A Sexual Underground Surfaces In 'Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood'

Aug 5, 2018
Originally published on August 6, 2018 12:56 pm

Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn. Spencer Tracy.

They were movie stars immortalized by "the golden age" of Hollywood during the mid-20th century, representing fame and beauty.

Behind the glossy glamour, the stars were also connected by something else: a man named Scotty Bowers who worked at a small gas station at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness — the epicenter of Tinseltown's covert sexual underground.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a new documentary from director and producer Matt Tyrnauer, tells the story of Bowers' significant yet secret role as a confidante, friend and pimp for Hollywood's closeted movie stars.

Bowers, now 95-years-old, was recently made an honorary citizen of West Hollywood by the town's mayor. The documentary reveals that he wasn't just a male madam running a covert brothel: he was also a protector and rights activist for the burgeoning LGBT community in the post-war era.

In an interview with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Tyrnauer describes how Bowers helped movie stars through the restrictive "sexual gestapo" of Hollywood: "It was very difficult for people to have authentic lives," said Tyrnauer. "It was also very difficult for people to appear in public as anything other than heterosexual; this was a very different time and Scotty really served a purpose in the community."


Interview Highlights

On who Scotty Bowers intersected with, and what he did

Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, who are immortal names, passed by this gas station, and used his services: Cary Grant for instance, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, literary figures such as Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. And he was really a protector of these peoples' reputations because not only were there moral clauses in these contracts that could lead to their career ruin — there was also the vice squad, which was run by the Los Angeles Police Department of the time, and was sort of like a sexual Gestapo that was out to shake down famous people and collude with the press to ruin lives and reputations.

On the fact that Scotty kept these secrets for decades

What I came to realize very quickly — because I met him through Gore Vidal, who met him in 1947 at the gas station — [was] that these were lasting and important friendships that he had with some of the great people of the town. And that in his prime included people like George Cukor, who was one of the top directors of the era. And Scotty was integral to someone like Cukor's life. He not only was a sex worker for Cukor, but he was a man of all works — so he would trim the trees, and go Christmas shopping, pick him up at the airport. So he was a trusted person, and when you had to live your life in the shadows like this but were also prominent, imagine how important someone who could be trusted in all aspects, including the secret aspects of your life, could be.

On verifying Scotty's stories

He wrote a memoir some years ago, and it provided no proof — it was a collection of memories, and a bit of an autobiography. When I started to interview him, which I did over the course of two years, I began to find corroboration in my independent research. And this came in many forms. First thing I asked him when I met him was: "Are there any people alive who were at the gas station when you were operating it as a covert brothel?" And he said, "Yes, there are ... " I met, I think seven people who were present in the '40s, '50s and '60s and witnessed this. So they provided corroboration, and very specific in some cases. For instance, [actor] Charles Laughton had autographed books and the script to Witness for the Prosecution for one of the sex workers who appears in the film. He revealed that he had run lines with Laughton for Witness for the Prosecution. So this began to give me a window into exactly what this world is like.

On Scotty Bowers' personal history, which includes being sexually abused as a child, losing an adult daughter and surviving World War II

He's a survivor who, interestingly, doesn't want to be recognized as a victim. He's very intent on saying he was aware of everything happening and it was all his choice. I let him speak his own truth in the film — I question him on it on several occasions. And it's an unusual perspective for us to hear today, but it's his own perspective.

On Scotty Bowers' connection with sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey

Scotty was a connector person for Kinsey. Kinsey sought him out, came out to Los Angeles, interviewed Scotty multiple times as part of his data pool for his book, but then found that Scotty was a conduit to a covert, sexual world, which was in this case the gay and lesbian world. Kinsey asked Scotty to show him around and bring him into these hidden places where a lot of homosexual activity was happening ... Homosexuality was considered by the medical community to be a mental illness ... All of this activity was happening covertly. Scotty knew the map of this covert world and Kinsey relied upon him to show him that world.

On the myths around famous people, and what they hide

Yes, it's fascinating to me how enduring the myths of the so-called golden age of Hollywood are. But the publicity department of the studio system really did its job, because the better part of 100 years later, a lot of people are still clinging to these myths about the strict heterosexual, heteronormative lifestyles of the stars. One of the assertions that Scotty makes is that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy weren't really a couple — that she was mostly lesbian, and he [Scotty] had a homosexual affair with Tracy over a number of years. And this is myth-busting, but the disruption of these myths is still troubling to people — there's been pushback.

