Let’s state the obvious: Being a gay celebrity during the days of Old Hollywood was no walk in the park. Behind Tinseltown’s glitzy facade loomed the specter of Hollywood’s "sexual gestapo," a term coined by Matt Tyrnauer, director of the documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (via NPR). "It was very difficult," he said, "for people to have authentic lives." And Tyrnauer should know: His film profiled L.A. personality Scotty Bowers, who reportedly acted as a "confidante, friend, and pimp for Hollywood’s closeted movie stars."
The threat of exposure was real and ever-present for these entertainers. Per Tyrnauer, studio contracts contained so-called "moral clauses" that could instantly vaporize a lucrative career. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department’s vice squad were all too willing to bust celebrities, often working in cahoots with the press in their quest to hobble reputations.
Definitively name-checking these stars is impossible, as they were all in the closet throughout their careers. SFGate cannily suggested that "gossip is where the real truth lies" in this arena, and there’s plenty of gossip to spare. Bowers has proven to be loose-lipped on the subject, and sordid "tell-alls" like the Hollywood Babylon series — written by author and filmmaker Kenneth Anger — have kept the speculation swirling for decades. Here’s a roundup of Old Hollywood stars who were reportedly gay.
James Dean’s alleged Old Hollywood relationship with Marlon Brando
Actor James Dean reportedly dodged the draft during the Korean war by "[kissing] the medic," as he is said to have quipped to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (via Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon II). As could be expected given that statement, Dean reportedly had to address rumors about his sexuality during his lifetime. According to Salon, Dean once claimed, "No, I’m not homosexual, but I am also not going through life with one hand tied behind my back."
Judging by other reports, Dean may have occasionally enjoyed going through life with both hands tied behind his back. In the biography James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes, authors Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince alleged that Dean enjoyed "kinky sado-masochistic sex" with actor Marlon Brando (via Express). He’d reportedly wait outside Brando’s apartment like a "puppy dog," and ask Brando to burn him with cigarettes during sex (per the Daily Mail). Composer Alec Wilder claimed "they were definitely a couple," adding, "Of course, the words ‘sexual fidelity’ would be unknown in each of their vocabularies."
Brando wasn’t Dean’s only alleged same-sex conquest. Talking to Ronald Martinetti for his biography, The James Dean Story, advertising exec Rogers Brackett claimed, "I loved him, and Jimmy loved me" (via Salon). In the book James Dean: The Biography, author Val Holley claimed Brackett "took [Dean] in when almost no one else believed in him" and felt their relationship was the real deal, as noted by Real James Dean.
Marilyn Monroe’s alleged same-sex love affairs
In her 2012 book, Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox, author Lois Banner claims Marilyn Monroe "desired women, had affairs with them, and worried that she might be lesbian by nature" (via The Guardian). In her lifetime, Monroe allegedly enjoyed sexual dalliances with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Stanwyck, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford, according to Michelle Morgan’s biography Marilyn Monroe: Private And Undisclosed (via the Daily Mail). In regards to that last escapade, transcripts of Monroe’s therapy sessions with Dr. Ralph Greenson suggest that she once bragged, saying, "Oh yes, Crawford. We went to Joan’s bedroom. Crawford had a gigantic orgasm and shrieked like a maniac." Meanwhile, Judy Garland reportedly claimed Monroe pursued her at a party. "Marilyn followed me from room to room," she’s quoted as saying.
After Monroe and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio divorced in 1954, he reportedly told journalist Walter Winchell that their relationship ended because of Monroe’s preference for women. The actress reportedly bedded two of her acting teachers, Paula Strasberg and Natasha Lytess, and reportedly dumped the latter in a "brutal" fashion, refusing to take Lytess’ calls. "I was the older one, the teacher, but she knew the depth of my attachment to her," Lytess later said of the relationship. "She exploited those feelings as only a beautiful younger person can."
Opening up further about the end of the affair, Lytess claimed, "She said she was the needy one. Alas, it was the reverse."
