“'Pretty Boy Rock Hudson,' they call him now in the gossip columns,” the New York Post scribe began. “He's always out with a new movie beauty in the columns—and I happen to believe it's true.”
Come again? Happen to believe what'strue?
“Pretty Boy” was commonly understood in show business circles as “polite” slang for “fag.” Earl Wilson quite obviously knew the truth about Rock Hudson. But he was praising him for playing the game”—the charade of straightness then (and happily to a somewhat lesser degree now), demanded of gays and lesbians both in and out of show business. The following year Magnificent Obsession would make Hudson the biggest star the studio had under contract since Deanna Durbin. Thus the “pretty boy” became an important “property” whose “private life” was by common consent among the “legitimate press” to be deemed “off limits.” Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, the primary gossip-mavens of that fabled era certainly knew the score. But they also knew how to keep their counsel, not just about homosexuality but alcoholism, drug addition, physical violence, mental illness and anything else that might besmirch the good name of Hollywood. If what they knew was fully aired it would be “bad for business.” Only left-wing politics was fair game. Hopper and Parsons let fly at anyone ever so slightly to the left of Dwight Eisenhower at every opportunity. And Mike Connelly, the deeply closeted gay columnist for the Hollywood Reporter was even more vociferous—recklessly screaming “Commie” at individuals with no affiliation to the party whatsoever. Needless to say he kept his mouth tightly shut about gay Hollywood affairs.
But the “scandal press,” exemplified by Confidential magazine (whose infamy makes its name resonate even half a century after its demise) was another story. It wasn't placated by Hudson's conspicuous opposite-sex “dating” and did it's best to try and find a way to “out” him. This was a difficult task because Hudson didn't have anything in his past like the youthful “disorderly conduct” arrest slapped on Tab Hunter for attending a gay party, thatConfidential uncovered—complete with “rap sheet.” It has been said, but never proven, that a Confidential expose of actor Rory Calhoun's petty criminal past was offered by the studio in exchange for keeping quite about Hudson. But this seems unlikely as all that Confidential would have been able to supply would have been the testimony of ex-boyfriends or the word of co-workers. But that didn't happen because Hudson was well-liked by his peers and left no trail of embittered ex-loves behind him. Save the “scandal press,” no one wanted to attack Rock Hudson. But taking no chances, in 1955 Hudson married Phyliss Gates, secretary to his agent/manager Henry Willson—only to divorce her three years later. Nobody in show business was fooled by this in '55 any more than they were by his escorting some “new movie beauty” in '53. And truth to tell nobody in the “civilian” population, with any show biz savvy hadn't guessed long ago that Universal star wasn't heterosexual. In the wake of Hudson's passing, with his “private life” at last officially made part of “polite” parlance in and out of show biz, a sense that Hudson's brand of marital charade was common in Hollywood has emerged. But was that really the case? And was it any more the rule—or the exception—anywhere else?
“I don't think Rock Hudson went to Universal and said 'Hey I'm gay you've gotta find me a broad to cover it up,'” veteran publicist Howard Bragman remarks. “If you were gay the studio would 'link' you with someone through 'dates,' but for the most part that was about it. I think the studios stay out of stars lives these days. Nowadays it would be more the manager or press rep. who would want to arrange something. But it's a different world. Most of us have a kind of cynicism about these things, but we like to see people we know and like get married and fixed up. The problem in Hollywood is you don't know who's real to begin with. That's why there was all this snickering about 'Bennifer'.”
“Bennifer,” as more than one Hollywood wag has dubbed it, refers to the inordinately hyped alliance of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, two far-from-publicity-shy actors whose cancellation of a ceaselessly-promoted marriage in the wake of the unmitigated disaster of Gigli—the romantic comedy-drama that was supposed to have rendered them the postmodern Bogart and Bacall—was one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2003. Demonstrating that there is indeed such a thing as bad publicity, “Bennifer” proved that the public isn't invariably enamored of off-screen romance. Moreover it also proved how resistant the public has become to heavily stage-managed publicity of the sort that made PMK's Pat Kingsley such an “inside show biz” semi-legend.
