Hollywood Has a Secret LGBT History. We Shouldn’t Dismiss It
Some critics dismiss the value of stories about the private lives of Hollywood’s gay stars of yore. But those stories are crucial to understanding the truth of who they were.
The Hollywood dream factory was one of the most successful enterprises in American history. At its height, the industry of illusion cranked out hundreds of publicity releases a week, all dutifully reported in fan magazines and newspaper columns.
An army of publicists and “fixers” were on hand to stage-manage dozens of romances, weddings and happy family photo-ops to boost the images of the stars the industry had created, all of them archetypically wholesome, upstanding—and heterosexual.
This was the way Americans in the 1940s and 1950s wanted to see their heroes—and themselves. The dream merchants made sure they did.
So potent was this effort that even today, those illusions endure. Despite the fact that my book Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn came out in 2006, there are still those who insist I made up the parts about how Hepburn loved women as well as men, and how she turned her largely platonic friendship with a sexually conflicted Spencer Tracy into a romantic, heterosexual union for posterity.
At the time of the book’s publication, some “Spence and Kate” fans came unhinged. Trolls on Amazon kept my editor busy defending my five years of intensive research. My Wikipedia page was hacked and I was called a liar. At one book event, the venue received a threatening phone call before I went onstage.
For some people, tagging beloved figures as queer was a declaration of war; they came ready to fight. No amount of research was enough for them. For the “deniers,” as I call them, their Hollywood illusions are bought, paid for, and nonreturnable.
Matt Tyrnauer, the director of the new film, Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood, opening tonight in Los Angeles and on August 3 in New York, has not, as far as I know, had to deal with phone threats or Wikipedia vandalism. But he’s gotten his share of pushback from the deniers, too.
Scotty brings to life the story of Scotty Bowers, the legendary “male madam” of Hollywood’s Golden Age, whose liaisons with discreetly gay actors in the 1940s and 1950s expose the real world the dream merchants were intent on hiding.
The film is based on Bowers' own book, Full Service: My Life in Hollywood and The Secret Sex Lives of The Stars. (Full disclosure: I’m one of the talking heads in Tyrnauer's film, and Bowers was one of my main sources for Kate; Bowers was also a chief source for Daily Beast editor and writer Tim Teeman's book, In Bed With Gore Vidal: Hustlers, Hollywood, and The Private World of an American Master.)
While the broadsides against Tyrnauer have been more discreet, they’re no less rooted in a deep, pervasive anti-gay bias.
“There has been odd, subtle, homophobic commentary surrounding the project,” Tyrnauer told me. “People say things like ‘not my cup of tea,’ which just has that certain feeling to it.” A critic can’t come right out and say, in 2018, “The idea of queer sex makes me queasy.”
But they can say things such as what Jeanine Basinger, film historian and former director of the Wesleyan University Cinema Archives, told The New York Times: “This is a perfect example of the expression, ‘people need to get a life.’ Personally, I’m more interested in the work of these people than their possible off-screen shenanigans.”
Basinger’s comments ignited a mini-firestorm on Twitter. Buzzfeed correspondent Kate Aurthur call Basinger’s remark “condescending and homophobic.” Vanity Fair’s Rebecca Keegan asked, “Seriously, what was the point of that quote? Anyone who claims to be interested in that era of Hollywood but not interested in the way its biggest stars navigated sexuality is so full of it.”
Hearst Over Hollywood author Lou Pizzitola tweeted, “It’s interesting how people, including film historians, who never object to stories exploring the sexual and romantic lives of actors as long as they are perceived as straight, become puritanical about discussions about queer life in Hollywood, declaring the curious should ‘get a life’ and focus only on ‘the work.’ ”
If only Twitter had been around when Kate came out! While the lion’s share of my reviews were positive (The New York Times named Kate one of the Notable Books of the year) there were some who, much like Basinger tried with Scotty, attempted to disempower the work by trivializing it.
The late Richard Schickel, in his review of Kate for the Los Angeles Times, dismissed my sources as “street hustlers” (Scotty was nothing of the sort) and the book as “gossip-mongering with high-end aspirations.” My discussions of the sexuality of Hepburn’s friends (“including John Ford!”) were “tiresome,” Schickel concluded.
