His two failed marriages cost him a fortune in alimony and swallowed up all he made from his 32 classic silent movies. But Oliver Hardy's real money problems came from his lifelong secret vice: gambling. The heavyweight partner in the immortal Laurel and Hardy team could never resist a wager. He often lost up to $30,000 a day on the racetrack, at least $3,000 a night at roulette and hundreds of dollars a day in card games with his cronies at a Hollywood golf club. It was estimated that in 1939 the 47-year-old comic lost over $1 million in an attempt to forget he was fat, overweight and a loser in love.
Ollie Hardy — known to his friends as Babe — could never resist a horse race. In 1935 he had his own stable of 10 racehorses — and never produced a winner. As one columnist noted: "His horses seem so fond of the starting post that they invariably stay there!"
In 1935 Hardy divorced his second wife Myrtle on the grounds of her heavy drinking and mental cruelty. He gave her their Hollywood mansion and $2,500 a month and moved into a small hotel. From then on he spent most of his money on gambling. "It gives me something to do," he told Stan Laurel. "Otherwise I just sit on my bed feeling sorry for myself."
Then, in the summer of 1935, Babe Hardy made the movie that would change his life for good. It was a routine Laurel and Hardy comedy called The Flying Deuces. What made it so special was that the continuity girl on the film was a 26-year-old brunette named Lucille Jones. The moment Hardy saw her he fell in love. He told Laurel: "It could be that for the first time in 47 years my personal life could have some meaning."
Meanwhile Lucille was totally unaware of his interest. She remembered: "He would drop into the continuity office and have a cup of coffee and a chat but that was all. "Then one morning he came in and said: 'Lucille, there's something personal I want to say. I don't want to shock you but there's something I can't hold back any longer.'
"He paced the floor and then blurted out: 'Don't take this the wrong way but it would make me the happiest man in he world if you would be my wife.' "I was caught so completely by surprise that I could just stammer a few meaningless sounds. 'That's all right,' he said. 'It must be a shock. I am so much older than you. Don't answer me now but think about it and let me know when you can...'" The more she thought about it, the more Lucille liked the idea. Eventually she told Hardy: "If we do get married, I want to elope. But I want to tell my mother and take her with me!
Babe Hardy was delighted. "I hoped you wouldn't want a big wedding," he said. They hurried off to Las Vegas and married in March 1940. Not even Stan Laurel was there but he sent a telegram of congratulations. Overnight, Hardy's lifestyle was transformed. He bought a three-bedroomed ranch-style house in North Hollywood with a pool, guesthouse and three acres of land.
And from the moment he married he never gambled again. Instead he became a highly domesticated husband, helping with the cooking and creating elaborate dinner dishes — his exotic spaghetti and meatballs took a day to prepare. Once in the midst of cutting up apples on the kitchen table for chutney, Babe looked lovingly at Lucille and said: "You don't know how happy I am doing this. I've always wanted a simple happy homelife and I never dared to think I would find it."
He also loved barbecues and would happily cook for 50 guests on summer evenings by the pool. "I'm used to the heat — I've been roasted enough by the women in my life," he explained.
When America entered the war, Babe and Lucille turned over a large part of their garden to vegetables and fruit. They raised hogs but were too soft-hearted to have them slaughtered and they remained as pets. A previously enthusiastic big game hunter, Hardy found a new hobby ... woodwork! So deeply was he in love with Lucille that Babe managed to celebrate an anniversary almost every day. His wife remembered: "We celebrated our anniversary weekly, monthly and yearly. We were married on a Thursday so we always celebrated that every week at 4.35pm. "If he was at the studio, he'd stop working and ring me at exactly that time. No one could have had a more adoring husband."
The marriage that Babe had always dreamed of lasted nearly 17 years. After suffering a series of strokes he died in Lucille's arms in August 1957. Lucille eventually married again and died of cancer in 1987. Shortly before he died, Babe Hardy unwittingly spoke his own epitaph. "Gambling's a mug's game," he told a friend. "The only gamble I'm glad I took was the one that resulted in my marrying Lucille."