Kingsley, whose clients include Tom Cruise and Jodie Foster wielded so much power at one time that she came to dictate to magazine editors what stars would adorn their publications, what writers would “interview” said stars, and what questions they would ask. The result led to such spectacles Oscar-winning actress Jodie Foster, unmarried and (unless you read about her girlfriends in the tabloid press) unattached, despite two fatherless offspring—posing for Vanity Fair specially-constructed set of untold expense, coifed and make-upped to the max, declaring “I'm really a very private person.”
The “privacy card” isn't played much anymore. Not because “celebrities” can't have it. It's just that the ones that don't see no reason to hold back in any way. Not that this result is any less grotesque, especially as regards the marital soap opera of Liza Minnelli and David Gest—a multi-car collision on the I-Five when set alongside “Bennifer's” relatively modest Route One “roadkill.”
Gest, an entertainment promoter whose appetite for self-promotion is almost as marked as his Groucho-Marx-styled eyebrows, married Minnelli, the emotionally-troubled, controlled-substance-challenged singer-actress-Studio 54-party-girl with grotesquely lavish fanfare in 2002. “Celebrities” ranging from Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, Barbara Walters, Elton John , Donny Osmond, Graham Norton, Gina Lollabrigida, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor, to that peerless pop music freak Michael Jackson were in attendance to see a man chiefly known as said freak's most recent publicity ally marry a woman who only a few months before was near death from encephalitis. No one was expecting that the ever-medicated Minnelli to the (not to put too fine a point on it) sexually ambiguous Gest would last. Village Voice gossip scribe Michael Musto said of the ceremony “When Dominique Dunne showed up, I knew it was a crime scene.” A year later a “separation” announcement was greeted with world-wide yawns. But what wasn't seen coming down the Hollywood highway was that Gest—a 50 year-old collector of Shirley Temple and Judy Garland memorabilia who, prior to meeting the 57 year-old Minnelli dated the 88 year-old Ruth Warrick—would charge his wife with “spousal abuse.” Citing occasions when Minnelli allegedly “beat about his head and face with her fists without relenting,” Gest, via “celebrity” divorce lawyer Raoul Felder, demanded $10 million in compensation. Wasting no time Minnelli filed for divorce the following day. And Gest in turn went on to speak of the 11 “pain pills” (similar to the one's Rush Limbaugh is addicted to perchance?) he needed to cope with Raging Liza.
Needless to say, one doesn't encounter something quite this baroque every day of the week. But then this outre marital meltdown scarcely came out of the blue for Minnelli whose first husband, the late singer-songwriter Peter Allen, had an affair with her mother Judy Garland's next-to-last husband, Mark Herron. And as “celebrity” media spectacles go few can top those confected by Gest's “best man” Michael Jackson, whose brief marriage to rock and roll princess Lisa Marie Presley came in the wake of a lengthy and costly investigation of the singer-songwriter for molesting an underage boy. Who can forget the self-proclaimed “King of Pop” kissing his intended before an audience of millions of national Television? (It was even less-convincing than the faux-lesbian smooch shared by Britney Spears and Madonna on the 2003 MTV Awards.) And that Jackson marriage-of-publicity-convience was followed by his even more bizarre union with one Debbie Rowe, a receptionist working for the many-times-altered Jackson's plastic surgeon Dr. Stephen Hoefflin. While not living together the couple managed to produce two remarkably Caucasian-looking children prior to their divorce. And after that Jackson produced yet another child—“birth mother” undisclosed.
Placed alongside such a Fellini-on-Acid nightmares, speculation about the relative sincerity of Tom Cruise's marriage to Nicole Kidman—easily the most gossip-worthy coupling of the 1990's—seems small beer. Scuttlebutt would have it that the Cruise-Kidman marriage (1990-98) was a “business arrangement” with a specified running time built into the pre-nuptial agreement they allegedly signed. Disparaging remarks by Cruise's first wife Mimi Rogers that he was like “a monk” during their four-year alliance (1987-1990), and the fact that all of Cruise's children are adopted, only aided clicking tongues. While no scandal emerged of the sort that bedeviled John Travolta when a former gay porn star named Paul Baressi confessed to a same-sex dalliance, the Hollywood “grapevine” produced a plethora of gay Cruise-rumors. Making such smoke look even more like fire was the actor's extreme litigiousness regarding the subject; suing a gay porn star (no, not the one involved with Travolta) for supposedly claiming in an obscure French tabloid that they had had an affair. Cruise even went so far as to threaten yours truly for merely talking about the fact that rumors existed in my book Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000.