Old Hollywood star Spencer Tracy’s supposed secret life
In October 2016, Vanity Fair effectively "outed" Boys Town actor Spencer Tracy by publishing an excerpt of the book, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J. Mann. It was Scotty Bowers — the aforementioned "pimp for Hollywood’s closeted movie stars" (via NPR) — who first shared this particular piece of gossip with the author. Bowers claimed Tracy was one of several stars he "serviced" out of a gas station located on Hollywood Boulevard and North Van Ness Avenue, and he swore he slept with Tracy "on numerous occasions."
At the opening-night party for the documentary, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, in August 2018, IndieWire reportedly asked Bowers a particularly pointed question: "So how gay was Spencer Tracy?" Bowers gamely replied, "He got drunk and thanked the man beside him in the morning for taking care of him."
To that end, there are rumors that Tracy and Kate Hepburn’s alleged decades-long affair wasn’t quite what it seemed. "Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay," activist and author Larry Kramer told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. "They were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true, but of course I haven’t seen it printed anywhere."
Katherine Hepburn reportedly got bored easily
While we’re on the subject of Katherine Hepburn, the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner star reportedly had an insatiable appetite for women, according to former "pimp" and Full Service author Scotty Bowers (via BuzzFeed). He claimed a typical request from Hepburn would sound something like this: "When you get a chance, do you think you can find a nice young dark-haired girl for me? Someone that’s not too heavily made-up."
Bowers and Hepburn allegedly became quite chummy over the course of five decades, and the author claimed to have procured "over 150 different women" for the four-time Oscar winner. He also suggested that Hepburn was rather fickle and would only see each woman "once or twice, and then tire of them."
However, Hepburn reportedly became smitten with a 17-year-old beauty named Barbara, and she allegedly purchased her "a brand-new two-toned Ford Fairlane" as a present. Allegedly, the two ladies continued to meet up for 49 years. According to BuzzFeed, Barbara received "a letter" from the actress’ attorneys three months before Hepburn’s death in June 2003. The mysterious mail allegedly included a $100,000 check.
Marlon Brando allegedly thought homosexuality was all the rage
In his 1976 autobiography, Marlon Brando: The Only Contender, the late actor raised eyebrows by telling journalist Gary Carey, "Homosexuality is so much in fashion, it no longer makes news" (via Newsweek). He went on to proudly boast, "Like a large number of men, I, too, have had homosexual experiences, and I am not ashamed. I have never paid much attention to what people think about me."
If even half the rumors are true, Brando had plenty of male companionship during his lifetime. According to Express, Brando was said to have had relationships with the likes of Cary Grant, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Meanwhile, during a sprawling February 2018 interview with Vulture, producer Quincy Jones claimed the actor would happily have sex with just about anybody within spitting distance: "He’d f**k a mailbox. James Baldwin. Richard Pryor. Marvin Gaye."
While mailboxes have stayed mum on the subject, Richard Pryor’s widow claimed Brando did, in fact, have a sexual liaison with her late husband back in the day. "It was the ’70s!" Jennifer Pryor told TMZ. "Drugs were still good, especially quaaludes. If you did enough cocaine, you’d f**k a radiator and send it flowers in the morning."
Barbara Stanwyck’s cloudy sexuality remained Old Hollywood speculation
One thing is clear: There’s no shortage of biographers eager to speculate about Barbara Stanwyck’s sexuality. According to biographer Axel Madsen, the actress was widely suspected to be "Hollywood’s biggest closeted lesbian," as reported by Out. For years, rumors reportedly swirled that her unions to Robert Taylor and Frank Fay were so-called "lavender marriages" arranged by studio brass to conceal her secret. Meanwhile, in her book, The Life and Loves of Barbara Stanwyck, author Jane Ellen Wayne suggests Stanwyck was "most likely … bisexual" (via Express). And then there’s Diana McLellan’s 2000 exposé. The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, which claimed that actress Tallulah Bankhead admitted that she’d had a romantic romp with Stanwyck (per SFGate).
