JUNE 1, 2012
ONCE UPON A TIME in a Peanuts comic strip, Linus explained to Lucy that when Juliet asked, “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she wasn’t asking where Romeo was to be found but, rather, why Romeo was named Romeo in the first place (the name an obstacle to their deep, profound, hours-old romance).
Lucy Van Pelt’s response: “Now that I know that, what do I do?”
Once upon a time in Los Angeles, Scotty Bowers witnessed Cole Porter insatiably sucking 15 Marine penises in a row. Later, Scotty Bowers had a three-way with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Scotty Bowers tenderly held a drunk, nude Spencer Tracy while he wept, and also had lots of sex with Anthony Perkins. Sometime after that, Scotty Bowers was privileged to the sight of Hunchback of Notre Dame star, Charles Laughton, eating a shit sandwich.
Great. Now I know all of that. What do I do?
Scotty Bowers’s memoir, Full Service, begins with two authors’ notes. The first, from 88-year-old Bowers himself, reads: “This manuscript is based on my memory and, to the very best of my ability, reflects actual incidents and personalities as I recall them.” The second note, from Bowers’s co-author, Lionel Friedberg, explains that the only thing he added to these recollections were factual details regarding various film productions. The jacket features, above the title and inside the flap, the Gore Vidal stamp of veracity. This is true stuff, says everyone with a stake in it who isn’t already the executor of Cary Grant’s estate. Every sucky-fucky moment actually happened. Unless it didn’t. And since almost everybody except Bowers is gone now, who am I to question him?
Bowers arrived in Los Angeles at the age of twenty-three, shortly after World War II. He claims to have become sexually active at a young age. According to him, servicing adult men in his small town caused him no psychic distress. On the contrary, he was ready and willing. He began pumping gas at a Hollywood service station, but it was only a matter of moments before he also began a side career as a prostitute, arranger of naked liaisons to the stars and secret proprietor of a makeshift brothel in a large trailer parked behind the station.
The purported spark to this clandestine wildfire was named Walter Pidgeon, Academy Award-nominated actor for Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Madame Curie (1943). Pidgeon drove up for some gasoline, propositioned Bowers, gave him some money when it was all over and that was that, the pump boy’s entrepreneurial light-bulb moment. Thanks to Pidgeon’s connections to the entertainment industry’s A-list, the station quickly became a kind of clubhouse/whorehouse, employing all of Bowers’s horniest, neediest, most open-minded pals, both male and female. They serviced, en masse, all manner of Hollywood hot shots, names both above and below the title, with Bowers using his legendary penis to satisfy more of the rich and famous than anyone could count, himself included. The way he tells it, the scene was a non-stop, barely contained bacchanal. Orgies of every stripe, down-low gangbangs arranged in a wink, you name it. Right out in the open. Vice squad eluded. Everybody getting all the hot monkey sex any human being could want or even contemplate handling. Then everyone got up at five o’clock in the morning to make their call time.
Sound impossible? No. It’s a big world, anything’s possible. But implausible? Hell yes.
Think of it like this: you happen to live in Los Angeles where casually noticing celebrities in the supermarket, at the multiplex, at the gym is just something you’re used to. Now imagine each and every one of those celebrities not only noticing you in return, but laser-focusing their sights on you, hitting on you, offering you money for the sex, then becoming your close pal and subsequently fixing you up for more money and more sex with all of their famous friends, as well. If my life worked that way I’d have already been paid for sex by Jody Watley, Jennifer Beals, Patton Oswalt, Sandra Bernhard, Adam Sandler, Werner Herzog, Reese Witherspoon, Miranda July, Jim J. Bullock, and Johnny Mathis. But every one of those people ignored me, just like they’ll ignore you. In return I allowed them to buy their pork chops in peace.
But plausible or not, true or not, hidden-in-plain-sight sexuality used to be the way people lived their lives. If you were a lesbian or gay or not fully bonded to the hetero-normative paradigm, life pretty much sucked. Ugly recent history — brutal heterosexual domination, rounding up queers in bars and throwing them in jail — is easy to forget in a culture that routinely erases the past and equates media presence with equality. Just because you can watch two men making out on a primetime network sitcom like Happy Endings doesn’t mean two men have always been able to make out without being jailed, beaten or murdered. Recently, I had to explain this to a Texas-raised, born-again Christian relative who never heard of the Stonewall riots (the 1969 Manhattan uprising where angry gays fought back against business-as-usual police harassment, kick-starting the ’70s gay liberation movement). “There are more gays now,” she asserted. “No,” I responded. “There are the same numbers of gays. It’s just that over the last forty years, little by little, we stopped hiding.”
An older gay man once told me that in Dallas, during the bad old days, gay men would meet under the Pegasus sign at the city’s Magnolia Petroleum Building, a well-known landmark and cruising spot. Why that building? Why that sign? Why not? It was easily found, kind of like a gas station. So if Scotty Bowers says he took his night job pumping gas and used his ambitious libido to turn the spot into his own sexual playground, one where he never earned money from tricks he didn’t turn himself, one where he was a pro-bono pimp with a heart of gold and a giant wang, then that’s what Scotty Bowers did. It’s not like he was doing anything more than arranging pleasure for his new famous friends. And it may have been a crime in the eyes of the cops, but in a time when no sex outside of marriage was legal, not even part of the public conversation thanks to sodomy laws that weren’t fully invalidated until 2003’s Supreme Court ruling on Lawrence v. Texas, somebody needed to help Kate Hepburn meet women for no-strings recreation. Scotty Bowers was, apparently, that somebody.
