Journalist and author Boze Hadleigh, in addition to seemingly possessing encyclopedic knowledge of literally every black-and-white movie ever made, is a very ambitious interviewer. All the questions most of us would be afraid to ask — he asks, straight-up, and asks again, and if he doesn’t get an answer, always finds a way to ask just one more time just in case. He takes his subjects on leisurely journeys through forests of career highlights and valleys of “what was it like to work with [xx]” before taking a sharp turn into “did you ever hear that [xx] was gay?” until we finally reach our destination, which’s a cleverly-worded prompt for the subject to kinda sorta out themselves. In response, his female interview subjects volley and spar and joke and defer and it’s so tawdry and brilliant and delightfully problematic.
The 1994 book Hollywood Lesbians is a compilation of ten such interviews conducted with actresses and behind-the-scenes players long after their careers had died down and, in many cases, contractually prohibited from being published until after their deaths — comedic actress Marjorie Main (interviewed in 1975), pioneering butch lesbian director Dorothy Arzner (1978), comedic actress and former lover/bestie/assistant to Tallulah Bankhead Patsy Kelly (interviewed twice, in 1979), legendary bisexual actress Barbara Stanwyck (1981), Hollywood’s leading character actress Agnes Moorehead (1973), comedic actress Nancy Kulp (1989), Academy-award-winning costume designer Edith Head (1979), dramatic actress Judith Anderson (1990), French model/actress Capucine (1985) and dramatic actress Sandy Dennis (1990-ish). Of his 1996 book Hollywood Gays, Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “Hadleigh is evidently taking up where the great gossip columnists of yesteryear left off.”
We’ve talked about the ladies of Sapphic Studio-Era Old Hollywood before (I made some very good infographics: The Chart: Old Hollywood Edition and The Women of the Chart: Old Hollywood Edition), because apparently at that point in history a remarkable percentage of silver-screen stars seemed to fall somewhere in the mid-to-gay range of the Kinsey scale: Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Eva La Gallienne, Barbara Stanwyck, Mercedes De Acosta, Alla Nazimova, Hattie McDaniel, Ona Munson, Claudette Colbert, etc. etc. etc.
In Hollywood Lesbians, Hadleigh peppers his interviews with admissions of his own, seeking confirmation or maybe just to get the info out there, as well as prompting them to reveal or confirm various bits of gossip or contradict popular culture’s stories of their own orientation. His methods can be pretty bold, but you’ve gotta admire this perseverance, and what appears to be a genuine belief that being open and honest was a bona-fide cure for internalized homophobia. In one chapter he quotes a Mae West film where she announces, “For a long time, I was ashamed of the way I lived.” The other character assumes, “You mean to say you’ve reformed?” and she replies, “No! I got over being ashamed.”
It’s important to remember that the information sought out in these interviews is often desired because studios actively fed fake heterosexual stories to gossip rags and facilitated Lavender Marriages for publicity purposes, thus putting heterosexuality on the permanent record for so many stars who were anything but. Many biographers who report on and write about the queer lives of Old Hollywood stars are attempting to “reclaim” historical figures as the role models they could’ve been if they’d lived in a different era.
Which brings me to the meat of this post: I found Hollywood Lesbians at a used bookstore and started reading it and was like OH MY GOSH THIS IS A GEM I HAVE TO SHARE THIS WITH AUTOSTRADDLE. It digs in deep with these incredibly complicated and interesting women on topics including but certainly not limited to their careers, queer subtext in early cinema, feminism, queer linguistics and sexism in the industry. His knowledge of their careers is seemingly limitless. Apparently, an updated edition of Hollywood Lesbians with 50% new material, Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster, was published by Riverdale Avenue Books last year, and is probably also great.
One of my favorite parts of the book, obviously, was this guy’s dogged attempts to get some answers or confirm some information about the Sapphism or lack thereof embodied by his interview subjects, their friends and their co-stars, as well as people and things who have nothing to do with Hollywood really at all. In doing so, many of the interview subjects ended up disclosing or introducing information of their own about queer Hollywood figures. He also included descriptions of his interviewee’s physical behavior during the interview, which feels journalistically suspect, but well, here we are.
