by CHARLIE PURCELL
Ramon Novarro would’ve been 117 this month. The Mexican actor started in movies exactly 100 years ago and, for much of the twenties, he was one of the biggest stars in the world. After Rudolph Valentino died, he was Hollywood’s “Latin lover,” an actor idolized by millions. He was also gay, and when he was 69 years old, he was murdered. Today, Novarro may seem like a tragic, historical footnote from Old Hollywood. He isn’t. These are the six reasons why it’s important to keep his memory alive.
1. He refused to enter a lavender marriage
“Lavender marriages” were studio-sanctioned sham marriages that helped gay stars remain closeted. Most likely, MGM head Louis B. Mayer tried to get Novarro to enter into one of these marriages, but Novarro refused. In the twenties, he was in a committed relationship with his publicist Herbert Howe.
2. He drove the nation wild with his sex appeal
Novarro’s big break was in Ben-Hur, the big hit of 1925. Women flocked to the cinemas, most likely because of his (for the time) revealing costumes. MGM advertised him as the new “Latin lover,” but his silent movie good looks did most of the work.
3. He got name-dropped in the greatest song ever made
Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” is full of lyrics that are as ridiculously sing-able as they are indecipherable. One of the most memorable moments in the song is when Freddie Mercury pleads, “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?” For those of you who sang along without knowing what you were saying, Scaramouche was a 1921 novel and a 1923 film. Novarro played Scaramouche, a handsome aristocrat during the French Revolution. The ladies loved him, of course, so you can imagine how they’d feel after he danced the fandango with them.
4. He survived his fall from stardom
Like most of his contemporaries, the transition from silent films to talkies wasn’t particularly easy. He worked steadily into the 30s, but when MGM expired his contract in 1935, things began to dry up. He still worked—mostly on television—but he wasn’t the superstar that he had been. Eventually, he began to rely more and more on his real estate investments. He had problems with alcohol, but he lived comfortably for decades as the limelight slowly shifted away.
5. His tragic death is a warning to us all
Despite his financial security, Novarro was lonely in his later years. In his late sixties, he hired two young brothers from an escort agency to come to his home. Thinking that there was a fortune hidden in his house, the brothers robbed, tortured, and murdered him, only walking away from the house with a twenty-dollar bill they’d found in Novarro’s pocket. The brothers were convicted, but spent less than a decade in jail for the crime.
Ramon Novarro lived a singular life. For a short time, he was adored by the world, but in the end, he died tragically and alone. Now, one hundred years later, an actor like Novarro would hopefully be able to live openly, remembered for his films, not his death. It’s tempting to focus on the final moments of his life, but I think his greatest legacy is the simple fact that, way back in the twenties, a gay man was the biggest sex symbol on Earth.
Charlie Purcell is an American living and working on beautiful Zanzibar Island off the coast of Tanzania. He’s a teacher by day and a writer by night. His latest novel, a road trip romance called Rev Your Engines, will be available on Amazon next month. For updates on his novels and short stories, visit ThisIsCharliePurcell.blogspot.com.