For many, June represents the month of pride; a time to celebrate, educate and communicate all that is queer, gay and fabulous. Although today being gay isn’t much of a deal, back in the 50’s it was a dangerous label to have. Throughout history, thousands have lost their lives because they were labeled as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ and many lived out their true sexual preferences in secrecy. As it’s almost the end of Pride month, I wanted to have a look at some celebrities from the golden age of Hollywood who were gay, or at least thats what the rumours said. It’s difficult to know if all these celebrities, and of course many more, were truly gay, but I wanted to share a few stories just so see how far we’ve come. Happy pride everyone.
*Disclaimer: Please note that some of the following stories may depict graphic descriptions and behaviours which some readers may find disturbing. Discretion is advised.
Iconic Hollywood actress and Academy Award-winning performer in films such as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond, Katherine Hepburn reportedly had an insatiable appetite for women, according to former “pimp” and Full Service author Scotty Bowers (via BuzzFeed). Bowers claimed a typical request from Hepburn would sound something like this: “When you get a chance, do you think you can find a nice young dark-haired girl for me? Someone that’s not too heavily made-up”. Over the course of five decades, Bowers and Hepburn became good friends and owers claimed to have procured over “150 different women” and suggested that Hepburn was rather fickle and would only see each girl “once or twice, and then tire of them”.
Despite this, Hepburns studio pushed the narrative that her and fellow co-star Spencer Tracey (also allegedly homosexual) were in a relationship although according to account, this was instead a very solid friendship (source). Screenwriter and gay rights activist Larry Kramer stated of the famous couple, “Hepburn and Tracy were both gay. They were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true, but of course I haven’t seen it printed anywhere.”
Hollywood heart-throb and incredible actor, Rock Hudson is one of the most iconic gay celerities from Hollywoods golden era. Thanks to his agent, Henry Wilson, Hudson’s homosexuality was kept a secret for most of his life and his relationships were kept out of the public eye. When Confidential threatened to expose Hudson’s sexuality, Wilson gave up information on his other client Tab Hunter and his arrest, as well as arranging for Hudson to marry his secretary, Phyllis Gates, to help combat rumours. Hudson was married for three years. In 1984, Hudson was diagnosed with HIV and although Wilson tried to hide the illness, the news eventually came out and Hudson became the first celebrity to have AIDS. Hudson passed away the following year.
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A product of the arts-centric Weimar culture in early 20th-century Germany, Marlena Dietrich lived freely, fearlessly and was well known for her sexuality. Well known for her masculine dress sense, She regularly donned pants and tuxes on the silver screen at a time when it was unfashionable to do so and changed the the way women thought about pants forever. She was also unapologetic about her love for both men and women. There are reports of Deidritch having relationships with Kay Francis, Edith Piaf, Mercedes de Acosta, and Greta Garbo.
Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, opened up more about her mother’s sexuality in a 1992 tell-all book (via The Rake). Though the star remained married to film producer Rudolf Sieber, Riva admitted her mother had affairs with men as “a way of controlling and manipulating them,” and not because she enjoyed it. Instead, her affairs with women were allegedly “much more satisfying for her” though critics were hesitant to label Dietrich as bisexual. As film critic Kenneth Tynan once remarked “[Dietrich] has sex without gender” (via The Rake).
Once considered the most beautiful woman in the world, Greta Garbo was legendary for her expressive face, her need for privacy, and her sexuality. Write Diana McLellen researched for her book and found that Garbo’s life had passionate relationships with mostly women, excluding her well-publicized attachment to John Gilbert. Some of the women she wrote love letters to during her life included Swedish actress Mimi Pollack and writer Mercedes da Costa. McLellan also unearthed evidence that suggested Garbo had a relationship with Marlene Dietrich when Garbo was 19.
