About 45 minutes into the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, the most unbelievable monologue you’ll ever hear is delivered. And it’s all true. Allegedly.
“I fucked Bette Davis in World War II when she was married to a guy. I used to fix her up with tricks, and we used to have three-way deals. I went to bed with J. Edgar Hoover. He was in drag. He was not a great beauty either, you know, but I was treating him just like he was a girl.”
Scotty Bowers, now 95 and more than 60 years past his prime as the so-called “pimp to the stars,” grins mischievously as he loosens the tap, continuing his deluge of secrets.
“One day Cary Grant was in the gas station and Rock Hudson just happened to be there, so Cary Grant picked him up. I fixed him up with Rock for 20 bucks, and Rock saw him several times. This is before Rock had any movie. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, I never tricked them together. I would fix them up with guys, and then I would see her at Gary Cooper’s house. She would come in and quietly open the gate and be like, ‘Shh.’ Ten minutes later I’m fucking her and she’s screaming.”
After spending two years following Bowers for the cinema verité-style documentary about the gregarious former sex worker, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer laughs, summarizing the unique and actually profound appeal of the subject of his movie.
“This is someone who seems to have just not been hit with the shame stick and not burdened with feelings of guilt,” Tyrnauer says, speaking over coffee at Manhattan’s NoMad Hotel the week before the film’s release. “He didn’t have that instilled. He seemed to live an exemplary life in terms of being free of shame and guilt. That could be a lesson for all of us.”
Perhaps unexpectedly, lessons abound in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Tyrnauer began filming Bowers following the release of his memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, a juicy tell-all recounting his time operating a brothel, of sorts, out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard starting in the late 1940s and finally retiring decades later, during the AIDS crisis.
As Bowers tells it, he slept with Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the Duke of Windsor—the abdicated King Edward VIII. The list of stars he allegedly set up with prostitutes reads like a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Rock Hudson, Cole Porter, and more.
When Bowers released his book, essentially outing Grant, Tracy, and Hepburn, among others, as gay or bisexual, critics ranging from casual readers to Barbara Walters blasted him for spreading salacious stories about long-dead subjects who couldn’t defend themselves or question their veracity. That was out of respect, Bowers claims. They weren’t his secrets to tell when they were alive, but now that they’re gone, he thinks they can’t hurt them.
But now that Tyrnauer is giving Bowers another platform, similar criticisms are being aired again. In a New York Times piece about Tyrnauer and the film, noted film scholar Jeanine Basinger—who happened to be the chair of Tyrnauer’s film school and clashed with him there—verbally scoffs about the documentary’s pursuit. “This is a perfect example of the expression, ‘people need to get a life,’” she says. “Personally, I’m more interested in the work of these people than their possible off-screen shenanigans.”
As several entertainment journalists, including Buzzfeed’s Kate Aurthur and Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan, were quick to point out on Twitter, that opinion is horseshit.
Tyrnauer suspects Basinger didn’t see the film, especially since she seems to ignore its entire point.
The reason Bowers has stories to tell is because these actors were captives of a Hollywood studio system that weaponized moral clauses, contractually preventing them from living their authentic lives. “They were victims of a certain kind of persecution,” Tyrnauer says. They went to Scotty because paying sex workers was their only option, especially for people like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, whose same-sex escapades were at odds with the heteronormative images of them manufactured by studios.
To claim to be interested in that era of Hollywood but not in the ways that these actors navigated their sexuality is insane. It’s not gossip. It’s biography. It’s anthropology. It’s our history.
“For some reason our culture is willing to dismiss the full biographies of all of these characters as being shenanigans,” Tyrnauer says. “Take Caravaggio, for instance. If you’re an art scholar, do you just want to know what Caravaggio was up to in the painting studio? Don’t you want to know what Caravaggio was up to when he wasn’t holding a paintbrush? Is that not relevant to who Caravaggio was? So why do we dismiss details about what Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were up to off-screen?”
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood isn’t a tell-all. Tyrnauer calls it an alternative history of one of the most important times in our country’s history, the story of Hollywood and the image machine, which changed the way we all perceive ourselves and the world. Looking at the Hollywood system and the image factory through the lens of a sex worker to the stars couldn’t be more relevant.
“If Scotty had been operating a brothel out of a gas station in Des Moines, Iowa, it would be a fun, interesting, maybe relevant story, but it wouldn’t have the operatic location and narrative that this movie has,” Tyrnauer says.
Criticizing Bowers’ stories as trivial compared to these actors’ on-screen work ignores the fact that their private lives were often scripted by studios and they were forced to perform those narratives in order to continue that on-screen work. More, it fosters a delusion that moral clauses don’t still exist, if not literally in contracts, then inherently in an industry that forces known gay actors to perform heterosexuality in order to further their careers.
