If you were around during the Roaring Twenties and you had the nerve to call Peggy Hopkins Joyce a gold digger, she probably wouldn't have responded by delivering a stinging slap to your face. The former Ziegfeld girl, sometime Hollywood actress, and five-time divorcée most likely would have smiled flirtatiously and agreed with you wholeheartedly.
Clearly Joyce knew how to work her men. She collected baubles, such as a huge, 120-carat blue diamond from lover Walter Chrysler (as in Chrysler automobiles). She supposedly made her third husband, Chicago lumber baron James Stanley Joyce, slip a check for $500,000 under the door of their bedroom before she would sleep with him on their wedding night. She also convinced him to buy her a pricey house on Coconut Grove's Millionaire's Row. She counted actor Charlie Chaplin, prizefighter Jack Dempsey, and Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg among her many paramours; boasted of having 50 fiancés; and claimed all her husbands were millionaires.
According to the New York Times "City" section editor Constance Rosenblum, author of the recently published Gold Digger: The Outrageous Life and Times of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, the media-savvy Joyce was her own best agent, possessing an instinctual knowledge of marketing and public relations. Daughter of a modest Norfolk, Virginia, barber, the stunning Joyce clawed her impeccably manicured way to a life rife with furs, jewelry, cars, and fancy houses during a time when women had little, if any, power. "She understands that strange art of being a woman," said Ivan St. Johns about Joyce in Photoplay magazine. But she also understood the fine art of manipulating the press, cultivating the tabloid media frenzy that seemingly surrounded her every move and helping to invent the state of shallow, fluffy stardom.
"I think she became the first true celebrity," says Rosenblum, who devoted three years to penning the adventuress's biography. Rosenblum had had no idea who Joyce was until the writer's antique-dealer mother purchased a trunk of letters, clippings, and photos that had once belonged to her. "She was just famous for being famous," Rosenblum explains. "People loved her or hated her, but people did have opinions about her and they wanted to read about her. Her face and her name sold newspapers."
In 1957 at age 64, Joyce died of throat cancer in a Manhattan hospital. A quiet end to a freewheeling yet mostly innocuous life. "She wasn't harmful to people," Rosenblum says. "Of course she wasn't the most generous soul in the world. I don't think she was a mean or vicious or dishonest person, but she really did know what she wanted, and she went after it and got it."