31 Failed and Successful Attempts To Label A Woman Lesbian and/or Bisexual In The “Hollywood Lesbians” Book
Edna May Oliver, Actress (1883 – 1942)
Boze Hadleigh: The marvelous Edna May Oliver is long since deceased. Did you ever hear rumors about her?
Marjorie Main: They wasn’t rumors. It was true. And since she passed on before the war ended, I can say it with a clear conscience. She preferred the ladies. She had a good lady friend.
Patsy Kelly, Actress (1910 – 1981)
BH: If you’d gotten contractually married, would you have preferred a gay husband?
Patsy Kelly: Yeah, I wouldn’t. I mean no. Yeah, wait a minute: I’m a dyke. So what? Big deal!
BH: You may be the only woman in Hollywood to say that. Congratulations.
PK: Let’s have a toast. To honesty. It’s not the best policy, but it’s the only way to fly! Bottoms up!
Marilyn Monroe, Actress/Model (1926 – 1962)
Capucine: But the other thing about Barbara Stanwyck, I heard it years later while making a movie where I played the lesbian [Fraulein Doktor, 1968]. I heard that when Barbara and Marilyn [Monroe] did a movie together [Clash by Night, 1952], Barbara was very kind to Marilyn, who was new and very insecure. And the two became good friends, but more than that…
BH: …So do you think Monroe was bisexual or basically heterosexual with a few female flings thrown in?
C: Who can be positive? It depends how wide is the definition of “bisexuality.”
Alla Nazimova, Actress (1879 – 1945)
Edith Head: There was an actress, more of a stage actress, though she was very big at Metro in the beginning [the 1920s]. Her name was Alla Nazimova, and she was both a woman’s woman and… rather masculine, all right.
BH: I’ve read about her. A fascinating personality. A woman’s woman, you said?
EH: Yes, a lesbian.
Elsa Lanchester, Actress (1902 – 1986)
Boze: Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester… [No response] You knew [Charles], didn’t you?
Edith Head: A great talent. A very nice man.
BH: Was it widely known in Hollywood that he was gay?
EH: Many people did know he was a homosexual.
BH: He was a homosexual? Did you know Elsa Lanchester at all?
EH: I’m sure we’ve met. [Glaring.]
Claudette Colbert, Actress (1903 – 1996)
BH: I read in a book called Hollywood Babylon that [Claudette Colbert] had an alleged affair with Marlene Deitrich…
Marjorie Main: Really? A book!? [Smiles] Could be.
BH: Did you ever hear in Hollywood of her off-screen life?
MM: Yep… she had a husband or two. No kids.
BH: When a woman has no children, what does that indicate to you?
MM: She’s smart! She can live her own life and not spend it worrying about some ingrate. No one ever tells me they envy me, not having kids, but believe me, some do.
Minna Wallis, Agent & Acting Coach (1894 – 1986)
BH: …I know there have been lesbian acting coaches; one famous one was Minna Wallis, Hal’s sister.
Agnes Morehead: You’re well informed, my boy. But she became a famous agent. Few are content merely to coach; it’s very humbling.
Marjorie Main, Actress (1890 – 1975)
Boze: [Did you ever have a crush on] Greta Garbo?
Marjorie Main: You’re gonna think I’m prejudiced [against Europeans], but I’m not. Garbo was beautiful, and she didn’t dress quite so outlandish. But she was always emotin’. All that suffering and heaving, and she weren’t none too feminine when she walked about! I hear her feet’s not as big as they say, but she’s one gal where it wasn’t hard to guess her secret.
BH: She was androgynous, wasn’t she?
MM: She was what?
BH: Both genders. Neither gender.
MM: Well, I think every gal that preferred women fell in love with Garbo, except me! I did like her voice, though. Never did much care for high-pitched dames.
MM: Like Kathryn Grayson, and that’s all you’re getting out of me!
Sandy Dennis, Actress (1937 – 1992)
BH: Were you at all attracted to [your female co-star] for real?
Sandy Dennis: Yes! I’m not going to lie… now.