In her lifetime, Stanwyck proved unwilling to open up about her sexuality. At least, she didn’t want to discuss it with the likes of author Boze Hadleigh, as she once reportedly ejected him from her house when he prodded her on the issue. As Out reported, Hadleigh allegedly asked if she believed "bisexuality was very widespread among female stars during Hollywood’s heyday," leading Stanwyck to offer this demure deflection: "I heard that Dietrich, Garbo, most of the girls from Europe, swing either way. Then I found out it’s true."
Hadleigh then hungrily asked, "You found out?" But Stanwyck wouldn’t take the bait. "Next!" she cried, and that was that. Remarking on that interview, Time likened Hadleigh’s questioning to "senior abuse."
Anthony Perkins: his alleged behind-the-scenes boyfriends
Although Psycho star Anthony Perkins was married to photographer Berry Berenson and had two children (via Entertainment Weekly), he was reportedly "carrying on" with fellow actor Tab Hunter, as reported by BuzzFeed. This claim comes from artist Don Bachardy, who talked to author Charles Winecoff for the biography, Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins.
The ever-chatty Scotty Bowers seemingly confirmed this, claiming that Perkins was constantly on the lookout for handsome young men. "He always wanted someone different," Bowers said, recalling Perkins allegedly asking, "Who do you have for me for tomorrow night that will surprise me? Anything really new?"
According to cameraman Leonard Smith, Hunter visited Perkins on set several times a week to grab lunch. Unfortunately, crew members were allegedly unkind about the relationship. "Of course, Tony was upset," Smith said. "He’d go off to his dressing room, and answer them in a way that said he didn’t want any more of it. If guys made cracks, he’d get upset and just walk away from them."
Greta Garbo’s ‘exciting’ Old Hollywood secret
In her book, The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, journalist Diana McLellan spent five years researching A-list lesbian love affairs of Old Hollywood (via The New York Times). Poring over newspaper articles, "long-secret government documents," and reams of correspondence, McLellan unearthed evidence that suggested actresses Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich enjoyed a romance when Garbo was 19 years old. McLellan suspects the alleged dalliance informed much of Garbo’s life from that point onward, including her mystique, inscrutability, and "obsession with privacy."
While filming the 1925 silent film The Joyless Street, Dietrich — who McLellan claimed possessed a "compulsive appetite for the sexual seduction of other beautiful women" — reportedly bedded "the simple, sensitive nineteen-year-old Swede." Meanwhile, Garbo reportedly referred to lesbian love affairs as "exciting secrets."
In 2005, The Guardian reported that private letters implied Garbo had lived the better part of her existence "in isolation and despair" and pining for actress Mimi Pollak, who she knew from drama school. One letter, written by Garbo to the then-married Pollak in 1928, allegedly read: "I dream of seeing you and discovering whether you still care as much about your old bachelor. I love you, little Mimosa."
Was Montgomery Clift really as tortured as they say?
The prevailing myth about actor Montgomery Clift is that he was an almost supernaturally talented actor who was nonetheless being devoured from the inside out. The Guardian noted that one "overheated tabloid TV show" once ventured to paint Clift as "a drug-addicted alcoholic living in a self-imposed hell because he had a secret he couldn’t live with."
But in the documentary, Making Montgomery Clift, a different picture of the A Place in the Sun star emerged (via The Advocate). The film argues that Clift was actually comfortable enough in his own skin to be openly affectionate with other men, and he allegedly wasn’t overly concerned with his sexuality at all. Actor Jack Larson, one of Clift’s alleged former partners, claimed his day-to-day personality stood in sharp contrast to the brooding figure we saw on the silver screen. Larson quipped that Clift "was closer to Jerry Lewis on-screen than he was to Montgomery Clift on-screen," adding, "He was very much a clown himself."
In fact, Clift was such a free spirit — and so ahead of his time — that he reportedly refused to sign any studio contract that might stipulate that he get married or that could force him to take roles he didn’t feel suited for. Hillary Demmon, who co-produced and co-directed the film with Montgomery’s nephew, Robert Clift, said that the Hollywood studio system was "definitely not accustomed to that level of independence."
