“Love loves to love love,” James Joyce famously wrote in his modernist masterpiece Ulysses. “Nurse loves the new chemist. Constable 14A loves Mary Kelly. Gerty MacDowell loves the boy that has the bicycle. M. B. loves a fair gentlema. Li Chi Han lovey up kissy Cha Pu Chow. Jumbo, the elephant, loves Alice, the elephant. Old Mr Verschole with the ear trumpet loves old Mrs Verschoyle with the turnedin eye. The man in the brown macintosh loves a lady who is dead. His Majesty the King loves Her Majesty the Queen. Mrs Norman W. Tupper loves officer Taylor. You love a certain person. And this person loves that other person because everybody loves somebody but God loves everybody. “
“Everybody loves somebody.” It’s a fitting introduction to a piece on Hollywood love. When it comes to movie fans, the net of their love has been cast wide, embracing everyone and everything from Rock Hudson & Mae West (who made a memorable appearance together at the 1957 Academy Awards crooning “Baby It’s Cold Outside”) to canine stars Keystone Teddy, Rin Tin Tin, Lassie & Benji, to Rex the Wonder Horse.
In an industry that can make Francis the Talking Mule box office magic, what’s the matter with a little Sapphic love?
In the days of silent cinema, there was no need for silence. (The mute daze came with sound.)
The great Russian actress Alla Nazimova was bisexual if not, in fact, a lesbian. Aside from a fling with Dorothy Arzner, her relationships included the lesbian playwright Mercedes de Acosta, the Broadway diva Eva Le Gallienne and possibly Natacha Rambova (born Winnifred Shaughnessy) , the wife of Rudolph Valentino.
A noted stage actress, she became a superstar in the silent era and lived in a Hollywood that was notably wilder and woolier than in subsequent decades, until the 1960s matched the drug fueled madness of Hollywood in the immediate post-World War One era.
After the Hollywood studio bosses hired William G. Harding’s Postmaster General, Will Hays, to become a sort of “Commissioner of Hollywood” after the industry was rocked by drug and sex scandals in the early 1920s, the overt fun was over and gays and lesbians had to go into the closet. The Hays office promulgated a Production Code that not only imposed screen censorship. but also governed the lives of contact stars. By 1934, when the Production Code got its own enforcement office, a star’s contract could be terminated for moral turpitude, which included homosexuality.
Louise Brooks, the silent film actress and raconteur, was one of many women who claimed to have had an affair with Greta Garbo, who liked to affect men’s clothing and who later in life traveled with a female companion. Her only serious romance seemed to be with John Gilbert, after she first got to Hollywood. She also reportedly had an affair with the legendary orchatra conductor Leopold Stokowski.
More likely, Garbo might have been a solitary person to whom sex wasn’t very important. She is perhaps the supreme example of why we should be indifferent to the personal lives of great artists, as she is, aside from Marlon Brando, the greatest performer to grace the silver screen.
Hollywood’s Golden Age
The Great Garbo straddled both eras, being a superstar of both the silent and sound screen.
Interestingly, the only women director during the “Golden Age” of Hollywood’s studio system, was a lesbian. Dorothy Arzner cultivated a masculine look in her clothes and appearance (some feel as camouflage to hide the boy’s club that was Hollywood). Many gay critics discern a hidden gay subtext in her films, such as Christopher Strong , which starred Katharine Hepburn as an aviatrix with a taste for men’s clothing.
Whereas feminist critics see a critique of gender inequality in “Christopher Strong”, lesbian critics see a critique of heterosexuality itself as the source of a woman’s troubles. The very private Azner, the woman who broke the glass ceiling and had to survive and indeed thrived in the all-male world of studio filmmaking, refused to be categorized as a woman or gay director, insisting she was simply a “director.” She was right.
Aside from Katharine Hepburn, Arzner did have less troubled and more productive collaborations with other actresses. She developed a close friendship with one of her female stars, Joan Crawford, whom she directed in two 1937 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer vehicles, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney and The Bride Wore Red. Arzner later directed Pepsi commercials as a favor to Crawford’s husband, Pepsi Cola Company’s Chairman of the Board Alfred Steele.
Since her death, Crawford has been “outed” as a bisexual, though she maintained a heterosexual facade during her long career that started with a turn in a “blue movie” when she was a teenager. Some (including a catty late-in-life Bette Davis late in life) have claimed that the Great Kate was actually gay, as she had a female companion after the death of her long-time lover, Spencer Tracy.
Marlene Dietrich was unabashedly bisexual, in real life and on-screen. Like Dorothy Arzner and Greta Garbo, she liked to wear men’s clothing, but unlike the Sphinx-like Swede, she was very public about going after potential conquests. However, she could be shy. She once pursued the straight actress Carole Lombard when both were at Paramount by leaving roses in her dressing room every day. Using the grapevine, Lombard sent the message that if she wanted something from her, she should ask for it face to face. She was probably unsuccessful in bedding Lombard, who was married to screen greats as William Powell and Clark Gable.
Lombard’s lovers included siner Russ Culombo, George Raft, Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Riskin, and renowned superstar and superstud Gary Cooper, whom she shared with Lupe Velez and Marlene Dietrich, among many many others.
Aside from Coop and Maurice Chevalier (she reportedly enjoyed the French crooner more than the Montana cowboy in the sack as Chevalier wasn’t as aggressive), her male conquests reportedly included General George S. Patton and Nobel Prize-winning dramatist George Bernard Shaw, for whom it is said she got down on her knees for, and not just to genuflect.
The Alabama-born daughter of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Tallulah Bankhead was a switch-hitting slut who claimed she had affairs with Garbo, Dietrich and Barbara Stanwyck. The most bizarre claim for one of her conquests was Hattie McDaniel, the hefty black actress who was the first African American to win an Academy Award playing Mammy in Gone With the Wind. (Apparently, she was a chubby chaser.)
Bankhead’s conquests were so legion, perhaps its better to tell of the three that got away. Elia Kazan, who directed her in the original 1942 Broadway production of The Skin of Our Teeth and loathed her as a terrible bitch, fought with her constantly. One night during on-the-road tryouts of the play, the 40-year-old actress showed up at the director’s hotel room late at night, wearing nothing underneath a fur coat. when she found out he was not alone (he was in the sack with one of the understudies), she stormed out, and their rocky relationship continued. (She was loathed by the stars of the play, Frederic March and his wife, Florence Eldridge.)
Five years later, she tried to seduce the 25 year-old Marlon Brando, who 22 years her junior and her leading man in the stage play The Eagle has Two Heads. When he rebuffed her while the play was going through its out-of-town tryouts, she had him canned. The play opened in March 1947 and closed after 29 performanes. Later that year, Brando became a Broadway sensation in A Streetcar Named Desire, under Elia Kazan’s direction, the first major milestone in establishing himself as America’s greatest actor.
A generation later, the 60-something Tallulah showed up naked in 30 year-old Donald Sutherland’s dressing room during the shooting of Die Die My Darling (1965). When she saw that the young Canadian actor was shocked and speechless, she asked him, “What’s the matter? Haven’t you ever seen a real blonde before?”
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon
Hadleigh, Boze. Hollywood Lesbians