“We have been informed,” one breathless missive sent to my publishers began, “that the book repeats rumors that our client is homosexual and that the Church of Scientology somehow controls all aspects of his life. Each of the above statements is demonstrably false and defamatory. Mr. Cruise is not homosexual, has never had a homosexual experience, and is completely heterosexual. Moreover, the Church of Scientology does not control or direct his life. As you well know, publishing a false and defamatory allegation under the guise that the statement was previously made is itself actionable. These false and defamatory allegations you apparently intend to publish concerning Mr. Cruise can be enormously damaging to him and I want to assure you that if you publish them, now that you have knowledge that they are false, your company and everyone involved in the publication will be sued for actual and punitive damages. Mr. Cruise does not disapprove of people who lead a homosexual lifestyle. He believes that such a choice should be up to each individual and that each person should be respected for his or her choice. However, Mr. Cruise's livelihood depends upon his acceptance and approval by hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, the majority of whom do not share his views on this political and religious issue.”
As Open Secret made no such statements, Cruise's objections were uncalled for, a painfully obvious fact my publishers quickly pointed out. But that didn't stop his legal counsel from sending several more threatening letters prior to the book's publication—which needless to say rendered them moot. If Cruise hoped to squelch gay rumors by such ostentatious legal stunts he hasn't managed to do so. Indeed his litigiousness has only wedded his name and “gay” together more solidly in the public mind than ever before. For in the last analysis Tom Cruise, gay or straight, is on public display at all times. Such a display can't really be controlled by anyone—no matter what level of “superstardom” they achieve. For speculating on the “private lives” of the rich and famous is one of the culture's primary tools for taking stock of the institution of marriage itself. Indeed with it's 50% divorce rate, and the increasing interest of the same-sex oriented in taking part of it—to the horror of political “Conservatives”—what “celebrities” do is of more interest than ever. Cruise and Kidman produced an image of coupledom more publicity-viable than the one he had with actress Mimi Rogers or would assume post-Kidman with actress Penelope Cruz. Whatever personal dissatisfactions they may have experienced, the marriage bolstered their public profiles in the desired manner—and on that level was thus no more “fake” than the marriage of Marguerite de Valois to Henri Navarre in 1572. It was all “for show”—like countless other marriages in and out of show business.
What is marriage after all? Basically it's a legal contract between two individuals to form an alliance constituting a single entity, pertaining to the distribution of property, that is recognized by the state. That's it! It all started when two farmers wanted to pool their resources and threw in the daughter of one of them as a bonus to establish the right of inheritance. Hence the “dowry” was invented—to sweeten the deal in case the farmer's daughter was less choice than the land and livestock involved. It was at this point that the Church entered the picture, providing the occasion with ceremonial finesse. And it's this same finesse that made “marriages of state” so important historically—the couple brought together solely to symbolize the union of their respective countries in peace and mutual financial advantage.
This is all, needless to say, a long, long way from what we've currently come to believe constitutes “traditional marriage”: a man and a woman allied “for love,” with sexual “fidelity” and the raising of children the alleged intention. But in terms of past “traditional marriages,” men of means (nobody really cared what the poor did) weren't expected to remain “faithful” to their wives. Indeed for some them, mistresses were noted figures of societal fashion—invitations to whose “salons” were highly prized. As for children it should never be forgotten that Charles Dickens in David Copperfield and Hard Times was making the argument that their welfare and individual integrity be taken seriously—a new and very radical idea.
The only thing that marriages of yore have in common with those of today is noli me tangare or “privacy” that is so disingenuously advanced. No matter what brought them together the marriage of Liza Minnelli and David Gest, while as foredoomed as that of Ernest Borgnine and Ethel Merman, was at some level supposed to be regarded as no more open to question than that of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, or Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg. “What God has joined together let no man put asunder,” is a giant “No Trespassing” sign—even for those couples like Gest and Minnelli eager for trespassers the better to enhance their supposed glamour and insure alleged heterosexual intent. For mere mortals it's another story.
