- Hollywood Bohemians: Transgressive Sexuality and the Selling of the Movieland Dream
Brett L. Abrams’s thought-provoking but ultimately frustrating book Hollywood Bohemians begins by asking why the Hollywood studios, publicists, and journalists of the 1920s and 1930s promoted their town as a wonderland of sexual and gender transgression, full of adulterers, homosexuals, and other refugees from the country’s ever-tightening middle-class norms. In offering an answer, Abrams divides his account not by personalities but by spaces, moving chapter by chapter through different venues in which Hollywood stars could be “seen”—from the red carpet to the private home. Abrams, however, gets lost on his own tour: he spends more time turning over old dirt on long-gone Hollywood stars than uncovering the faces and places imagined by their fans.
Abrams’s study undoubtedly stands in the shadows of a number of well-received books on Hollywood’s sexual past, though he does take some novel, and occasionally fruitful, approaches. First, Abrams largely ignores on-screen portrayals of sexuality and gender difference, the focus of Vito Russo’s classic Celluloid Closet, Richard Barrios’s Screened Out, and Thomas Doherty’s Pre-Code Hollywood.1 Instead, Abrams diligently mines old Hollywood magazines like Photoplay and Silver Screen, industry- centered novels and films, and studio archives. And while the book tracks some of the same characters as David Ehrenstein’s Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, William Mann’s Behind the Screen, and Diana McLellan’s The [End Page 548] Girls: Sappho Goes to Hollywood, Abrams largely avoids the “tell-all” tone of those journalistic, biographical accounts.2
Ostensibly, at least, Abrams is not concerned with Hollywood as a real place and its stars as real people, as in Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons’s Gay L.A.3 Rather, he approaches Hollywood as a collection of imagined spaces, constructed for American readers in the pages of celebrity magazines—much as they still do today. How Hollywood and its stars were promoted and perceived depends, in Abrams’s reading, on where they were seen.
Abrams most clearly and convincingly demonstrates this link between personality and place in his first chapter on nightclubs and restaurants. Up-scale venues like the Trocadero and the Brown Derby multiplied dramatically during Prohibition, as the Los Angeles population quadrupled. The tamer venues provided a perfect setting for journalists and publicists to capture stars off set and see them stretching gender conventions, as when Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn sported suits. Other spaces offered a stage for female impersonators, including the most famous and often imitated Julian Eltinge.
It’s a provocative portrait of early Hollywood nightlife, though Abrams’s analysis does not go nearly as deep as it could. Abrams barely dwells, for instance, on the individuals who promoted these stars, as though studio publicists, gossip columnists, and novelists all had the same motives and same power, equally sized cogs in the “Hollywood publicity machine” (31). Abrams also argues for Hollywood’s exceptionalism as a gender playground, even though George Chauncey, Chad Heap, and others have shown that pansy and lesbian “crazes” exploded even more dramatically, and with greater racial diversity, in New York and Chicago.4
Abrams also devotes a chapter to domestic space—another obsession of Hollywood tabloids yesterday and today—without contextualizing the subject within larger early twentieth-century debates around gender, sexuality, and the home. He uncovers early news coverage, for example, about the homes of conspicuously single actresses like Alla Nazimova and Greta Garbo as well as the “bachelor pads” of Edward Everett Horton and William Haines—“kind of nuts on fancy furniture and antiques,” according to Photoplay (quoted on 148). Historians of sexuality and gender have [End Page 549] increasingly discussed “queer domesticities” such as these—most notably in Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides and Matt Houlbrook’s Queer London.5 Yet Abrams stumbles into the conversation almost unknowingly and barely hints at the larger implications of his evidence. He discusses in detail, for instance, how...