Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Documentary Reveals The 'Secret History' Of Hollywood Pimp Scotty Bowers


This is FRESH AIR. In 2012, the best-selling memoir "Full Service: My Adventures In Hollywood And The Secret Sex Lives Of The Stars" told of the sexual exploits of Scotty Bowers, alternately dubbed Hollywood's gentleman hustler and the pimp to the stars. Now the journalist and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer made a documentary of Bower's life called "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood." Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Scotty Bowers says he didn't take money for being the pimp to the stars, beginning in 1946, when fresh from the Marines, he bought a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard that was the sight of many assignations - some in a backyard trailer, some in a next-door motel. He did accept gifts, lavish ones. But in Matt Tyrnauer's documentary, "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood," he says he just wanted to make people happy, especially men who wanted men and women who wanted women, but would lose their careers, families and, in those days, freedom, if their orientation were known. They're all dead now, which is why Bowers says he published a memoir in 2012 called "Full Service: My Adventures In Hollywood And The Secret Sex Lives Of The Stars" and why he's willing to open his life to cameras.

The documentary begins at his 90th birthday party at Hollywood's Chateau Marmont, after which Tyrnauer follows him to book signings, where he's met by people he knew from way back, as well as some who object to his outing lovers. Some names won't surprise you - Cole Porter, J. Edgar Hoover on visits to Hollywood, Charles Laughton. Cary Grant looms large. One sequence features Grant in a fluffy woman's robe in "Bringing Up Baby" along with comments from Bowers, David Khune (ph), an agent and one of the film's executive producers, and actor Stephen Fry. You'll also hear Spencer Tracy from a movie with Katharine Hepburn.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I met Cary Grant first, then Randolph Scott. Back in those days, people knew they were lovers.


CARY GRANT: (As David) I've lost my clothes.

MAY ROBSON: (As Aunt Elizabeth) But why are you wearing these clothes?

GRANT: (As David) Because I just went gay all of a sudden.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: People are very invested in the establishment view of Hollywood movie star history, which Scotty's story retells in an honest way and in a way that's more true to what was going on.

SCOTTY BOWERS: Ninety percent of jobs could be lost from being gay. You were in the closet, basically. So many people were. This is why what I did at the gas station was so nice for people.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You don't think this thing is going to get around? You don't think everybody's going to know about it? I won't even be able to show my face in Lindy's (ph).

STEPHEN FRY: People get very angry at the idea of these beloved Hollywood icons being revealed to have secrets. But actually, all it is that Scotty's doing is revealing that these people were real. They were actual people, flesh and blood like us.

EDELSTEIN: Like us, says Stephen Fry. But Bowers says Spencer Tracy didn't want to be like them and struggled with his homosexuality. To deflect suspicion, the married Tracy cooked up a fake scandal - an involvement with Hepburn, with whom he never slept. Bowers fixed up Hepburn with women. The late gay columnist Liz Smith said Hepburn slept with many. Another surprise is King Edward VII, Duke of Windsor, after he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. Bowers says he fixed the duke up with men and the duchess with women, putting a different spin on the abdication story.

Oh, but are we sure it's true? Witness after witness says yes, among them, longtime Variety editor Peter Bart. But if you go into "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood" hoping just for dirt, you'll get less than you expect. This is a profile documentary. It's mainly about the man, how he came to do what he did and what he does now in failing health. The result is sometimes meandering. Bowers trudges through his house overlooking downtown Los Angeles, somehow avoiding the piles of trash he's accumulated. His current wife, a lounge singer, is visibly uncomfortable and says she might not have married Bowers if she'd known his history. That's a little creepy.

Slowly, Tyrnauer fills in Bowers' backstory. At 11, he was sexually abused by an adult neighbor, except Bowers refuses to call it abuse and denies he was damaged. He says when a priest took a shine to him, he made money off the exchange, then set up the priest's friends. Bowers then survived the hellacious Battle of Iwo Jima. Some men came home, built picket fences and gave us the 1950s we've been told was the real America. Others, like Bowers, came back with zero illusions. After what he'd lived through, he saw nothing wrong with pimping, say, fellow Marines or Hollywood hopefuls like the young Rock Hudson. He only feels bad about the woman he was married to for 30 years and rarely spent nights with, that and the daughter who bled to death at 23 after an illegal abortion.

The power of "Scotty And The Secret History Of Hollywood" is cumulative. After a while, those piles of trash seem metaphorical, the attempt of a man who made everyone happy to keep his own unhappiness at bay. Tyrnauer suggests that Scotty Bowers is profoundly damaged, but so many forces acted on him and coalesce in his story, from child sexual abuse to the horror of war, to the corrosive effects of homophobia. This superb documentary turns out to be as sympathetic as it is lurid.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. If you'd like to listen to interviews you've missed, like our interview with Michael Scott Moore about being kidnapped by Somali pirates, or with actor Tony Shalhoub, who's nominated for an Emmy for his role in the Amazon series "The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," check out our podcast where you'll find those interviews and many others. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.