Besides outright admitting to being a womanizer, a 2011 interview with Hollywood legend Jack Nicholson revealed truths about the actor that were both illuminating and muddling. When asked if he had any regrets in life, he responded, “Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively, you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do.”
Just a few years later, Nicholson apparently began feeling tendrils of remorse creeping up his spine. In a recent interview with Closer, he said, “I would love that one last romance, but I’m not very realistic about it happening. What I can’t deny is my yearning… I have had everything a man could ask for, but no one could say I’m successful with affairs of the heart.”
It’s not that Jack has been lonely his entire life. Quite the contrary. He’s a legendary lothario, deemed “Jack the Jumper” and the “Great Seducer” for his abilities to fill his bed with women. But carnal pleasures have a price when you take them for granted. “It’s dangerous,” Anjelica Huston — Nicholson’s long-time love — said to Closer. “Because you can get what you want with charm, but it is devious.”
Rock & Roll
By the time Nicholson had his first breakthrough role in 1969’s Easy Rider, he already experienced the lost love that would characterize his off-camera life. In 1968, he divorced his wife of six years, Sandra Knight, with whom he co-starred in The Terror. “I could see Jack was going to become a big star and have lots of temptations,” Knight told Closer in 2015. “I couldn’t go along for the ride.”
What a ride it was. The trip began in 1954 when Nicholson moved to the West Coast in search of a career in film, a dream he shared with his sister, June, who also took up residence in Los Angeles. After working small jobs at film companies — like the runner position he held at MGM Animation studios — Nicholson began acting in B-grade films. It was around this time — the late ’50s, early ’60s — that Nicholson’s hedonistic tastes began to develop. Along with an assortment of Hollywood buddies like Bruce Dern and Harry Dean Stanton, he began experimenting with drugs: LSD, cocaine, marijuana.
According to Marc Eliot’s memoir Nicholson, LSD was apparently a game-changer for the actor. “Jack’s experiences with the drug were life-changing. He believed after taking it the first time that he had seen the face of God. He also had castration fantasies, homoerotic fantasies, and revelations about not being wanted as an infant.”
When Knight and Nicholson began to seek marriage counseling to fix their damaged relationship — exacerbated by Jack’s escalating womanizing and drug use — both allegedly took hits of acid before one session with the therapist. Nothing, not the union of drugs, love, or therapy could save the marriage, though. It would be Jack’s only walk down the aisle. The actor with the threatening eyebrows and lascivious grin was now single, and it was “off to the races.”
Nicholson’s drug use became less recreational, embedding itself in his career and culture. Bob Woodward — in his John Belushi biography Wired — described the “upstairs” and “downstairs” drugs Nicholson would keep in his abode; “upstairs” being the term for the “good stuff” he’d keep for his friends and sex partners, and “downstairs” being the lesser quality stuff he supplied for guests. According to Eliot, he wrote 1967’s The Trip, and 1968’s Head while taking acid and smoking pot. During his breakout Oscar-nominated performance in 1969’s Easy Rider, it was cocaine and alcohol. In the classic 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, his girlfriend at the time, Susan Anspach, claimed that, “Jack took one toot (cocaine) for every six takes.”
Jack’s experience with LSD — he told Rolling Stone in 2006 this was done in a “clinical setting” — led to some revelations. “Just let it be. Release. Kind of be where you are, where we are, where it is, in a kind of fearless, unconscious way.”
The drug-inspired fearlessness is possibly what led Nicholson to spend three months naked in his home.
I felt it was totally necessary. I’m self-conscious about body image. I don’t have a great body shot. And it was an era of ‘Let’s get free.’ I know it drove my oldest daughter insane. I just wanted to be more relaxed within my skin. But it didn’t totally resolve all that, like many experiments you think you’ve concluded on yourself but you haven’t really.
Despite his healthy appetite for substances, Nicholson was on a hot streak. From 1970 to 1976, he was nominated five times for an Academy Award, finally winning Best Actor (along with the Golden Globe and a slew of other awards) in 1976 for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which is considered to be one of his best performances.
A 1980 interview with People highlighted Jack’s love affair with substances. “I still love to get high, I’d say, about four days a week. I think that’s about average for an American. Last year, on a raft trip, I had a little flavor of the season — peach mescaline — but it was not like the hallucinatory state of the ’60s. This was just kind of sunny. I don’t advocate anything for anybody. But I choose always to be candid because I don’t like the closet atmosphere of drugging. In other words, it ain’t no big thing. You can wreck yourself with it, but Christ, you can wreck yourself with anything.”
