Was he just a sexual outlaw or an underground hero? Was his mission simply to defy the cops or to extend help to a persecuted minority?
Those questions may be debated by some next week with the theatrical release of Matt Tyrnauer’s documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Set in the 1950s and early ’60s when blacklists, both sexual and political, darkened the Hollywood landscape, the doc’s focus seems relevant to today’s zeitgeist, when the blacklist pathology is again in the air.
A World War II veteran, Scotty Bowers serviced celebrities of his era amid an iron-clad code of silence and an absence of moral judgment. Even as the vice squad crashed gay bars and parties to make arrests, and Confidential Magazine extorted A-list actors, Scotty quietly continued expanding his secret web of introductions.
Working with clients ranging from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, Scotty said nothing and charged nothing. Twice married, Scotty was a practicing bisexual who was genuinely mystified by those who wanted to judge or legislate sexual behavior. Despite his code of secrecy, when Alfred Kinsey approached Scotty for help on his academic research of female sexuality, Scotty willingly rounded up clients to advance the studies — Scotty, too, wanted further insights.
Tyrnauer’s doc will stir criticism on several grounds. Some ticket buyers will be discomfited by the revered names, such as Charles Laughton or Walter Pidgeon, that are cavalierly dropped as members of Scotty’s circle. Though early critical response to the doc has been positive, a few commentators have challenged its factual basis; the chief characters are not around to issue denials. (Full disclosure: I appear briefly in the doc as a “social commentator” of the times but was not compensated and did not independently check the facts.) At a moment when docs such as Three Identical Strangers and RBG (about Ruth Bader Ginsburg) are finding audiences, Scotty may cause some ripples.
Scotty, still alive and buoyant at 95, backs his anecdotes with a wealth of detail and photographs. And his still adamant refusal to pass judgment challenges today’s mood, where ill-starred or clumsy comments and transgressions are met with instant rebuke and calls for punishment. Indeed, the basic attitudes embodied in the doc provide reminders of the cyclical nature of institutional morality. Declarations on manners and mores, uniformly advanced with great certitude, may be revised or completely surrendered by a subsequent generation.
Scotty’s dealings began to flourish at a time when the studios were banning suspected Communist sympathizers with the “help” of Joe McCarthy, and blacklisting suspected gays with the “help” of the vice squad and gossip columnists. In the early stages of his curious career, Scotty was the stereotypical underground maverick, working in a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, the address passed secretly around the gay community.
As his underground fame grew, Scotty became more socially respectable, working as a bartender at celebrity parties hosted by director George Cukor. He also became more garrulous, occasionally shocking even his loyal clients with his moral nihilism. Scotty freely admitted, for example, that, as a pre-teenager in Chicago, he regularly serviced Catholic priests in exchange for $2 fees. To Scotty, this was not a case of child molestation; in his mind, he was performing a socially useful service of the sort he would continue to provide in later life.
Some of his clients found his attitude (or absence of one) appalling. In Scotty’s mind, however, the constraints of the past had to be banished. With the ultimate onset of AIDS, of course, Scotty’s modus operandi would become an instant anachronism.
The late Philip Roth wrote extensively about “the erotic furies and their lunacies,” but in one of his final essays expressed surprise at the dogmatism of moral activists. Morality is cyclical, he argued, as are attitudes about it, pointing to the influence of a 15th century poet named Lucretius. Through his teachings, Lucretius challenged those church doctrines that instilled fear and repression, propounding instead “an enlightened embrace of beauty and pleasure.” Through his influence, the gateway to the Renaissance was opened.
I’m going to lend some of Roth’s and Lucretius’ writings to Scotty. They might hopefully provide a remedy to his moral nihilism.