Daphne Du Maurier, Writer (1907-1989)
BH: You worked with the apparently heterosexual Hitchcock, and there are more gay undertones in his films, or say, Howard Hawks’, than in those of gay directors like Cukor and [Dorothy] Arzner.
Judith Anderson: Do you mean because the Cukors and Arzners were repressing it in their work?
BH: Yes, because being in the closet, they didn’t want it to reflect on them. Most gay-themed films have been directed by nongay men — and virtually all the lesbian films, as well. But I mean, in the old days, gay undertones. As in Rebecca….
JA: I wondered if we’d come to that. I know it’s fashionable now to say that Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca was a spiteful lesbian. Spiteful, undoubtedly. But whoever in the picture called her a lesbian? Tell me that?
BH: No one did — and that word wasn’t allowed in films then. But the keys to her likely lesbianism are in the character herself and in her creator, Daphne Du Maurier, who biographers are disclosing was lesbian or bisexual.
JA: Something to that effect did reach my ears.
Greta Garbo, Actress (1905 – 1990) and Jean Arthur, Actress (1900 – 1991)
BH: Was it widely known in Hollywood in the 1930s and forties that actresses like Garbo or Jean Arthur, to name two, were lesbians?
Marjorie Main: People talked. People knew. They didn’t talk about it much. Not around me. I wonder why now…
Mary Martin, Actress (1913- 1990) and Jean Arthur, Actress (1900 – 1991)
BH:… why do you think Peter Pan is always played by actresses?
Patsy Kelly: I dunno why they’d try and cast it that way. But it figures why certain actresses — the sisterhood? — want to be Peter Pan. Gals like Mary Martin and Jean Arthur.
BH: You mean because Martin and Arthur are lesbians.
PK: In a nutshell.
Kay Francis, Actress (1905 – 1968)
Boze: Did you have any crushes on particular glamour girls?
Marjorie Main: You want to know everything, don’t ya? I liked Kay Francis. She was a real glamour gal, and an American, and she wore the most beautiful clothes. Had a lot of style. I always heard she was queer for the ladies.
Wanda Landowska, Harpsichordist (1879 – 1959)
BH: A friend of mine who’s a musician said he saw you in the 1950s on TV – “Camera Three”? — reading from the diaries of the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska.
Agnes Morehead: Did she?! And she remembers? That’s very nice! It was “Camera Three.” Yes, television had much more class… it was even blatantly cultural.
BH: If not realistic. Did you know that the great Landowska was lesbian?
AM: Was she really? She was married…
BH: Pardon me, but that means nothing.
AM: Nothing?! Marriage is a…
BH: I meant that most famous lesbians have been married at some time….
AM: I see. Well, thank you for informing me.
Dorothy Arzner, Director (1897 – 1979)
Judith Anderson: I heard you interviewed Dorothy Arzner, the gay director you already named, with George Cukor.
BH: How did you know that? It hasn’t been published yet.
JA: What are you waiting for? She’s dead.
BH: Yes, eleven years ago. But how did you know?
JA: I know lots of things.
BH: Did you know Ms. Arzner?
JA: One of her former pupils worked for me. She said the first time she laid eyes on Miss Arzner, she thought she was a man.
BH: She wore man-type clothes. But never pants — not in any photo I’ve seen. Other than riding pants.
JA: She didn’t dare! In that period, if she’d worn trousers in public, they might have stoned her.
BH: I guess only a beauteous type like Dietrich could get away with public pants?
JA: Arzner had a well-known passion for Marlene, but Marlene rejected her. She preferred more feminine lesbians.
Tallulah Bankhead, Actress (1902-1968)
BH: For her day, [Tallulah] was very honest about her bisexuality. That famous line of hers, “Daddy always warned me about men and alcohol, but he never said a thing about women and cocaine!”
Patsy Kelly: Yeah… Tallu was a straight-shooter. Pardon the expression. Tallulah never beat around the bush — she’d gossip about you in front of your back! Never behind it. You always knew where you stood with her, how she felt. All in all, damn remarkable for an actress!