The interview caused a backlash against Nicholson, peaking with Carol Burnett penning a brief letter to the actor in a following issue of the publication (this would also lead to Jack losing the Daddy Warbucks role in 1982’s Annie):
Drugs “ain’t no big thing”? Maybe not in your home.
With love and hope,
Drugs weren’t the only vices Nicholson partook in during these brilliant years. Sex was also revving Jack’s engine.
Sex And Lies
His trysts have been highly publicized in books and magazines, the stuff legends are made of. There were many long nights at the Playboy Mansion and the seemingly countless actresses and models Jack’s been reportedly linked to: Candice Bergen, Michelle Phillips, Kelly LeBrock, Jill St. John, Diane Keaton, Margaret Trudeau, Rebecca Broussard, and Janice Dickinson among them, along many more lesser-known models and actresses. Playboy model Karen Mayo-Chandler once said, “He’s a nonstop sex machine. He’s into fun and games… like spanking, handcuffs, whips and Polaroid pictures.” Kim Basinger referred to him as “the most highly sexed individual I have ever met.” One of Anjelica Huston’s nicknames for him was “The Hot Pole.”
“I was very driven,” Nicholson noted in his interview with Rolling Stone. “I remember being at least mentally sexually excited about things from childhood, even sooner than eight, in the bathtub. I mean, I had a large appetite.”
Eliot’s tell-all book also shed light on the highly sexual soireés Jack and his friends would throw regularly.
There was round-the-clock partying, drinks, drugs, sex, lots of tea (of the smoking kind), and beautiful, hot, willing girls who loved to get just as high as the boys and have a good time. The refrigerator never had any food in it. Just milk (for Jack’s sometimes sensitive stomach), beer, and pot in the freezer to keep it fresh. On weekends, Harry Dean (Stanton) liked to throw sex parties that started on Friday night and ended sometime Monday morning. ‘Orgies,’ he proudly called them, that gathered the hottest starlets and all the available young men, some single and some not, who wanted to get whacked out and share beds filled with these naked, luscious, beautiful women.
Nicholson had specific tastes when it came to sex. “I can’t help but notice that women, especially when they’re in any sort of amorous mood, don’t say my name that much, so I like it when they do. I like being called ‘Jack.’ I like being identified by my name. At that moment.”
He also had a methodology behind his cravings of the flesh. “It’s not that sex is the primary element of the universe,” he told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It’s just that when it’s unfulfilled, it will affect you.”
Something else was affecting Jack during his golden run in the ’70s. In 1974, Time was researching a cover story on the actor when they discovered startling news that would change Jack’s life forever. His “sister,” June, was actually his mother, and his “mother,” Ethel May, was actually his grandmother. Jack’s father — when he learned of June’s pregnancy — deserted the family, leaving June as a single mother. Because the situation was so disparagingly viewed in the ’30s, Ethel May — June’s mother — opted to call the baby her own, and Jack’s entire family agreed to the pact. When Time‘s researcher contacted Nicholson to explain to him the validity of his family tree, he hung up the phone, devastated. June and Ethel May had already been dead for some time. Jack felt deceived, and it was a feeling that perhaps influenced his view of women and his choice of coping mechanisms of the chemical variety.
“I got back to a terrible realization I had as an infant that my mother didn’t want me — remember, my parents had separated just before I was born — and along with that came desperate feelings of need,” he told People in 1975. “Basically, I still relate to women by trying to please them as if my survival depended on them. In my long-term relationships, I’m always the one that gets left.”
In 1977, Roman Polanski was accused of raping a young teenage girl at Jack’s Hollywood home while he was out of town. Polanski fled the U.S., and the roaring, sexually-free ’70s were coming to an end, and so was Jack’s wild run. Maybe he was used to driving women away from him, but as the ’80s progressed, there would be one woman — who he described as “the love of his life” — who would also leave, and it would hurt him worse than any other departure.
The One Who Got Away
Was it the smile that flashed ear to ear? The way ideas on politics and pop-culture poured out of him? His ability to make you feel like the only person in the room? Likely, it was all of these things and more that made Anjelica Huston say that she fell in love the minute she saw Nicholson at an L.A. party in 1973. The 21-year-old Huston had just left behind a New York modeling career to pursue acting in Hollywood, and just as she was discovering the glamour of L.A., she discovered Jack Nicholson. From the start, Jack’s philandering ways would impede their growth as a couple. It would be the story of their relationship.
According to Huston, Nicholson cancelled their first date, claiming previous obligations. When Huston instead went out with some friends, she was alerted to Jack’s presence in another area of the Old World Café she was attending that night. She recalled the event in her 2014 memoir Watch Me.
