February 6, 1899– Ramón Novarro:
“Better dancing makes better lovers.“
Kids, this post is not about Dave Navarro, the hot, mascara wearing, pierced, tattooed guitarist of Jane’s Addiction. No, this post is about one of the great film actors of the 20th century, who lived a golden life that was brought down by living in the closet.
From 1925-1932, Ramón Novarro was one of the brightest stars of the screen, bigger than Rudolph Valentino, with enormous followings in the USA, Europe and Latin America. Then, at his very apex of his career, he suddenly fell as few have fallen so far or landed quite so hard.
Jose Ramón Gil Samaniego came to Los Angeles as a refugee from the Mexican Civil War. He had the deep drive, remarkable good-looks, and the sure talent to create an illustrious career as an actor. For a half of a decade, his star burned bright.
He was a cousin of the Mexican actor Dolores del Río and he started in films in 1917, doing bit parts. He supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, actor/director Rex Ingram and his wife, actor Alice Terry, promoted him as a rival to Valentino, and Ingram suggested he change his name to Novarro.
In 1925, he achieved his greatest success in Ben-Hur, his revealing costumes causing a sensation.
Novarro was a conflicted man, choosing between his ambitions as an actor and his passion as a musician, along with struggling between his deep-rooted Catholic faith and a gay identity that his religion and his Mexican society condemned. Because of uncertainty, from fear and sometimes out of desperation, even at the peak of his power Navarro could be easily influenced. He made one bad choice after another, ultimately precipitating his rapid slide to the bottom (and not in the good way).
Novarro made one particularly bad choice that led to his brutal murder. A court case splashed the very thing he had worked hardest to conceal from the film-going public across the headlines around the globe. After all his fantastic films and phenomenal performances, even with his superstar status and considerable talents, Novarro is now best remembered as the gay washed-up movie star who was tortured to death by a pair of brothers, male prostitutes, who he had invited into his home for sex.
I cannot help but reflect on how those of us who enjoy living our out and proud lives in the 21st century have the opportunity to form sound, healthy, adult relationships. In Novarro’s era, gay actors were forced to live in solitude, or in the studio system of arranged marriages imposed by film executives. Novarro resisted the Hollywood pressure to enter a sham Hollywood marriage pushed on him by MGM’s studio chief Louis B. Mayer.
He did somehow manage a long, meaningful, but deeply closeted relationship with his publicist, Herbert Howe, until Howe’s death in 1959. But, they couldn’t live together or be seen as each other’s dates at parties and premiers.
In October 1969, Navarro invited Paul and Tom Ferguson, 22 and 17 years old, to come to his Lloyd Wright-designed Hollywood Hills home for a romp. Mistakenly believing that there was a hefty sum of money in the house, the brothers tortured Novarro for hours, hoping to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the cash. Novarro insisted that he had no money on him. He offered to pay the Fergusons with a check. But, the Ferguson brothers knew Novarro was not broke; in fact, they knew he was very wealthy. But, they didn’t know that Novarro’s money was tied up in the stock market. He rarely had cash on hand.
At the crime scene in Novarro’s bathroom, the detectives found the phrase “Us girls are better than those fagits” written on the mirror with a grease pencil.
The Ferguson brothers were eventually arrested for the crime. Both men’s fingerprints were discovered in many locations in Novarro’s house and several witnesses came forward to testify that the brothers bragged about the murder.
I remember the Ferguson brothers’ trial. It was as a media circus. Paul convinced Tom to admit to the murder. Paul believed Tom would not get the death penalty since his younger brother was only 17 at the time of the murder. Tom agreed to take the fall and confessed to committing the murder on his own.
Tom recanted his confession when prosecutors informed him they would seek the death penalty. Tom told the truth about what really happened that night and both brothers were sentenced to life in prison at San Quentin. The Ferguson brothers were paroled less than seven years later. Tom, paroled and reincarcerated more than once, committed suicide at a Motel 6 in 2005. Paul is currently serving a 30-year sentence for committing rape after his release from prison in 1989. Paul Ferguson:
“Mr. Novarro’s death still affects me, both personally and in society. It pretty much crashed my world, and the dust has never settled.“
They left Novarro’s home that night with just $20. Novarro died of asphyxiation. He choked on his own blood. He was just 68 years old.
When Novarro’s contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935, the studio did not renew it. He continued appearing in films for the smaller Republic Pictures. In the 1940s, he had several small roles, including in the great John Huston’s We Were Strangers (1949) starring Jennifer Jones. Novarro kept busy working in television into the late 1960s, appearing in NBC’s The High Chaparral in 1968, his final performance.
Among his best films, I would choose Scaramouch (1922), Prisoner Of Zenda (1923), Where The Pavement Ends (1923), and Mata Hari (1931). He was a romantic leading man, acting opposite the greats of his era: Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy, Norma Shearer, and Joan Crawford. At the height of his stardom, Novarro was paid more than $100,000 per film, with the studios churning out four or five a year.
If you want to know more about him, and you really should, I recommend Beyond Paradise: The Life Of Ramón Novarro (2002) by Andre Soares. You can borrow my copy if you promise to return it.