Entertainment » Celebrities

Hollywood Celesbians :: Then and Now

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Monday Feb 22, 2010

The proliferation of blind items, crotch shots, and anything-goes catfights among alleged Hollywood lesbians found on Internet gossip sites may leave some longing for the Golden Age of Hollywood-a simpler time when stars kept their dirty laundry hidden, and only studio insiders knew who was gay and who wasn't.   

"I think dirt flies more now because there are more celebrities and more media covering them, thanks to the Internet. And it's harder to cover up the truth," said Village Voice columnist Michael Musto.  
For the past several years, the lesbian exploits of Lindsay Lohan and her DJ girlfriend Samantha Ronson, including public arguments and fights, kept gossip sites like TMZ busy until the duo's break-up in April 2009. Even as recently as February 12, Lohan, in response to allegations that Ronson choked her, Tweeted, "This is become a bit much. Samantha R never raised a hand on me, I've never said she did. Enough is Enough..."  

More recently, bisexual reality maven Tila Tequila has courted the press with PDAs with socialite lesbians Courtenay Semel and Casey Johnson, pitting her ex, Semel, against Johnson. Semel was cut off from her fortune after assaulting a security guard and beating up her then-girlfriend Johnson, and attempting to set her hair on fire.  

On January 4, a month after Tequila and Johnson announced plans to be married, the socialite was found dead. When pals Nicky Hilton and Bijou Phillips arrived to take custody of Johnson's two small dogs, Tequila sent reporters scrambling with allegations that the pair planned to put the dogs down and bury them with Johnson. But like Lohan, Tequila hardly needed to stop the presses-she was responsible for her own celebrity gossip, Tweeting more than 100 messages in the week after the death of her "Wifey," followed up by accounts of a fake pregnancy and fake stalker. Neither this caliber of star or type of behavior would have arisen in the Golden Age of Hollywood. 


Attention will be paid

There is a lot more scrutiny than there was back in the day," said Gawker writer Brian Moylan. "With the proliferation of celebrity media blogs and gossip sites with a 24-hour news cycle, everyone needs something to put up, so they pay a lot more attention to these people. There is less control over celebrities’ personal lives than in the studio system back in the day." 

Author William Mann of Behind The Screen: How Gays & Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, said that pre-Code Hollywood was a haven for free thinkers, where gays and lesbians were acknowledged and permitted to live somewhat authentic lives. But after the über-moral Production Code was enforced in 1934, "not only was the content scaled back, but you needed to live lives that no one could whisper about." 

Some Sapphic stars managed to escape scrutiny while others, like Golden Age character actress Lizabeth Scott, were not so lucky. According to Darwin Porter author of Hollywood’s Silent Closet and a recently published tell-all bio of Paul Newman, "Confidential magazine had the goods; her name was found in the address book of call girls. She paid them $50 a night and was caught red handed. They were accurate in their assumption; she was widely known to be a lesbian but I don’t think she ever admitted that. It did end her career."  

Of all the stars of the Golden Age, said Porter, only comedian Patsy Kelly "openly called herself a lesbian. She and Tallulah [Bankhead] were lovers." Porter said that Bankhead used to stay at his Key West home, drinking late into the night, with Kelly serving as her Girl Friday. Kelly, who Porter called, "the only out lesbian in the 1930s" was also linked with Natacha Rambova, the second wife of Rudy Valentino. Story continues on the following page.

For example of media coverage, watch this CelebTV.com account of the break-up between Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson.



Press called them ’baritone babes’

If you were a minor player without a star image to uphold, like Scott or Kelly, you could live a relatively authentic gay life, said Mann. But studio agents put pressure on the gods and goddesses of the silver screen to keep their images clean, encouraging beard relationships and sham weddings to maintain the image of heterosexuality.  

A couple like Mary Martin and Janet Gaynor could have "lavender marriages" with two gay men, and the two couples could vacation together and thus avoid negative press.

?"Those kind of arrangements Hollywood could construct to let stars live with certain amount of authenticity in their lives," said Mann, who noted that often, discreet gays in positions of power inside the studio system were instrumental in shaping these myths of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  

But like today, some sham weddings didn’t work out quite as well. Take for example celebrity Debbie Reynolds, who was rumored to be linked romantically with women including character actress Agnes Moorehead. "Eddie Fisher himself said, ’I think my wife is a lesbian.’ It is clear that it’s a case of an arranged married," said Mann. "Debbie was a lesbian, Eddie was unhappy, and Elizabeth [Taylor] was blamed for breaking up a ’happy marriage’ when it was arranged by studios. Whether Debbie identifies as lesbian today, I don’t know. She has a woman who is her ’companion,’ but she has never identified as lesbian." 