His exclamation point says it all. The 73-year-old reviewer simply could not fathom a man’s man like Ford (director of John Wayne westerns!) struggling with sexuality. What was actually “tiresome” to Schickel was the whole discussion of sexuality—unworthy of serious study. “Get a life,” he might as well have said to me.
Schickel was more than happy, however, to lend his support to a biography of Spencer Tracy that came out a few years later, since it hewed more closely to the old studio line.
The author of that book used Schickel’s tactic in going after Kate: its revelations were less to be refuted than derided. Scotty Bowers’s stories, he said, were “cheerfully unverifiable”—even though all stories about sex are unverifiable, cheerfully or otherwise, unless both parties come forward to verify. Although the Tracy biographer embraced stories about his subject’s heterosexual pairings without any need for some higher proof, he insisted there was no evidence of “homosexual activity” in Tracy’s private papers.
Now what would such evidence look like? Even in the papers of George Cukor and Roddy McDowall, both of whom lived fairly undisguised gay lives, there’s little “evidence” to speak of.
Apparently some historians (those who use terms like “homosexual activity” or describe same-sex love as “shenanigans”) can only recognize the reality of LGBT experience when it sashays down the street in a Pride parade.
The truth is that this part of Hollywood’s story—indeed, this part of the story of the entire twentieth century—has usually only been preserved through oral traditions, passed down by those “in the life.”
Many of the people I spoke with for Kate—and many of the people Tyrnauer interviewed for Scotty, and Teeman for In Bed With Gore Vidal—were not themselves famous, but they saw far more, and understood the situation far better, than the marquee names around them or even members of Tracy’s and Hepburn’s families, who, after all, believe they have a legacy to protect.
These sources, who Schickel dismissed as minor, were the real families of my subjects, something most queer people instinctively understand—yet the Tracy biographer chose not to speak with any of them. That kind of snobbery doesn’t allow for the window to be opened wide enough for the truth to get in.
On social media discussion groups, fans of classic Hollywood are divided into two: those who are curious to understand the full reality of their heroes’ lives and those who hold tight to the official line as handed out by the MGM or Paramount front offices.
Scotty Bowers has the latter group panicked. It’s one thing to dismiss faceless “minor” sources. But they can’t wish away Scotty, who’s up on the screen cheerfully verifying his homosexual activity and all those same-sex "shenanigans" he participated in.
I defy anyone to watch the film, or read Teeman's revealing interviews with him, and not find Scotty sincere. He’s even a little naïve in his unabashed love of sexual adventure and his absolute rejection of rigid demarcations of gay and straight.
Scotty seems congenitally unable to lie. Tyrnauer and I both tried to find holes in his stories; there are none. If he didn’t know about someone, he admitted that. Scotty’s the real deal, and that’s what makes the deniers tremble in their shoes.
Gore Vidal himself said of Bowers, “I have known Scotty Bowers for the better part of a century. I’m so pleased that he has finally decided to tell his story to the world… Scotty doesn’t lie—the stars sometimes do—and he knows everybody.”
At Bowers’ book launch, in what would be his last public appearance, Vidal told guests that he’d never “caught Bowers in a lie” in the many years he had known him in a town “where you can meet a thousand liars every day.”
Presumably, then, he would have conceded as fact Bowers’ revelations to Teeman that Vidal not only had sex with him, but also “many” hustlers Bowers arranged for him, as well as Hollywood stars Rock Hudson, Tyrone Power, and Charles Laughton.
“Get ready to believe,” I tweeted when the film of Scotty was finished, but whether the deniers will ever come around is an open question. Dreams die hard. But shouldn’t Scotty’s stories—and the stories of other people who’ve pulled back the curtain on the illusions—make Hepburn and Tracy (and Cary Grant and Randolph Scott and John Ford and Claudette Colbert and so many others) even more fascinating to us, knowing how they had to chart their lives through the minefields of Hollywood publicity?
Shouldn’t we admire them even more, feel even more compassion and respect for them, root for them in ways we hadn’t even considered before? If we don’t, then I suggest we look down deep, because there might just be some homophobia lurking at the heart of our denial.
Why, after all, should it be a bad thing if Kate Hepburn loved women? Those who need to “get a life” aren’t the historians curious to find out how people actually lived, but rather those who refuse to see the reality of queer history, or do their best to trivialize it when they do.
William J. Mann is the author of several books on Hollywood and American history. He is also a Professor of LGBT History and Popular Culture at Central Connecticut State University.