In the grand, effluvia-soaked tradition of Hollywood Babylon, a new memoir from sexual networker Scotty Bowers lets it all hang out when it comes to exposing screen giants' erotic excesses. Like MGM in its heyday, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove) 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, catalog of the ultra-decadent lifestyles of the rich and famous to something more interesting is Bowers' bracingly nonjudgmental view of human sexuality. As long as sex is consensual, he says, let it rip. As he told The New York Times in December, "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. Bowers reports that 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."
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 prostitution 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.
Bowers lived with a woman and his daughter at the time and, while he freely admits to a full slate of homosexual experiences, doesn't consider himself gay, saying he "prefers" the company of women. Here's his take on a love that back in the '40s dared 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."
Which isn't to say that his book won't cause even the most libertine readers to check their premises at various points. There is some weird, wild stuff in Full Service. At the very least, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? just got a whole lot more interesting.
Spencer Tracy, says Bowers, was "a generous, good-hearted man" 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 she treated him "like dirt.") Tracy's P.R.-driven relationship with Hepburn, writes Bowers, was "a non-existent fairytale romance" whose fraudulence helped drive the actor's actor toward becoming an alcoholic's alcoholic. Bowers 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. "This was the last guy on earth that I expected an overture like that from," writes Bowers of Tracy's drunken interest in his naughty bits, "but I was more than happy to oblige him and despite his inebriated state we had an hour or so of pretty good sex."
Speaking of Hepburn, Bowers contends she was purely lesbian in her tendencies and that he set up the Bryn Mawr grad with more than 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 Hepburn and the germaphobic industrialist and movie mogul Howard Hughes are pure hooey. Bowers says he did a fair amount of setup work for Hughes, but the guy got off with the same success rate as the Spruce Goose. Hughes was "fanatically fussy about his own health as well as the cleanliness and pristine beauty of the young lady," Bowers writes. "If, heaven forbid, she had even the tiniest blemish or a pimple he simply would not touch her."
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 fading. He's in his late 80s, after all, having lived through the Depression, World War II, and a number of Carol Channing tantrums. Bowers swears by all he writes, but much of it falls into the "too good to check" category. Any mention of a personal encounter with a cross-dressing J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI director long suspected of being gay, deserves to be greeted with a massive dose of skepticism.
But if Bowers is full of it about Hoover's fondness for black cocktail dresses, does that 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 equally mistaken? Are the kinks he describes in Full Service simply vivid examples of human variety or evidence of psychological problems?
Howard Hughes' aversions seem to be a textbook case of self-defeating Freudian neurosis. Bowers' description of prodigious drinking and blackout behavior by Spencer Tracy, Errol Flynn, and Ramon Novarro likewise speaks to something other than mental health.
Bowers is right: The state shouldn't police what goes on between or among consenting adults. But Full Service forces readers to ask themselves: Is consensual sex, no matter how offbeat, the business of no one but the folks involved?
Nick Gillespie is editor in chief of reason online.