Cuban-American actor, Cesar Romero, was impeccably handsome and tall making him quite the Hollywood leading man. Romero appeared on the silver screen alongside stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard, and he was also a lifelong best friend to actress Joan Crawford. He is best known for his legendary role of playing The Joker in the original film version of Batman (1966). To those closest to Romero, such as his friends and colleagues within the industry, Romero was open and out about his sexuality although publicly, he kept his sexuality a secret for the entirety of his career.
Hollywood heartthrob Cary Grant was, according to the recent documentary Women He’s Undressed, bisexual and had relationships with both men and women. Notably, Grant had a long term on and off again relationship spanning three decades with Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly (source). The documentary and Orry-Kelly’s memoir on which it’s based, paints Grant as a former vaudeville star who was forced to repress his sexuality in order to conform to the homophobic Hollywood studio system. Kelly was reported as growing increasingly resentful of Grant’s predilection for blonde women. Their relationship became allegedly abusive at times and was said to be “a combination of self-loathing and confusion was manifested in a punch-up,” Katherine Thompson, the writer of the documentary, told the Post. She claimed Grant even threw “Kelly out of a moving vehicle” during a particularly heated moment (source).
Discovered at age 17 and often cast as the soldier and object of leading ladies affections, Tab Hunter was a Hollywood actor who was never considered a star for his extraordinary acting ability so much as his undeniable good looks and charm. His immense popularity with young female fans is precisely why he kept his sexuality a secret for most of his life. In his own words, he felt “painfully isolated, stranded between the casual homophobia of most ‘normal’ people and the flagrantly gay Hollywood subculture – where [he] was even less comfortable and less accepted.” Tab Hunter was arrested at a gay party in 1950 before he was famous and years later, his agent leaked this infrmation to Confidential to prevent the magazing from running a expose about his top client, Rock Hudson. Hunter remained a bug star well into the ’60s and had a long term relationship with Anthony Perkins, and revealed all in a 2005 memoir, ‘Tab Hunter Confidential‘.
Mexican-American actor, Ramon Novarro, was often considered the rival to sex icon Rudolph Valentino but after Valentino’s death in 1926, Novarro’s status as the ‘go to’ Latin lover was solidified. However, his immense success didn’t last long as MGM chose not to renew his contract in 1935 and Novarro struggled to find roles on his own after this. Novarro struggled to accept his homosexuality due to his Roman Catholic upbringing but he did have several relationships with men at the height of his career including journalist Herbert Howe. Unfortunately, in 1968, brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson called Novarro and offered to have sex with him if he paid them (it’s aledged they were from a sex entertainment company but this is only rumoured), upon entering his house, Novarro was tortured and murdered for his money. Novarro’s sexuality became sensationalised for the public after his death made national news. Novarro’s death became a bigger part of popular culture than his films for younger audiences, but Mata Hari, the 1925 version of Ben-Hur, and more remain classics, partly because of his performances.
Although not a household name, Patsy Kelly can be recognised from her roles playing the sassy best friend in 1930’s comedies like The Girl From Missouri and Merrily We Live. Kelly was very open and explicitly talked about her homosexuality during her career from the 30s to the ’40s. She told magazines that she was a “dyke” living with her girlfriend and never planned on marriage. Kelly also had a relationship with actress Tallulah Bankhead, who was very open about her attraction to both men and women. Throughout her film career, Kelly remained as a supporting role which was likely due to her openess about her sexuality but today, she has a strong following in the cult classic movie community and is one of the strongest examples about a celebrity being openly homosexual in early Hollywood.
Although not as well known as her daughter, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby still appeared (although unfortunately uncredited) in huge films such as King Kong, Cabin in the Sky, Dead Reckoning, and The War Against Mrs. Hadley. Ruby Dandridge eventually left her husband after she had her two daughters and moved in with Geneva Williams. Writers of the time considered Williams “her lifelong companion” although it is difficult to define this relationship definitively. Williams helped raise the daughters while Dandridge began acting when the family moved to Los Angeles in 1929.
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