Regardless of how much you know about classic Hollywood, the new documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood has seemingly set out to upend it. Focusing on Scotty Bowers, the gas-station attendant and “pimp to the stars,” the documentary, which opened last week in Los Angeles and will open Friday in New York, unearths tales from a hidden, and largely undiscussed, queer corner of the movie business. There, stars carried out same-sex affairs with hustlers, and Scotty orchestrated seemingly everything, while sleeping with men and women alike and working at a gas station. Bowers first published his memoir in 2012, but the details of the documentary, including stories about Cary Grant’s affairs with men and Katharine Hepburn’s with women, have recently made headlines. Vulture spoke with director and Vanity Fair correspondent Matt Tyrnauer to hear the story behind the Secret History, including how he first heard about Bowers, why he feels it’s appropriate to discuss the sex lives of Hollywood stars, and what didn’t make the cut in the film.
How did you first hear about Scotty Bowers?
Working on features for Vanity Fair about figures in Hollywood, I would hear about this mysterious gas station. Then one day I was in the living room of Gore Vidal in the Hollywood Hills. He was a friend of mine and I eventually became his literary executor. He, apropos of nothing, blurted out, “I want to find Scotty.” I said, “Who’s Scotty?” He said, “Scotty was my pimp.” “Well, tell me more.” He said, “Well he had a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard,” and then of course the light bulb went off and I went, this is the same person. One day I arrived at Vidal’s house and Scotty was in the living room. I met him. I found an extremely vital guy with a twinkle in his blue eyes, a very spry I think 89 at that time. I basically started making the movie that day. We began filming on his 90th birthday, which was soon after that.
Was it hard to convince him to talk about his past on-camera?
I didn’t know how willing he’d be to open up. What ended up happening is in the first interview he was so brilliant and I was so thankful, I said, “Well would you do more?” He would say, “Oh, you know me, I’m an open book, baby.” I think there was a level of comfort because of our mutual friendship with Gore Vidal. He met Gore Vidal in 1947 at the gas station. They were close in the way that Scotty and George Cukor were close. He really had these very deep friendships and long lasting relationships with very great figures, in Hollywood and in some cases, literary circles.
It seems like Scotty has so many stories. How did you decide what to include?
There were certain figures from Hollywood who I thought had to be in the movie because they’re truly great figures. Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy. They are the big three. These people’s fame happened the better part of 100 years ago. They are still immortal names in my opinion, figures of great historical significance. If you keep a running list of everyone Scotty mentions in his many narratives of Old Hollywood, the list is in the many hundreds. There were a lot of names and a lot of stories that just weren’t going to be in the movie.
Some people who were left out were at the top of the movie star heap, like Tyrone Power, who Scotty had a lot to do with. He met Tyrone Power in the Marines and had doings with him in San Diego in and around the marine bases during the war. That ended up on the cutting-room floor. He’s not as famous today as Cary Grant is, and because he was someone who Scotty met early, he was very much in the first act of the film. But it just seemed like it was too much [for the audience to absorb at once].
A lot of variations on that explanation applied to many, many people. Tennessee Williams, for instance, is not mentioned in the film. He’s pictured briefly. Liberace is not mentioned. Deborah Kerr is not in the film. There were lots of experiences with Roddy McDowall. There was one moment when we were in Scotty’s very crowded home and he opened the freezer and pulled out a box of poppers from possibly the 1960s. He said, “These were Roddy McDowall’s poppers. I used to go pick them up for him and I never gave him these.” This is truly a historic item in the history of homosexuality.
The movie discusses how many people got angry at Scotty after his book was published in 2012 for revealing the secret lives of these often beloved Hollywood figures. What were you considering when you’re discussing their sex lives?
We’re dealing with historical figures. That’s how I approached it. Movies are an important story. The history of Hollywood’s an important story. The history of movies and the way they changed the world is an important story. The most famous people in the movies of that period were probably Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn.