“Marriage is the 'casting couch' for society,” gay activist Harry Hay dryly remarked when I interviewed him for my book. Hay knew whereof he spoke for both he and his lover, Will Geer, surrendered to the couch back in the thirties. According to Hay's biographer Timmons, Hay and Geer had “made a full commitment to the Communist party and the party held a firm position against homosexuality.” And so they somewhat reluctantly parted and found themselves wives. Geer's marriage lasted, but Hay's did not; his wife Anita complaining “You didn't marry me—you married the Communist Party.” Founding the radical gay group “The Mattachine Society” in the early 50's, Hay's marriage to Communism was over. But Geer's marriage to the party came back to haunt him during what we now refer to as “the McCarthy era,” and from 1956-1962 the actor was hard-pressed to find work. But he came back to eventually rise to iconic heights via the role for which he will always be remembered, “Grandpa Walton.”
Actress Ellen Corby, who played “Grandma” on The Waltons was married for ten years in the 1930's, but was involved with members of her own sex for the rest of her life. That the pivotal figures of this misty-eyed memento of a rural-past-that-never-was were both gay is doubtless “shocking” to the Reaganite America the program was designed to cater to. But on the other hand it makes perfect sense as The Waltons was inspired by the childhood memoirs of ultra-gay Truman Capote.
What Geer, Corby and—for a time—Hay did in marrying was in no way exceptional in that era. No one need the spurring of either the Communist party or Hollywood moguls to take the Faux heterosexual plunge. In fact even in avant-garde circles the “New York Marriage,” as it was called, was all the rage. Cole and Linda Porter had a perfect one. He was the most sophisticated songwriter America has ever known and she was lesbian socialite whose last “New York Marriage” ended messily (the ex being physically abuse). Together Cole and Linda became a “Cafe Society” Power Couple. Not surprisingly they were turned into a perfectly conventional married pair in the Hollywood biopic Night and Day starring Cary Grant and Alexis Smith as the Porters—which was referred to by one wag as “one of the great science-fiction films of our time.” Recently producer-director has sought to correct the record with She's De-Lovely, a new biopic starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, which reconfigures the Porters as far more knowing Triumph of the Will and Grace alliance of a witty gay man and an ultra-chic fag-hag—a phenomenon not uncommon in the past, or the present. But “Old Hollywood” wouldn't have stood for it—on-screen or off.
In his book about gays and lesbians in the studio era Behind the Screen writer William J. Mann notes that the arrival of the “Production Code” in the 1930's affected off-screen life as much as on. Gay actor William Haines was famously called on the carpet by Louis B. Mayer and told to heterosexually shape up—or ship out. Haines shipped out via a new career as an interior decorator that brought him success than he ever could have dreamed of as a movie star. Ramon Novarro was less lucky. Declining to marry the silent star slipped into secondary roles in the “talkies” and then complete obscurity before his untimely death at the hands of a hustler.
The most famous Hollywood “New York Marriage” was undoubtedly that of actress Janet Gaynor and costume designer Adrian. The pair were much like the Porters, save for the fact that they managed, to the astonishment of all their friends to produce a child. The marriage lasted right up until Adrian's death. Gaynor, whose tremulous femininity won her the very first acting Oscar for Seventh Heaven was romantically linked to actresses Margaret Lindsay and Mary Martin. Yet she played the “New York Marriage” game and married producer Paul Gregory in 1964—until her death in 1984.
This pattern was set early on in Hollywood, well before the arrival of the production “code.” Lesbian entrepreneur Natasha Rambova (born Winnifred Hudnut) married and until his untimely passing managed the career of her actor husband Rudolph Valentino—whose sexual ambiguity fascinates even to this day. The wildly bisexual Marlene Dietrich was given full reign to indulge in whatever passion caught her fancy by hubby Rudolph Sieber. But the Triumph of the Will & Grace marriage of Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester was far more troubled by her bouts of possessive jealousy—sometimes forcing him to run for shelter to the home of his openly gay friends Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy. Laughton, was scarcely a Hollywood heart-throb but had he dumped Elsa and found himself a Don of his own it's doubtful the town would have “turned” on him. The public wouldn't have been informed.