But how much does his story matter now? Consider the reception to Kenneth Anger’s mid-60s fire-starter Hollywood Babylon. Banned at the time of its publication, its celebrity sex-secret-spillage was widely condemned, both for brazenly outing the sexual exploits of Clark Gable (who, it’s reported, allowed himself to be “trade” for gay silent star William Haines) and for its often unsubstantiated stories about stars like Clara Bow and her alleged penchant for taking on entire college football teams. Anger’s book came at a time when somebody, anybody, had to start kicking at the wall surrounding the entertainment industry’s hypocrisy. In movie after movie they sold fake virtue and strident moralizing, an innocence that never really existed, to a world that was slowly waking up to the lie. Over the ensuing decades, less incendiary, more scholarly books like Open Secret by David Eherenstein (2000) and William J. Mann’s Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Helped Shape Hollywood, 1910-1969 (2001) extricated the discussion from the bedroom or gas station.
That’s one way to smash the lies into pieces and sweep them away. Do it with intelligence, root out the causes of oppression and ground your discussion in facts and a historical perspective. While you’re at it explore future possibilities and position a more progressive narrative for human sexual ethics. Don’t do it for Hollywood’s sake. Do it for the people who are still oppressed because of their sexuality. Then you’ll sell a few copies and college kids will cite you in their gender studies papers. Or, if you want ink, notoriety and air time on Access Hollywood, simply publish your hump-diary, making sure you dig deep into your most reflective self with entries about what a magical “dream factory” Los Angeles was, while rib-jabbing the reader on every other page with self-consciously “sexy” anecdotes like: “I tricked Vinny [Vincent Price] for years. Sex with him was pleasant, unhurried, gentle. There was what I can only refer to as a kind of refinement about it. It was erotic, tantalizing, fulfilling. High-class stuff all the way. What else can I say?”
The answer to Bowers’s question: Not much. When he isn’t equating his sexual conquests with close personal friendships, he’s lightly discussing the shallow relationship with the wife he left alone at home for the duration of their don’t-ask-don’t-tell marriage and the daughter with whom he rarely spent time. An actively bisexual man open to everyone except his family, his life still resembled less the tortured closet of films like Far From Heaven or Brokeback Mountain and more the dizzying playboy ethic of any number of — ironically enough — Rock Hudson characters in movies where he’d marry Doris Day in the final reel. Occasionally Bowers guesses that he should have been around more for his growing daughter. But what’s more “fulfilling”? Raising a child, or night after night of high-class boning with The Abominable Dr. Phibes? He never comes out and says which, but based on the amount of attention the respective activities receive, it’s a pretty easy guess.
It’s a story of revelations — Tony Perkins was gay, Errol Flynn was drunk — that don’t feel revelatory any more. Stalker-y internet gossip site TMZ is its own TV show now and they’ve got a bus that runs all day long so tourists from Indiana can see where Chris Brown beat up Rihanna. Those tourists will pay attention to it for a few moments, walk away, forget it and then shop at the Hard Rock Café store, provided none of it makes them late for their shuttle ride back to the hotel in time for the Cirque du Soleil show at the former Kodak (now Dolby) Theatre. It’s a time in Hollywood history when Mel Gibson takes up with his mistress, puts a baby in her, screams weird racist things on the phone, they laugh about it on The View and then Jodie Foster turns around and puts him in her next movie. Charlie Sheen chases hookers around hotels and gets endorsement deals and a new sitcom out of it. Actors like Neil Patrick Harris simply announce their gayness and move on, rightly separating their professional, personal, and private experiences — no shame, no worries, no big deal. Scandal isn’t scandal anymore unless there’s murder involved, and Bowers’s book, out now these past few months, is just a badly-written blip in the entertainment news cycle, another tell-all sex book by someone you’ve never heard of. No lids ripped off. No eyebrows scorched from the burning shock of the page. It may all be true, but Gore Vidal is wrong when he calls it “startling” on the jacket. It’s just repetitive, empty and, because the dead can’t be offended, harmless. If it has any value, it’s in its unstated, unexamined theme: That life used to be much, much harder for anyone whose desires fell outside the norm. Unless they were rich, of course. Then they called Scotty Bowers and he kept them in orgasms until the sexual revolution kicked in for everyone, including run-of-the-mill nobodies.
Thing is, I know Cole Porter was gay. Everybody with any reason to think about Cole Porter also knows Cole Porter was gay. It’s a fact of his life that’s relevant to his career and his songwriting. However, what matters most to me is that I get to listen to Lena Horne sing “I Concentrate on You” without constantly imagining the cock-hungry songwriter making his blowjobby way through a roomful of Marines. And even if Hepburn was a lesbian with a bad complexion and Tracy a conflicted bisexual alcoholic, what purpose does it serve if I also know that Scotty Bowers provided her with as many as 150 paid female “companions” over her lifetime? What am I supposed to do with that information? How does it make Desk Set any more relevant when I watch it every Christmas? It doesn’t. It’s weightless distraction now, just tepid, tacky TMI, too little and way too late.
Most of all, you could have kept Laughton’s lunch ways to yourself, Scotty Bowers, because along with Mutiny on the Bounty you also ruined all the sandwiches in the world.