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Gothic tales from the golden days of Hollywood

Hollywood Babylon: It's Back!, which has yet to be published outside the US, declares itself to be, "hot, unauthorised and unapologetic" and claims to contain "lurid but unknown scandals from Hollywood's golden age". Plus "rundowns of today's Hollywood scandals-in-the-making".

Lurid is right. But who are the book's authors and why should we believe a word they say? Darwin Porter, for one, received an American literary award for "salvaging the oral histories of Hollywood" and his previous works include Howard Hughes: Hell's Angel and Brando Unzipped, two truly sensational, even sensationalist books. How so? The latter for example, living up, or rather down to its less-than-subtle title, claimed that Marlon, while filming A Streetcar Named Desire, "serviced" not only co-star Vivien Leigh, who he'd already had sex with during the original run of the play, but also her husband Laurence Olivier. And incidentally, the latter -- says Porter, a man seemingly determined to label every male actor in Hollywood, and soon perhaps even the statue of "Oscar", as gay or bisexual -- was involved in a "long-time affair with Danny Kaye" plus, "had affairs with actors who ranged from dashing Richard Burton to dashing Errol Flynn".

However, here I must warn you that some of the claims made in Hollywood Babylon: It's Back!, which was co-written by former New York Times journalist Danforth Prince, could leave you deeply disillusioned -- particularly if, like me, you have fond childhood memories of watching old black and white movies. I'm still recovering after reading that James Cagney "seduced" Audie Murphy. That sure ain't what kids meant when they cried out in cinemas: "Ride him, cowboy!"

So, let's start with that story. Although here, as with too many tales these guys tell, their claims seem to be based solely on oral histories, are rarely backed up by substantive evidence and usually involve "stars" who are dead and can't sue.

That said, according to Porter and Prince, after seeing a photograph of Murphy, "America's most lavishly decorated soldier of World War II", on the cover of Life magazine, Cagney "got in touch with the hero and invited him to come and live with him in Hollywood". The actor then told the press this was "an act of patriotism on his behalf" but he "had seduction on his mind".

Actually, according to the official version of this story, Cagney told one reporter: "What I saw him as was a fighting Irishman, maybe I imagined there was a bit of me in Audie", which Porter and Prince would probably say means the same thing. It certainly makes me wonder if Cagney imagined much the same thing about Richard Harris when they made Shake Hands With The Devil.

And yet, If only one tenth of the stories in Hollywood Babylon: It's Back! are true, it does add to one theory I've had about Tinseltown since 1987 when Sixties pop singer PJ Proby told me about a rock 'n' roll music mogul who had "a stable of boys" and said "all were expected to drop their trousers for the guy".

That tendency, which, according to the admittedly redneck Proby, "mentally screwed up" at least some of his peers, still exists in pop music. And this book strongly suggests that the same kinds of sexual pressure were as much a part of Hollywood as the casting-couch syndrome applied to young females.

This is the real, subtextual story at the heart of Hollywood Babylon: It's Back!, and it's a story that really has far more to do with power, and its abuses and may even involve murder. Take, for example, the tale of Fifties actor Nick Adams who apparently started out "straight" but at 17, was introduced to gay sex by fellow New York stage actor Jack Palance, then moved to Hollywood where he was allegedly "seduced" by Cagney and groped, kissed and given oral sex by director John Ford. After which he "bonded with" the young, struggling and seemingly bisexual James Dean who suggested, "for future jobs he go with him to the office of an assistant director who wanted to give both boys a blowjob".

So, did they get the job? Probably not, given that Dean then urged Nick to join him "hustling the queers on Santa Monica Boulevard" and both began working together as prostitutes. At least, one presumes, until James Dean got his break in Rebel Without A Cause, which also featured Adams in a supporting role.

Though how much changed with their move inside the studio system is open to debate. Sam Kashner and Jennifer Macnair, in their 2002 book The Bad and The Beautiful: Hollywood In The Fifties, claim that while making that movie, the 24-year-old Dean was sexually involved with its director, the 43-year-old Nicholas Ray, who was also reportedly having sex with two of its juvenile leads, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo. Mineo was under age.

Porter and Prince also claim that Nick Adams told Elvis on the set of his first movie Love Me Tender, in 1956: "If you want to meet movie stars, I can set that up. Want to f*** Natalie Wood, I can set that up." So, were these offers the 21-year-old Presley couldn't refuse? He certainly seems to have had sex with Natalie Wood. At least according to Sam Philips, the man who discovered Elvis, owned Sun Records and recalled him once leaving the recording studio "in disgust" after hearing musicians discuss a particular sex act but who later told Sam he'd indulged with Natalie Wood and "done fell in love with it!".