The same people who dismiss stories about Hollywood and sex as irrelevant are the ones who erupt in outrage at the insinuation that these actors had same-sex sexual relationships and that these stories are being told when they’re not alive to speak to them. It illustrates the reluctance to admit how deeply and seriously we are all affected and influenced by Hollywood and its players.
“The book was dismissed as a tell-all, however it was a best-seller,” Tyrnauer says. “So there’s the contradiction.”
Now to briefly dismount from our high horse, here’s another reason the book was a best-seller. The stories are wild. And so is this movie.
Bowers was just out of the Marines when he moved to Hollywood and got a job working at the Richfield gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard. One afternoon, the Oscar-nominated actor Walter Pidgeon drove up. “What’s a nice guy like you doing working at a gas station?” he asked Bowers, inviting him to come home with him to swim in his pool. They did much more than that, and, seeing an opportunity, he began “tricking,” as he calls it, eventually hiring other former Marines as sex workers.
“Everything was 20 bucks,” Bowers says. “I would say to my friends, ‘I’m gonna fix you up with a trick and all the guy’s gonna do is take and suck your cock. It’s the same as if your girl was sucking your cock. If you want to close your eyes and think it’s her sucking your cock, do.’ ‘OK, I’ll do it once. Well, once, twice…’”
He tricked with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, who were lovers, Bowers says, but told people they were just living as roommates. Bowers says he’s been with them both individually, together as a threesome, and with a fourth for paired group sex. He says he had a three-way at Frank Sinatra’s house with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. He would arrange men for the former King Edward VIII to sleep with—“he sucked me off like a pro”—and women for the mistress he abdicated the throne for, Wallis Simpson, to sleep with.
He estimates that he fixed Katharine Hepburn up with more than 150 women over the course of 39 years. Cole Porter once requested that Bowers set him up with 15 men at once. “I want to suck 15 guys off, one after another,” he said.
“Why shouldn’t Cole Porter have a voracious sexual appetite?” Tyrnauer says, when I ask if he thinks people would have an easier time believing Bowers’ stories if they weren’t so outrageous. “I don’t know if he did or not, but why would I find that unbelievable?” He laughs. “There’s a wonderful Cole Porter song, ‘Too Darn Hot’ where one of the lyrics is ‘a Marine for his queen’ and ‘a G.I. for his cutie pie.’ I’m thinking maybe Scotty is his Marine.”
Through all of this, Bowers was never treated like a madame. To people like George Cukor, the legendary director of The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady, he was considered a friend. That ended up being his key to earning the trust of the biggest names in show business, with the most to lose if these secrets were ever outed.
“Are these stories substantiable? My answer is yes, very much so,” Tyrnauer says. Should now take it as fact that the likes of Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn had same-sex sexual relationships? He doesn’t flinch: “Yes.”
Considering that Tyrnauer purports to be correcting history with this film and the facts of that correction are largely from the mouth of one person, Bowers’ reliability as a narrator was obviously important to him.
Gore Vidal ended up being an important source for Tyrnauer, who counts the famed writer as a personal friend. Vidal was a client and then friend of Bowers, but his “very active carnal life,” as Tyrnauer calls it, wasn’t included in Bowers’s book. The reason: Vidal was still alive. (One of Vidal’s last public outings was to the book’s release party.) Independently, Vidal and Bowers confided in Tyrnauer stories about each other and about that time at the gas station, and the stories all checked out.
Several of the sex workers Bowers employed are also still alive, and Tyrnauer interviewed them for the documentary. They all verified Bowers’s accounts, some on camera. One even still had an index card Bowers had made with the contact information of a dozen men who were interested in sexual services. “A smoking gun,” Tyrnauer calls it. One of the men on the card was still alive, and confirmed Bowers’ stories to Tyrnauer, too. All of this was in addition to the work a team of researchers did to fact-check many of Bowers’ anecdotes.
Scotty Bowers didn’t kiss and tell when these people were alive. But he kissed, sucked, fucked, and is telling us now that these people are dead.
The instinct to disbelieve him is unfortunate, given how these sex lives give us a much greater insight into the reality of an industry that shaped our culture. At a time when there still is not an out gay or lesbian movie star starring as the lead in blockbusters, and people still debate whether an out gay or lesbian actor could be believable as a romantic lead, the fact that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, two iconic romantic leads, had same-sex relationships is illuminating.
It’s prudent to see Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood to recognize that. The fact that it’s so dishy and sex-filled—Tyrnauer includes vintage nude photos and sex films that Bowers stars in—is icing on the cake.
“For Scotty Bowers, sex is a fact of life. It’s not avoided. So to make a movie that avoided sex and explicit nudity just wouldn’t have made sense,” he says. “Plus, who doesn’t want sex on screen? We all want a little sex. It keeps you interested. Scotty was really hot as a young man. He was just undeniably hot. Why not show some skin?”