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  • "Ramon is not one of these":Race and Sexuality in the Construction of Silent Film Actor Ramón Novarro's Star Image
  • Ernesto Chávez (bio)

On 31 October 1968 Americans awoke to news of the death of one of Hollywood's faded celluloid heroes, Ramón Novarro. As the Los Angeles Times reported, "Ramon Novarro, a swashbuckling star of silent films and early talkies who later became a television character actor, was found beaten to death . . . at his home in the Hollywood Hills. He was sixty-nine. A lifelong bachelor, he lived alone. Police said he was killed after a violent struggle, which left over-turned furniture and splotches of blood in three rooms of his home in Laurel Canyon. The killer apparently was a man. He apparently knew Novarro." 1 Eventually, the investigation into his death revealed that Paul Robert Ferguson, a male hustler, had killed Novarro on the night of 30 October 1968. On the evening that it happened, Ferguson had called Novarro to offer his services, and the actor had invited him to his home. Ferguson arrived awhile later with his brother Thomas, who was visiting from Chicago. After a few drinks Paul and Novarro went into the bedroom to engage in sexual activities. When Thomas happened to pass by and observed them kissing, Paul panicked and began beating Novarro, leaving him unconscious. 2 The brothers then fled the scene. Novarro eventually died of asphyxiation; he choked on his [End Page 520] own blood. These disclosures in effect "outed" Novarro as gay, and the image of the shy recluse and devout Catholic that he had constructed and worked so hard to maintain was unraveled as the details of his death were disclosed. 3 Most Hollywood insiders knew what the world learned at his death: that Novarro was gay even in his heyday, although the press and the film industry long kept his secret. His brutal death made public what he had tried his whole life to keep hidden.

I would like to propose a counterpoint to this standard narrative of Novarro's life and death, one that depicts him as a vibrant historical actor rather than as a tragic movie star, and to suggest that the construction of his star image was predicated on his homosexuality. Although his death revealed once and for all how he had lived his life, those readers privy to queer cultural codes in the early twentieth century would have been able to detect the gay traces in the fan magazine and periodical literature written about Novarro. Like most movie stars, Novarro's image was carefully constructed in order to make him more appealing to the public, especially to heterosexual women, who were the main consumers of films and fan magazines. In order to keep these women interested in the gay actor, the studio, his publicists (most notably Herbert Howe, who plays a substantial role in what follows), and Novarro himself relied on two interconnecting themes to present the star to the public: his middle-class Mexican status and his sensual yet pure body. These texts disclose what the queer studies theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in another context, identified as a "performative aspect" that in effect reveals "closetedness." According to Sedgwick, "Closetedness itself is a performance initiated as such by the speech act of a silence . . . in relation to the discourse that surrounds and differentially constitutes it." 4 The silences regarding Novarro's private life played a significant role in the construction of his public life, or, rather, how that life was depicted, and give us a glimpse into how he managed to remain true to himself even while lying about who he really was. Interpreting these sources in this manner allows us to comprehend how Novarro's sexuality [End Page 521] proved to be an asset that allowed him to forge his place in the motion picture industry despite the intense racism that existed in Hollywood and across the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

Although the content of Novarro's stardom was unique, the form was common. According to film scholar Richard Dyer, stars are a "structured polysemy" who embody a "finite multiplicity of meanings," so that "some meanings...


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