Bil Browning

Q&A with author Brett L. Abrams

Filed By Bil Browning | November 26, 2008 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment
Tags: book tour, Brett Abrams, Hollywood Bohemians, Q&A

Author Brett Abrams was kind enough to sit through a text interview for the Bilerico Project. His new book Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream, is a fascinating glimpse into some of the LGBT history of the entertainment industry.

If you have your own questions for Brett, leave them in the comments section below so he can answer! And don't forget that you can win an autographed copy of Hollywood Bohemians just for leaving a comment on our contest post.

Who were the Hollywood Bohemians?
The bohemians were stars and other movie people who appeared as adulterers, gays and lesbians and cross-dressers in Hollywood movies and gossip. The movie industry used these figures to titillate audiences and make Hollywood appear unique and special during the 1920s and 1930s.

Audiences recognized these images?
Absolutely. People wrote letters to gossip columnists Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper telling them how beautiful Marlene Dietrich looked in pants. A letter from "Simon Pure" teased that William Randolph Hearst led such a pure life that he could contribute to the Legion of Decency's clean up the movies campaign by making a movie about his life that would star his mistress Marion Davies.

Weren't most movie images and newspaper articles about adulterers and homosexuals back then highly negative?
Yeah, or movies made fun of homosexual males as sissies. But we are talking about Hollywood--gays and lesbians were in the industry and a lot of them had high paying rewarding jobs and careers. So the novels and movies about Hollywood included them and usually showed them living positive lives.

This made Hollywood different from every place else?

Hollywood Bohemians put Hollywood on the far edge of what audiences could see in the pop culture of the day?
Exactly. You couldn't see happy and successful gays, lesbians and adulterers anywhere but Hollywood--in novels, movies and the gossip columns. Mass media always wants to show what is cool and on the cutting edge. It attracts an audience and builds their reputation, both of which the movie business wanted. The film industry still wants these things.

The bohemians pushed the envelope of what the culture would accept then?
Yes, they are the forerunners of today's highly sexualized celebrity images. The Hollywood Bohemians were at the beginning of the media linking a star and their sexual interests and behaviors. Their sexual behaviors were certainly on the edge, just like showing a married couple in bed was a breakthrough in the late 1960s.

How did you find a publisher?
I pitched this book to 20 publishers over eight years before I received conditional acceptance from McFarland. My editor wanted me to find more bohemians.

You must have succeeded?
I did. It improved the book a lot and I learned some surprising facts. For instance, I didn't know that the gossip columns mentioned Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young being an item. Tracy was married and this was before he started his long affair with Katharine Hepburn.

Did anything you find really surprise you?
The material I found on Cary Grant and Randolph Scott floored me. A newspaper article after Grant divorced his first wife and Grant and Scott moved back into their Malibu Beach house was entitled "A Woman is only a Woman."

I'd seen the homoerotic photographs of the two sitting on a diving board in Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Bohemians when I went to the Academy of Motion Pictures Library in Beverly Hills and viewed their photograph collection. Paramount Studios owned the copyright to these homoerotic photographs. The last photograph of them is in the book. The two are on their patio with the Pacific Ocean rolling in the background. Grant has a cigarette dangling out of his mouth and Scott takes the tip of his cigarette and touches it against the edge of Grant's. A librarian was really skeptical about my project until I showed her that photograph and a Life magazine shot of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard where the caption said they were a delightful couple despite the fact that Gable was still married.

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Reformed Ascetic | November 26, 2008 12:46 AM

How do you see the "beard" system fitting in with using these people as figures of titillation?

The first time I saw Dietrich in film in drag kissing a woman my jaw hit the floor. I was astounded and wondering how we took steps back from that. And I may possibly be wrong, but wasn't the expression "fierce" invented to describe her in that scene? ;^)

That is a great question.

The beard system really started with Broadway and vaudeville people. I mention one near marriage between Karyl Norman and Rudd Budd when they were both in vaudeville. Then Norman comes to Hollywood and becomes the master of ceremony at LA Boheme Cafe during the 1930s as his queer old fashion plate self (Norman's "nickname" on vaudeville).

Many actors and actresses in particular faced varying degrees of pressure to marry. William Haines, Ramon Navarro, Greta Garbo and Nelson Eddy, to name a few. The book documents the various ways in which the gossip columns played with the issue of marriage in each of these cases. The studios fed stories about the Hollywood bachelors that contained specific reasons for why each heartthrob was not married.

Eddy is an interesting case because he presumably takes on a "beard" in the late 1930s, a point in time where the pressure for Hollywood to conform is increasing.

One of the questions that didn't get asked is: "What's your personal favorite story or point from the book?"

Can I answer both?
I love the story of Rudolph Valentino's divorce to actress Jean Acker as covered by the LA Times and LA Evening Herald in 1921. Valentino explained on the stand that he was unable to find his bride when he awoke the morning after. You immediately think where was she? The bride had passed the night with her friend, actress Miss Grace Darmond???
Valentino explains “She refused to see me. I could not see her alone she was always accompanied by Miss Darmond. Acker said to him. “No, you go back like a good boy.”
When Acker takes the stand and is asked about Missx Darmond staying in Acker's hotel room, she blurted out that “There were two beds in the hotel room.”

My favorite point from the book is that the mass media is always interested in pushing the envelope and stretching our cultural boundaries. This is what the Bohemians were doing and I'm sure you have your favorite examples of how the media is doing that today.

I recall a local (Sacramento, Ca) friend attending the Liberace estate action. He noted that the high profile items (mink bed spreads, candle holders, etc.) were probably going to go at very high prices but saw off to one side Valentinos Will naming his longtime male friend as major beneficiary. It was getting little interest so my friend was the winning bidder for only a couple thousand.

Hey Motormike:

That is fascinating. Do you know whose name was on the will?

The most recent biographer of Valentino insisted that the actor was straight. Hmmmm.

My friend has since past away but I will check with others.

Sorry to hear about his passing.
Hopefully the others can answer the mystery.