But far and away the most curious “cover marriage” story is that of Raymond Burr—the tall, portly “heavy” made his fame on television as lawyer/detective “Perry Mason”. It's not clear exactly when he married a woman named Isabella Ward, but they were divorced circa 1947. After that Burr claimed additional marriages to Laura Andrine Morgan and Annette Sutherland. There was even supposed to be a son. But as the ever-reliable Internet Movie Database notes “Although we list three spouses for Raymond Burr, the actor's friends and relatives are adamant that he was married only once—to Isabella Ward—and that he was childless throughout life. Burr apparently made up and promulgated the stories of his fictitious marriages (to real-life women with which he had acted off-Broadway) and even claimed that he had fathered a son by his first wife. But it was all false; he did all this to hide his homosexuality.” Others, chose to “hide in plain sight”—like Cary Grant and Randolph Scott.
Grant and Scott, whose “bachelor” days have become a topic of much interest and amusement half a century later when same-sex relations are more widely discussed had a series of now infamous publicity photographs taken at one of the homes they shared between 1932 and 1942 which have inspired much amusement. “Paramount didn't seem to care that the relationship could be interpreted as homosexual,” sniffs biographer Warren G. Harris in his Cary Grant: A Taste of Elegance. But less-fastidious New Yorker scribe Brendan Gill had “the goods” on the couple, as he was a friend of Jerome Zerbe, the photographer and society “walker” (gay gentlemen who would accompany fashionable women to events of no interest to their husbands) who was a boytoy Grant and Scott shared. “Grant was reported in the press to be enjoying an impassioned affair with the starlet Betty Furness,” Gill notes. “Night after night, he took the good-natured Furness out to dine and returned to her apartment promptly at ten o'clock, after which Zerbe and he and assorted companions went out on the town.” Indeed so “good” was Ms. Furness' “nature” that in show biz circles the announcement that one was “dating” her was tantamount to “coming out.”
For the record it should be noted that Randolph Scott married Marion duPont Somerville in 1936 and they were divorced three years later. In 1944 he married Marie Patricia Stillman; an alliance that produced offspring and lasted until his death in 1987. His boyfriend was quite a different story. Prior to Scott, Grant lived with Orry-Kelly, the brilliant, hard-drinking costume designer. In 1933 Grant married Virginia Cherrill, the pretty socialite who won cinematic immortality as the blind flower girl in Chaplin's City Lights, released the year before. Two years later they were divorced. In 1942 Grant married Barbara Hutton who like Cherrill was many years older, and fabulously wealthy. That marriage ended three years later in 1945. In 1949 Grant tried tying the knot once more, this time with Betsy Drake, a far more age-appropriate actress with whom he remained for a record 13 years. During that time Grant, seeking psychiatric help for his “emotional problems” met a doctor who proscribed a new drug called LSD. Well you can easily see where this led—divorce from Drake in 1962, and marriage to actress Dyan Cannon in 1965. And while that alliance lasted only four years it produced a child. Clearly Cary Grant had “converted” to bisexuality. And in 1981 he married Barbara Harris (a young woman not to be confused with the actress of the same name, and was reportedly quite happy in that state until his death five years later in 1986. His show business career had ended in 1966 with Walk Don't Run (which as coincidence would have it was the last film of the great gay director Charles Walters) and there as no need to “hide.” But for Cary Grant there never was such a need.
“No one expected Franklin Pangborn to be married in real life, or seriously dating some starlet, as they came to expect of Ramon Novarro,” William Mann notes. And no one expected Greta Garbo to marry either, or that most bizarre of late-blooming movie stars Clifton Webb. And Cesar Romero was such a charmingly lightweight “extra man,” no one inquired as to the reason why there wasn't a Mrs. Romero. Montgomery Clift was far too high-strung to figure as anyone's “boy next door.” Likewise Anthony Perkins who married photographer and socialite Berry Berenson well after his career had peaked, producing several offspring and living a seemingly idyllic life until expiring from AIDS in 1992. His ex-lover Tab Hunter has never married—and has recently announced that he's writing a “tell all” autobiography, following the lead of that other Ellen-come-lately Richard Chamberlain.
