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 being in the closet. From 1925-1932, he was one of the brightest stars of the screen, the next Rudolph Valentino, with enormous followings in the USA, Europe & Latin America. Then at his apex, he suddenly fell as few have fallen so far or landed quite so hard.
Ramón Novarro came to LA as a refugee from Mexican civil war. He had the deep drive, remarkable good looks, & the sure talent to create a great cinema career, & for a half a decade he burned bright.
Novarro was a conflicted man, choosing between his ambitions as an actor & his passion as a musician, along with struggling between a deep-rooted Catholic faith & a sexual identity that his faith & his Mexican society condemned. Because of uncertainty, from fear, & sometimes out of desperation, even at the peak of his power Navarro could be easily influenced, & make one bad choice after another, ultimately precipitating his rapid slide to the bottom (& not in a good way).
Novarro made one very bad choice & it led to his brutal death & a court case that splashed the very thing he had worked hardest to conceal from the public across the headlines of the world. After all his fantastic films & phenomenal performances, for all his stardom & considerable talents, he is today best remembered by the public as the gay has-been movie star who was tortured to death by a pair of brothers, male prostitutes, he had invited into his home for sex.
With the US Supreme Court taking up the case of Proposition 8 as possibly unconstitutional in March, I could not help but reflect on how those of us who enjoy out & proud lives in the 21st century are able to form sound, healthy, adult relationships. In Novarro’s era, gay actors were forced to live in solitude, or in the system of "lavender marriages" imposed by studio executives. Novarro resisted the Hollywood pressure to enter a Hollywood marriage pushed on him by Louis B. Mayer, & he had a long, meaningful, but closeted relationship with his publicist, Herbert Howe, until Howe’s death in 1959.
In October 1969, Navarro hired two brothers, Paul & Tom Ferguson (aged 22 & 17), to come to his home for sex. Mistakenly believing that there was a large 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 his money was tied up in the bank & stock market. Navarro rarely carried cash.
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. Both men’s fingerprints were discovered in several locations in the house & several witnesses came forward to testify that the men bragged about the murder.
I remember the Ferguson brothers’ trial 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 & confessed to committing the murders alone.
Tom recanted his confession when prosecutors informed him they would seek his execution. Tom told the truth of what really happened that night & both brothers were sentenced to life in prison. The Ferguson brothers were paroled less than 7 years later.
They left Novarro’s home that night with just $20. Novarro died of asphyxiation. He choked on his own blood.
Among his great films: Scaramouch, Prisoner of Zenda, Where The Pavement Ends & Ben Hur. I recommend Beyond Paradise: The Life Of Ramon Novarro (2002) by Andre Soares. You can borrow my copy. Ramón Novarro would have turned 114 years old on this very day, February 7th.