Star-Crossed Couples Throughout History

With the 60th anniversary celebration of 'West Side Story,' the musical based on Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet,' we look back into history at some real-life star-crossed romances.
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September 26, 2017, marks the 60th anniversary of West Side Story's opening on Broadway. The musical, composed by Leonard Bernstein, put an American spin on William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, but — with all due respect to Tony and Maria — there are many real-life American romances that are just as heart-wrenching. Here's a look at five star-crossed couples and the struggles they faced.

Pocahontas and Kocoum

Pocahontas had no romantic entanglement with John Smith — they met when she was a girl — but she did find a partner when she was older. Circa 1610, she married Kocoum, a respected warrior and member of the Patawomeck tribe. As Pocahontas almost certainly would have had some say in choosing her husband, and Kocoum wasn't a chief (colonist William Strachey described him as "a private Captaine"), it's likely love played a role in the marriage. 

According to the Mattaponi tribe's sacred oral history, Pocahontas and Kocoum had a son before she was taken captive by Captain Samuel Argall in 1613 (Argall wanted to use her as a bargaining chip against her father, Chief Powhatan). Oral tradition relates that Kocoum was killed by Argall's men before they sailed off with Pocahontas; other versions of the story state that he survived but that Pocahontas's kidnapping would have prompted a dissolution of their marriage.

Whether divorced or widowed, Pocahontas became depressed while a captive of the English — Mattaponi oral history also says she was raped at this time. Having studied English and been baptized with the name Rebecca, she wed English colonist John Rolfe in 1614 and gave birth to a son. The English described her relationship with Rolfe as a love match, but in reality she was a prisoner with limited options. After traveling to England in 1616, Pocahontas died the following year at the start of her return voyage to America.

Solomon and Anne Northrup

As seen in the Oscar-winning film Twelve Years a Slave (2013), Solomon Northrup was a free black man who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. This tore him away from his wife, Anne Hampton Northrup, and their three children. While Solomon suffered as a slave, Anne had had no idea where her husband was until 1852, when a letter sent on his behalf arrived in New York.

In 1853, Solomon, Anne and their children were reunited. That same year he produced a book about his ordeal, also titled Twelve Years a Slave, in which he shared his love for his family: "From the time of my marriage to this day the love I have borne my wife has been sincere and unabated; and only those who have felt the glowing tenderness a father cherishes for his offspring, can appreciate my affection for the beloved children which have since been born to us." Unfortunately, this love wouldn't be enough to keep Solomon with his wife and family. 

Solomon spent a few years giving talks about his experiences, but around 1860 he disappeared from the historical record. It's uncertain why that is, although there are a few possibilities: he had likely become involved with the Underground Railroad, with the risks that entailed; he'd also suffered financial setbacks, including an unsuccessful stage production of his book. Solomon probably died circa 1863, with his last resting place unknown. Anne passed away in 1876 — separated from Solomon even in death.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt

Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt at a concert in 1935. 

By the time Eleanor Roosevelt was stumping for husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt during his 1932 presidential run, their marriage had settled on a platonic plateau, thanks to FDR's earlier extramarital dalliances. This left Eleanor open to developing a relationship with Lorena "Hick" Hickok, the Associated Press reporter covering Eleanor on the campaign trail.

During the summer of 1933, Eleanor and Hick drove off to visit New England and Canada for a few weeks (despite being First Lady by this point, Eleanor left her Secret Service detail behind). When not together — Hick lived in the White House when she was in D.C. — they maintained a passionate correspondence. Hick once wrote to Eleanor, "And now I’m going to bed—to try to dream about you." One of Eleanor's missives stated, "I can’t kiss you, so I kiss your picture good night and good morning!"

Yet Hick's relationship with Eleanor had forced her to give up reporting, a job she loved, as she couldn't be impartial covering the Roosevelts. Hick also felt Eleanor's many obligations didn't leave enough time for her. And though Eleanor occasionally yearned for things to be different, she realized she could never leave her marriage — not only was it inconceivable for someone of her social class, she didn't want to risk FDR's political career. In time, the relationship grew less passionate and more distant, until it was just a strong friendship. But after Eleanor's death in 1962, Hick would visit her grave to leave a yellow rose on Eleanor's birthday.

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were a real-life Hollywood couple whose love story could rival the best movie romances. Though the two didn't fall in love while sharing the screen in No Man of Her Own (1932), sparks flew after they met again four years later. Yet at the time Gable was only separated from his second wife, so there was a limit on how open they could be about their affections. It wasn't until 1939 — thanks to the money he got for his iconic role in Gone With the Wind — that Gable was able to divorce his second wife and marry Lombard.

Gable and Lombard, who called each other "Ma" and "Pa," set up house on a ranch in Encino, California. But Gable had a wandering eye and in 1942 Lombard was apparently concerned by his relationship with co-star Lana Turner. After helping the U.S. effort in World War II by promoting war bonds, she decided that instead of a three-day train journey from Indiana back to Hollywood, she'd rather hop on a plane. Her mother and accompanying publicist didn't want to fly but Lombard got her way after winning a coin toss. Soon after taking off from a refueling stop, the plane crashed into Nevada's Mount Potosi on January 16, 1942, killing all onboard.

Gable raced to the area but was kept from climbing to the wreckage. While in Nevada, he reportedly broke down and cried, "Oh, God! I don’t want to go back to an empty house . . ." Later that year he enlisted in the Air Force, despite being 41 and not required to fight; he went on to take part in several bombing raids over Nazi Germany. After the war he married twice more, but never forgot Lombard. Following his death in 1960, he was buried next to her.

Richard and Mildred Loving

Mildred Richard Loving Photo

Mildred and Richard Loving in Washington, DC, in 1967. 

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter became friends and then fell in love in Virginia. But when they decided to get married in 1958, it wasn't legal for them to do so in their home state: Mildred had African-American and Native American heritage (she later identified as American Indian), while Richard was white. At the time, interracial marriage was forbidden in Virginia.

Instead, the couple traveled to Washington, D.C. to wed. They returned home after tying the knot, but a few weeks later were arrested in the middle of the night. The two ended up facing a stark choice: leave Virginia to stay together or face years behind bars. Committed to each other, they relocated to D.C. — but didn't give up on returning home. Mildred contacted Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy in 1963, who pointed her toward the ACLU and a legal team that would guide their case to the Supreme Court.

On June 12, 1967, Virginia's law banning interracial marriage, as well as similar laws in 15 other states, got struck down in an unanimous ruling. Richard and Mildred had already returned home to Virginia, but now were able to live openly as a married couple. Sadly, they had just a few years together before Richard was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. In 2007, Mildred issued a statement saying, "[N]ot a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me." She passed away in 2008, never having remarried.