Joseph Cotten & Deanna Durbin – lovers or not?


In 2013, singer/actress Deanna Durbin passed away at the age of 91 in her adopted country, France. Actor Joseph Cotten had preceded her by nearly twenty years. Way back in 1943, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper set the cat among the pigeons when she wrote that Deanna and Joe, both married to others at the time, had spent the night together in a room at Universal studios. The information came to her via a tip-off, she admitted later.

Columnist Hedda Hopper

Cotten immediately phoned Hedda and blew his top, promising to kick her derriere if she wrote another word about him and Deanna being an ‘item’. She ignored the warning and, according to Cotten’s autobiography, he saw her at a Beverly Hills Hotel function and took action. He walked up to her table and unceremoniously kicked her backside through the cane-bottomed chair in which she was seated. Then, according to his recollection, a ‘group of gentlemen’ carried him shoulder high into the next bar and toasted his health. In his autobiography, Cotten stated that he and Deanna had stayed at the studio on the night in question, but in their separate quarters. Joe was a highly respected actor and ‘southern gentleman’, Deanna was innocence personified, the kind of young girl that every parent in America, indeed the world, would love to have as a daughter. So there the story really should have ended, and it did – until around forty years later!

In the mid-eighties, Cotten’s life-long pal, renowned actor/director Orson Welles gave an interview to a journalist named Henry Jaglom. In it he made the following statement regarding his good friend Joe and young Deanna: ‘What Hedda was doing was printing that (Cotten) was balling Deanna Durbin, which he was. In cars, in daylight, where everybody could see.’ Clearly, Welles had no doubt that his friend was being intimate with Miss Durbin often. Of course, this is still only hearsay, but the question most people began asking was – why would Welles lie? Cotten and Durbin were both still alive, so he was not only risking damaging or destroying his friendship with Cotten, he was also placing himself in a position to be sued for defamation by either or both parties. Neither Cotten nor Durbin did or said anything. Not a word.

Cotten and Welles in The Third Man

A retired nurse named Pat Hudson was living in Los Angeles in the late forties. Her mother was in a relationship with an undercover cop who told them of catching a couple having sex in a parked car on Mulholland Drive some years earlier. He did not recall the specific date. The couple turned out to be Cotten and Durbin, he said, stars he recognized at once. He let them go. Once again, this is hearsay, second-hand hearsay at that. It can be credited or not. Miss Hudson’s friend, another nurse, was tending Deanna’s terminally ill father in his final years. Just before he died in 1976, he told her that Deanna’s first child was fathered by Cotten. None of this would ever stand up in a court of law, but on closer investigation we find a couple of interesting details.

Deanna’s first marriage, when she was 19, was to an assistant director named Vaughn Paul. It lasted just two years, from 1941 to 1943. The supposed affair with Cotten began on the set of Hers to Hold, in the same year her divorce came through. In June 1945, she married again, this time to 43 year-old producer – writer – director Felix Jackson, a reserved, quiet man she had been friends with for years. On 7 February, just seven and a half months after the wedding, Deanna gave birth to a daughter. Jackson stuck around for another six months before walking out on her and the baby. Deanna told the press that the separation happened out of ‘utter boredom’. Jackson never at any time showed an interest in the child, made no effort to contest custody, and filed for divorce in 1949. It has been suggested that Deanna married him purely to give her baby a name, that the father was, in fact, her lover of at least two years, Joseph Cotten.

Deanna and first husband Vaughn Paul

with husband #2 Felix Jackson

Deanna’s divorce became final in October 1949. In December of 1950 she married for the third time, to 44 year-old French director Charles David. Their son was born seven months later, on 21 June 1951. These details provide nothing substantial to confirm or deny the alleged affair with Joe Cotten, but two pregnancies outside of wedlock do suggest that she was not quite as innocent as the image projected by her studio, Universal, but then who could be? If we discard the stories from Miss Hudson and her nursing friend as mere unsubstantiated hearsay, we are left with four viewpoints to choose from, if we wish to arrive at the truth.

with Charles David, husband #3 in Paris 1950

First, we have Hedda Hopper’s column. In fairness to this much-maligned (and rightly so) woman, she employed an army of informants and, much like Walter Winchell, her opposite number in New York, she usually made damn sure of her facts before she published anything. Even when Cotten threatened her, she did not back down, hence the boot in the backside. Second, we have Cotten’s own story, one that is at complete odds with hers. There was no funny business that night nor, presumably, at any other time, if we are to believe him. Third, there is his friend Orson Welles. He was quite matter of fact about the whole thing. He had no known axe to grind and seemed totally unperturbed about any kind of adverse response from Cotten. And finally, we have Deanna. She flatly refused to say anything, write anything, confirm or deny anything. Not then. Not ever. How significant her quite sudden retirement to France was is open to debate. As is the entire story, I guess.

