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Among the most memorable roles of the great actor and director Charles Laughton was his titular turn in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Quasimodo was a regular client of Bowers' for years, with a fetish that will turn the stomach of even the most jaded reader of Hollywood bios and inveterate watcher of Danny Thomas Show reruns.
"Was this true? Had Charles asked [his trick] to defecate into the pot? Is that what he had smeared on his sandwich? Well, apparently it was. Charles sat down, carefully placed one slice of bread on top of the other, neatly cut the stack in two, and then, without saying a word or even giving us a cursory glance, bit into it. After he had downed the entire sandwich, he got up and went to the sink to rinse off the plate."
You can say at least this much about Laughton, who took home an Oscar for his performance in The Private Life of Henry VIII: He was no Tyrone Power.
Bowers avers that the Mark of Zorro heart-throb was a "doo-doo queen" (Bowers' term) who liked to have female partners shit on him during sex. Where most people would find perversion, Bowers only finds different strokes for different folks:
"The practice certainly didn’t turn me on but it was patently clear that it was regarded as a normal and acceptable part of sexual activity by its devotees, with Charles Laughton being one of them, and Ty Power another. So who was I to judge? To each his own."
Books such as Full Service immediately raise questions of credibility: Is this stuff really true? Bowers juices that question even more by reminding the reader that his memory is indeed fading. He's in his late 80s, after all, and lived through the Depression, the Pacific theater in World War II, and a number of Carol Channing tantrums. But Bowers swears by all he writes, much of which falls into the "too good to check" category.
To benchmark his truthiness, it makes sense to look at his treatment of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI head long suspected of being gay. Bowers recalls a weekend in the 1960s spent at the La Jolla home of wealthy friend named Fred. Hoover, says Bowers, showed up with a young, hunky driver, and the two shared the same bedroom (which had only one bed) the whole time. And there's this:
"Adding spice to the weekend, Fred kept a very extensive wardrobe of women’s clothing locked up in one of the spare bedrooms. On Saturday and Sunday evening he and Hoover got dressed up in drag. A lot of fun was had by all, I can tell you."
But then there's this in Enemies, the excellent - and highly critical - new history of the FBI and Hoover by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tim Weiner:
"The one thing everyone seems to know about Hoover is that he had sexual relations with his constant companion Clyde Tolson. The idea was imprinted in the public mind long ago, in a book by a British journalist that included indelible descriptions of Hoover in drag. It would be fascinating if true. But it is almost surely false. The allegation rests on third-hand hearsay from highly unreliable sources. Not a shred of evidence supports the notion that Hoover ever had sex with Tolson or with any other human being."
So if Bowers is bullshitting about Hoover's fondness for black cocktail dresses, does it mean he's faking about Tyrone Power, Kate Hepburn, and all the rest? And if he's wrong about them, is his easygoing take on sexuality in turn equally mistaken? Are the kinks he describes in Full Service simply vivid examples of human variety or evidence of psychological problems? Bowers does a public service by documenting the extent that legal and social conventions enforced rigid and stultifying sexual codes and there's no doubt that such repression helps breed the extreme behavior it seeks to prevent.
But Howard Hughes' aversions seem to be a textbook case of self-defeating Freudian neurosis and the end of his life underscores long-serious mental problems; Bowers' description of prodigious drinking and blackout behavior by Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, and Ramon Novarro speaks to something other than mental health too. As a good libertarian, I don't believe the state should regulate or police what goes on between or among consenting adults. Yet Full Service certainly forces readers to ask themselves: Is consensual sex, no matter how odd and off-beat, nobody's business but the folks involved?
Regardless of Bowers' accuracy, that's a question that each of us will answer for ourselves, all without ever knowing for sure whether Charles Laughton preferred whole wheat or plain white bread on his sandwiches. Or, mercifully, what the great actor ate for dessert.
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author, with Matt Welch, of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America.