Old Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead’s ‘close friendship’ with women
It’s a line that would still break the ice today. According to The Daily Beast, actress Tallulah Bankhead would often introduce herself at soirees by saying, "I’m a lesbian. What do you do?" This was evidently a sly response to the actress’ alleged same-sex dalliances — her "close friendships" — being inelegantly remarked upon in a magazine called Broadway Brevities. Her purported tryst with actress Eva Le Gallienne had reportedly been something of a scandal during Bankhead’s lifetime.
The actress — who reportedly quipped, "I want to try everything once" and "conventional sex gives me claustrophobia" — allegedly had an affair with comedic actress Patsy Kelly, who made a career out of playing sassy maids on the silver screen (via SFGate). Kelly was willing to share her story with Boze Hadleigh while the author researched his 1994 book, Hollywood Lesbians.
Kelly said she’d enjoyed a relationship with Bankhead for many years. "It was on and off and mostly it depended on Tallulah’s mood," she claimed. "When she’d get caught up with a man, she’d go quite hetero on us."
Cary Grant and those long-standing Old Hollywood rumors
If reports are to be believed, North by Northwest star Cary Grant swung both ways. According to the documentary, Women He’s Undressed, Grant used to shack up in "a Greenwich Village love nest" with Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly (via the New York Post). That documentary — and Orry-Kelly’s memoir on which it’s based — paints Grant as a former vaudeville star who was forced to repress his sexuality in order to conform to the homophobic Hollywood studio system.
Kelly was reportedly seven years Grant’s senior, and he first met the entertainer when he was still known as Archibald Leach, shortly before he turned 21 on Jan. 18, 1925. Recently ousted from a boarding home after failing to pay his rent, Grant (and his "tin box" of possessions) reportedly moved into Kelly’s place. Prior to making it in Hollywood, Grant reportedly worked as a carnival barker, an escort, a member of a "stilt-walking troupe," and even helped stencil the ties Kelly made by hand.
The relationship reportedly ebbed and flowed over the course of three decades, with Kelly growing increasingly resentful of Grant’s predilection for blonde women. Their relationship even allegedly became abusive at times. "A combination of self-loathing and confusion was manifested in a punch-up," Katherine Thompson, the writer of the documentary, told the Post. She claimed Grant even threw "Kelly out of a moving vehicle" during a particularly heated moment.
Rock Hudson was one man’s ‘sweetheart’
On the 30th anniversary of Rock Hudson’s death on Oct. 2, 1985, People magazine interviewed Lee Garlington, a "retired stockbroker" who reportedly dated the legendary leading man between 1962 and 1965. "He was a sweetheart," Garlington said, claiming the romance blossomed from the moment their eyes first met. Hudson and Garlington would regularly attend film premieres together, and they always had female dates firmly affixed to their arms. "Nobody in their right mind came out," Garlington told the magazine. "It was career suicide. We all pretended to be straight."
Though Hudson wasn’t overly "paranoid" about people discovering his secret gay romance, he reportedly became unnerved after a female admirer broke into his home and napped in his bed while the men were taking a road trip. "In a drawer on a side table were pictures of me with no shirt on," Garlington revealed. "She didn’t find them, but it shook him up. He realized he was vulnerable. He put gates on the house after that."
The couple ultimately called it quits because Garlington longed for "a father figure" and Hudson, who stood 6’4", was more of "a gentle giant" and "not strong enough." Following his death, Garlington read in a biography that the Old Hollywood actor had called him his "true love." "I broke down and cried," he told People, admitting that he "had no idea I meant that much to him."
Marlene Dietrich’s alleged Old Hollywood affairs
Marlene Dietrich had a lot more in common with Greta Garbo than a European accent and a career as an entertainer. The German cabaret singer and Touch of Evil star had a fondness for the same sex, and in a way, it makes perfect sense that the pair allegedly embarked on a secretive affair. In The Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood (via The New York Times), journalist Diana McLellan alleges that their relationship ended so poorly that Garbo "refused to acknowledge Dietrich’s existence for the rest of their lives." Essentially, the star pulled a total Mariah Carey and pretended they had never met, even though they both also reportedly had relationships with poet Mercedes de Acosta and writer Erich Maria Remarque at the same time.