Porter also shared his dish about Reynolds, with whom he and his former partner worked on a Singer sewing machine commercial. She was wonderful, said Porter, but "the subject of lesbianism was taboo with her. It was one of the open secrets in Hollywood. When Eddie Fisher did his second memoir and wrote about Debbie and Agnes [Moorehead], Reynolds’ lawyers found out and threatened him, and the chapter was removed." 

Gossip flew about other "baritone babes," as the press called them, from Marlene Dietrich, who Porter said was, "beyond sexual labels," to Greta Garbo, Isadora Duncan, and Mercedes de Acosta, a great Spanish beauty linked with several of these stars. "It’s true that in the Golden Age, Marlene Dietrich was only person in Hollywood, male or female, who didn’t give a damn, who talked about her relationships between men and women openly," said Mann. "It is always a question of degree: of how much of one’s private life is given to the public." Although Dietrich appeared unconcerned about gossip, even encouraging it, both she and Garbo remained tight-lipped about their alleged affair, both denying that they had ever met, although evidence clearly shows they had.

While these women operated under the radar due to their exotic demeanor and a generally sultry image, others did so with the help of studio executives. Some, like Jean Arthur, managed to keep their female lovers secret by dating unknown women and living on the California coast, outside of the Hollywood scene and pursuant gossip. Other lesbian couples managed to skirt media scrutiny by being seen publicly with male couples, and letting the public come to their own conclusions about who was with who.  

Mann said that actresses Marjorie Main and Spring Byington were "considered to be the two dowager lesbians of Hollywood," adding that the two often had dinner with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, also rumored to be long-term partners. (He bemoaned the double standard that even today leaves skeptics denying that the men were lovers, but unquestionably accepts the extramarital affair between Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn-a star who Mann said "would never, ever publicly identify as a lesbian, but that’s how she lived her life.") 

Story continues on the following page.

Watch Lizabeth Scott sing about the man she loves in this rare footage from the 1950s television program The Big Record in 1958. Note :: video may be slow in loading.



Often difficult to prove

But like today, some big Hollywood stars would go to any lengths to avoid the rumor of homosexuality. Porter points to Barbara Stanwyck, who he says, "can be compared to Tom Cruise; if you say she’s gay, she’ll sue. She was the most closeted lesbian in Hollywood." Although Mann said he has never heard any rumors about Stanwyck’s lesbian orientation or her alleged long-term affair with Joan Crawford, Porter maintains that once, while he was dining with Shelley Winters and Robert Taylor, Taylor, furious at Stanwyck for holding him up for alimony, said she was a lesbian and admitted that they slept in separate beds.  

The bulk of gay historians work relies upon this kind of oral history. Both Mann and Porter maintain that if stars don’t choose to come out, it will remain our mission to keep this history. We can rely on gossip or hearsay, but must trace it back to substantive proof, such as letters and videos-difficult to find for big stars whose access is guarded.

?"Some extent of Hollywood and to some extent today was conducted behind closed doors," said Porter. "It was illegal to have a gay bar, so they did it at a parties, like the ones I went to at Roddy McDowall’s. You couldn’t conduct those affairs in public." 

With Stonewall came the advent of the gay and lesbian movement, and the opening of safe spaces for gays. Celebrities could choose to come out about their sexuality and pay the price, or stay in the closet and face being labeled a traitor to the cause, or a fossil.  

"Before Stonewall, there was no real option to be out," said Mann. "Patsy Kelly wouldn’t be talking about being a lesbian on some talk show. But once there was an open gay and lesbian movement, people could choose to identify with that or not." 

Technological advances today have opened the door to a far wider range of what we would consider "celebrities," and has allowed the public and the press to monitor the lives of these stars much closer via the preponderance of celebrity feature magazines, blogs, and Internet gossip sites.  ? ?But while there may be more stars today offering more access to their lives, one thing has not changed over the years; the fact that Americans look to their favorite celebrities to lead the charge on important social issues. Although it is generally accepted that rising celebrities may keep their orientation secret until they make it, many in the gay community heap scorn on established celebrities who are consistently linked with same-sex partners, yet refuse to make a public declaration of their orientation in a time when we are stridently seeking civil rights.  