But far and away the most fascinating of all of Hollywood's “New York Marriages” was of a couple who weren't married to one another at all—Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. In 1942 Hepburn, the defiantly “unfeminine” unashamedly upper-class star of comedy and drama (once deemed “Box Office Poison” when she hit a bad patch in the 1930's) filmed Woman of the Year , a huge comedy hit in which she co-starred for the first of nine times with Spencer Tracy. On-screen chemistry was such that more than one film fan imagined them married in “real life.” But Hepburn who was married to a gentleman named Ludlow Ogden Smith from 1928-1934 was single—though she lived “quietly” (as the Hollywood Closet would have it) with several women over the years. Tracy, who married Louise Treadwell in 1923 stayed married to her until his death in 1967. And it was at that point the myth-making apparatus of the Tracy-Hepburn “love story” switched into high gear. They were indeed “a couple,” Hepburn apparently willing to put up with Tracy's alcoholic abusiveness as his wife never did. But those closest to the couple doubt that there was anything sexual about their co-dependency. Tracy needed “looking after,” and one of the best places to do so was the bungalow of George Cukor's home that the great gay director had set aside for him and Hepburn. It was ideal also as long-time Cukor friend critic Kevin Thomas notes “Tracy loved to hear gossip.” And where better than at George's.
As for “Kate” while her dalliances with director George Stevens and entrepreneur Howard Hughes have been noted, her sapphic sorties haven't been given much attention at all, even by bio-hagiographer A Scott Berg, whoseKate Remembered ranks as one of the of the least-revealing books of its kind ever written.
Still Berg manages to “drop a hairpin” via a quote from producer Irene Mayer Selznick, who knew La Hepburn all-too-well. Recalling how she once found a mysterious young women a Hepburn's town house and saw “an exchange between the two of them that suggested a level of intimacy she had never allowed herself to believe. 'Now everything makes sense,' Irene said to me. 'Dorothy Arzner, Nancy Hamilton—all those women. Laura Harding. Now it all makes sense. A double-gaiter. I never believed that relationship with Spence was about sex.”
Indeed. For what it was really about was an actress who knew Hollywood's “New York Marriage” game so well, she could play it without even “going to New York.” Could a modern Hepburn get away with such nonsense now? That's open to question. But it's a different world now, with closets crumbling left and right—and with them myths and fears about the people they were meant to hide. When in 2001 fading Super-Agent Mike Ovitz blamed his declining fortunes on Hollywood's “Gay Mafia,” his remarks were met with universal snorts of derision. Gasps as well as snorts were the order of the day when actor Kevin Spacey, collecting his second Oscar for his performance in American Beauty declared his love for production assistant (and sometime date) Diane Dreyer—an event arriving at the climax of a year's worth of press attention over an infamous Esquire magazine interview that appeared to “out” the often less-than-discreet performer. Vocal protestations from Spacey that had come in the article's wake were eventually silenced by an unrequested post-Oscar photo-shoot by the Star tabloid showing Spacey compromisingly cavorting with a well-muscled young gentleman on an expanse of rocks.
No Spacey-Dreyer marriage followed.
Meanwhile on a far less snort-worthy front, Ellen (like Garbo only one name is needed) whose very public 1997 “coming out” had countless industry Cassandras predicting a quick end to her career, saw her detractors shopping for new crystal balls. By contrast, Ellen's ex-amour Anne Heche, now re-heterosexualized with a husband and child, finds her career drifting perilously towards “Nowheresville.” Indeed if she continues to vanish from view, Heche may be the first example of an actor ruining their career by “coming out” as straight.
“I think,” says Howard Bragman, “that we're going to have to accept the fact that it's a multi-cultural, multi-sexual world now, and the less we believe all this bullshit the happier we'll probably be.”
Indeed. For there'll at last be no call for marriage.
At least not to someone of the opposite sex.
Copyright © David Ehrenstein
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