Gods And Mortals

From DNA #197

He’d been a star of the silver screen and dreamed of a return to former glories, but Ramon Novarro’s final scene was an agonisng, brutal death. The rent boy who killed him blamed his Catholic upbringing. Hollywood’s lurid press blamed Rudolph Valentino’s Art Deco dildo! And the rent boy’s defence lawyer blamed the victim himself. Where gods and mortals collide, real life and legend flirt, and sensationalism reigns supreme. Jesse Archer recounts the final screams of a silent star…

A hardboiled cop looms over his suspect; a wise-guy type who sometimes sells his 22-year-old body for cash. Los Angeles Sergeant Robert Smith is grilling (Robert) Paul Ferguson about a gruesome murder up at 3110 Laurel Canyon Boulevard.

“You bang these fruits really hard frequently and you stomp them?” he insists. The year is 1968, but the line of questioning feels like it’s swiped straight from a 1940s crime noir.

The frame tightens in on the hothead youth. “That’s a lie!” he shoots back. “There’s nobody in the world that ever said I stomped a fruit or hit one.”

Paul Ferguson confesses to having been at the  residence in question, along with his troubled 17-year-old kid brother, Tommy, but he denies having anything to do with “stomping the fruit”.

The interrogation intensifies as the sergeant intends to prove bias and establish clear motive; to find out how the scrappy Paul really feels about these fruits. But the kid is tough, and smart, and he’s not taking the bait. Either that or he has a genuinely open mind on the subject of homosexuality.

“They’re no different from anybody else,” Paul states for the record. “They’re my friends. If I meet one on the streets, I don’t cross the street.”

He did, however, cross town.

Paul and Tommy Ferguson had hitchhiked to the Laurel Canyon address, but the owner wasn’t a friend. They had never even met. He was a Mexican-American; a Catholic, chronic heavy drinker, and, thanks to savvy real estate investments and an extensive stock portfolio built up during his heyday, he was rich.


Tommy Ferguson in court

His name was Ramon Novarro, and he was a legend of the silent silver screen. In his prime Novarro was heralded as “Ravishing Ramon”; a leading ladies’ man and natural successor to the original Latin Lover, Rudolph Valentino. Novarro was friendly with Valentino before his untimely death and, if you believe the rumours, the two were briefly lovers.

Following his family’s escape during the bloody Mexican Revolution of 1912, José Ramón Gil Samaniego settled in California, changed his name and supported his family when his exotic appeal catapulted him to dizzying heights in the early days of Hollywoodland. On film he was directed by pioneers such as Ernst Lubitsch, and as a matinee idol he starred opposite luminaries: Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Helen Hayes and the Swedish sphinx, Greta Garbo.

While Novarro cut a dashing romantic figure he also exceled at action pictures. He swashbuckled through Scaramouche, and sped a chariot to a $10,000-a-week contract at MGM in the 1925 blockbuster Ben Hur. But by now, at the age of 69, his star had fallen. It had, in fact, lost its luster decades prior. Film historians can now discern with precision that Ramon Novarro was a has-been by the age of 34.

Thus, the two youths who made their way to his home on the afternoon of October 30, 1968 would not have been starstruck at meeting the actor, as their parents most certainly would have been. The brothers may have heard the name, or recognised him from the bit parts he was now relegated to play on TV’s Bonanza, Combat! or The Wild Wild West but, to the young men, this one-time screen giant was only a perverted old means to an end.

Ramon leaves his house for final time

Ramon leaves his house for final time

The Fergusons were, as always, hard up for cash. They led a hardscrabble existence from birth as two of ten siblings born to a deadbeat father and an overworked mother. By the age of ten, Paul had dropped out of school and run away from his Midwestern home. Tommy grew up a fearful child, and as a consequence he urinated his pants often, and at random. He would soon transform from fearful to being feared himself, starting with a series of run-ins with the law. Tommy also dropped out of school and fled westward. Now, at 17, he was living on the couch of his older brother’s Los Angeles flat – and Paul’s wife Mari didn’t like him at all. For one, she didn’t trust Tommy. Secondly, she was fed up with his freeloading.

Turning tricks with men was something the two had done previously. Paul would later admit that as a pre-teen he had let the “local pervert”, a shop owner, have his way with him in exchange for groceries. Tommy admitted to his older brother that he had done the same thing for cash in his short life and soon after this was established between them, Paul was on the phone with Ramon Novarro making a two-for-one proposition.

