5 Freaky Fetishes of Golden-Age Hollywood—And The Enduring Question They Still Raise
In the grand, effluvia-soaked tradition of Hollywood Babylon, Scotty Bowers' recent memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, lets it all hang out when it comes to exposing screen giants' erotic excesses.
Like MGM in its heyday, the book has more stars than there are in heaven. From silent-screen royalty such as Gloria Swanson and Ramon Novarro to classy Brits such as Cary Grant and Elsa Lanchester to American legends such as Mae West and Rock Hudson, Bowers dishes long and hard on just who preferred what kind of sex, how often, and with what sort of partner(s).
What elevates Full Service from a simple—if riveting—catalogue of the ultra-decadent lifestyles of the rich and famous to something far more interesting is Bowers' bracingly non-judgmental view of human sexuality. As long as sex is consensual, he says, let it rip. As he told The New York Times, "So they like sex how they liked it. Who cares?"
A World War II vet who fought with distinction in the Pacific (his memories of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima are terrifying), Bowers was born on a Midwestern farm and ended up pumping gas in Hollywood in 1946. Working at a service station on Van Ness Boulevard, he was picked up one day by Canadian actor Walter Pidgeon, an Oscar nominee known for star turns in films such as How Green Was My Valley and Mrs. Miniver. They drove back to Pidgeon's house and the two of them, joined by a male friend of the actor, engaged in "some really hot sex" for an hour or so.
Thus began Bowers' decades-long role as Hollywood's leading boy toy and procurer of sexual favors for the stars. Although he accepted "tips" for his amorous romps, he never engaged in prositution per se. And as he became the go-to guy to set up all manner of trysts for publicity-shy celebrities (many of whom were closeted gays and lesbians), he never became a pimp either. Rather, he was a fixer who delighted in bringing together stars and people who wanted to sleep with them. The tricks may or may not have been tipped, but Bowers says he never took a cut.
His reaction to his romp with Pidgeon set the tone not just for the next 40 years of his life but for the book he's produced. Bowers lived with a woman and his daughter at the time and, while he freely admits to early and often homosexual experiences, doesn't consider himself gay (he "prefers" the company of women). Here's his take on a love that back in the '40s dare not speak its name:
The only thing that made them a little different than straight men is the fact that they enjoyed having sex with other men as well as with women. And, quite frankly, I saw absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Elsewhere, Bowers writes of a leading set designer who "told me that he had found it very difficult being in the Marines and had cultivated a very masculine image to avoid harassment." Again and again, Bowers' comes back to a basic message of tolerance for anything that's peaceful.
I was simply providing a service to those who wanted it and, as recorded history has shown, throughout the ages there has always been a need for good, old-fashioned, high-quality sex. As I've said before, I don't think there is anything wrong with that. I never thought so and I still don't.
Which isn't to say that his book won't cause even the most libertine of readers to check their premises at various points. There's some weird, wild stuff in Full Service. At the very least, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? just got a whole lot more interesting.
Here are five of the freakier fetishes Bowers recounts from his adventures in Tinseltown.
Next: And You Thought Cole Porter's Love for Mussolini Was Hard to Swallow…
Indiana native and Mussolini enthusiast Cole Porter is still remembered as one of the main composers of the Great American Songbook. Yet Bowers recalls that the openly gay and ultra-promiscuous Anything Goes creator had a huge appetite—and narrow tastes—when it came to the boudoir:
"I soon learned that Cole's passion was oral sex. He could easily suck off twenty guys, one after the other. And he always swallowed. There are many people, both male and female, who really enjoy the taste of semen. Porter was one of them. On one later occasion I took about nine of my best-looking young guys over to his place and he sucked off every single one of them in no time. Boom, boom, boom and it was all over."
Next: Spencer Tracy: Know Your Lines, Hit Your Mark, And Learn to Cuddle…
Spencer Tracy was a "a generous, good-hearted man," says Bowers, who liked to cuddle after drinking himself into a stupor.
Just not with his most famous leading lady, Katharine Hepburn, whom Tracy despised (he told Bowers that she treated him "like dirt. She was contemptuous of him"). Tracy's P.R.-driven relationship with the lesbian Hepburn was a "pseudoromance," "a non-existent fairytale romance" whose fraudulence helped drive the actor's actor toward becoming an alcoholic's alcoholic, writes Bowers. He recalls many tender moments such as this one:
"I turned off the lights, undressed him, then got undressed myself, climbed into bed with him, and held him tightly like a baby. He continued to slobber and curse and complain. By then he had had so much to drink that I hardly understood a word he was saying."
But Tracy, ever the trouper, wasn't done performing just yet. Indeed, he proved that his famous ethos of knowing his lines and hitting his marks extended to his off-stage life too:
…[Tracy] lay his head down at my groin, took hold of my penis and began nibbling on my foreskin. This was the last guy on earth that I expected an overture like that from, but I was more than happy to oblige him and despite his inebriated state we had an hour or so of pretty good sex.
Next: Kiss Me, Kate Hepburn—As Long As You're Going Easy on the Makeup and Don't Have Any Pimples…
Speaking of Hepburn, Bowers contends she was purely lesbian in her tendencies and that he set up the Bryn Mawr grad with over 150 women. None was more bewitching than a young beauty named Barbara, with whom Hepburn maintained a 49-year relationship.
Which means rumors of a physical relationship between the germaphobic industrialist and movie mogul Howard Hughes and Hepburn are pure hooey. Bowers did a fair amount of setup work for Hughes but the guy got off with the same success rate as The Spruce Goose.
"Howard was as straight as an arrow and really liked women but, ironically, he hardly ever had sex with them. He was so fanatically fussy about his own health as well as the cleanliness and pristine beauty of the young lady that if she ever wore even the slightest hint of makeup that he did not like he would make her take a shower immediately and wash everything off. And if, heaven forbid, she had even the tiniest blemish or a pimple he simply would not touch her."
Next: Close Your Eyes And Think of England's Abdicated King…
The former Edward VIII, who abdicated his right to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1936 so he could marry twice-divorced American Wallis Simpson, is remembered nowadays mostly as a crypto-Nazi punchline on Seinfeld.
Bowers remembers the Duke of Windsor, who spent a lot of time in Los Angeles, far more vividly and fondly: "Eddy was good. Really good. He sucked me off like a pro."
Bowers avers that one of the major reasons Edward turned down the throne was that his rampant bisexuality could only lead to scandal at some point. The perfect way out of such a conundrum was to marry Mrs. Simpson, who herself "shared similar bisexual urges." The result was a match made in heaven.
"He liked boys. She liked girls. Occasionally they even had sex with each other but, essentially, he was gay and she was a dyke. What better way to save face and ensure that they would have the freedom to live their lives in peace and out of the public spotlight than to marry one another?"
For Bowers, who doesn't plumb the question of their Nazi sympathies (indeed, Simpson is rumored to have been a lover of Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister), their scandalous romance should be nobody's business but their own:
"Who cared a rat's ass whether they preferred men or women outside their marriage? If that's what made them happy, what else mattered?"
Next: Charles Laughton: How Quasimodo Liked to Ring His Bell…
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.