PARADISE: The Life of Ramon Novarro" by André
Note: a version of
this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book
On the evening
of October 30, 1968, Ramon Novarro, once one of Hollywood's
greatest romantic idols, now 68 and frail, looking like
"a Spanish grandee" in a red and blue robe,
opened the door of his Laurel Canyon home and, with all
the graciousness of his aristocratic lineage, greeted
his guests, a burly young man of 22 and a slender one
of 17, his murderers.
burly young man had obtained Novarro's telephone number
from a previous guest in order to solicit an invitation
for himself and his brother. Both understood why they
would be invited--both had hustled before. Novarro welcomed
such young men. They considered him "an easy touch,"
"a nice old guy." Only those closest to him
knew his guarded secret, that he was homosexual. He was
not the only one in Hollywood who kept such a secret.
It was necessary self-protection. That, and his rigid
Catholicism, created a chafing conflict.
camaraderie developed among the three. Novarro read the
older brother's palm and saw a bright future. At the piano,
Novarro taught him a song he had composed. The younger
brother contributed his own tune. The camaraderie--and
the liquor shared steadily with the older brother--made
Novarro feel that he was not buying companionship, and
it was companionship that he often bought. He frequently
passed out, drunk, abdicating any sexual connection. He
was a lonely man, his contemporaries dead or in seclusion--Garbo,
Fairbanks, Negri. Perhaps remembering their time, Novarro
showed the two brothers a photograph of himself, a handsome,
muscular young man wearing a toga in the title role of
"Ben Hur." Doesn't look like you, the younger
coerced by the older brother, or to indicate that he was
still a power in Hollywood, Novarro called a film publicist
to inform--in agitated words--that he wanted to arrange
a meeting for a young man who had star power.
clouded the sequence of events into the blurred sequence
of violence. In the bedroom with Novarro and possibly
after a sexual connection--both were naked at a certain
point--the burly young man, dressed now, demanded the
$5,000 rumored to be hidden in the house. There was no
such amount, Novarro insisted truthfully--he never kept
large sums in his home. The younger brother--who had been
on the telephone mollifying a girl he had beaten up in
Chicago--joined the two, adding his own demands for the
pleading denials aroused rough shoving that escalated
into violent pummeling. Bleeding, the frail naked man
fell. The brothers yanked him up to strike him down again.
One of the brothers danced, twirling a cane like a baton
and wearing a glove he had found in a closet.
avoid Novarro's slipping into unconsciousness, the brothers
dragged him to the bathroom, slapping him awake with cold
water. Novarro staggered into the bedroom. Collapsing
on his knees, he sobbed: "Hail Mary full of grace."
turns, the two aimed the cane at his genitals, his head.
They bound him with an electric cord and pounded and struck
again. The younger brother scratched the dying man's face.
They discarded his mangled body on the bed. Novarro died,
choking on his own blood.
two killers ransacked the house, flinging away photographs
of the young star as if rejecting even his past. To suggest
that a woman had perpetrated the crime in vengeful violence--and
scratched the dead man's face--they wrote on a mirror
words that revealed buried motives:
GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS.
events are reconstructed from information in "Beyond
Paradise: the Life of Ramon Novarro" by André
Soares, and from this reviewer's related conversations
with the late Jim Kepner, who attended the trial and intended
to write a book about the murder. He produced only a condensed
account for The Advocate.
with the killers, Novarro's life was put on trial. It
was not rare for violence on non-prominent homosexuals
to be left unreported. A declaration by an assailant that
his victim made a homosexual pass often guaranteed acquittal.
The defense referred to the man who had hidden his homosexuality
as "an old queer." The brothers' mother testified
that her younger son had written: "... he deserved
to be killed, he was nothing but an old faggot."
trial exposed, too, the drab lives of the brothers, who
shared a Catholic background with Novarro. Raised in poverty,
they were soon on their own, working at menial jobs, stealing,
hustling. Squads of other such young men share that background,
fleeing to big cities with nothing but their youth to
rely on--exploited and exploiting--leading a life made
desperate by their knowledge of the brevity of their existence,
the brevity of their youth. They are a group not unworthy
compassion the brothers' dingy existences might have aroused
before the crime, was obviated by the savagery of the
torture, 22 deadly blows. Unrepentant, they blamed each
other. Both were found guilty of first degree murder,
sentenced to life in prison. The judge recommended they
never be released. But they were, perhaps because of homophobic
attitudes toward Novarro. The younger killer was out six
years after his conviction, the older almost nine years
after the murder. Both committed more crimes, including,
separately, rape. Now old themselves, they remain in prison
for crimes unconnected to Novarro's murder.
succeeds in his noble intention: Novarro "created
some of the most indelible characterizations of the silent
and early sound era.... For him to be chiefly remembered
today as a perverted elderly homosexual ... is an injustice
to both the complex individual and to the accomplished--and
historically important--actor...." The death of Novarro
incited brutal lies. The most virulent, which Soares explodes,
was invented by a minor film-maker of erotic movies. In
a book of contrived Hollywood scandals, he included a
salacious tale that the instrument of murder was an object
given to Novarro by Valentino.
roams over Novarro's life--from his privileged Mexican
background, his migration into America, his aspirations
for the monastic life--on to his emergence as a Latin
lover, his hidden romances with men, his faked romances
allure of the Latin lover faded. At 36, Soares claims,
Novarro was a "has-been." But he endured on
the stage, returning to films as a character actor, "forever
dreaming of a spectacular comeback." That "comeback"
occurred when his murder yanked him out of near-obscurity.
best records of violence--like Norman Mailer's "The
Executioner's Song"--take the reader into the very
heart of darkness. It is in reporting the crime that Soares's
otherwise commendable book misses. His main source about
the murder is Kepner's report in The Advocate. Court records,
he informs without further clarification about this major
omission, have been "lost or misplaced." He
resorts to reportage that fails to convey the enormous
violation involved; and Novarro was doubly violated, by
the murder and by the trial that raked over every intimate
detail of hid hidden sexuality.
stars die at the exact time to fulfill their legends:
James Dean is forever the rebel; Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential
movie star. Marlene Dietrich chose seclusion rather than
compromise her legend. Novarro's legend is undeniably
tainted by the monstrous ending to his secret life.
the name itself--Ramon Novarro!--evokes the magic of the
grand silent-film romances, thus securing his place among
the greatest stars of all time. Beyond that, the repressive
pressures that made possible the atrocity persist today,
keeping famous actors closeted, even homophobic. That
gives to the life and death of Novarro an enduring tragic
and admonitory relevance.
Back to top
Original material by John Rechy appears
frequently on these pages.