Dietrich’s daughter, Maria Riva, opened up more about her mother’s sexuality in a 1992 tell-all book (via The Rake). Though the star remained married to film producer Rudolf Sieber, Riva admitted her mother had affairs with men as "a way of controlling and manipulating them," and not because she enjoyed it. Instead, her affairs with women were allegedly "much more satisfying for her" — though critics were hesitant to label Dietrich as bisexual. As film critic Kenneth Tynan once remarked (via The Rake), "[Dietrich] has sex without gender."
Cesar Romero was not your average Old Hollywood bachelor
Cesar Romero, who’s best known as the Joker in the classic Batman TV series, was undeniably tall, dark, and handsome. What else would you expect from a person who starred in a film called Tall, Dark, and Handsome? For one generation, he was a comic book villain, but for another, he was a dreamy Latin lover — both in his typecast roles and the tabloids, which regularly spotted him about town with various gorgeous women. Despite his reputation as a bachelor, Romero’s sexuality was reportedly one of Hollywood’s worst kept secrets.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, the actor allegedly opened up to Hollywood Gays author Boze Hadleigh and claimed to have had what the outlet called a "wide-ranging gay sex life," despite being regularly papped with actresses. Hadleigh also claimed (via World of Wonder) that Romero, who was closeted to fans and colleagues, had a fling with I Love Lucy star Desi Arnaz, as well as a rumored relationship with Tyrone Power.
Those aren’t the only rumors kicking around about the film star. Comedian Gilbert Gottfried, who apparently is an authority on old Hollywood gossip, revealed some salacious hearsay about Romero to HuffPost: "I don’t know if it’s true … I don’t care. I want it to be true … Someone said that [Romero] was turned on by dropping his pants and having young boys throw orange slices at his a**." Of course, Gottfried’s account has not been verified by literally anyone.
Ramon Novarro was outed by his highly publicized murder
Ramon Novarro, the silent film star behind Ben-Hur and The Pagan, is widely regarded as one of Hollywood’s first gay icons. However, the star remained closeted throughout his life, which came to a tragic demise in 1968. At the time of his death, Out reports, he was 69 years old, his career had fizzled out after more than three decades of alcoholism, and he was receiving unemployment.
According to the media outlet, Novarro regularly used an escort service and disguised the checks as payment for "gardening" services. "He was a discreet homosexual," said deputy district attorney James Ideman (via Out). "He did not go into the streets and try to pick up people. The young male prostitutes would come to his home." Two of these men were brothers and known hustlers Paul and Tom Ferguson, who, according to a 1997 issue of The Advocate — which described Novarro’s death as "one of the most sensational gay celebrity murder cases ever reported" — killed the star in his California home. Though they visited under the pretense of sex, they planned to steal money they believed was hidden inside Novarro’s ranch-style downsize (in other words: this money didn’t exist).
Per Out’s profile, after the brothers left, Novarro’s secretary found him nude and severely beaten. The words "US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN [F****TS]" were scrawled in makeup pencil across the mirror. Both brothers were ultimately found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The films were silent, but this door slam made some noise
According to History, there was an era when Hollywood studios would marry off their LGBTQ+ stars to conceal their real sexuality. One of these was Checkers actress Jean Acker, who married Rudolph Valentino. At the time, Acker was notably more famous than The Sheik star, who eventually became one of the biggest silent film actors of the era. Per the Independent, he was subject to similar speculation about his own sexuality, but this doesn’t seem to be where the pair connected.
The New York Times reports that the couple had a "marriage of convenience." Valentino believed the lesbian actress might help his career, and they wed on a whim. The night of their wedding, Acker reportedly "slammed the door in his face." According to PopSugar, "they never consummated their marriage," and Valentino failed to understand his wife’s true sexuality. Initially undeterred, he continued to write her love letters for months after their nuptials, but at the time of the wedding, the actress was reportedly in a "lesbian love triangle." Simply put, she allegedly got hitched to save herself from any potential scandal surrounding her sexuality, instantly regretted the decision, and, unsurprisingly, the two divorced not long after.