About 45 minutes into the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, the most unbelievable monologue youll ever hear is delivered. And its all true. Allegedly.
I fucked Bette Davis in World War II when she was married to a guy. I used to fix her up with tricks, and we used to have three-way deals. I went to bed with J. Edgar Hoover. He was in drag. He was not a great beauty either, you know, but I was treating him just like he was a girl.
Scotty Bowers, now 95 and more than 60 years past his prime as the so-called pimp to the stars, grins mischievously as he loosens the tap, continuing his deluge of secrets.
One day Cary Grant was in the gas station and Rock Hudson just happened to be there, so Cary Grant picked him up. I fixed him up with Rock for 20 bucks, and Rock saw him several times. This is before Rock had any movie. Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, I never tricked them together. I would fix them up with guys, and then I would see her at Gary Coopers house. She would come in and quietly open the gate and be like, Shh. Ten minutes later Im fucking her and shes screaming.
After spending two years following Bowers for the cinema verit-style documentary about the gregarious former sex worker, filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer laughs, summarizing the unique and actually profound appeal of the subject of his movie.
This is someone who seems to have just not been hit with the shame stick and not burdened with feelings of guilt, Tyrnauer says, speaking over coffee at Manhattans NoMad Hotel the week before the films release. He didnt have that instilled. He seemed to live an exemplary life in terms of being free of shame and guilt. That could be a lesson for all of us.
Perhaps unexpectedly, lessons abound in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Tyrnauer began filming Bowers following the release of his memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, a juicy tell-all recounting his time operating a brothel, of sorts, out of a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard starting in the late 40s and finally retiring decades later during the AIDS crisis.
As Bowers tells it, he slept with Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII. And the list of stars he allegedly set up with prostitutes reads like a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame: Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Gloria Swanson, Nol Coward, Rock Hudson, Cole Porter, and more.
When Bowers released his book, essentially outing Grant, Tracy, and Hepburn, among others, as gay or bisexual, critics ranging from casual readers to Barbara Walters blasted him for spreading salacious stories about long-dead subjects who couldnt defend themselves or question their veracity. That was out of respect, Bowers claims. They werent his secrets to tell when they were alive, but now that theyre gone, he thinks they cant hurt them.
But now that Tyrnauer is giving Bowers another platform, similar criticisms are being lobbed again. In a New York Times piece about Tyrnauer and the film, noted film scholar Jeanine Basingerwho happened to be the chair of Tyrnauers film school and clashed with him thereverbally scoffs about the documentarys pursuit. This is a perfect example of the expression, people need to get a life, she says. Personally, Im more interested in the work of these people than their possible off-screen shenanigans.
As several entertainment journalists, including Buzzfeeds Kate Aurthur and Vanity Fairs Rebecca Keegan, were quick to point out on Twitter, that opinion is horseshit.
Tyrnauer suspects Basinger didnt see the film, especially since she seems to ignore its entire point.
The reason Bowers has stories to tell is because these actors were captives of a Hollywood studio system that weaponized moral clauses, contractually preventing them from living their authentic lives. They were victims of a certain kind of persecution, Tyrnauer says. They went to Scotty because paying sex workers was their only option, especially for people like Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, whose same-sex escapades were at odds with the heteronormative images of them manufactured by studios.
To claim to be interested in that era of Hollywood but not in the ways that these actors navigated their sexuality is insane. Its not gossip. Its biography. Its anthropology. Its our history.
For some reason our culture is willing to dismiss the full biographies of all of these characters as being shenanigans, Tyrnauer says. Take Caravaggio, for instance. If youre an art scholar, do you just want to know what Caravaggio was up to in the painting studio? Dont you want to know what Caravaggio was up to when he wasnt holding a paintbrush? Is that not relevant to who Caravaggio was? So why do we dismiss details about what Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were up to off-screen?
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood isnt a tell-all. Tyrnauer calls it an alternate history of one of the most important times in our countrys history, the story of Hollywood and the image machine, which changed the way we all perceive ourselves and the world. Looking at the Hollywood system and the image factory through the lens of a sex worker to the stars couldnt be more relevant.
If Scotty had been operating a brothel out of a gas station in Des Moines, Iowa, it would be a fun, interesting, maybe relevant story, but it wouldnt have the operatic location and narrative that this movie has, Tyrnauer says.
Criticizing Bowers stories as trivial compared to these actors on-screen work ignores the fact that their private lives were often scripted by studios and they were forced to perform those narratives in order to continue that on-screen work. More, it fosters a delusion that moral clauses dont still exist, if not literally in contracts, then inherently in an industry that forces known gay actors to perform heterosexuality in order to further their careers.