Spring Byington, Actress (1886 – 1971)
Boze Hadleigh: I read in a movie source book that Ms. Byington wed once, had no children — of course we remember her as Marmee in Little Women — and was rumored not to be… fond of men, that way…
Marjorie Main: [Stunned pause, then amusement.] They’re saying these things in books now? [Shakes her head.] Spring would roll over in her grave, bless her. It’s true, she didn’t have much use for men. But she was my friend, and I’ll hold off on talking about her private life.
BH: But what can it hurt now? There was nothing wrong with it anyway.
MM: I know. But not everyone’s as liberal as you.
BH: Other than Spring Byington, were you friends with other women-loving comediennnes?
MM: I don’t know that I’d call Spring a comedienne, exactly…. Do you want names, or what?
Judith Anderson, Actress (1897 – 1992)
BH: Dame Judith, would it bother you, being thought lesbian?
Judith Anderson: Many people already do….
BH: May I ask you romantic orientation?
JA: I am no romantic. That is my orientation!
BH: So when people think you’re a lesbian, does it bother you?
JA: It doesn’t bother me. It’s they who bother me.
BH: If you were gay, would you ever come out? [No reply; glares and clenches both fists. I know the interview is over, so ask:] If you came out now, at ninety-plus, how could it possibly harm you?
JA: It couldn’t! But I wouldn’t “come out” in a million years. Why should I? I owe nothing! I don’t owe anyone any explanations, and I won’t join up with anything. Ever. They never gave ME anything, and I certainly don’t need them. I live my own life, and good luck to them, but leave me alone!
Lady Liquor (7000 BC – Present)
BH: Who has been your biggest love, Patsy?
Patsy Kelly: Boze, you’re lookin’ at him — her. [Raises her glass.] Lady Liquor. We’ve gotten too palsy-walsy at times, but now I know just how to handle her. She’s a tricky one — lovable but dangerous — and I learned her tricks the hard way. Poor Tallu was too impatient to learn ’em…
Nancy Kulp, Actress (1921 – 1991)
BH: Should I ask [the question] now, and if so, do you want me to suppress the answer — I mean from seeing print — until some future date?
Nancy Kulp: I’d appreciate if if you’d let me phrase the question. There is more than one way… Here’s how I would ask it: Do you find that opposites attract? My own reply would be that I’m the other sort — I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question.
Liz Smith, Gossip Columnist (1923 – )
Sandy Dennis: …I was asked this terrifically intimate question once by this lesbian columnist, and…
BH: The gossip columnist?
SD: Yes, everyone knows. It really got my goat, ’cause she expected me to answer this… this…
BH: A question about being lesbian or bi?
SD: Yes! Very personal and for possible use in her column. I mean, who is she to ask me this and expect me to tell her, and… when she’s always denying it herself, even though, I mean, she lives with… It’s… augh!!!
Mae West, Actress (1893 – 1980)
Patsy Kelly: Another morsel about Mae [West]: she’s hetero all right, but you can’t tell me a nymphomaniac like her’s never had one sisterly roll in that famous bed of hers, with that famous mirror overhead. But Mae wouldn’t admit to a lesbian escapade out of ten-thousand-and-one heterosexual Arabian nights…
BH: See if you agree with this. If Mae did have, say, one same-sex fling, don’t you think the reason she’d deny it is that our media — not to mention the medians of median-America — are so ignorant? If a heterosexual has one gay fling, just one out of curiosity, she or he is likely to be labeled as bisexual or, if she or he is disliked, as gay or “queer.”
PK: Yeah. That’s it in a nutshell. You gotta be 100 percent one way or the other, or else the opposite side starts beefin’.
Leontine Sagan, Director/Actress (1889 – 1974)
BH: I hope I don’t offend you by reading a quote from Leontine Sagan. She said, “What could Dorothy Arzner lose if she came out, in her retirement, and admitted to lesbianism?”
Dorothy Arzner: [long pause] I think our connection is bad.
BH: I wouldn’t say it’s bad.
DA: This is a good final question for you.
BH: I didn’t mean to give offense, I just wondered what your response would be to her question.