It's very interesting to me, if not a bit alarming, that people want to cling to a sort of straight-washed history as it pertains to the reputations of movie stars such as Hepburn and Tracy. If you think that Hepburn and Tracy are great, important figures — which I happen to think — don't you want to know every aspect of their biography? Why would we want a cleaned-up, straight-washed biography of Katharine Hepburn? It makes no sense, and frankly, I feel that this pushback that's starting to emerge as the film goes out into movie theaters is a form of homophobia.

On the role of Scotty Bowers in changing perceptions about Hollywood history

Well, it's very valuable to have someone who was an eyewitness to all of this. So he provides a primary source that fills in the blanks that were intentionally left out. And I think he does a great service by revealing the full picture that was obscured by the studios' publicity department[s], and in many cases by these great figures themselves who had to live in fear of being exposed and ruined just because they were trying to live an authentic life.

Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cecilia Lei and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After World War II, a Hollywood gas station became the center of that city's hidden sex life. Scotty Bowers was an attendant there.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SCOTTY AND THE SECRET HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD")

SCOTTY BOWERS: One day, Cary Grant was in the gas station. And Rock Hudson just happened to be there. Cary Grant picked him out, so I fixed him up with Rock for 20 bucks. And Rock saw him several times. This was before Rock had any money.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Bowers knew them all - Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Vivien Leigh and so many others from the golden age of Hollywood. In the new documentary "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood," director Matt Tyrnauer tells the story of Bowers and how Bowers became a central figure in Hollywood's underground gay and lesbian community.

MATT TYRNAUER: Scotty Bowers is now 95. He was mustered out of the Marine Corps at the end of the Second World War, landed in Hollywood and got a job at the Richfield gas station on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness. But he was doing much more at this gas station than just filling up cars and washing windows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed.

TYRNAUER: He became what was known as the pimp to the stars or the male madam to the stars in the post-war period all the way up until, really, the 1980s.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he worked at this gas station, and that really, as you mentioned, launched him into this secret world that included so many Hollywood stars. Can you tell us some of those stories? Who did he intersect with? And what was he doing?

TYRNAUER: Well, the first thing to know is that the stars of Hollywood were restricted by morals clauses in their contracts, so if you had anything other than a heteronormative lifestyle, you were not really permitted to be public about that. So there was a need for a sort of sexual underground in Hollywood. Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood who are immortal names passed by this gas station and used his services.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOTORIOUS")

CARY GRANT: (As Devlin) Don't you need a coat?

INGRID BERGMAN: (As Alicia) You'll do.

TYRNAUER: Cary Grant, for instance, literary figures such as Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. And he was really a protector of these people's reputations because not only were there morals clauses in these contracts that could lead to their career ruin, there was also the vice squad, which was run by the Los Angeles Police Department at the time and was sort of like a sexual Gestapo that was out to shake down famous people and collude with the press to ruin lives and reputations.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And he never took money for making those connections, did he? I mean, he turned tricks himself. But he didn't actually take money for connecting people.

TYRNAUER: Yeah. That was the way it worked. So he really wasn't, in the classic sense, a pimp. But Scotty really served a purpose in the community. Recently, the mayor of West Hollywood honored Scotty by making him an honorary citizen of the town. So now some 80 years after he started his brothel, he's being recognized as a kind of equal rights and gay rights icon in that place.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, even though he talked about a story much later in the book that he wrote and in your documentary, at the time, he kept everyone's secrets for decades.

TYRNAUER: Yes. What I came to realize very quickly - because I met him through Gore Vidal, who met him in 1947 at the gas station - that these were really lasting and important friendships that he had with some of the great people of the town. And that, in his prime, included people like George Cukor, who was the - one of the top directors of the era. And Scotty was integral to someone like Cukor's life. He not only was a sex worker for Cukor, but he was a man of all work, so he would trim the trees and, you know, go Christmas shopping, pick him up at the airport. So he was a trusted person. And when you had to live your life in the shadows like this but were also prominent, imagine how important someone who could be trusted in all aspects, including the secret aspects of your life, could be.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Some of the stories that he talks about have been rumored for a long time, like Cary Grant, but others not as much. How do you know Scotty's stories are true?