The same people who dismiss stories about Hollywood and sex as irrelevant are the ones who erupt in outrage at the insinuation that these actors had same-sex sexual relationships and that these stories are being told when theyre not alive to speak to them. It illustrates the reluctance to admit how deeply and seriously we are all affected and influenced by Hollywood and its players.
The book was dismissed as a tell-all, however it was a best-seller, Tyrnauer says. So theres the contradiction.
Now to briefly dismount from our high horse, heres another reason the book was a best-seller. The stories are wild. And so is this movie.
Bowers was just out of the Marines when he moved to Hollywood and got a job working at the Richfield gas station at 5777 Hollywood Boulevard. One afternoon, the Oscar-nominated actor Walter Pidgeon drove up. Whats a nice guy like you doing working at a gas station? he asked Bowers, inviting him to come home with him to swim in his pool. They did much more than that, and, seeing an opportunity, he began tricking, as he calls it, eventually hiring other former Marines as sex workers.
Everything was 20 bucks, Bowers says. I would say to my friends, Im gonna fix you up with a trick and all the guys gonna do is take and suck your cock. Its the same as if your girl was sucking your cock. If you want to close your eyes and think its her sucking your cock, do. OK, Ill do it once. Well, once, twice
He tricked with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, who were lovers, Bowers says, but told people they were just living as roommates. Bowers says hes been with them both individually, together as a threesome, and with a fourth for paired group sex. He says he had a three-way at Frank Sinatras house with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. He would arrange men for the former King Edward VIII to sleep withhe sucked me off like a proand women for the mistress he abdicated the throne for, Wallis Simpson, to sleep with.
He estimates that he fixed Katharine Hepburn up with more than 150 women over the course of 39 years. Cole Porter once requested that Bowers set him up with 15 men at once. I want to suck 15 guys off, one after another, he said.
Why shouldnt Cole Porter have a voracious sexual appetite? Tyrnauer says, when I ask if he thinks people would have an easier time believing Bowers stories if they werent so outrageous. I dont know if he did or not, but why would I find that unbelievable? He laughs. Theres a wonderful Cole Porter song, Too Darn Hot where one of the lyrics is a Marine for his queen and a G.I. for his cutie pie. Im thinking maybe Scotty is his Marine.
Through all of this, Bowers was never treated like a madame. To people like George Cukor, the legendary director of The Philadelphia Story and My Fair Lady, he was considered a friend. That ended up being his key to earning the trust of the biggest names in show business, with the most to lose if these secrets were ever outed.
Are these stories substantiatable? My answer is yes, very much so, Tyrnauer says. We ask him directly if we should now take it as fact that the likes of Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn had same-sex sexual relationships. He doesnt flinch: Yes.
Considering that Tyrnauer purports to be correcting history with this film and the facts of that correction are largely from the mouth of one person, Bowers reliability as a narrator was obviously important to him.
Gore Vidal ended up being an important source for Tyrnauer, who counts the famed writer as a personal friend. Vidal was a client and then friend of Bowers, but his very active carnal life, as Tyrnauer calls it, wasnt included in Bowerss book. The reason: Vidal was still alive. (One of Vidals last public outings was to the books release party.) Independently, Vidal and Bowers confided in Tyrnauer stories about each other and about that time at the gas station and the stories all checked out.
Several of the sex workers Bowers employed are also still alive, and Tyrnauer interviewed them for the documentary. They all verified Bowerss accounts, some on camera. One even still had an index card Bowers had made with the contact information of a dozen men who were interested in sexual services. A smoking gun, Tyrnauer calls it. One of the men on the card was still alive, and confirmed Bowers stories to Tyrnauer, too. All of this was in addition to the work a team of researchers did to fact check many of Bowers anecdotes.
Scotty Bowers didnt kiss and tell when these people were alive. But he kissed, sucked, fucked, and is telling us now that these people are dead.
The instinct to not believe him is unfortunate, given how these sex lives give us a much greater insight into the reality of an industry that in turn shaped our culture. At a time when there still is not an out gay or lesbian movie star starring as the lead in blockbusters, and people still debate whether an out gay or lesbian actor could be believable as a romantic lead, the fact that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, two iconic romantic leads, had same-sex relationships is illuminating.
Its prudent to see Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood to recognize that. The fact that its so dishy and sex-filledTyrnauer includes vintage nude photos and sex films that Bowers stars inis icing on the cake.
For Scotty Bowers, sex is a fact of life. Its not avoided. So to make a movie that avoided sex and explicit nudity just wouldnt have made sense, he says. Plus, who doesnt want sex on screen? We all want a little sex. It keeps you interested. Scotty was really hot as a young man. He was just undeniably hot. Why not show some skin?