DA: To her challenge, it sounds more like. But I too have a question — Has Miss Sagan ever “come out” herself?
BH: I don’t know.
DA: I doubt she has. If I’m not mistaken, she had a husband. I never did that. So she’s hardly in a position to give advice or issue challenges.
Marlene Dietrich, Actress (1901 – 1992) and Greta Garbo, Actress (1905 – 1990)
BH: Do you think bisexuality was very widespread among female stars during Hollywood’s heyday?
Barbara Stanwyck: …I heard that [Marlene] Dietrich, Greta Garbo, most of the girls from Europe, swing either way. Then I found out it’s true.
BH: You found out…?
Joan of Arc, Warrior & Roman Catholic Saint (1412 – 1431)
BH: Most history books don’t admit that Joan liked to wear men’s clothes before she ever led an army.
Capucine: Yes, well, long ago I read that the Vatican chose to canonize her at the very time when rumors were spreading that Jeanne d’Arc had a close companion….
BH: A bosom buddy?
Capucine: Yes, another girl. Formally, they made her a saint, and that made her seem asexual, and no one would ask any more questions.
Irene Lentz, Costume Designer (1900 – 1962)
BH: Growing up in Santa Barbara and with several friends in the business, we’ve always heard that [costume designer] Irene was a lesbian, or possibly bisexual. That her marriage to Cedric Gibbons’ brother was arranged — and for that matter, that Gibbons was himself gay; I don’t know about the brother …do you know if Irene was lesbian?
Edith Head: I don’t discuss other people’s private lives.
BH: I know you don’t discuss your stars and what you’ve seen in the dressing room. But I think by now it’s common knowledge that Irene was gay. Or bi.
EH: I do not invade anyone’s privacy.
BH: But that’s like saying that if you admit X or Z is heterosexual, you’re invading their privacy.
EH: …Irene was not a happy woman… I don’t know much about private Irene. I know she liked hunting and guns and the great outdoors. Deduce from that what you will.
Eve Arden, Actress/Comedian (1908 – 1990)
BH: What about Eve Arden?
Marjorie Main: She never got her man, either! [In films]
BH: What about her real-life story? All about Eve?
MM: She’s alive. I’m not gonna talk about her.
Capucine, Model/Actress (1928 – 1990)
BH: So you wouldn’t call yourself heterosexual?
Capucine: Oh, I wouldn’t. But if the publicity people would see a need to say that, I don’t care.
BH: Even if it’s not true?
C: Most publicity is not true.
BH: Do you think if you were in Hollywood today, starting out or already a star, you would be more open about your orientation?
C: Ah [raises a forefinger]… but I was not hiding it. I never said I was what I was not. And they [other actresses] still do say that.
Pola Negri, Actress (1897 – 1987)
BH: Pola Negri. I know she retired around talkies, but is she still alive?
Edith Head: I’m sure she is, though she must be around ninety. I hear she has a home in Santa Fe.
BH: Truman Capote refers to Santa Fe as the lesbian capital of America.
EH: Just don’t print anything about her in either of our lifetimes. She denies everything.
BH: Except having an affair with Hitler. Can you believe it? Too ashamed to say she’s gay or bi, but ready to admit to an affair with that devil.
EH: I don’t even think she was bisexual… I read her memoirs a few years ago. It was titled Memoirs of a Star. Lies — start to finish. Very clever book.
BH: Somewhere I heard that she got herself a rich sugar mommy. Long ago, already.
EH: I’ve said all I’m saying. Read the book. The other woman is in there, but not the way you describe her.
Agnes Moorehead, Actress (1900 – 1974)
BH: Numerous Hollywood actresses — Garbo, Gish, Dietrich, Jean Arthur, um, Kay Francis, Stanwyck, Bankhead, Del Rio, Janet Gaynor, etc., etc., — have enjoyed lesbian or bi relationships. Have you ever…?
Agnes Moorehead: Yes, you’d love to put me in their excellent company! Even if I don’t belong in the same category.
BH: You don’t?
AM: Those ladies were more beautiful than me.