Then, as now, prostitution was illegal in California, but Novarro didn’t always have sex with the young men he paid to keep him company. On the official ledger, his secretary would claim such services as gardening expenses. Novarro was also careful who he invited over to his home, using escort agencies to vet the trade or, in this case, the services of a real estate agent who moonlighted as a pimp. On the phone, Paul asked Novarro if he could bring his younger brother along. He told the old man Tommy was cute.

Ramon Novarro the actor had not given up on his career. He still clung to hope that he would be rediscovered; biding his time for a spectacular return to the A-list. This was not fully delusional on his part, necessarily, for far stranger things had happened in Hollywood. So, on that day, he invited the two brothers to come over, and then went to the bathroom mirror to trim his goatee, called up to order tequila and vodka, and put on his blue silk robe to greet his visitors at the front door. He could never have predicted that by the next morning he would, indeed, be back in the headlines. Tragically, the longed-for return to public attention, exposed his secret, stripped him of his dignity and destroyed his legacy. Ramon Novarro could not have foreseen himself starring as the nude on his own bed, beaten, battered, trussed up like a hog, and drowned in his own blood.

Paul Ferguson, Novarro's killer in early physique photography

Paul Ferguson, Novarro’s killer in early physique photography

When Novarro’s secretary Edward Weber arrived at the house the next morning he found it ransacked with upturned furniture, broken glasses on the parquet floor and empty bottles strewn everywhere. Even after calling out for him, there was no sign of his employer. There must have been some kind of robbery, maybe a brawl, Weber assumed. It was Halloween day, but despite that omen and the evidence surrounding him, murder was not at the fore of Weber’s mind. That kind of panic would only truly rock Hollywood the following year with the Manson clan’s macabre Tate-LaBianca murders. For now, the secretary only noticed the mess: cause for alarm, yes, but then again – the LAPD didn’t need to be reminded that his boss was a drunk. Eventually, Weber entered the master bedroom and it wasn’t until he drew back the curtains and the sun streaked in that he gasped in horror at the naked figure lumped on the bed.

Soon afterwards, a phalanx of hungry reporters were waiting outside the home, and the extent of Novarro’s injuries were supplied to them from the coroner’s report, which detailed: “Blood noted (smeared) on floor in bedroom, on ceiling, and a tooth noted lying on the floor at foot of bed. Decedent’s hands tied behind his back with brown electric cord, (an unused condom was found in decedent’s right hand) and electric cord extended down and was tied around decedent’s ankles. Lacerations and ecchymosis noted on face and head.”

On his bathroom mirror, in a brown grease pencil, someone had scrawled, “US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS.”

Despite multiple lacerations to the nose, lips, and mouth; a split scalp, contusions on his chest, neck, left arm, knees and penis, none of this proved fatal. The LA County coroner’s report would later reveal that Ramon Novarro had, in fact, died of “suffocation due to massive bleeding due to a fracture of the nose and laceration of the lips and mouth.” In other words, he drowned in his own blood.

In his notorious Hollywood Babylon, author Kenneth Anger asserted [incorrectly] that a lead dildo of Rudolph Valentino’s penis, reportedly owned by Novarro, was the actual murder weapon – crammed down his throat until he suffocated. This kind of lurid libel was grist for the mill and the public, as always, was scandal-starved when it came to Hollywood stars, especially if the gossip uncovered “fagits”. Legend has it that James Dean slept his way to the top with several influential men and that a young and ambitious Clark Gable sexually serviced the older, openly gay actor William Haines. In 1931, German expressionist director F.W. Murnau [Nosferatu] died when his chauffeur crashed his car along the Pacific Coast Highway. The chauffeur was reputedly a handsome Filipino, and rumour has it that the gay director was performing oral sex on him when he lost control of the wheel.

Paul Ferguson nude at age 18

Paul Ferguson nude at age 18

Of the gossip and myths swirling around Tinseltown, one played a part in Novarro’s grisly murder or at least in its aftermath. It was rumoured that Novarro stashed wads of cash – to the tune of $50,000 – in his house, perhaps behind a painting on the wall. The story goes that when the Ferguson boys couldn’t find the dough and the old man wouldn’t tell them where he had it hidden, they set upon him. The brothers may have actually invented this red herring to detract from the brutality of their crime, but the myth persists.

What is clear is that the two hustlers didn’t go to Novarro’s house in order to kill him. It may have ended as a hate crime, but it’s not as simple as that. As Paul told the LAPD sergeant, he wasn’t out to bash fruits. At least that wasn’t his intention. He had never done it before, and he’d had plenty of opportunities. Back in Chicago, he had modeled in the nude for male physique portraitist Chuck Renslow – and he well knew who was looking at those images. In Los Angeles, he had several ties to the gay underworld but Paul didn’t consider himself a hustler. He referred to himself instead as a “house guest”, although sex was certainly a big part of his being a guest. Who knows what he told his wife.