Everybody’s ideal daughter at the peak of her popularity

Deanna Durbin made 21 movies in her short career. In 1946 she earned $323,477, just $5,000 less than Bette Davis who was the highest-earning female in all of America! She made them all for Universal and single-handedly saved the studio from bankruptcy. When she and Judy Garland auditioned for LB Mayer at MGM, he listened carefully, then gave an assistant an order that was either, ‘Hire the flat one’, or ‘Fire the fat one’. There is still disagreement on what exactly was said. Anyway, the hard of hearing assistant hired Judy and ditched Deanna. He got it wrong, apparently. LB wanted Deanna, although it must be said he did pretty well out of Miss Garland. Suffice to say, both girls oozed talent and personality, and both gave a lot of listening pleasure to millions of fans. Not a bad legacy.


  1. Two nurses who know each other just happen to have stories about the affair. Seems unlikely. If Hedda Hopper could ruin a career why did the studios allow that? They were very protective of their stars ✨ and were more powerful than Hopper. I’m glad Cotten kicked her in the derrière. She deserved it. I hate gossip.

    • Thankyou for your comments. My only concern is Orson Welles’ assertion that there was an affair between Cotten and Deanna. The two men were close friends so why would he lie and risk that friendship?

  2. Thanks for interesting article, but…

    I hope that these events of the distant past will be finally buried in silence, as Deanna would like. And just one thing about Cotten – no children in his marriages. Never. Good reason to think.

    • Good point, Alex. I must say that I was highly dubious about the Durbin/Cotten affair until I read Orson Welles’ comments about it. I cannot imagine why he would lie about his good friend Cotten. Thankyou for your input. For the record, I am not out to besmirch reputations. Just trying to sort the fact from the fiction. Of course, if the studios allowed their stars to be human in the first place that would not be necessary.

      • Thank you for the answer, Alan.

        What can I say? Wells’s motives for saying this could be very different. Including, for example, the fact that he himself was the victim of old rumors and gossip. You wrote that in favor of his words says that Deanna and Cotten both said nothing. But how else? Should two already elderly people start digging into old gossip? Of course, they ignored.

        And, in summary … One of the heroes of Tolkien said – News from afar is rarely true.

        It can be said slightly differently – News from the distant past is also rarely true .

        • Understandable, of course, Alex. If I was Deanna and in my dotage, the last thing I would feel like doing would be to rake over old bones, true or not. As for the ‘News from afar is rarely true’ quote, it might be equally true to say that news from the same ROOM in Hollywood is probably not true either! We can only examine the snippets available and attempt to analyze them accurately. Pretty much ALL history is arrived at that way, which can be very frustrating.

          • Ok, Alan. Analysis of the facts? Let’s try it for a minute. Let’s talk a little about the nurse and Deanna’s father. His confession on the deathbed. Deanna’s father delivered his daughter’s greatest secret to the nurse. The secret which may destroy his beloved daughter’s life. Seriously? Do you have an explanation for this act? And I will say even more – as you know, Deanna had a very secretive character. I do not believe that she would tell her father about an affair with Cotten. And even so… Would she tell him later that Cotten is Jessica’s father? My opinion is – never. So, what do we see? For the words of the nurse to become true, Deanna and her father both must do something absolutely stupid and illogical for their characters. In addition, her father’s act is also deeply dishonorable. It’s impossible to believe that. Therefore, I am sure that the words of the nurse are a lie. A very safe lie, because Deanna’s father is already dead and she herself will predictably keep silent.

            And… Alan, I would like to show you something. Some piece of an information, but not here. Your opinion as film historian will be very interesting for me. If acceptable for you, my e-mail is


  3. Deanna Durban and Joseph Cotton lived during a very different time. People didn’t just go around so open and proud of having affairs. They were more discreet. It is odd though that the people who got busted making love on Mulholland Drive didn’t go someplace more discreet. If they had checked into a Hotel their details would have gotten out. Since they were both Married, they couldn’t go to either one’s house. Was it or wasn’t it Deanna and Joseph? The world may never know. Everyone who was around at that time are most likely all gone. I only know about Actress Patricia Morison who is 102 Years Old. She appeared in the Movie: “LADY ON THE TRAIN”. And she is still sharp. There was an Interview with her in 2014. At that time she was 99 Years Old. I don’t think that Deanna was mentioned. It may have been rude, but I would have asked her all kinds of questions about her, while apologizing. I wonder why is it such a secret that the public isn’t privy to what caused Deanna’s Death. What difference could it possibly make now? I know, out of respect for Deanna’s wishes. If she died in her sleep, there is nothing to be hidden there! Maybe one of these days somebody will write her biography and tell the world about her so called private life. Nobody wants to know about her Sex Life. We only want an account of before, Hollywood, which we already have a pretty good picture of, her Hollywood Days. How did she come to Marry her 3rd Husband? I think he promised her something, like: he would take care of her and she wouldn’t have to make any more movies, if she didn’t want to. Whatever the reason was, her Marriage lasted for over 48 Years. She did do her Loving Fans a Disservice by not making any Public Appearances. And what difference would it have made to allow herself to be profiled!? I think she just wanted to leave Hollywood and everything associated with that time of her life in the past. She is to be admired though. She wasn’t one of those people who was always undecisive. Her mind was made up and she did what she wanted to, until her life was over. She left HOLLYWOOD and she didn’t look back or attempt to go back.

