singer-songwriter of dazzling originality, her life story is punctuated by pain, depression, addiction and excess.
Not long before she died in 2011, she told German magazine Stern: ‘Since I was sixteen, I’ve felt a black cloud hangs over me.’
From the abdication of the King Edward VIII which shocked the world in 1936 and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon to the dark deeds of DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile, Fallen Idols is an unmissable story of treachery, tribulation and tragedy.
(Haynes, hardback, £18.99)