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He was a major movie star more famous for his death than his life or his movies.
On October 30, 1968, at approximately 9:30pm, Paul Ferguson, twenty-two, and his brother Tom, seventeen, both ne’er-do-wells living together in Los Angeles, entered the home of Ramon Novarro, sixty-nine. For more than forty years Novarro, the son of an impoverished Mexican family, had been a major player on the Hollywood scene, featured or starring in some fifty motion pictures, including the original, silent version of Ben-Hur, Hollywood’s greatest screen epic until the arrival of Gone With The Wind some fourteen years later, and the Greta Garbo-starring Mata Hari. During his heyday, in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was a Latin heartthrob, the idol of millions, whose only rival on that front was Rudolph Valentino, a man Novarro himself revered. This illusory romantic patina provided sufficient camouflage for the fact that Novarro was also homosexual, a personal aspect not only at odds with his screen image but with his Roman Catholic faith.
By 1968 Novarro had settled into retirement, living comfortably in his Spanish-style home in Laurel Canyon. He had friends, he had family, and he enjoyed, with some frequency, the companionship of young male hustlers whom he paid for sex. Paul Ferguson, out of work and strapped for cash, learned of this predilection and managed to get himself invited to Novarro’s home. He brought his brother Tom with him. Novarro was taken by the elder brother’s husky good looks, so much so that he promised him a screen test. Afterwards something went terribly awry. Novarro was soon dead in his own home, choked on his own blood. Which of the brothers delivered the fatal blow to him remained questionable until recently. Each brother gave his own account of the incident, blaming the other for the murder. All the police knew was that Novarro’s naked body had been placed on his bed and tied in cords to restrain him. He had suffered numerous lacerations all over his body, including his penis. An indecipherable initial, either an N or a Z, had been carved into his neck. His home had been ransacked, furniture overturned, things broken. The authorities at once suspected robbery.
Thirty years later Paul Ferguson, who while in prison made a true attempt to reform himself and even ended up a fiction writer of some repute, finally assumed the blame for Novarro’s death. He emphasized that he and Tom had not gone to the home to rob the elderly film star, although they trashed his home as a ruse, to make police believe robbery had been the motive. They knew nothing of a supposed five thousand dollars that Novarro kept stashed behind a portrait in his home. Paul Ferguson blamed internal homophobia for the rage that led him to pummel Novarro into bloody insensibility. “When he [Novarro] kissed me,” Ferguson said in a phone interview in 1998, “I reacted like a Catholic, what they call homosexual panic…It had nothing to do with Novarro, nothing to do with his being homosexual. It all had to do with how I saw myself. And the fact that my brother was there. And that he could see me in that homosexual act.”
It did not take long for gossip mongers to elaborate on the narrative of Novarro’s demise, to add details of dubious authenticity. Most notorious was the addition of a particular sex toy, a black dildo, that legend had it had been bequeathed to Novarro by his hero The Great Valentino, and used later by the Ferguson brothers to choke Novarro to death. The Ferguson brothers’ attack on Novarro did more than just end this beloved star’s life. It revealed a secret Novarro had so fastidiously kept secret from the public for more than forty years. When his devoutly Catholic family learned of their brother’s homosexuality, they would not speak of it. Some of them chose to blame alcoholism for his “unorthodox behavior.”
Andre Soares renders a sober account of this grisly chapter in Hollywood history in his graceful new biography, Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro. Nevertheless he is clearly disheartened that Novarro’s horrendous murder obscured the star’s importance in the history of motion pictures, not only as a breakthrough Latino performer but as an actor who, along with his preternatural good looks, displayed an undeniable versatility as a performer, as his filmography so clearly proves – from the heroic title figure in Ben-Hur to the light-hearted lead in Lubitsch’s The Student Prince of Old Heidelberg.
Soares writes near the end of the book: “For him to be chiefly remembered today as a perverted elderly homosexual killed by a sex toy that never existed is an injustice to both the complex individual and to the accomplished – and historically important – actor that was Ramon Novarro.”
While dismaying and disturbing at times, Soares’ book is compelling throughout and attempts to right an injustice by reviving this important cinematic icon’s good name and reputation.
BEYOND PARADISE: THE LIFE OF RAMON NAVARRO
by Andre Soares
University Press of Mississippi
Paperback, $25, 400pp.