Being a huge lover of classic movies and Hollywood history, I was eager to see the new documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. The film tells the deliciously scandalous story of Scotty Bowers, a handsome ex-Marine who landed in Hollywood after World War II and became a confidante, lover, and a kind of pimp to many of Hollywood’s greatest male—and female—stars. In the 1940s and ‘50s, Scotty ran a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard where he would connect his friends with actors and actresses who had to hide their true sexual identities for fear of police raids at gay bars, societal shunning, and career suicide. It all started when actor Walter Pidgeon drove into the station and asked Scotty if he wanted to go swimming with him at his pool. One thing led to another, and Scotty, first from his gas station and later as one of Hollywood’s most sought-after private party bartenders, found his passion in catering to the wide-ranging sexual appetites of celebrities—both straight and gay—for decades.
Part of Bowers’ appeal to the A-listers he was involved with was his total discretion. Confidential magazine, a real career killer back in the day, offered him boatloads of money to confirm stories about various celebrities that Scotty knew were true, but he would claim total ignorance and say that he didn’t even know the person in question. “But we’ve SEEN you many times with Charles Laughton!” the Confidential execs would say. “No, that’s just a friend who looks like Laughton,” Scotty would reply. Still, in 2012, Bowers decided to finally spill the beans in his New York Times best-selling memoir Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars, which revealed a dramatic, pre-Stonewall alternate history of Hollywood. Why did he do it? He insists that the last thing on his mind was to damage the reputations of any of these departed stars. Since Scotty sees absolutely nothing wrong with a wide range of sexual appetites, he can’t view talking about it now as any kind of betrayal of his friends. I know some people will disagree with that assessment, and some people will doubt the veracity of his stories, but when you meet 95-year-old Scotty in person, it’s hard not to be impressed by the way he moves through the world with equal measures of sincerity, innocence, and kindness, even with total lack of self-consciousness as he changes the conversation on a dime from how much he likes your shirt to how Cole Porter could “suck 15 different cocks in one sitting.” Oy.
This absolutely riveting documentary by Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor and the upcoming Studio 54) paints a fascinating portrait of Bowers, and includes Scotty’s eye-opening and often jaw-dropping takes on icons from Hollywood’s Golden Age including Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, and so many more. I saw down with Bowers and Tyrnauer at the Chateau Marmont, the site of many of Bowers’ trysts, to chat about his remarkable life.
Danny Miller: Scotty, I have to say I’ve never in my life encountered anyone with such an incredibly sex-positive attitude, completely free of shame, embarrassment, or guilt.
Scotty Bowers: That’s the key, Danny! To be free of all that stuff.
What do you attribute that to? It’s pretty rare in general, much less during the era in which you came of age.
That’s just the way I always was. As I talk about in the film, I was having sex at a very young age, and nothing ever bothered me. I’ve always liked people and people were always very nice to me. Everything worked out really well!
I can see how you provided a great service to all of the people in Hollywood who were very repressed in terms of their true selves. They must have loved finding someone with such an open, non-judgmental attitude.
I think that’s true. I made them more relaxed and they were able to speak freely. A lot of people back then were very uptight about everything, especially their sexuality.
And while today, thanks to the Internet, people with any interest can find other like-minded folks, it was virtually impossible back then, especially if you were well known.
It’s true, it was impossible—and you risked a lot, including arrest and getting beaten up. And losing your career, of course. Times have definitely changed for the better.
I love that we get to meet some of the people that you fixed up with celebrities. They seemed really sweet but didn’t you ever worry that you could accidentally send a bad apple who would treat a star badly or expose them?
No, not really. If a person were a bad apple, I picked up on it pretty quickly. I knew so many really nice people I didn’t have to bother with those other types. Of course, there were some who turned into a different person the minute they’d drink so you had to watch out for that.
Matt, you obviously have an amazing raconteur here as the subject of your film. How agonizing was the editing process? I can imagine a nine-hour cut of this film!
Matt Tyrnauer: It was very difficult. There were hundreds of names that were mentioned by Scotty over the course of filming, some of them world-famous to this day and some obscure. But it’s a 90-minute film and the golden rule of editing is that if it doesn’t propel the story forward, it gets left on the cutting room floor. The movie goes back and forth between the past and the present. I think of it largely as a vérité film with memory passages.
I really like the balance between the past and present. Although I’m obviously curious about which stars didn’t make the cut. Did I hear you talking at the screening I attended about Tyrone Power?
Yeah, we had a whole sequence about him in the film that got cut for a number of reasons. One is that we screened the film to people of various ages and we found that Tyrone Power was unknown to almost anyone under 60.
Arrrgh! My classic movie friends will blanche at that—we love Tyrone Power!
Scotty: I remember one time when I took Ty up to trick Charles Laughton as a favor to me. (Laughs.) Ty was a great guy, really nice.
Matt: Scotty introduced them and then they worked on Witness for the Prosecution together.
Do you understand why some of the family and friends of these stars get uncomfortable with these revelations?
Scotty: Yeah, I know that some of them just don’t want to think about it.
Matt: Scotty had a very positive contact with one of Walter Pidgeon’s relatives and I met one of Randolph Scott’s descendants, it might have been his great-great-granddaughter, and she was delighted to hear about this. She had a very open mind about it.
