A star is killed: Hollywood's deadly secret

John Rechy is the author of many novels, including "City of Night" and the forthcoming "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens."

On the evening of Oct. 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 younger brother. Both understood why they would be invited; both had hustled before. Novarro welcomed such young men, who 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 inner 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, the liquor shared with the older brother, allowed Novarro to feel that he was not buying companionship; it was a kind of companionship he often bought, frequently passing out, drunk, abdicating any sexual connection. He was a lonely man, his contemporaries -- Garbo, Fairbanks, Negri -- dead or in seclusion. Perhaps remembering their time, Novarro showed the brothers a photograph of himself as 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 and told him -- sounding agitated -- that he wanted to introduce a young man who had star quality.

Liquor clouded the sequence of events into a blurred sequence of violence. In the bedroom with Novarro and possibly after a sexual interlude -- both were naked at one point -- the burly young man, now dressed, demanded the $5,000 rumored to be hidden in the house. There was no such amount, Novarro insisted truthfully; he never kept large sums at home. The younger brother, who had been on the telephone mollifying a girl he had beaten up in Chicago, joined them, adding his own demands for the money. Novarro's pleading denials aroused jostling, shaking, 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 prevent Novarro from slipping into unconsciousness, they dragged him to the bathroom, slapping him alert with cold water. Novarro staggered back into the bedroom. "Hail Mary, full of grace," he sobbed, collapsing on his knees. Taking turns, the two aimed the cane at his genitals, his head. They bound him with an electric cord and struck again and again. The younger brother scratched the dying man's face. They tossed the mangled body onto the bed. Novarro died, choking on his own blood.

The two killers ransacked the house, dumping on the floor photographs of Novarro as a young star, as if discarding 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: "Us girls are better than fagits."

Those events are reconstructed from information in "Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro" by Andre Soares and from this reviewer's related conversations with the late Jim Kepner, who attended the brothers' trial meaning to write a book about the murder. Kepner's condensed record was published in the Advocate.

Along with the killers, Novarro's life was put on trial. It was not rare for violence against non-prominent homosexuals to go unreported. A declaration by an assailant that his victim had made a pass often guaranteed acquittal. The defense referred to Novarro as "an old queer." The brothers' mother testified that her younger son had written: "[H]e deserved to be killed, he was nothing but an old faggot." The trial exposed, too, the drab lives of the brothers, who, like Novarro, came from a repressive Catholic background. 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. But any compassion the brothers' dingy existence might have aroused before the crime was obviated by the savagery of the attack: 22 deadly blows. Unrepentant, each blamed the other , the younger saying that he was on the telephone when the deadly violence occurred, the older testifying that he had passed out and woke up to discover it. They changed their stories, shifting the motive from robbery to the claim that Novarro had made unwelcome advances. Guilty of first-degree murder, both were sentenced to life in prison. The judge recommended that they never be released, but they were, perhaps because of homophobic attitudes toward Novarro. The younger killer was out in six years, the older in nine. 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." Novarro's death incited brutal lies. The most virulent, which Soares explodes, was invented by a minor filmmaker of erotic movies. In a book of contrived scandals, he included a salacious tale that the real murder weapon was an object given to Novarro by Rudolph Valentino.

Soares roams over Novarro's life -- his privileged Mexican background, his migration to America, his aspiration to the monastic life -- and on to his emergence as a Latin lover, his hidden romances with men, his faked romances with women. The allure of Latin lovers faded. At 36, Soares claims, Novarro was a has-been. But he endured on the stage, returning to films in his latter years as a character actor, "forever dreaming of a spectacular comeback." That "comeback" occurred with his murder.

The best records of violence -- like Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song" -- take the reader into the heart of darkness. In reporting the crime, Soares' otherwise admirable book misses. His main source for the murder is Kepner's report. Court records, he informs, without further clarification about this major omission, have been "lost or misplaced." His reportage fails to convey the enormous violation involved; and Novarro was doubly violated, by the murder and by the trial that exposed every intimate detail of his hidden sexuality.

Some stars die at the right time to perpetuate their legends: James Dean is forever the rebel, Marilyn Monroe the quintessential movie star. Marlene Dietrich eventually chose seclusion rather than compromise the legend of her ageless beauty. Novarro's legend is undeniably tainted by the monstrous end to his life.

Still, the name itself -- Ramon Novarro -- evokes the magic of the grand silent-film romantics, 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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