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Even so, when it comes to the claim made in this book that Presley and Adams were lovers, that's a rumour I first heard 20 years ago and ran by Sam, who let's not forget, spent time in the company of Elvis, Natalie and Nick after Presley, tellingly or otherwise, brought both to Memphis. How did Sam respond? He said: "Unlike so many people writing these stories I actually knew Elvis and can tell you for sure that if he could, he'd jump out of his grave and punch right in the mouth whoever is spreading that goddamn lie about him."

Is it a lie? The truth is that only Presley and Adams know for sure. But Porter and Prince's claim that when Elvis was watching astronauts land on the moon he was engaged in a sexual act with Adams clearly is a lie because the actor died a year before man first landed on the moon.

However, this brings us to, arguably, the single most sensational Presley-related story in this book. Namely, the suggestion that the singer's manager, Colonel Parker, "had a Svengali-like grip over Elvis" because he "threatened to reveal Elvis had romanced Adams" and that in 1968, after

the actor demanded $100,000 from Presley for "services rendered over the years", and Elvis refused to pay then called Adams "a leech", he threatened to write a "tell-all biography". Then, Parker "ordered Nick killed", or so suspected Nick's friend Broderick Crawford.

But police found no evidence of "foul play" in the "drugs-related death" of Nick Adams and, pushing credulity even nearer breaking point, Porter and Prince try to implicate John Wayne in the "murder", claiming Adams also threatened to "expose" the Duke and that he was seen leaving the actor's home on the afternoon of his death. By? An unnamed neighbour who, coincidentally, police didn't interview.

However, it now is more than 20 years since I first read that "even John Wayne" had to accommodate homosexual advances when he was trying to get his break in Hollywood and more than a decade since I ran that rumour by his son, Michael, who laughed loudly and said: "That's not exactly a subject my father and I would have discussed, if it did happen, which I doubt, but I love the idea that I had to come to Ireland, the land of The Quiet Man, to meet the first journalist who had the guts to ask me that question!" All of which suggests he didn't take the rumour seriously.

Sadly, Michael Wayne has since died so one can only guess what his response would be to Porter and Prince's claim that "Nick (Adams) learned that (John) Ford had seduced John Wayne back in the late Twenties" or their assertion that prior to this book, John Ford was "outed by actress Maureen O'Hara and other biographers". Was he? All O'Hara said on this subject in her memoir, 'Tis Herself, is that she caught Ford -- a man who had countless affairs with women, though that fact, these authors, who, at times seem decidedly heterophobic, fail to mention -- kissing a big-name actor on the set of The Long Grey Line in 1955.

Then again, Blood Moon, the publishers of Hollywood Babylon: It's Back!, proclaims itself to be "applying the tabloid standards of today to the scandals of Hollywood's golden age" and that, ultimately, may tell us all we need to know about this book.

As such, what are we to make of Porter's claim that he was with Tennessee Williams and his partner, Frank Merlo, the night Bette Davis, who had been cleared of all charges in relation to the death of her husband, Arnold Farnsworth Jnr, said she'd caught him in bed with an actress and slammed a "wrought iron lamp" into his skull, causing the concussion that killed the man? Or, likewise, Peter Lawford's claim that he knew male fans of Judy Garland, "each a devotee of necrophilia", who "desecrated" her body in a "homosexual funeral parlour". True or false, this really does drag us into into the territory of gothic tales from the golden days of Hollywood.

However, when it comes to those promised "rundowns of today's Hollywood scandals in the making" here the authors, obviously because they are moving into potentially more litigious territory, really don't deliver. On the contrary, in a chapter that deals with Tom Cruise's court case against "gay porn star" Kyle Bradford, who claimed in an interview he was Cruise's lover, a case Cruise won after the porn star said the interview was fabricated, the authors simply consistently and bitchily refer to the actor as "the very heterosexual Cruise". They also, again bitchily, label John Travolta likewise.

Even so, James Dean probably was speaking for many actors and celebrities in relation to their rejection of social norms, after he was asked by a "patron/lover", if he was having sex with a 12-year-old boy, and replied: "I refuse to let society's rules dictate my life. If I have certain feelings, and certain things I need to explore within myself, I'm not going to suppress them. To hell with that!" At least that's the quote which is included in Hollywood Babylon: It's Back! All of which makes me wonder if there will be, in 50 years, a book called Dublin Babylon, set in the Nineties, when Ireland's capital city became a "Little Hollywood" and you couldn't go to a nightclub or a restaurant without bumping into a movie star.

Who knows, maybe that book will include the story of the famous Hollywood actor who asked the manager of a Dublin cafe to ... On second thoughts, I had better go no further. I don't want to end up like Nick Adams!

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