On Halloween eve at his home on Laurel Canyon, Ramon Novarro was amiable and chatty. He told his two guests stories of old Hollywood and of Mexico, they drank and smoked cigarettes, and he read Paul’s palm. The host made dinner; Tommy poked at the piano, and then they all got progressively drunker. Novarro said Paul had a star quality, and promised him entree into the industry.

“He said I could be a young Burt Lancaster, a superstar, another Clint Eastwood,” Paul would later testify in court. Novarro went so far as to phone a press agent friend that very evening, to suggest the two meet up. It was the last phone call he ever made.

Eventually, Novarro and Paul retreated to the bedroom upstairs to get more intimately acquainted. Tommy lingered downstairs, using the phone to dial his girlfriend, Brenda Lee Metcalf, long distance in Chicago. They chatted for 41 minutes until Brenda said she heard screaming in the background. Tommy allegedly told her that Novarro had a stash of money and wouldn’t divulge its whereabouts, and also that he had to go make sure Paul didn’t do something he’d regret. It was this phone call’s trace, and Brenda’s testimony, that would connect the boys to the crime. They were soon caught and charged with murder.

In court, the brothers did not mount a united defense. Paul said he was passed out drunk and awoke to Tommy saying, “This guy’s dead.” Tommy claimed Paul did the deed, that he walked upstairs after the phone call to find the old man on the floor covered in blood. Their mother Lorraine flew to California to testify against her younger son, saying she was “deathly afraid” of Tommy, and that Paul hadn’t been in any trouble at all. In blaming her juvenile son, she may have been attempting to spare her adult son the gas chamber.

Ramon Novarro in an early Hollywood publicity shot

Ramon Novarro in an early Hollywood publicity shot

Equally, the brothers may have been playing the system by pitting themselves against one another in the hope of a hung jury. Also murky was their motive or lack thereof. Everything at the scene pointed to a robbery gone awry – the allusion to the hidden cash, an apparently uncooperative tied-up victim, the upturned home – yet nothing was stolen except one shirt to replace Paul’s, which he had bloodied while mopping up the crime scene. The two brothers had quickly conspired that night to make the murder look like a theft. They may have even coerced Tommy’s girlfriend to corroborate the story about the loot.

After Novarro was dead, one or both of the brothers had bound his body ankle to wrist and made scratches on the skin as if from the fingernails of a female. The mirror screed “us girls are better than fagits” was another attempt to steer investigators from the scent of male hustlers. This was a touch that the victim might have appreciated, if he had to die in this way. The implication that he met his end at the hands of scorned women, had it worked, would have at least avoided the sordid scope of homosexuality. 

Novarro had always hidden his nature from the public. Studios had occasionally planted fictitious stories about his affairs with women, but he could typically explain away his bachelor status by citing devotion to church and family. He was discreet, but not deceptive. To his credit, and in spite of pressure from MGM’s big boss, Ramon Novarro refused, unlike so many of his peers, to engage in a “lavender marriage”.

One of Novarro’s few longer-term romantic relationships was with Herbert Howe, a man who served as his publicist and who also wrote for film fan magazines. In one of his articles in Photoplay, Howe railed against leading men who appeared to him increasingly feminine.

“Since the moment Valentino hoofed that tango in The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse [1921], the movie boys haven’t been the same,” wrote Howe. “They’re all racing around wearing spit curls, bobbed hair and silk panties… This can’t keep up. The public can stand just so many ruffles and no more… It’s a cinch if they don’t change their panties some of the producers are going to lose theirs.”

Incredibly, Howe not only publicly shamed non-traditional acting by men in films, he had the nerve to threaten the producers who permitted it. All the while, Howe was carrying on an illicit homosexual relationship with Ramon Novarro. The two even shared a home together. This is not to say the couple shared the same attitude toward masculinity. In one interview, transcribed in a biography by Allan Ellenberger, Ramon Novarro had a strikingly contradictory complaint. He found it frustrating that the male actors of his era were devoid of vulnerability.

“The leading men of silent films were Adonises and Apollos – no one really is, of course,” lamented Novarro. “I was always the hero, with no vices, reciting practically the same lines to the leading lady. The current crop of movie heroes are less handicapped than the old ones. They are more human.”

