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Stormy marriage full of off-screen drama for Stan Laurel

In the year or so the actor and his third wife, Vera Shuvalova, were married, there were fights and arrests and each landed in court. In divorce proceedings, she even charged that he wanted to bury her alive.

June 21, 2009|Larry Harnisch

Film comic Stan Laurel's brief marriage to Russian singer Vera Ivanova Shuvalova was another fine mess.

For a little more than a year, they drank, they fought, they got arrested and -- at least according to Shuvalova -- Laurel invited her to be buried alive in the backyard of their San Fernando Valley home.

Laurel never made a movie titled "Ex Appeal," but if he had, the cast would have included former wife Lois N. Laurel (1926 to 1933) and former wife Virginia Ruth Laurel, whom he married in Mexico in 1934 and again in the U.S. in 1935.

Maybe there would even be a bit part for his vaudeville partner, Mae, who agreed as part of a legal settlement that they had never been married.

The first scene, as taken from the pages of The Times, could have been on New Year's Eve 1937.

With the ink barely dry on his divorce from second wife Virginia, Laurel, 43, eloped to Yuma, Ariz., with Shuvalova, 28, whom he had met five weeks earlier during an audition. Virginia arrived the next day and insisted that local authorities stop the wedding because she was the real Mrs. Stan Laurel.

The ceremony went ahead after Laurel showed officials the final decree, and less than two weeks later he sued Virginia to keep her from stalking him. The marriages were untangled, the divorce was upheld and in February, just to make sure everything was resolved, Laurel and Shuvalova returned to Yuma for a second wedding.

In another plot twist, Laurel planned a honeymoon cruise with Shuvalova and invited his first ex-wife, Lois, to join them. At the time she was suing him for the modern equivalent of nearly $20,000 a month in support for their 10-year-old daughter, including money for a chauffeur, governess and cook, and trips to the beauty shop.

After they returned from the cruise, "it was nothing unusual for Wife No. 1 to visit Laurel and engage in intimate discussions with him about their old married life," The Times said.

In the meantime, Shuvalova began planning their third wedding because even though they had already been married twice, she wanted a traditional Russian Orthodox ceremony.

Enter the police.

On April 12, 1938, shortly before the third wedding, Shuvalova was arrested by Beverly Hills officers for crashing into several parked cars while driving without a license. After a long court fight, she was sentenced to five days in jail.

Then it was Laurel's turn in court on charges of drunk driving, which he blamed on being upset over Shuvalova, rather than drinking too much.

"She has a terrific temper," he told the court.

Laurel said that on the night he was arrested, he and Shuvalova had a fight and she tried to hit him with a telephone handset, threatened him with a skillet full of potatoes and threw sand in his eyes. In the struggle, he put his arm through a window, Laurel said.

The case was dropped in December after the jury deadlocked. Shuvalova later charged that Laurel made up the story about the fight because he would lose his movie contract if he were convicted of drunk driving.

In Act II of their domestic drama, Shuvalova sued for divorce a few days before their first anniversary, saying Laurel drank too much, "repulsed her efforts to show him affection, behaved rudely toward their friends and on several occasions remained away from home for several days at a time without explanation," The Times said.

The couple reconciled for the new year and Shuvalova began 1939 with a day in jail for the reckless driving charge. Soon after, she was arrested for being drunk and disorderly in a nightclub "while loudly discussing the Russian situation with herself," The Times said.

She renewed divorce proceedings, charging that Laurel wanted to bury her alive. Shuvalova said that on the night of Sept. 28, 1938, Laurel dug a grave in the backyard of their home on Strathern Street in Canoga Park and invited her to step outside. She was saved by friends and neighbors who "spirited her away to a nearby ranch," The Times said.

In the DUI case that was eventually dropped, she said Laurel got a gun and was coming after her when police arrested him for driving about 60 mph on the wrong side of Reseda Boulevard near Victory Boulevard.

Laurel kept his trump card for the final scene. As part of their divorce agreement, Shuvalova promised to never publish anything about their relationship and gave him the sole rights to dramatize "their stormy married life," The Times said.

Epilogue: In 1941, Laurel remarried Virginia Laurel, who filed for divorce in January 1946. On May 6, 1946, Laurel married Ida Raphael, the widow of a man described in The Times as internationally known concertina virtuoso "Raphael Raphael Raphael."

In 1942, Shuvalova was rescued after a fire broke out at the Radio Center Hotel on New York's Times Square. She fled to the roof and was about to jump when firefighters saved her, The Times said. No further news reports about her can be found.

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larry.harnisch@latimes.com

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