Cary Grant. Katharine Hepburn. Spencer Tracy.
They were movie stars immortalized by “the golden age” of Hollywood during the mid-20th century, representing fame and beauty.
Behind the glossy glamour, the stars were also connected by something else: a man named Scotty Bowers who worked at a small gas station at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Van Ness — the epicenter of Tinseltown’s covert sexual underground.
Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, a new documentary from director and producer Matt Tyrnauer, tells the story of Bowers’ significant yet secret role as a confidante, friend and pimp for Hollywood’s closeted movie stars.
Bowers, now 95-years-old, was recently made an honorary citizen of West Hollywood by the town’s mayor. The documentary reveals that he wasn’t just a male madam running a covert brothel: he was also a protector and rights activist for the burgeoning LGBT community in the post-war era.
In an interview with NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Tyrnauer describes how Bowers helped movie stars through the restrictive “sexual gestapo” of Hollywood: “It was very difficult for people to have authentic lives,” said Tyrnauer. “It was also very difficult for people to appear in public as anything other than heterosexual; this was a very different time and Scotty really served a purpose in the community.”
On who Scotty Bowers intersected with, and what he did
Some of the biggest stars in Hollywood, who are immortal names, passed by this gas station, and used his services: Cary Grant for instance, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, literary figures such as Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. And he was really a protector of these peoples’ reputations because not only were there moral clauses in these contracts that could lead to their career ruin — there was also the vice squad, which was run by the Los Angeles Police Department of the time, and was sort of like a sexual Gestapo that was out to shake down famous people and collude with the press to ruin lives and reputations.
On the fact that Scotty kept these secrets for decades
What I came to realize very quickly — because I met him through Gore Vidal, who met him in 1947 at the gas station — [was] that these were lasting and important friendships that he had with some of the great people of the town. And that in his prime included people like George Cukor, who was one of the top directors of the era. And Scotty was integral to someone like Cukor’s life. He not only was a sex worker for Cukor, but he was a man of all works — so he would trim the trees, and go Christmas shopping, pick him up at the airport. So he was a trusted person, and when you had to live your life in the shadows like this but were also prominent, imagine how important someone who could be trusted in all aspects, including the secret aspects of your life, could be.
On verifying Scotty’s stories
He wrote a memoir some years ago, and it provided no proof — it was a collection of memories, and a bit of an autobiography. When I started to interview him, which I did over the course of two years, I began to find corroboration in my independent research. And this came in many forms. First thing I asked him when I met him was: “Are there any people alive who were at the gas station when you were operating it as a covert brothel?” And he said, “Yes, there are … ” I met, I think seven people who were present in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and witnessed this. So they provided corroboration, and very specific in some cases. For instance, [actor] Charles Laughton had autographed books and the script to a witness for the prosecution for one of the sex workers who appears in the film. He revealed that he had run lines with Laughton for witness for the prosecution. So this began to give me a window into exactly what this world is like.
On Scotty Bowers’ personal history, which includes being sexually abused as a child, losing an adult daughter and surviving World War II
He’s a survivor who, interestingly, doesn’t want to be recognized as a victim. He’s very intent on saying he was aware of everything happening and it was all his choice. I let him speak his own truth in the film — I question him on it on several occasions. And it’s an unusual perspective for us to hear today, but it’s his own perspective.
On Scotty Bowers’ connection with sex researcher, Alfred Kinsey
Scotty was a connector person for Kinsey. Kinsey sought him out, came out to Los Angeles, interviewed Scotty multiple times as part of his data pool for his book, but then found that Scotty was a conduit to a covert, sexual world, which was in this case the gay and lesbian world. Kinsey asked Scotty to show him around and bring him into these hidden places where a lot of homosexual activity was happening … Homosexuality was considered by the medical community to be a mental illness … All of this activity was happening covertly. Scotty knew the map of this covert world and Kinsey relied upon him to show him that world.
On the myths around famous people, and what they hide
Yes, it’s fascinating to me the enduring the myths of the so-called golden age of Hollywood are. But the publicity department of the studio system really did its job, because the better part of 100 years later, a lot of people are still clinging to these myths about the strict heterosexual, heteronormative lifestyles of the stars. One of the assertions that Scotty makes is that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy weren’t really a couple — that she was mostly lesbian, and he had a homosexual affair with Tracy over a number of years. And this is myth-busting, but the disruption of these myths is still troubling to people — there’s been pushback.
It’s very interesting to me, if not a bit alarming, that people want to cling to a sort of straight-washed history as it pertains to the reputations of movie stars such as Hepburn and Tracy. If you think that Hepburn and Tracy are great, important figures — which I happen to think — don’t you want to know every aspect of their biography? Why would we want a cleaned-up, straight-washed biography of Katharine Hepburn? It makes no sense, and frankly, I feel that this pushback that’s starting to emerge as the film goes out into movie theaters is a form of homophobia.
On the role of Scotty Bowers in changing perceptions about Hollywood history
Well, it’s very valuable to have someone who was an eyewitness to all of this. So he provides a primary source that fills in the blanks that were intentionally left out. And I think he does a great service by revealing the full picture that was obscured by the studios’ publicity department[s], and in many cases by these great figures themselves who had to live in fear of being exposed and ruined just because they were trying to live an authentic life.
Sarah Handel and Viet Le produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Cecilia Lei and Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.