The current crop were allowed flaws. No doubt that as a devoted Catholic who dreamed of becoming a monk but hardly led a monastic existence, Ramon Novarro could relate to this new type of hero. Tormented by his inner conflicts, Novarro found lifelong solace in the bottle. He was such a raving alcoholic that he was no longer allowed to drive due to repeated drink-driving convictions – one week it was twice in as many days. Toxicology reports on his body found that at the time of his death, he was well over twice the legal limit. Novarro  had been beaten to a bloody pulp, but if he weren’t so plastered, he might have survived.

If a murderer is to be believed, Paul Ferguson contends that his own Catholic guilt complex also figured in the crime. As he was writing Beyond Paradise: The Life Of Gay Actor Ramon Novarro, Andre Soares received a letter from Paul Ferguson, detailing his account of what happened in the bedroom that night.

Ramon in the TV show Combat a year before his death

Ramon in the TV show Combat a year before his death

“When [Novarro] kissed me, I reacted like a Catholic, what they call homosexual panic. It’s inbred… I was too drunk to be civilised. Whatever my most primitive moral standings were, I reacted. It had nothing to do with his being homosexual. It all had to do with how I saw myself. And the fact that my brother was there. And that he could see me in that homosexual act. It all had to do with my Catholic upbringing, with my five thousand years of Moses. And that’s the only reason why this whole thing happened. Because that’s what society teaches you.”

Society was clear on homosexuality, which was not decriminalised in California until 1973, a full five years later. Naturally, the Fergusons’ attorney used this to blame the victim in court. “There’s no way of calculating how many felonies this man committed over the years, for all of his piety. What would have happened that night if Paul had not gotten drunk on Novarro’s booze, at Novarro’s urging, and at Novarro’s behest? Would this have happened if Novarro had not been a seducer and a traducer of young men?”

At the conclusion of the trial in 1969, Paul and Tommy Ferguson were each found guilty of first-degree murder. They were both given life sentences in San Quentin. In a shocking, likely homophobic twist, they were each paroled less than seven years later. They would never speak to each other again.

In 1987, Tommy was convicted of raping a woman, and his rap sheet went on to include multiple parole violations and petty crimes until 2005, when he booked into a Motel 6 and slit his own throat. After San Quentin, Paul worked as a steeplejack and wrote short stories; he owned various businesses including a restaurant, a nightclub and even a rodeo outfit. Then, in 1989, he was convicted of raping and sodomising a woman, a crime for which he is still serving a 60-year sentence in Missouri.

Paul recently told Out Magazine journalist William Van Meter that his younger brother had very little to do with the murder of Ramon Novarro. He admits that Tommy was mostly involved in the cover up, and hatching the plan to make it look like a robbery. He then expounded on the last moments of the old actor’s life, confessing, “I’m drinking and listening to him talk. I’m going, Wow, this guy can tell some pretty good stories. But I’m getting drunk. The next thing I knew, I find myself being overwhelmed by this body, and just, like, hairiness, and I guess being kissed or whatever the fuck it was. And I come out of that, I go, ‘Get the fuck–,’ and boom, and I walked out. So, that’s what happened. So of murder I was innocent. Of manslaughter, I wasn’t innocent. Even of manslaughter, maybe you could say I was innocent, but I was guilty of hitting him. I did hit him, but I did it in a drunken stupor.” He claims that was it, a couple of boxing moves and Novarro was dead. The rest – it was all for the plot.

Ramon Novarro, of course, cannot give his side of the story. In the court of public opinion at the time he was not even so much the victim, reduced, as he was, to his criminal sexuality. His killer openly dismissed Novarro’s humanity as “just wanting to live and suck a few dicks.” During closing arguments, the trial jury was given implicit cause to set his killers free. “Novarro, the man who set female hearts aflutter,” instructed the defense lawyer, “was nothing but a queer.”

Friends and co-stars were more generous. They described the man they knew as gentle and kindhearted; as having a “soft touch”. In an interview from a decade earlier, Novarro pictured his own twilight years peacefully tending to a grove of avocados – “if the movies don’t get in the way”. He drank too much, but he also enjoyed simple things like his garden, and hosting friends for dinner parties that included poetry, the piano, and games of canasta. One newspaper report from the day of his murder went so far as to declare that Ramon Novarro had “no known enemies”.

On that fateful final evening, Ramon Novarro read his guest’s palm and told the young hustler that he had a long lifeline. Earlier this year inside a Missouri maximum-security prison, Paul Ferguson turned 70. One birthday more than the man he killed.

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