    • Thank you for your most informative comments. As you say, we shall probably never know the whole truth, but that is par for the course with history anyway. All historical accounts on ANY subject are at best incomplete or tainted. Personally, I don’t really care if she and Cotten had an affair or not. I probably would not believe it if not for his pal Welles being so certain they did. I doubt if he would have an axe to grind, but who knows? THanks again for your note. Most interesting.

  4. It’s certainly possible that Durbin and Pasternak had an affair that resulted in a child, but one problem with accepting this rumor is that Felix Jackson, who was married several times and fathered several children, never had anything to do with any of them after they were born. He may have briefly come in contact with one or two, but he made no concerted effort to be a father to any of them, so his defection from his marriage to Durbin may not have been because he hadn’t fathered daughter “Jessica” but simply because he didn’t want to be a Dad, period.

    • Thank you for those interesting observations, Mark. I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that Deanna and Pasternak were involved, hence I have not touched on them as a ‘couple’in any way. You may be right, of course.

      • My bad, Alan. I meant to type “Cotten” not “Pasternak.” I don’t think Deanna and Joe Pasternak ever had a romantic relationship, although I DO recall in a book on Judy Garland’s films, Pasternak (who was one of a handful of people who knew Garland who was asked to comment on her) said of Deanna’s singing: “When I listened to Deanna, I wanted to kiss her and fall in love with her…” so perhaps he was receptive to the idea? lol!

        • I am one of those people who tend to believe the old adage, ‘where there’s smoke there’s fire’. The difficulty has always been, however, to determine the EXTENT of the blaze. Some people love to pile fuel on the fire until it gets totally out of control. When that happens the nay-sayers are inclined to treat the ENTIRE story as a fabrication and ALL its proponents as uninformed, sensationalists. Back in 1957 (when I was a 10 year-old schoolboy in East Fremantle, Western Australia), I remember the day that a rumour tore through the school that actor Rock Hudson was ‘queer'(nobody used the term ‘gay’ back then). Few of us believed the story, yet it turned out to be true. If such a story could spread around a remote primary school on the other side of the world…well…where there’s smoke…

  5. Just found your site and SWOON. Found myself “wasting” three days of vacation pouring over much of it with so much more to go. Named after your beloved “Betty Bacall,” I’ve had quite the time reliving all of the movies and stars on which I was raised. Thanks so much and keep up the amazing work!

    • Thank you for your kind words (Betty?). I try to write something every couple of days. I hope I haven’t destroyed any of your illusions. It is amazing how much more information is available today that was not there a decade or so back.If you have any questions I shall endeavour to answer them if I can.

  6. No wonder Lauren Bacall had the most acid
    tongue in…..

    Noel Coward never got over his astonishment at seeing Bacall, in an
    outburst of fury, kick the all powerful Hollywood gossip columnist
    Hedda Hopper ‘up the bottle under my very eyes,’ while calling her
    ‘a lousy bitch.’

    • Sadly, that is how they made their living. I think, secretly, the studios loved them both because they helped keep the stars in line. Both actors and actresses were genuinely afraid of them. One bad word from either could end a career – and did. Cotten’s butt-kicking has been documented everywhere. However, when he wrote that he and Hedda ended up ‘forgiving and forgetting’, I tended to get fidgetty. Hedda was a lot of things, but ‘forgiving and forgetting’ was certainly not one of them. She was one vindictive bitch. Louella too. For the life of me I cannot imagine either of them EVER forgiving and forgetting being kicked in the arse by a movie star in front of a hundred people, no matter who it was. And THAT suggests good old Joe might have been gilding the lily a bit. As for Deanna, once again we have a star being served up to the public by her studio as some kind of pure, virginal, whiter than white soul, incapable of any human frailty, whatsoever – a label that NO-ONE could hope to live up to. She probably tried very hard to maintain that image created for her, but fell for Cotten, a suave, sophisticated charmer, who took advantage of her naivity. That is what it looks like to me. I could be completely wrong, of course. I don’t think I have read about Betty booting Louella, but she may have done. A LOT of people wanted to.

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