"The most important thing any of us can do as gay people is to come out, whether you are a celebrity or not," Moylan averred. "The only way for us to attain equality is through people knowing us and our issues, for having an affinity for gay people like Ellen or Wanda Sykes or guy that lives next door to you. In our culture the people we talk about are celebrities, so it is even more important for them to come out."  

Mann agreed, saying that now, there’s a greater imperative to identify as gay and talk about these things, and to come out when people are actively trying to deny rights to us. "Today we’re under assault in so many ways that when people like Ellen and Rosie come out they make a difference," said Mann. "Sure, you can say, ’I’m living my happy life, and I’m not going to talk about being gay.’ It is still a very homophobic industry, but can no longer compare to old days." 

"Ellen, Rosie, and Wanda Sykes all came out and find themselves pretty well employed on TV much of the time," said Musto. 

Story continues on the following page.

Watch Debbie Reynolds on the Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson.



Staying in the closet

Yet some celesbians choose to keep mum about their sexuality, even as they tacitly acknowledge to a larger public that they are involved in a same-sex relationship. 

"Jodie Foster made a weak stab at coming out by thanking ’my beautiful Cydney’ at some event but most of the media were too scared to touch it anyway," said Musto, referring to Foster’s acknowledgment of her longtime partner, film producer Cydney Bernard, at the December 2007 Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment event. "Even now, when she’s directing a movie called The Beaver, I’m the only one making jokes about it. And since then, Jodie went back in with a vengeance. She’s not even ’glass closet" anymore--just real closet." 

Musto’s comments belie today’s political climate, where both the press and the public are beginning to grow weary of those celebrities who keep quiet about their sexuality despite a being consistently linked with same-sex partners.  

"Someone like Queen Latifah, who the industry knows is gay, who has a successful career, I don’t understand her not coming out," said Mann. "When you get to a certain level of stardom, the argument for coming out becomes stronger. But Latifah has never spoken about her sexuality at all! Jodie Foster is considered out but never talked about it the way Ellen has."  

"Latifah skirts the issue, but every insider knows she’s in love with her trainer," echoed Musto. "I wish she would just bust the closet and say, ’What’s the big deal?’" 

Gawker’s Moylan was even less sympathetic to celebrities who insist upon maintaining an ultra-private persona, saying, "Some of it is good old-fashioned cowardice, some of it is stars saying they won’t have a career if they come out, and some people just want to keep their private life private. This is ridiculous! You are famous! People talk about you! Sorry Queen Latifah, we’re going to keep talking about you fucking your trainer, and if you don’t like it, then don’t be famous!" 

All vitriol aside, critics agree that the best way to effect societal change is when celebrities come out and show the mainstream public that they are just as "normal" as everyone else. 

"It is when people see our commonalties rather than differences that it makes the greatest change," said Mann. "Wanda Sykes or Ellen just talking about their wives on the show is in some way the most subversive act, because they are saying to homophobes out there, ’What are you afraid of? We make dinner, too.’ That’s how hearts and minds are changed."  

"These closeted stars have to eventually give up denying it, because even though they won’t affirm it, we all know about it," said Moylan. "Jodie did it by saying, ’I want to thank my partner,’ and that’s all we really need, just for you to acknowledge it. If you don’t want to be out fundraising for HRC that’s fine-but do us the duty and honor of at least telling us what we already know."

Watch Jodie Foster thank ’my beautiful Cydney’.



Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


Comments

  • , 2010-02-22 12:54:09

    Of course the actress mis-identified as Mercedes de Acosta is the transcendent Greta Garbo.


  • , 2010-02-22 15:32:30

    I dunno... this sort of begs the question: "If everyone knows you’re gay, are you really in the closet?" I guess I’m one of those people who believe that while yes it IS important to have high-profile role models, ultimately no one should ever feel pressured to come out until they’re ready. As one of my mentors used to say, "Coming out is a process, not an event." And while I respect people like Ellen and Wanda for taking that step, I also respect Jodie and Queen Latifah in another way - for being who they are without feeling the need to make statements. Just IMHO.


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