10 Lucky Celebrities Who Escaped Disaster

Most of the time it's the disasters that are famous—but sometimes, famous people escape disasters instead

On February 15, 1958, Elizabeth Taylor and her husband, producer Mike Todd, board his private plane named "The Liz," which crashed a month later killing Todd and two others. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

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3. J. Paul Getty

Anointed the “World’s Richest Man” by People magazine, Getty supposedly booked passage on the Italian luxury liner Andrea Doria in July 1956, but canceled at the last minute. On the final night of its nine-day voyage to New York from Genoa, the ship would collide with a Swedish liner and sink off Nantucket, killing 46 passengers and crew, just 10 hours from its destination. Because the accident occurred so close to land, camera crews were able to reach the scene by plane and helicopter before the Andrea Doria sank, making it the first ocean liner disaster to be televised. 

According to Robert Lenzner’s 1985 biography, The Great Getty, the Minnesota-born oilman, then living in England, had supposedly been warned by a fortune-teller that he would die if he ever attempted to cross the Atlantic again. Apparently that did the trick. Though he sometimes went so far as to make reservations, he always ended up canceling them, Lenzner wrote.

Getty died in 1976 at his mansion outside London at age 83. A longtime art collector, he left much of his vast estate, reportedly over $1 billion, to a trust that now operates the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, California, two of the most visited art museums in the U.S.

4. Cary Grant

Grant and fellow actor George Murphy were scheduled to be aboard the Pan Am Clipper “Yankee” in February 1943 but lucked out when their itinerary changed at the last minute. The flying boat crashed during an attempted landing in Lisbon, killing 24 passengers and crew. Murphy, who later became a U.S. senator from California, recalled the incident in his 1970 autobiography, Say… Didn’t You Used to Be George Murphy? Among the 15 survivors was the popular singer Jane Froman, who was badly injured in the crash. The incident figures prominently in the 1952 Froman biopic, With a Song in My Heart, starring Susan Hayward.

That would not be Grant’s last connection to a famous disaster, incidentally. His then-wife, the actress Betsy Drake, was aboard the Andrea Doria on its final voyage in 1956. Drake escaped the stricken ship, but reportedly lost nearly $250,000 worth of jewelry Grant had given her. According to Richard Goldstein’s 2003 account of the sinking and rescue, Desperate Hours, it was locked in a ship’s safe, where it apparently remains to this day.

Grant died in 1986 at age 82.

5. George “Papa Bear” Halas

In July, 1915, George Halas was a 20-year-old college student with a summer job at Western Electric in Cicero, Illinois, just south of Chicago. The company’s annual picnic was scheduled for July 24 in Michigan City, Indiana, and employees were to be ferried there from downtown Chicago by one of several excursion steamers that plied Lake Michigan. Halas had bought a ticket on the Eastland.

About Greg Daugherty
Greg Daugherty

Greg Daugherty is a magazine editor and writer as well as a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.com. His books include You Can Write for Magazines.

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