Sunday 19 February 2012

Secret lives of the movie legends


In an era before Twitter, paparazzi, gossip websites and the voracious appetite for the scandal and sex lives of the rich and shameless, Hollywood was swinging with the kind of wild sexual liberation that can still seem shocking today. Post-war Hollywood was churning out the family-friendly, conservative-values movies that chimed with the politics and repressed sexuality of the '40s and '50s. But the unacknowledged irony was that these motion pictures were being made by actors, writers, directors and studio chiefs who were engaged in lifestyles that could not have been more different from those they created on screen. Two decades before the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Los Angeles was already a sexual playground for movie stars and the international jet set, who were protected by a powerful studio system that could keep their more outrageous behaviour out of the public eye. Stars such as Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant -- and non-industry figures like the former King Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson -- had a sexually licentious lifestyle within the closed Hollywood community. And where you have rich, sexually voracious movie stars and powerful men, you will also need pimps, procurers and a steady stream of young men and women. Scotty Bowers, a handsome, bi-sexual, former Marine paratrooper, became a part of this underworld when he relocated to Hollywood following service in the Second World War. The ex-Marine became the go-to guy for those who wanted sexual adventure, building up a network of "friends" who traded in sex with the greatest stars of the era. Now, Bowers has revealed all, in Full Service -- My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, an autobiography that claims to tell the true story behind the rumours and scandal that have filtered down from the closeted era of sex and the stars. Written with the collaboration of Emmy-winning writer Lionel Friedberg, Full Service is published as Bowers prepares to celebrate his 89th birthday. In Scotty's own words, he became a Hollywood insider, or at least a fixer of sexual liaisons, almost by accident when he moved to Los Angeles immediately after the war and began working in a gas station. A chance encounter with the actor Walter Pidgeon, who stopped by to have his tank filled, led to an afternoon of sex with the then-happily married Pidgeon and a male friend. Handsome, friendly and totally relaxed when it came to sex (Bowers attributes this to his wartime experiences and his Illinois farm-boy background), the ex-Marine quickly gained a reputation for knowing a lot of young men and women who were prepared to "trick" for as little as $20. However, throughout his memoir, Bowers is at pains to point out that he was neither a pimp nor a prostitute. "When it came to my own sexual liaisons, I was always more than happy to pocket the tip that anyone offered me for a night of sex," he says. "But I never charged for my matchmaking services when hooking-up other people. I would set up the trick and then the two of them went off together and money changed hands between them. "It was only fair. My operation -- if you want to call it that -- was not a prostitution ring. I was only providing a service to those who wanted it and, as recorded history has shown, throughout the ages there has always been a need for high-quality sex". To hear Bowers tell it, the '40s and '50s in Los Angeles were golden decades of sexual experimentation, where stars and their willing acolytes enjoyed never-ending pool parties under the Californian sun. Sex was an obsession and a currency for stars young and old. Mae West, even as she was in her late-60s, kept a string of young bodybuilders on call 24 hours a day. Bowers got to know Rock Hudson, whose homosexuality was an open secret in Hollywood, in the mid-'50s and also knew his wife, Phyllis Gates, a lesbian who had been persuaded to marry Rock to quell the gossip magazine whispers about his sexuality. "This phony marriage must have been hell on them both. Rock had a voracious, almost uncontrollable sexual appetite. In later years he cruised the streets every night, picking up vagabonds, strangers and young men all over town," says Bowers. The Los Angeles police vice squad was a constant threat, with LA Confidential-style shakedowns, blackmail rings and the vicious persecution of gay men in particular (or at least those who couldn't afford high-powered lawyers and the protection of the studio bosses). Pay-offs to the right cops, the activities of studio fixers and the complicity of the media ensured that very little scandal leaked out. Bowers' memoirs read like a roll-call of just about every major star in the studio system of the time and he cheerfully dishes the dirt. He claims Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were never really involved in a great love affair, painting Hepburn as a sexually voracious lesbian who needed Tracy as a cover for her lifestyle. The list of stars who get the Bowers treatment includes Edith Piaf, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford, Bob Hope and William Holden (to name but a very, very few). Non-industry figures like Edward and Wallis Simpson, FBI boss J Edgar Hoover and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, flit in and out of the picture, indulging in a wild array of pan-sexual activities. Bowers had been friendly with the movie star Tyrone Powers since their days together in the Marine Corps and once they met up again in Los Angeles, they "enjoyed quite a few sexual shenanigans together". "Women swooned over him and he bedded quite a few of them, but he much preferred men," says Bowers. "Some of his sexual tastes were rather odd and offbeat, but none of the guys seemed to mind." The sexual exploits of the golden- era stars still fascinate, and readers may never look at classic movies like The Wizard of Oz or Bringing Up Baby in the same way again. It can't all have been glamorous pool parties in the Hollywood Hills and smiling, handsome film stars driving around in Cadillacs and Bentleys. But to hear Bowers tell it, after surviving the Depression and then World War Two, the young Americans who flocked to California in the '40s and '50s had little concern for the kind of sexual puritanism apparently making a comeback in the US.