TYRNAUER: He wrote a memoir some years ago. And it provided no proof. It was a collection of memories. When I start to interview him, which I did over the course of two years, I began to find corroboration in my independent research. And this came in many forms. The first thing I asked them when I met him was, are there any people alive who were at the gas station when you were operating it as a covert brothel? And he said, yes. There are. I was very surprised to hear this, so the first thing we did was go visit those people. And over the course of a few months, I met, I think, seven people who were present in the '40s, '50s and '60s and witnessed this. So they provided corroboration - and very specific in some cases. For instance, Charles Laughton had autographed books and a script to "Witness For The Prosecution" for one of the sex workers who appears in the film. He revealed that he had run lines with Laughton for "Witness For The Prosecution."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION")

TYRONE POWER: (As Leonard Vole) So now they say that I did have a motive.

CHARLES LAUGHTON: (As Sir Wilfrid Roberts) They will, indeed. Eighty thousand pounds makes for a very handsome motive.

TYRNAUER: And so this began to give me a window into exactly what this world was like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What you ultimately reveal, though, is not only about the sex lives of Hollywood's most famous. But it's about Scotty Bowers' own history. He, by any measure, had some terrible things happen to him. He was sexually abused by his teacher when he was about 11. He denies it was abuse and denies it was the reason he got into the life he did. But that happened to him. He lost his daughter when she was only 23 years old to an illegal abortion. And he was in a violent period of World War II.

TYRNAUER: He's a survivor who, interestingly, doesn't want to be recognized as a victim. He's very intent on saying that he was very aware of everything that was happening - and was all his choice. I let him speak his own truth in the film. I question him on it on several occasions. And it's an unusual perspective for us to hear today. But it's very much his own perspective.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, hearing Scotty's story made me think about the myths that we create about famous people and how there always seems to be more to the story, a secret person we actually didn't know anything about. This film refers to Scotty as an urban legend. And it is an urban legend that ended up being true.

TYRNAUER: Yes. It's fascinating to me how enduring the myths of the so-called golden age of Hollywood are. But the publicity department of the studio system really did its job because the better part of a hundred years later, a lot of people are still clinging to these myths about the strict heterosexual, heteronormative lifestyles of the great stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ADAM'S RIB")

SPENCER TRACY: (As Adam) Where do you want to go tonight?

KATHARINE HEPBURN: (As Amanda) No place. I want to stay home tonight.

TRACY: (As Adam) What?

HEPBURN: (As Amanda) Would you mind?

TRACY: (As Adam) What?

HEPBURN: (As Amanda) Please?

TRACY: (As Adam) Well, I don't know.

HEPBURN: (As Amanda) Cook up something ourselves - something exotic. How would you care for some of that?

TRACY: (As Adam) Oh, I would.

TYRNAUER: One of the assertions that Scotty makes is that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy weren't really a couple, that she was mostly lesbian. And he had a homosexual affair with Tracy over a number of years. And this is myth busting. But the disruption of these myths is still troubling to people. There has been pushback.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you take away from that?

TYRNAUER: It's very interesting to me, if not a bit alarming, that people want to cling to a sort of straight-washed history as it pertains to the reputations of movie stars such as Hepburn and Tracy. If you think that Hepburn and Tracy are great, important figures, which I happen to think, don't you want to know every aspect of their biography? Why would we want a cleaned-up, straight-washed biography of Katharine Hepburn? It makes no sense. And frankly, I feel that this pushback that's starting to emerge as the film goes out into movie theaters is a form of homophobia.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Scotty's still alive. And I'm wondering what you think his role is in changing those perceptions now that you've spent so much time with him.

TYRNAUER: Well, it's very valuable to have someone who was an eyewitness to all of this, so he provides a primary source that fills in the blanks that were intentionally left out. And I think he does a great service by revealing the full picture that was obscured by the studio's publicity department and, in many cases, by these great figures themselves who had to live in fear of being exposed and ruined just because they were trying to live an authentic life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Matt Tyrnauer. His documentary is "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood." Thank you very much.

TYRNAUER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.