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.
Travolta is pictured above with his wife and children Ella Bleu and Benjamin at Easter this year. Many of the tributes from friends yesterday acknowledged that this is a family that has already been touched by loss
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.
‘It’s the secret to a good marriage. You’ve got to keep it fun,’ she said. The marriage was extraordinarily long by Hollywood standards but ended tragically early on Sunday when Preston died, aged 57, of breast cancer.
Poignant: A favourite picture of Kelly. 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
Her husband revealed with ‘a very heavy heart’ she had been battling the disease for two years, announcing on Instagram: ‘She fought a courageous fight with the love and support of so many. Kelly’s love and life will always be remembered.’
A family spokesman said Preston, ‘adored wife and mother’, had chosen to keep her illness private, adding: ‘She was a bright, beautiful and loving soul who cared deeply about others and who brought life to everything she touched.’
The couple’s daughter Ella said: ‘I have never met anyone as courageous, strong, beautiful and loving as you.’
Many of the tributes from friends yesterday acknowledged that this is a family that has already been touched by loss.
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.
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.
The Travolta family credited doctors and nurses at a conventional U.S. hospital, the MD Anderson Cancer Center, for treating Preston but it has not revealed whether she died in hospital or at home.
Breakthrough: Travolta dances with co-star Karen Lynn Gorney in Saturday Night Fever. John threw himself into work but retreated from public view after fulfilling his commitments on Saturday Night Fever
Ex-Scientologists have challenged the church’s claims that it doesn’t stop members choosing to use professional medical care to battle diseases. Actress Leah Remini says Scientology leaders try to prevent followers from seeking such help and instead urge them to focus on their own ‘technology’ and prayer.
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.
Grease director Randal Kleiser said Travolta was so upset over Hyland’s death that he had trouble remembering his lines during the making of the film in 1978.
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.
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.
He was seriously autistic, reputedly unable to speak and prone to epileptic fits up to four times a week. His parents blamed chemicals in household cleaners and fertilisers.
John Travolta is pictured above with son Jett, who died aged 16 in 2009. Travolta later described Jett’s death as the ‘worst thing that’s ever happened in my life. The truth is I didn’t know if I was going to make it’
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.
Close friends said that, just as he had been by the death of Diana Hyland, Travolta was once again devastated.
‘One minute he’s OK, the next he’s in tears. He’s such a sweet, sweet person,’ said friend and fellow star Denzel Washington.
He put on a lot of weight and neighbours said that late at night they would would see him drive around his £14 million Florida home — built to resemble an airport terminal so he could indulge his passion for flying.
Travolta later described Jett’s death as the ‘worst thing that’s ever happened in my life. The truth is I didn’t know if I was going to make it’. He added: ‘Life was no longer interesting to me, so it took a lot to get me better.’
Rumours spread that he had fallen out badly with Scientology bosses. The church makes extravagant claims of its ability to cure various mental and physical disorders, and Travolta reportedly blamed it for failing to do more to help Jett.
Scientologists — who reject psychiatry — believe that autism is simply psychosomatic, recommending vitamins and detoxification programmes rather than conventional therapies.
Kelly Preston had campaigned against psychiatric drugs and lawyers for the family had revealed that Jett had been taken off Depakote, an anti-seizure drug, because they were convinced it didn’t work.
It was reported that she had instead signed him to a Scientology-led ‘Purification Rundown’ course which involved saunas, food supplements, Vitamin B and vegetable oils. The church claims this can dislodge toxins trapped in the body’s fatty tissues.
Travolta admitted that he and Preston had to resort to years of marriage counselling to keep their relationship on track. On what would have been Jett’s 17th birthday — the first after his death — he flew himself to Tahiti to spend the bleak anniversary on his own.
Last year, Kelly Preston shared an emotional tribute to her ‘sweet love’ Jett on Instagram, saying he was ‘in our hearts forever’.
Travolta remains within the Scientology church and, on the 10th anniversary of Jett’s death in 2019, he paid tribute to it for its support.
‘The church never left our sides for two years. I don’t know if I would have made it through without their support,’ he said.
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.