Scotty: It’s odd to me when people question that Cary Grant was gay. He lived with designer Orry-Kelly for a year and a half in New York and everyone knew that Orry was a mad queen! Then they moved out here and he got rid of Orry-Kelly but moved in with Randolph Scott. They lived as lovers for years, for Christ’s sake! They lived right behind the Chateau Marmont where we are now and also had that wonderful house right on the beach in Santa Monica. I knew them both very well but of course they did have a lot to lose back then. I think it would be different today.
I have to admit that, as a classic film lover, the one revelation that I had a hard time wrapping my brain around is your contention that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were not really in a romantic relationship. I mean, I can totally believe that she was with women from time to time, but I still always believed that their love for each other was very real.
Spencer was the type who would never admit he was gay or that he had any attraction that way. I’d spend the whole evening with him drinking at the kitchen table, I’m talking six or seven hours, and then he’d be so drunk that he’d grab me to hold onto in order to get to the bedroom. He was so out of it he’d be up pissing in the closet thinking it was the washroom or pissing on me! After that, he wouldn’t just suck my cock, he’d chew on it! (Laughs.) But then, the next morning, it was like nothing had happened. “You were so nice to stay with me when I was loaded,” he’d say. He’d pretend I was just watching over him to make sure he was okay. But there was never anything between him and Hepburn. Nothing.
I just refuse to accept that! Say it ain’t so!
Matt: One thing that I’d like to point out about Tracy and Hepburn, and this has never happened before now, but Liz Smith goes on the record in the film to talk about Katharine Hepburn’s lesbian relationships and how protective she was of her own image. Liz Smith was very close to Hepburn and very involved in her life over the last 40 years of it. Smith was also a very trustworthy person who was not known for making stuff up at all, quite the opposite. That was very valuable for me because she’d never talked about it before. She herself was a lesbian who was careful in the same way that Hepburn was, but then she did eventually come out and was quite open about it. We were very lucky to get Liz Smith, she died last year at 94 and this was one of her last interviews, so I was happy that she finally spoke about Katharine Hepburn’s truth.
Scotty: I got along very well with Kate. I fixed her up with about 150 different girls over a period of almost 50 years. We were buddies.
The other revelation that completely floored me was your relationship with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. I mean, these are members of the British Royal Family!
They had an interesting relationship. She told him every move to make, and I mean every move. “Suck his cock, do this, do that!” She was in complete control. I was recommended to them by Cecil Beaton, the royal photographer, director Byron Desmond Hurst, and a few English actors I knew. They told the Duke and Duchess, “If you ever get to California, look up Scotty,” which they did. I got a lot of guys and girls for them.
I’m just surprised people in their position would take the risk. Couldn’t someone make a fortune with a story about having sex with the former King of England?
It was a different time. And I mean, in most cases, they didn’t even know who they were. They definitely didn’t know going in, I just told them they were a wealthy couple from England. I would rent a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel that you could enter from the street, it was very private. I remember one guy who I sent over asking me many years later, “Was that the King of England?” (Laughs.) But at the time I never told anyone who they were.
Matt: I did research that placed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in L.A. at exactly the time Scotty was talking about. And I didn’t realize until I read Cecil Beaton’s published diaries that there’s a whole chapter devoted to Scotty.
That surprised me, to be honest, I didn’t think he would want to talk about such things in print!
He was very flamboyant and open about his sexuality compared to most well-known people at that time. He was in town art directing My Fair Lady with George Cukor who Scotty was very close to. And Scotty had already had a sexual relationship with Beaton. I think it’s so easy to dismiss and doubt a lot of Scotty’s stories, but the evidence is there when you look for it.
And yet some people will just never be able to accept it.
Yeah, these myths are very persistent. It’s such a testament to the power of the studio system in classic Hollywood.
And speaking of the studios, I know there were the “fixers” back then whose job it was to keep a lid on any scandals involving their stars. Did they ever approach you to lay off their people?
Scotty: No, because I knew bigger people at the studio! People like Edwin B. Willis, the set designer at MGM, he was a big shot there and a very close buddy of mine. He was a real sweetheart of a guy. I knew a lot of the big shots and they liked me and no one at the studio ever bothered me at all.
I like that one scene in the film where you’re signing books and the guy confronts you about why he objects to you talking about these people. You just smile and say, “Well, thanks, anyway!” Does that kind of criticism ever bother you?
No, not really. They say, “How could you write about that person in that way” and I say, “Why not? It’s a compliment to them!” Look, I’ve seen too many young guys get killed during the war, 18- and 19-year-olds, hundreds and hundreds of them right in front of my eyes. That kind of affected my view of things. My goal was always to have fun and make people happy. I think people should live their lives how they want to.
Is that your main hope for the film? That we shouldn’t be so quick to label people one way or the other and just accept them for who they were?
Yes. People should be nicer to people in general. I can’t stand when I hear about a mother disowning her son because she finds out he’s gay. Big fucking deal! There are so many people who go through life regretting this and worrying about that, and then they die. Who the fuck cares?
Well, I think people are going to be completely fascinated by your story, Scotty, even if some of my classic movie friends are going to lose their shit at your tales about their favorite stars.
Matt: I think the prevailing thought is that the classic movie audience may need smelling salts after watching this film, but I hope that they ultimately embrace it.
In the end, the movie is really about acceptance.
Scotty: I think so. It was nice to talk to you, Danny. You have a great smile — a real smile, a lot of people fake that!
Thanks! And by the way, I could so see a feature film being made about your life. What a great part that would be for an actor.
Maybe you could do me, Danny!
Matt: Scotty, that line could be taken a few different ways…