Hollywood may be built on lies and exploitation, but, according to the new film Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, ex-pimp Scotty Bowers constructed an island of Utopian sex work and safe, queer hedonism for four decades within it, servicing both Hollywood royalty (Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Bette Davis, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh) and literal royalty (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor). Sometimes Bowers did the work himself; often he outsourced the labor to his male and female contractors. With near-bored matter-of-factness, the ninetysomething Bowers recalls that J. Edgar Hoover preferred to have sex in drag and that Cole Porter once hired 15 men at the same time. (Whatever you’re imagining probably isn’t as filthy as what the iconic songwriter allegedly intended to do with them).
How much of director Matt Tyrnauer’s film is true? It’s impossible not to wonder. Not because Bowers comes across as a con artist, a teller of tall tales, or a man whose memory has begun to betray him—he’s none of those things. But his accounts and generalizations are based on anecdata and one man’s limited-by-default perspective. Take Bowers’ insistence that Hepburn and Tracy were each other’s beards and that it was the actress who suggested that the “gentleman hustler” expand his services to include female escorts for female clients. The second of these assertions is impossible to verify. The first is “confirmed” by a Hepburn biographer, but the nature of the off-screen relationship between the legendary co-stars has long been disputed among historians and may well have wildly shifted during the actors’ quarter-century acquaintance.
It doesn’t help that Tyrnauer often leaves details fuzzy or altogether behind. Looking at a class photo, he says of a schoolteacher he guesses he was taught by at age 11, “I used to fix her up with a girl I was going with because she was a dyke, and her brother was gay, and I was tricking her brother.” Who was a lesbian, and whose brother was gay, and how old was everybody involved? These data points are crucial to evaluating how much of the story that Bowers recounts is good, queer fun or something much less innocent.
Thankfully, most of the time it’s pretty clear what kind of story we’re hearing. Scotty offers an afternoon with a nonagenarian telling his life story as he rifles through some photos and possessions. Bowers happens to be blessed with the spryness of someone three decades younger—in the opening scene, he affectionately honks his wife’s boob for the camera—and a cache of showbiz dish to rival Hedda Hopper’s entire body of work. But the doc is far from a mere jaunt through the rumor mill. It’s also an important corrective to many contemporary and historical accounts of Hollywood, reinstating the queerness that has too often been straight-washed out of them, as well as a fascinating chronicle of an apparently nonexploitative model of sex work. And, most compellingly, it’s a tale about how the Depression shaped the course of one farm boy’s existence, keeping him active and hoarding into his 10th decade on Earth.
“I created the rainbow in Hollywood,” Bowers says of his past life as a “pimp to the stars.” His recollections of his haven of sexual freedom, located within a gas station and nearby trailer on 5777 Hollywood Blvd., are notable for revealing a side of screen sex symbols whom generations of audiences would have preferred to ignore, even as others were desperate to connect to it. Indeed, Bowers is accosted by an angry reader at a book signing for his memoir, Full Service, who accuses the author of outing his former clients. In a different scene, a hairdresser tells Bowers, “You took away their dream. Shame on you.” (Never mind that Bowers waited until everyone he mentioned in his book was dead before he wrote about them.) But Bowers has no patience for those who prefer PR pablum to the truth, nor for the implication that there is something disgraceful about being gay. His defiance isn’t just defensiveness. He’s rightly satisfied by having carved out not just a queer space in Hollywood history at a time when homosexuality was considered a career killer, a mental illness, and a virtual invitation for police brutality, but an evidently happy one.
Such a feat wouldn’t have been possible without Bowers’ fraternal template for sex work. A Marine during World War II, Bowers saw himself as helping out fellow veterans—“good guys,” he calls them—who, like him, ended up in Los Angeles after returning from Europe or the Pacific. Shockingly, Bowers didn’t take a commission from his referrals. A former hustler attests, “I’ve tried working for pimps, and it was horrible. Scotty was never a pimp. He was a friend doing another friend a service, and helping both ends.” Given Bowers’ entrepreneurial spirit, the revelation that he didn’t bother taking a cut is unexpected, to say the least. (Apparently he made his living from a combination of sex work, renting out rooms in the gas-station trailer, and possibly being supported by a wealthy lover.) Given the distinctness of Bowers’ business plan, more context about the male hustling world of that era might have shed greater light on the ways Bowers stood apart.
But Tyrnauer presses just the right amount when it comes to Bowers’ personal life—a mix of tragedy and grit whose contours are thoroughly those of the “greatest generation.” Bowers speaks with chuckling pride of the sexual experiences and labor he underwent as a youngster during the Depression. (Again, the film is vague about at what ages exactly.) Tyrnauer rightly asks whether his subject’s first sexual encounter amounted to child abuse. In turn, Bowers is understandably annoyed, and understandably inflexible, when the filmmaker tries to reframe his origin story. Bowers similarly resists when Tyrnauer asks about his deceased daughter, who died, seemingly, of an illegal abortion—proof that erotic liberty and indulgence have always been more readily accessible to some groups than others. Guided tours through his multiple homes and storage spaces—so full of memorabilia, priceless and otherwise, that he and his wife, Lois, can barely move around in their own home—suggest a lifelong obsession with remembering his place in history: a revolutionary who knew he was doing something big, even if it was in secret. Now that he’s gone from quietly supporting the movies to being the subject of one, hopefully Bowers can rest a little bit easier in the knowledge that his achievements won’t be forgotten.