The Golden Age of Hollywood injected some much-needed glamour into Depression-era America, and the industry was insistent on keeping that polish gleaming bright. Sex was merely hinted at and homosexuality was a strict no-go. The Big Five studios held fastidious control over the stars they created, arranging abortions and loveless marriages to keep scandal at bay.
But the great and the good of Tinseltown had just the same needs as any other human, not to mention the money to satisfy them. Enter Scotty Bowers, the celebrity fixer known as 'Mr Sex' in Los Angeles for arranging 'tricks' with titans of Hollywood and beyond.
Bowers, who died in 2019 aged 96, has now been immortalised in Ryan Murphy's Netflix series Hollywood - a delirious account of Tinseltown's early years, featuring Dylan McDermott as Ernie, a former actor running a male escort business from his gas station. Although the character is based on Bowers, Murphy's revisionist history takes many liberties with the truth. But then, so did Bowers himself.
The soul of discretion, Bowers famously memorised the phone numbers of thousands of clients in case the written digits led to a visit from the Vice Squad. However, reasoning that the vast majority of his former customers were dead ("The truth can't hurt them any more," he said in 2012), he finally decided to tell his story - and with it, hundreds of scurrilous claims about household-name stars.
"As I take stock of myself in my twilight years," he wrote in the first paragraph of his memoir, "I feel compelled to share my story." Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars was published by Bowers and journalist Lionel Friedberg in 2012, followed by the revelatory documentary adaptation, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, in 2017. The film tells Bowers' story, from working-class farm boy to WWII marine to pimp-to-the-stars, positing him as someone who deftly offered a solution to the draconian rule of Hollywood's moral code.
In a time and industry where being openly gay could ruin a career and result in a prison sentence, Bowers provided people with ways to live and love as they wished, judgement-free: "I hope I provided as much pleasure as I derived myself," he wrote. "Not once have I felt shame or guilt or remorse about what I did. Quite the contrary."
Bowers' break arrived in 1946, when his shift at a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard was interrupted by a man who invited him home for sex. It was actor Walter Pidgeon, who held a "crisp bill" between this fingers. A combination of Bowers' prowess, the studio gossip network and the fact his work address reached his former marine colleagues saw the station become "the fashionable place for guys and gals between the ages of 18 and 25 to hang out" - and be picked up for sex work.
Not all of Bowers' clients were famous; even in Los Angeles there wouldn't have been enough celebrities. As Bowers wrote: "I was setting up an average of 15-20 tricks a day. This was a 24/7 operation, extending over a period of, say, 30 to 40 years. As for tricks that I performed personally, I was often seeing two or three people a day."
However, the stars Bowers claims to have serviced certainly make up a small galaxy: Katharine Hepburn (whom he set up with "over 150 different women"), Cary Grant and Randolph Scott ("the three of us got into a lot of sexual mischief together"), Spencer Tracy, Rock Hudson and Tyrone Power appear among a list of dozens.
Knowing who to feature in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, and who to leave on the cutting-room floor, was one of the main challenges for director Matt Tyrnauer, who had heard about the petrol station as a seasoned Vanity Fair reporter.
"I was in the living room of Gore Vidal in the Hollywood Hills," director Tyrnauer told Vulture. "He, apropos of nothing, blurted out, 'I want to find Scotty'. I said, 'Who's Scotty?' He said, 'Scotty was my pimp'... One day I arrived at Vidal's house and Scotty was in the living room. I basically started making the movie that day."
Tyrnauer says Bowers' stories were edited down in case the film became "too much for the audience to absorb at once" and reading Full Service can certainly feel that way.
The whole thing is written with a charming, and sometimes lightweight, good nature.
He has a tendency to nickname the stars: W Somerset Maugham was "Willie", Noël Coward was "The Master", Malcolm Forbes was "Mike" and Tennessee Williams was "Tenny". Many of the revelations have involved the outing of stars. According to Bowers, Laurence ("Larry", of course) Olivier "secretly harboured a liking for boys"; James Dean was a "prissy little queen", while Montgomery Clift was "a temperamental, moody queen". Rock Hudson, who frequents the gas station in Murphy's series, was "one hundred per cent gay", while Forbes was a "closeted gay man".
Bowers' stories even extend to the British monarchy. Prince George, the Duke of Kent, was a lover of Coward (who repeatedly asked Bowers to come on holiday with him, and is also featured in Netflix's Hollywood), but greater revelations lay with the Duke of Windsor ("Eddy") and his wife, Wallis Simpson, who, Bowers wrote, "enjoyed variety".
"Eddy liked a three-way with a girl, now and again… but his preference was definitely for the boys," Full Service claims. As for "Wally": "Like her husband, she definitely preferred homosexual sex."
Such claims have largely been met with a dignified silence by the families of those Bowers mentions, and questions over the sexualities of long-dead stars remain unanswered by differing accounts - Jennifer Grant's biography of Cary Grant, for instance, maintains that he was straight, if amused by notions of his bisexuality.
The fans, as the documentary explores, were rather more rankled. Bowers throws back at one of them: "What's wrong with being gay?" As Tyrnauer puts it: "Why should we straightwash the history of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn?"
But what scandal lies in Full Service is metered by its cheerful delivery - not to mention the fact that Bowers' entire empire rested on secrecy. A telling moment regards Tyrone Power. In the 1970s, Bowers made the star's biographer remove (true) details of the star's proclivities because, even 20 years after his death, "it was still too soon to be shattering the myth of one of Hollywood's golden boys".
Bowers' business made him an absent father and an errant husband, although his patient wife Betty remained married to him until her death - for 63 years. "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," Tyrnauer told Vulture, recalling a scene that didn't make the cut. "He said: 'These were Roddy McDowall's poppers. I used to go pick them up for him and I never gave him these.'"
With all the bedroom shenanigans going on, interest can also be found elsewhere in Bowers' book, namely in the portrait it paints of domestic life in the upper echelons of mid-century American society.
How, for instance, poet and playwright W Somerset Maugham would watch proceedings unfold "in an armchair fully dressed in jacket and tie, his legs elegantly crossed, sipping wine, and watching while Alan [Searle, Maugham's private secretary] sat close by, observing everything with a deadpan expression on his face".
British photographer Cecil Beaton, meanwhile, would "carefully draw back the bed sheets, neatly, and then tightly fold the overhang under the mattress, tuck in all the loose ends, then straighten out any creases", before having sex.
It is Mae West, the woman once imprisoned for being too sexy, who receives one of the rare instances of criticism in Full Service for her treatment of Paul Novak, a man 30 years her junior with whom she was infatuated. "He was still a virile, healthy, horny guy, but he had to spend most of his evenings with Mae at home eating TV dinners on a tray while watching boring sitcoms," shamed Bowers.
Bowers, a lifelong teetotaller, sets endless scenes of pool houses and cocktail bars, the glamorous parties that unfolded behind iron gates, away from the prying eyes of paparazzi and the studio bosses.
In telling his story in his 1990s, Bowers has been afforded a luxury that the vast majority of his Hollywood clients were not: the opportunity to set the record exactly as he wishes it. It nearly wasn't this way, though. Tennessee Williams had come across Bowers' life as ripe subject material several decades before, writing a short story about him that "painted a vivid picture of me as the fairy godmother of the entire gay world in the City of Angels. The piece made it look like I was flying over Hollywood Boulevard directing all the queens in town".
Bowers tore it up, the shreds being left to the winds drifting over Los Angeles. "It was way over the top".