I took my wineglass in hand and with my heart racing climbed the stairs to the upper section of the restaurant. Jack was sitting in a booth with a beautiful young woman whom I immediately recognized—I had seen photographs of them together in magazines—as his ex-girlfriend Michelle Phillips. She was in the group the Mamas and the Papas. As I reached the table a shadow passed quickly over Jack’s face, like a cloud crossing the sun. I lifted my glass airily and said, “I’m downstairs, and I just thought I’d come up to say hi.” He introduced Michelle, not missing a beat. She was charming. I guess they were at the end of their relationship at that point.
Anjelica’s father, John Huston, and Nicholson were friends and co-stars in Chinatown, and Anjelica and Nicholson rekindled the brief flirtations they had exchanged earlier, leading the budding actress to move into the Oscar-winner’s home in Hollywood. “I was spending my days up at Jack’s, very much in love with him…” Huston wrote in her memoir. For Jack, the feeling was mutual. A pair of sculpted gold wings that Nicholson had gifted Huston adorned the bedroom Jack had bestowed to her in his mansion.
“I certainly would say she’s the love of my life,” Nicholson told People in 1980, a few years after they had been living together. “…We’ve striven for a straightforward, honest, yet mature relationship.” Still, Jack’s love for the company of women would prove to be their greatest challenge. “I live with Anjelica, and there are other women in my life who are simply friends of mine. Most of the credit for our wonderfully successful relationship has to do with her flexibility.”
In 1976, Huston had a publicized affair with Ryan O’Neal, but soon after, she was back in Jack’s arms. The pair flirted with marriage on several occasions, but as the ’70s turned into the ’80s, they found it hard to get down the aisle. “I ask her to get married all the time,” Nicholson told People. “Sometimes, she turns me down. Sometimes, she says yes. We don’t get around to it.” Meanwhile, Huston began suspecting that Nicholson was stepping outside their relationship.
I hadn’t really been aware of Jack’s reputation at first. It kind of grew over time, I think—that idea of Jack: he’s so baaad! Even though Warren Beatty was one of his best friends, I didn’t recognize Jack as a world-class philanderer at the time. For as prolific as he seems to have been, and as I have heard reported, he was actually quite discreet. Occasionally, I’d find a piece of female apparel—once a jacket of mine turned up on a girl in the street—or I’d find some hand cream, or a trinket might get left behind in the soap dish. Sometimes I’d take to wearing the jewelry to see if anybody would come up and claim it, but that never happened.
The turbulent love affair continued through the ’80s, but in 1989, Nicholson called Huston to invite her to dinner. Over dessert, Jack delivered the news: “I have something to tell you. Someone is gonna have a baby.” That someone was Rebecca Broussard. Huston was crushed. A few days later, a Playboy article was released with a Playmate claiming that Nicholson spanked her with a ping-pong paddle during a sexual encounter. Huston had enough of the cheating and lies, and she physically assaulted him, releasing anger that had been brewing for over a decade.
“He was coming out of the bathroom when I attacked him. I don’t think I kicked him, but I beat him savagely about the head and shoulders,” Huston wrote in her memoir. “He was ducking and bending, and I was going at him like a prizefighter, raining a vast array of direct punches.”
Nicholson told Closer about his indiscretions with Huston. “I was annihilated emotionally. That was probably the toughest period of my life. I’m childish, and I did make a mistake.”
After 17 years, Nicholson and Huston ended their relationship. In 1995, the two would work together on The Crossing Guard, and the passion that had fueled their love for one another briefly rekindled. “You and me, we’re like Love in the Time of Cholera,” Nicholson told her. “This pleased me,” Huston wrote in her memoir. “Probably because it’s one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite authors, about one of my favorite subjects – hopeless, enduring love.”
Nicholson still lives in the same Hollywood Hills mansion, the one that used to house the parties, and women, and the love of his life. Nicholson, single and 77 years of age, doesn’t entertain much these days. There’s less Hollywood heavyweights swinging by, and even less drugs (he began weaning the drug use during the ’80s due the untimely deaths of several friends). The acting legend hasn’t worked in years; his last film was in 2010. He even recently gave up his courtside seats to Lakers games. Jack’s memory — a coveted quality in Hollywood — may not be supposedly what it once was, but the recollections that remain burn deep.
“I’m an extreme person,” he told The Sun. “If someone says, ‘Jack, you are a womanizer,’ I don’t deny it. But the life of a gigolo always ends badly.”