Nazis and gays. In the biography sweepstakes, one can be a cakewalk. The other almost always requires a delicate dance through a minefield of potential libel, antediluvian prejudice, and post-publication recriminations.
"Oh, there's no question," says Steven Bach, author of both the Moss Hart biography Dazzler and an upcoming Leni Riefenstahl bio due in fall 2006. "It is so much more difficult to delve into a gay past. The Nazi past always has a paper trail, and a gay past does not. Confirmation is terribly difficult."
In one respect, time is on the side of the biographer, whichever outre subject he chooses to write about. "Fortunately, Riefenstahl is no longer with us," Bach adds, "so it is easier now, not having to worry about litigious-type issues."
I can sympathize. Having written the recently published biography The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson, I know firsthand how truly liberating someone else's death can be. After a long bout with lawyers, in which the most frequently asked question was "Is this person dead or alive?" I found that my own book had been lee relatively intact. "I lost only one queer," I told friends. Calling someone a homosexual, I discovered, was every bit as libelous as calling Riefenstahl a Nazi. If she or he is alive.
To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, straight people are different from you and me. Vanity Fair, in its 2003 Hollywood issue, had no problem profiling the late superagent Charles K. Feldman and detailing his affairs with sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, who are very much still with us. But try revealing agent Henry Willson's sexual liaisons with his many male starlets, and it's as if Stonewall were merely a twinkle in some drag queen's eye.
After writing The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo was asked the question all writers most ponder post-publication: "What's your next book?" Since he had just delivered the seminal critical study of homosexual characters and themes in the movies, most admirers assumed that his next tome would be the real thing: a historical study of the homosexual movers and shakers in the entertainment world. But it was not to be.
"That," said Russo, "is the book that can never be written."
For much of Russo's life (1946-1990), it was true. But since then, scads of gay bios have been published to help salvage several nearly lost life histories. It is a race against time in which death is both the storytellers friend and chief adversary. The dead can't be libeled; on the other hand, the longer people have been dead, the less likely that any of their contemporaries are still around to be interviewed. And all too often, the older they are, the more unwilling people are to talk about homosexuality or, for that matter, fellow homosexuals.
Shortly before his death in 2002, Jacque Mapes insisted that his lover, Ross Hunter, had no relationship, business or other wise, with Henry Willson. It was an absurd defense, because the agent repped Rock Hudson on six films produced by Hunter, including Pillow Talk and Magnificent Obsession, the 1954 film that took the actor from Universal contract player to major star. Since Willson had enjoyed the reputation of maintaining the longest-running gay casting couch in Hollywood, Mapes, at age 88, preferred to keep his distance. Too much distance, it turned out, to be credible. "Ross had nothing whatsoever to do with Willson," insisted Mapes. "Rock was under contract to Universal, so Ross didn't have to deal with Henry Willson."
Katharine Hepburn proved much more helpful to Emanuel Levy in researching his biography George Cukor: Master of Elegance. When it came to that most delicate of questions, however, he hit a brick wall with her. "Don't forget," Hepburn told Levy. "I'm from New England. We have a lot of sex and good sex, but we don't talk about it."
Hepburn's own sexuality comes under scrutiny in two upcoming biographies, James R. …