For those who liked to believe that marital fidelity really could exist in Hollywood, the marriage of John Travolta and Kelly Preston was always brandished as irrefutable and cheering evidence in their favour. In interviews, Preston liked to recount how she first met one of the movie industry’s biggest heart-throbs while filming a screen test for 1989 comedy The Experts.
She saw him snaking sinuously towards her across a lobby, before fixing her with a moody stare. That was it,’ she said. She was smitten. So, insisted Travolta, was he.
Three years later, they suddenly married, scrapping plans for a huge wedding in New York in favour of eloping to Paris on Concorde where a Scientologist minister wed them at the Hotel de Crillon. The wedding was declared legally not binding and had to be done again in Florida a week later, but that hardly seemed to spoil the romance. When an interviewer gushed two years ago that whenever she saw the couple together they were always dancing, Kelly happily concurred.
The death of his wife so young is indeed just the latest in a string of tragedies to befall the Grease and Saturday Night Fever star, whose private life has long been overshadowed by his strong attachment to the controversial Church of Scientology.
He also lost the first love of his life — the actress Diana Hyland — to breast cancer and, 11 years ago, his marriage to Preston was devastated by the death of their 16-year-old son, Jett, from a seizure. He had suffered from severe autism and a rare but debilitating heart and blood condition.
- He also lost the first love of his life — the actress Diana Hyland — to breast cancer and, 11 years ago, his marriage to Preston was devastated by the death of their 16-year-old son, Jett, from a seizure. He had suffered from severe autism and a rare but debilitating heart and blood condition.
Although the Church of Scientology —which is regarded as a cult in some countries — insists it doesn’t try to interfere in medical care, it doesn’t consider autism to be a clinical condition. The Travoltas were accused of endangering their son’s health by withholding conventional medical treatment from their son in favour of outlandish church-approved alternatives.
An enigmatic and intensely private man despite his high profile, Travolta was 22 when he first met Diana Hyland on the set of a 1976 film The Boy In The Plastic Bubble, about a child born with a deficient immune system. He was already a teen idol, receiving 10,000 fan letters a week.
She was a divorcee and mother of one, the star of the TV soap Peyton Place, was 18 years older and played his mother. Hyland would become a huge influence on Travolta’s life. The actor, who said that ‘at the time, I’d been fooling around with a couple of little affairs’, found her experience and relaxed attitude to life ‘very sexy’.
He said later: ‘I have never been more in love with anyone in my life. I thought I was in love before, but I wasn’t…We were like two maniacs talking all the time on the set of Bubble. After a month it became romantic.’
They started an intense affair, moving in together, but it was drastically cut short when, that Christmas, Hyland fell ill. She thought she just had severe flu but, by the time she saw her doctor in the New Year, the breast cancer had spread around her body.
Travolta was filming Saturday Night Fever in March 1977 when he flew to Hyland’s home in Ohio. Within 24 hours, she was dead — just seven months after their affair had begun. ‘I was with her all through the night before she died,’ he said later. ‘I held her, touched her, all through those hours.’ He added: ‘I always feel she is with me — I mean, her intentions are. Diana always wanted the world for me in every possible way.’
She was cremated, and at the subsequent memorial gathering at her home, Travolta wore the white suit he had bought for a trip they had planned to Rio. He never wore it again but sent it in a box to his childhood home in Englewood, New Jersey.It was an experience that affected John ‘deeply and irrevocably’, said his biographer Douglas Thompson. Travolta’s sister, Ellen, said the star was devastated by his inability to save Hyland and by his realisation that he wasn’t in control of his own fate, saying: ‘He was never the same. Something like that changes you for ever.’
John threw himself into work but retreated from public view after fulfilling his commitments on Saturday Night Fever.
One year after Hyland’s death, Travolta’s mother Helen also died from cancer.
He reportedly turned down the Richard Gere role in American Gigolo and became more and more absorbed by Scientology, to which the actress Joan Prather had introduced him while making his first film, the 1975 horror movie The Devil’s Rain.
The bizarre belief system, created by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is tailored towards self-improvement and building confidence, and has always been popular with Hollywood stars.
‘It helped me so much back then. I don’t know why people are afraid of it,’ said Travolta, who — along with Tom Cruise — has become one of the celebrity-obsessed organisation’s two biggest name members. Over the decades, he’s reportedly given millions of dollars to Scientology. It took him three years to start seeing women again and when he did he had a brief fling with the French film star Catherine Deneuve, who was ten years his senior.
- One year after Hyland’s death, Travolta’s mother Helen also died from cancer.
He followed that up with a turbulent, on-off relationship with American actress Marilu Henner that ended in 1985.
Kelly Preston was still married to actor Kevin Gage when she met Travolta — his career by then in decline — at that screen test for The Experts.
She had previously had a fling with George Clooney and had once been engaged to Charlie Sheen. (She denied reports she broke up with the combustible actor after he shot her in the arm.)
She was already a Scientologist when she met Travolta, prompting murmurs that they were brought together — at least initially — by the organisation.
He said it had been ‘love at first sight’ and he felt ‘immediate chemistry’, but the couple didn’t start to see each other romantically until 1990, by which time she was single. He proposed to her on New Year’s Eve 1991, flamboyantly going down on one knee inside the Palace Hotel restaurant in Gstaad and giving her a six-carat yellow-and-white diamond ring. She was said to have ‘screamed’ with delight.
(As a teenager, she had reportedly started taking dance classes after watching Saturday Night Fever and told her instructor: ‘I’m going to marry the man in the movie.’)
The Travoltas’ first child, Jett, was born in April 1992. He was delivered in a birthing method advocated by L. Ron Hubbard which insisted on virtual silence because, as Travolta explained, ‘verbal statements are recorded in the mind of the baby . . . later that could cause fears, neuroses or even psychosomatic illnesses’.
The birth cemented his feelings for Kelly, said the star. ‘I never loved Kelly as much as I did watching her give birth to Jett. I have a feeling of stability with her. Anything could happen and we could work it out.’ Weeks after the birth, it was discovered Jett had been born with Kawasaki disease, also known as mucocutaneous lymph node syndrome, a debilitating illness associated with damage to heart and blood vessels.
In 2000, they had a daughter, Ella Bleu, and a second son, Benjamin, in 2010. Travolta — whose career rebounded thanks to his role in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 smash Pulp Fiction — says he’s been a devoted dad who ‘says “yes” to everything’.
Jett died in 2009 while on a Christmas holiday at their home in the Bahamas, reportedly hitting his head on the side of a bathtub after having a seizure.
Once more, Travolta — a star who couldn’t be further from the ice-cool dude of his most famous on-screen roles — has been plunged into a terrible crisis.