Because they’re historical figures and they’re studied and written about at length to this day in serious works of biography, and their name comes up in the popular culture on a daily basis, whether it’s on a Turner Classic Movies blog or a Facebook post or a tweet, it means that they’re still relevant to the culture. So, when you approach them as historical figures, it’s the responsibility of the biographer or the synthesizer and interpreter of information about this period to include all information about them. Why is what Cary Grant did in his personal life offscreen relevant when it’s a heterosexual scenario, but forbade as a topic when it’s same-sex related? To claim that is homophobia. I don’t understand why it’s acceptable, frankly.
It comes up with Cary Grant in a kind of glib way where women of a certain generation have frequently protested to me, “You’re ruining my image of Cary Grant. Please don’t do that.” Now I take that as good humor, but we have to question why that is. Why should we straightwash the history of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn? It’s what Gore Vidal used to call the heterosexual dictatorship. Now we know better. We’re in an era of much more openness and it’s time that the full biography of these great people is known. Scotty is not a secondary source. He’s a primary source, so he’s really doing a great service by telling us what was going on in other aspects of these historic figures’ lives.
How did you fact-check Scotty’s claims?
I’m a journalist by training and I found corroboration for everything that’s in the film. There are many different varieties of this. The most direct one that is in the film is the Cecil Beaton diaries. Scotty says he had a long relationship with Cecil Beaton. Cecil Beaton writes about Scotty in his diary and makes it very clear. There’s a chapter in Cecil Beaton’s 1960s volume and the chapter heading is “Scotty.” Scotty didn’t know about it. Someone sent him the book and that’s how he found out about it.
Scotty said at one point that Noël Coward brought him to Fiji in the ’50s from Los Angeles. Then he tells an anecdote about Noël Coward taking a boat in Fiji and groping the pilot of the boat. I look up the Noël Coward diaries, which are heavily expurgated, and in the 1950s, Noël Coward is in Los Angeles, according to his diary, and then flies to Fiji and takes a boat. Scotty Bowers is not mentioned in that passage, nor is he mentioned in the Noël Coward diaries, but doesn’t that tell you something about the expurgation of the Noël Coward diaries? Doesn’t that tell you something about the so-called history of Hollywood? It’s that these people who were gay or lesbian in their published diaries are leaving out the Scotty Bowers part, because it wasn’t polite to talk about. But he was there.
Did learning about this information change your understanding of how Hollywood functioned, with the notion that there was a gay world within it largely hidden from sight?
Yes. For instance, there were a lot of people who worked together who probably met through Scotty or were connected to Scotty. It shows up in films. There’s some instances where the credits, there are three or four of his clients who are just next to each other in the credits of all these films. There’s one in Laura, there’s a scene with Vincent Price, Dame Judith Anderson, and Clifton Webb. Those three people were major clients of Scotty, and there they are together. Whether they knew that about each other is a question I can’t answer, but it’s like watching movies in a parallel universe once you know the information that he tells you.
It’s interesting that you refer to this as a “gay and lesbian Hollywood,” because Scotty himself in the documentary resists any label for his sexual identity. Do you think these people would have considered themselves to be gay or lesbian? Or would that frame not exist?
I think that’s an interesting question that I can’t quite answer, but I love to probe. You and I weren’t around. We are only getting this through the history books and through whatever information we can glean. It was a much less silo-ed time. The word gay wasn’t really used to mean what we mean by it today. It meant happy, and it was a very used word. Gay was a kind of code word among gay people, used as a tell or a tip of the hand.
The widespread acceptance of the gay identity in so called polite society just didn’t exist. My sense from Scotty is that there was a gay community, but it was very covert and they didn’t call themselves “gay” necessarily at the beginning. There were many words used in and out of the community at that time. “Pansy,” “queer,” “he is musical.” I think that community behind closed doors was almost like a secret society. There was such a walling off of the private world, but when you were inside, you knew everything and you knew what was going on and you knew everybody.
I find that in a way quite positive. You had to be covert, but there was a camaraderie and a certain niceness and gentility almost to the closed universe. The consequences and the harsh realities outside that made it a very high price to pay to be a part of these worlds.
This interview has been edited and condensed.