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Letter to Councilman LaBonge
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He Hugged Moms and Dads
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Review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
From Sunset Boulevard to Mulholland Drive
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Review of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro
A Spirit Preserved in 'Amber'
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"BEYOND PARADISE: The Life of Ramon Novarro" by André Soares

Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.     

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.

     The 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.

     Easy 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 brother said.

     Whether 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.

     Liquor 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 money.

     Novarro's 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.

     To 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."

     Taking 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.

     The 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:


     Those 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.

     Along 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."

     The 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 of compassion.

     Any 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.

     Soares 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.

     Soares 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 with women.

     The 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.

     The 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.

     Some 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.

     Still, 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.

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