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A star is killed: Hollywood's deadly secret

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, Andre Soares, St. Martin's Press: 400 pp., $27.95

August 24, 2003|John Rechy | John Rechy is the author of many novels, including "City of Night" and the forthcoming "The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens."

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1968, Ramon Novarro, once one of Hollywood's greatest romantic idols, now 68 and frail, looking like "a Spanish grandee" in a red and blue robe, opened the door of his Laurel Canyon home and, with all the graciousness of his aristocratic lineage, greeted his guests, a burly young man of 22 and a slender one of 17 -- his murderers.

The burly young man had obtained Novarro's telephone number from a previous guest in order to solicit an invitation for himself and his younger brother. Both understood why they would be invited; both had hustled before. Novarro welcomed such young men, who considered him "an easy touch," "a nice old guy." Only those closest to him knew his guarded secret -- that he was homosexual. He was not the only one in Hollywood who kept such a secret. It was necessary self-protection. That and his rigid Catholicism created a chafing inner conflict.

Easy camaraderie developed among the three. Novarro read the older brother's palm and saw a bright future. At the piano, Novarro taught him a song he had composed. The younger brother contributed his own tune. The camaraderie, the liquor shared with the older brother, allowed Novarro to feel that he was not buying companionship; it was a kind of companionship he often bought, frequently passing out, drunk, abdicating any sexual connection. He was a lonely man, his contemporaries -- Garbo, Fairbanks, Negri -- dead or in seclusion. Perhaps remembering their time, Novarro showed the brothers a photograph of himself as a handsome, muscular young man wearing a toga in the title role of "Ben Hur." Doesn't look like you, the younger brother said.

Whether coerced by the older brother or to indicate that he was still a power in Hollywood, Novarro called a film publicist and told him -- sounding agitated -- that he wanted to introduce a young man who had star quality.

Liquor clouded the sequence of events into a blurred sequence of violence. In the bedroom with Novarro and possibly after a sexual interlude -- both were naked at one point -- the burly young man, now dressed, demanded the $5,000 rumored to be hidden in the house. There was no such amount, Novarro insisted truthfully; he never kept large sums at home. The younger brother, who had been on the telephone mollifying a girl he had beaten up in Chicago, joined them, adding his own demands for the money. Novarro's pleading denials aroused jostling, shaking, rough shoving that escalated into violent pummeling. Bleeding, the frail naked man fell. The brothers yanked him up to strike him down again. One of the brothers danced, twirling a cane like a baton and wearing a glove he had found in a closet. To prevent Novarro from slipping into unconsciousness, they dragged him to the bathroom, slapping him alert with cold water. Novarro staggered back into the bedroom. "Hail Mary, full of grace," he sobbed, collapsing on his knees. Taking turns, the two aimed the cane at his genitals, his head. They bound him with an electric cord and struck again and again. The younger brother scratched the dying man's face. They tossed the mangled body onto the bed. Novarro died, choking on his own blood.

The two killers ransacked the house, dumping on the floor photographs of Novarro as a young star, as if discarding even his past. To suggest that a woman had perpetrated the crime in vengeful violence -- and scratched the dead man's face -- they wrote on a mirror words that revealed buried motives: "Us girls are better than fagits."

Those events are reconstructed from information in "Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro" by Andre Soares and from this reviewer's related conversations with the late Jim Kepner, who attended the brothers' trial meaning to write a book about the murder. Kepner's condensed record was published in the Advocate.

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