Recently, 79-year-old Warren Beatty sat down with AARP Magazine and, in the course of the interview that followed, attempted to clarify something: He has not actually slept with 12,775 women. Imagine being 79 and still feeling obliged to deny such a figure! But then, the legend of Warren Beatty’s dick has a long Hollywood history.
He insists there is wild hyperbole in his reputation as a manslut and disputes the mathematics of the 12,775 women one of his biographers, Peter Biskind, has claimed for him. “Think about it, sleeping with 12,775 people,” he says, not without a certain amount of glee. “That would mean not just that there were multiple people a day, but that there was no repetition.”
So let’s say, for the sake of argument, it wasn’t 12,775. Let’s say it was a few hundred. Why is every star biography, every tabloid report, about what a great lover he was? And why is it nobody seems mad at him? Forget the quantity; everyone wants to know the secret of bedding half of Hollywood and not having them want you dead.
Beatty just blinks at me innocently, with a kind of guileless sincerity. It’s the look he gives pretty much everyone in Shampoo. “Look, I never misled anyone,” he says. “And … and I’m a nice guy.”
That specific, astronomical number dates back to 2010 and the biography Star: How Warren Beatty Seduced America. Author Peter Biskind estimated/guesstimated that Beatty had bedded 12,775 women. How he arrived at that number, according to the book:
How many women were there? Easier to count the stars in the sky. But devotees of the Guinness Book of Records want to know. Beatty used to say that he couldn’t get to sleep at night without having sex. It was part of his routine, like flossing. This was who he was. As the evening progressed, he would disappear with his little back book, looking for a phone. Simple arithmetic tells us that if he had no more than one partner a night—and often there were several—over a period, say, three and a half decades, from the mid-1950s, when he arrived in New York, to 1991, when he met Annette Bening, and allowing for the stretches when he was with the same woman, more or less, we can arrive at a figure of 12,775 women, give or take, a figure that does not include daytime quickies, drive-by blowjobs, casual gropings, stolen kisses, and so on.
Even six years ago ABC News reported Beatty’s lawyer was denying the number, calling it “absurd,” “baloney,” and insisting that, “Somebody must have made it up.”
Even so, it’s been a handy, eye-catching figure for anybody writing about Beatty since. For instance, the New York Post headlined a 2014 history of his and Bening’s relationship—pegged to Bening’s Shakespeare in the Park turn— “How Warren Beatty fell in love after ‘12,775’ women.” The piece asks: “How did one of the greatest womanizers in Hollywood history — someone who once proclaimed that he couldn’t sleep at night unless he’d had sex — manage to settle down and build one of the longest-lasting unions in show business?”
But the obsession with Beatty’s love life dates back much further than that specific number. Here’s how Entertainment Weekly covered his 1991 settling down with Bening:
Little in Hollywood has touched off more rumors, or denials, than the news that Warren Beatty, 54, would finally attempt parenthood, courtesy of mom-to-be Annette Bening, 33. Did Warren want the baby? (Beatty, his lawyer, and his sister, Shirley MacLaine, say yes.) Would Julia Roberts replace the bulging Bening as Catwoman in the new Batman? (Michelle Pfeiffer got the role.) The clamor was understandable. For three decades Beatty made foolin’ around an art form, and the news that he’s passing into papa-land made the earth move in California. On the occasion of Beatty’s forthcoming production, we look back on his most creative contribution to pop culture — his love life — rating each liaison on the basis of its heat, hype, and headlines.
Beatty has been in Hollywood even longer than most, and there’s been tons of press dedicated to his love life and romances with high-profile figures. (The man dated Natalie Wood AND Julie Christie AND Diane Keaton AND Madonna.) But there are plenty of Hollywood stars whose love lives are the subject of media obsession. What makes Beatty stand out, such that the 12,775 figure—even if it seems on its face ridiculous—would stick to him? Well, he started his career in 1961 with Splendor in the Grass, essentially about a pair of horny teens. (It goes badly for them.) Around that time, as Anne Helen Petersen traced in her Beatty installment of Scandals of Classic Hollywood, he segued from an engagement with Joan Collins to a romance with costar Wood, the sort of thing that delivers plenty of press. Essentially his every relationship henceforth would remain the subject of intense media interest, even as Beatty’s life trajectory took him straight through the white-hot center of the Hollywood sexual revolution.
And, too, judging by that Entertainment Weekly piece, part of Beatty’s rep is down to his tendency to pop up in his exes’ memoirs. For instance, Britt Eklund wrote in 1981's True Britt: ”I have never known such pleasure,” adding, ”He could handle women as smoothly as operating an elevator.”
Then of course there was Past Imperfect, former fiance Joan Collins’s 1978 memoir, described by People as “flamingly frank exposition of her love affairs” with Beatty and others. “Three, four, five times a day, every day, was not unusual for him, and he was also able to accept phone calls at the same time,” a 1984 Rolling Stone piece quotes the book. “I had never known anything like it, and although it was exciting for the first few months, after a while, I found myself feeling somewhat like a sex object. ‘An oyster in a slot machine,’ I said wearily.” Now that’s the sort of image that sticks with you!
Another likely-seeming contributor: The 1975 movie Shampoo, about a wildly promiscuous male hairdresser. The trailer should give you a pretty good sense; please do note the bits where Beatty is giving a blow dry to a woman whose face is practically nestled into his crotch. The ins and outs of Beatty’s life were constant gossip fodder with his reputation as a man about town firmly established and his ex, Julie Christie, was also in the movie. Shampoo doesn’t hold a Bonnie and Clyde-like place in the film canon, forty years on, but it was plenty to lock Beatty’s image as a midcentury Casanova into place forever. Well, that and his actual, very well known life and lifestyle.
At some point, Beatty’s love life achieved its own semi-autonomous celebrity, separate from himself, apparently self-replicating. “Who better to play world-famous womanizer Howard Hughes than world-famous womanizer Warren Beatty?” the Tribune News Service framed news of a project in 1984 (one that is finally coming to fruition decades later). A 1990 People article about his romance with Madonna— “He Still Leaves ‘Em Breathless: After Talk That He Was Past His Prime, Lady-Killing Warren Beatty Has the Best Revenge: A Hit in Dick Tracy and Co-Star Madonna on His Arm”—casually referred to him as a “superstud.”
And now the man—pushing 80!—sits down with AARP Magazine and everyone involved apparently feels that (really very unlikely-sounding) number must be discussed, despite the fact that Beatty has been married to Annette Bening for nearly a quarter of a century and they’ve got four kids together. Truly, the sexual revolution casts a long shadow.