Perhaps the most outrageously beautiful man ever to step in front of a camera, the 1920s and ’30s star Ramon Novarro is remembered today for the ghastly manner of his death – and the rumours (more ghastly still) that have sprung up around it. On 30 October 1968, the ageing matinee idol was tortured and beaten to death in his home by two male hustlers. In 1975, the underground filmmaker and gossip guru Kenneth Anger mythologised the incident in his notorious exposé Hollywood Babylon: “Here was a man dying, as he had lived, extravagantly, choked in his own blood – the lead Art Deco dildo which Valentino had given him forty-five years earlier thrust down his throat.” (1)
This has become the most widely known “fact” about Novarro. It is recycled, without question, by the Hollywood scandal mill today. But unfortunately for Anger and his groupies, the famous sex toy appears nowhere in the police report – or in records of the young men’s trial for murder. Its existence is denied by everyone with first-hand knowledge of the case. There is no evidence that Novarro and Valentino were even friends, much less lovers. We know they shared two scenes in the 1921 Rex Ingram epic The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Valentino was the star, Novarro an ambitious young extra. Off screen, it is doubtful the two “Latin Lovers” ever met.
Beyond Paradise, by the US-Brazilian author André Soares, is a refreshingly factual and conscientious piece of Old Hollywood scholarship. It traces the actor’s life from his birth – as José Ramón Gil Samaniego – in Durango, Mexico, in 1899, all the way up to his grisly demise. Starting his research in the ’90s, Soares seized a last-ditch opportunity to interview any of Novarro’s friends and family, lovers and co-stars who might still be alive. (Incidentally, not a moment too soon: among the leading ladies, Anita Page, Conchita Montenegro and Dorothy Janis have all died since the first edition was published in 2002.) Adhering slavishly to the official and verifiable record, Soares consistently opts for humble fact over vulgar myth. Not once does he let a good story get in the way of the truth.
At 300-odd pages, alas, his approach is as much a curse as a blessing. While that “dildo” anecdote is almost certainly untrue (not to mention gratuitously offensive to the surviving Samaniego family), there are still questions to be asked. What was it about Novarro that would lead anyone to concoct such a tale? What was there in his persona that allowed readers to nod sagely and accept this story as fact? A film star’s biography is not simply the record of one person’s life. Ideally, it should offer some insight into the mystical hold that a star exerted over millions of fans. Ramon Novarro was more than a handsome lad from Mexico who starred in MGM’s first Ben-Hur (Fred Niblo, 1926). He was a mythical creature – born of light and shadow and illusion – who survives in the traces he left in our dreams.
The real-life Novarro (so the book makes clear) was a staunch Roman Catholic, a promiscuous homosexual and a tormented alcoholic. He suffered bouts of depression and at least two nervous breakdowns. More even than his rival Valentino, his screen persona was identifiably homoerotic – often with a masochistic edge. When Charlton Heston is flogged in the remake of Ben-Hur (William Wyler, 1959), he glowers like an affronted bald eagle. Novarro, in an equivalent scene, rolls provocatively in the sand as if relishing the taste of the lash. In an earlier Fred Niblo film, The Red Lily (1924), Novarro stands by helplessly as his girlfriend is raped and beaten behind a locked door. So intense and histrionic are his sufferings, we feel as if he (and not poor Enid Bennett) were the object of the assault. In his last successful star vehicle, The Barbarian (Sam Wood, 1933), Novarro’s Arab chieftain breaks into Myrna Loy’s bedroom and strews orchids on her bed. When his lady demurs, he sighs: “Do not deny my poor orchids the ecstasy of dying on your pillow!”
Virtually every Novarro picture boasts a sequence of this sort. Small wonder that his screen persona was swathed in an aura of voluptuous doom, a dark aroma of pain and ecstasy, sex and death. In his efforts to avoid sleaze and innuendo, Soares misses out on the connection between a star’s image and the (not always healthy) fantasies of his public. A scrupulous historian but an obtuse critic, Soares shows a fatal lack of flair and imagination as a writer. That may sound like an odd criticism to make of a biography. But in cases where the historical record is incomplete (as it must be in any era prior to the late 20th century), a biographer has no choice but to use his or her imagination. Sensitive and informed conjecture is the best way to bring a long dead subject to life. That is not the same thing as lying. The key, in all such cases, is to draw a clear and easily traceable line between theory and fact.
Seemingly unaware of such niceties, Soares does not speculate at all. Hence there is no way he can deal effectively with what may have been the key professional and personal relationship in Novarro’s life. Rex Ingram, the most prestigious Hollywood director of the ’20s, plucked the young actor from obscurity and starred him in five films: The Prisoner of Zenda (1922), Scaramouche (1923) and The Arab (1924) still survive; Trifling Women (1922) and Where the Pavement Ends (1923) are now lost. It has been rumoured that Ingram was homosexual. He and his wife, the actress Alice Terry, seem to have lived apart for most of their marriage. Much like Luchino Visconti and Jean Cocteau, James Ivory and Franco Zeffirelli, Ingram showed a special flair for discovering and promoting young men of ravishing beauty but (to put it kindly) somewhat limited thespian skills.
How personal or otherwise was his relationship with Novarro? The record does not tell us, and Soares will not stoop to guess. How, then, to explain the tumultuous upheavals that occurred over a few months in 1924? In that year, Ingram and Novarro made their last film together. Novarro then took the lead in Ben-Hur – a project that Ingram had fought long and hard to direct, without success. (He had, in fact, championed Novarro for the role even when his protégé was an unknown.) Ingram promptly abandoned Hollywood and went to work full-time in Europe and North Africa. Novarro adroitly took up with publicist Herbert Howe, who became his companion and lover for the next four years. Seeking a motive for all this drama, one might guess at a catastrophic personal break-up between director and star. Not that we can establish it as a fact…but it does, at least, make sense of the facts we have available. Here (and throughout the book) Soares shows a frustrating inability to connect the dots.
Lacking an emotional or psychological thread, Beyond Paradise can only plod grimly through Novarro’s rapidly fading career. He sang in music halls in Budapest, Montevideo and Dublin; he played summer stock in Indianapolis and Fort Worth. We hear about his abortive love affairs, his repeated arrests for drunk driving, his efforts at cosmetic surgery and his failed attempts to sing opera or become a monk. As Soares consistently fails to involve us, we start to feel that this icon of the silver screen was actually rather dull. Of the few details that linger in the memory, a catty jibe by Herbert Howe – at the expense of his (by now) ex-lover – soon becomes prophetic in the wrong way: “His life is expressed in acting, not in thought or conversation. You get the essence of him seeing him on the screen. Off the screen he is…a theater with the lights out.” (p. 130)
That may or may not be a fair assessment of Novarro. Still, in the case of Beyond Paradise, I can’t help feeling it’s the biographer who turned out the lights.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, by André Soares, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2010.