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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Kiss and tail

I am a sucker for books full of great stories about the glory days of Hollywood and personal accounts of what my favorite actors were like as people. But I’ve never been particularly interested in tawdry tell-all books full of gossip and score settling.

I wasn’t sure which sort of book Scott Bowers’s memoir was going to be, but I gave it a go anyway.

Bowers’s name may not be well known to the general movie-going public. But apparently it was very well known for decades to certain Southern Californians who enjoyed a, um, rather uninhibited lifestyle. The title of his book pretty much says it all: Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. A New York Times profile of Bowers in January described it as “a lurid, no-detail-too-excruciating account of a sexual Zelig.” The Zelig comparison is apt. At times it seems as though there is no major star that Bowers did not, uh, service during the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and beyond.

Bowers told the Times that, after decades of discretion, he was spilling everything now because the people he is naming are all dead and “the truth can’t hurt them anymore.” Conveniently, that also means that they aren’t around to contradict him—although some family members and biographers have done so. But, while the very nature of the book requires one to take it all with a grain of salt, it does mostly have the ring of truth about it. Some of the celebrities he names as being gay or bisexual have been well known—or at least rumored—to be such for ages. But some haven’t. His most controversial testimony may be his accounts of time spent with Spencer Tracy, who comes off as a rather pathetic figure and pretty much a constant drunk. Bowers goes against what everyone “knows” and insists that there was no great love affair between Tracy and Katharine Hepburn and that it was all concocted by the studios to cover the fact that they were both into their own gender.

What makes the book (co-written with Lionel Friedberg and based on 150 hours of recorded interviews) such a strange read is the fact that Bowers, who is now in his late 80s, discusses all manner of libertine behavior as if it is all the most natural, wholesome, gee-whiz kind of fun there is. A Marine in World War II and a veteran of Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima (where his brother died), Bowers speaks with the no-nonsense matter-of-factness of the Greatest Generation. He candidly relates his own sexual history, which began at age 9 with being fondled by a friend’s father on an Illinois farm (an experience for which he says he was grateful) and continued in his teen years in Chicago as he turned tricks in bars and serviced, seemingly, much of the local Catholic clergy. His proper career began after the war when, while he was working in a gas station on Hollywood Boulevard, the actor Walter Pidgeon drove in and propositioned him. As word spread, his client base grew, as did his circle of “friends” who joined him in doing “favors” for everyone who drove in or called up on the telephone for the full service. Bowers describes it all as if it was just a loosely based social network of people having a good time and says that any money that changed hands was a “gift” or a “tip.” Clearly, it was a prostitution ring that somehow managed to evade the aggressive Los Angeles vice squad.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most of what Bowers writes is true or at least roughly true. Maybe it all is. But since much of it cannot be verified, it all has to be taken as a collection of interesting stories that probably aren’t really any of my business. Just when you think you’ve heard his best story, he drags people like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor into it. Similar to the Tracy/Hepburn story, we are told that the abdicated Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson were not the great love story we think we know and that their relationship was a mask for certain respective carnal habits.

Bowers, who says that he has always been more attracted to women than men, also provided plenty of talent to straight guys. Among the serial heterosexuals whose bedroom habits we learn about are Bob Hope and William Holden. Indeed, his most poignant story is about Holden’s last days and how the former golden boy drank himself into squalor and oblivion as his career dried up. Bowers’s happiest story is about the gifted Spanish cinematographer Néstor Almendros, who shot everything from the Eric Rohmer films My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee to Kramer vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice and Places in the Heart. As Bowers tells it, Almendros was not planning to go to the Oscar ceremony when he was nominated for Terence Malik’s Days of Heaven, but Bowers and his friend, actor Beech Dickerson, insisted at the last minute that he go and showered, shaved and dressed him and raced down to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion barely in time to get him in the door. It’s just as well that they did because he ended up winning. Almendros would be nominated for three more Oscars, but sadly he would be dead from AIDS 12 years later, at the age of 61.

One of Bowers’s strangest anecdotes involves producer Ross Hunter telling him at a dinner party in 1972 about his plan to remake Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon as a musical. Bowers says he tried to talk him out of the idea—and he would have done everyone involved a huge favor if he had succeeded. Unfortunately, he failed and the resulting movie was a critical and financial disaster. In addition to benefiting from 20/20 hindsight, that story illustrates an interesting thing about this book. Clearly, Bowers sees himself as a friend and equal to all the rich and powerful and famous people he pimped and prostituted for. His perpetually star-struck attitude, in spite of all his bedroom and bathroom exploits, suggests a farm boy who never quite overcame his naiveté.

There is also a dark side to his story that Bowers barely even acknowledges. Never mind his problematic view of his own childhood molestation; he seems to offer only pro forma regrets for a common-law wife and a daughter whom, he candidly admits, he neglected for years, while he partied day and night for living, and who both met sad ends. Not to sound too much like a prude, but I can’t help feeling that there is a moral vacuum at the center of Bowers’s story that belies the swinging vibe of a young man having great adventures with the icons he always admired on the big screen.

To be sure, the book delivers what it promises: a titillating and provocative read. But it also makes you feel more than little a bit guilty for reading it.

-S.L., 18 April 2012

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