Our Daily Correspondent

Bacall&Hawks copy

Lauren Bacall and Howard Hawks, ca. 1943

When I heard the news that Lauren Bacall had died, at first I felt the melancholy we all feel when another legend of a fading age goes. And then I thought: Is she in the Scotty Bowers book?

Since Valentine’s Day, 2012, the world has been divided unevenly between those who still live in a state of blissful innocence, and those who have read Scotty Bowers’s memoir, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. If you enjoy old movies, mourn the passing of the Golden Age of Hollywood, want to be able to watch Mutiny on the Bounty, or have a soul, I beg you not to open this book, for once you do, you’ll feel compelled to devour every page in fascinated horror. Everyone else: read it immediately.

My mom was the first one I knew to read the book. She spoke so darkly and incessantly about it that I felt compelled to buy it. (This was one of the few cases in which I felt an e-book was the appropriate medium.) After reading it, obsessively, I started evangelizing myself, much as my mom had, in the vaguest and most menacing terms. I wanted people to know—and yet, I didn’t. I felt like a sort of Ancient Mariner, wandering the world and sharing the darkness I had seen.

Not that the book is especially dark, mind you. Scotty Bowers is possibly the happiest man to have ever walked the earth. Here is the rather sanitized Wikipedia description:

Bowers fought in the Pacific, including at the Battle of Iwo Jima, as a paramarine in the Marine Corps during World War II. In 1946, he was pumping gas at a service station when he says Walter Pidgeon gave him $20 for a gay sexual encounter. Word spread about Bowers among Pidgeon’s friends, and Bowers turned the service station into a meeting place for paid sexual encounters, which took place in a nearby trailer or hotel, with his old marine friends assisting him in the business. In 1950, he stopped working at the service station and began a legitimate business as a party bartender, which also became well known in Hollywood for Bowers arranging sexual encounters for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals. In the book, Bowers claims he arranged gay or bisexual encounters for Cary Grant and his longtime lover Randolph Scott, George Cukor, and Rock Hudson, as well as for actresses Vivien Leigh and Katharine Hepburn, for whom Bowers claims to have arranged encounters with “over 150 different women.” He claims to have arranged various types of encounters for Desi Arnaz, Alfred A. Knopf, Sr., Spencer Tracy, Cole Porter, Laurence Olivier, Tyrone Power, Tennessee Williams, Howard Hughes, Charles Laughton, John Carradine, Montgomery Clift, Anthony Perkins and his longtime lover Tab Hunter, Malcolm Forbes, Harold Lloyd, Tony Richardson, Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, W. Somerset Maugham, Vincent Price, Édith Piaf, J. Edgar Hoover—who he says was a cross-dresser—Brian Epstein, Raymond Burr, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (both of whom Bowers claims were homosexual; he claims that their marriage was a sham). Grove Press had the book reviewed by a libel lawyer prior to publication. Bowers’s illicit activities were never caught by authorities; he kept all his contact information in his head. Bowers claims to have personally had multiple gay sex encounters with Spencer Tracy. He also claims that the romance between Tracy and Hepburn was a myth dreamed up by publicists to give each a facade of heterosexuality, although both (according to Bowers) were homosexual. The veracity of Bowers’s many claims has been endorsed by Gore Vidal.

Bowers put a stop to this aspect of his life and business when the AIDS epidemic began, though he continued to work as a handyman and bartender during this time. He got married in 1984 to his wife, Lois. Bowers claims he never took payment for arranging sexual encounters for others, only when he provided sex himself, and that though he is bisexual, his own preference is for women. Bowers never talked about these experiences before but decided to do so now because most of the people involved are now dead and can no longer be affected by his revelations.

(If you want a far franker, more thorough—and more illuminating—description—read this. NSFW, I guess.)

By the end of the book, you’ll be changed. Yes, you’ll know a lot of stuff about peoples’ sex lives, but somehow, you’ll feel broadened and jaded yourself; sex will have been stripped of mystique, effort, morality, beauty. This is either a beautiful or terrifying thing. It is certainly philosophically powerful.

Anyway, I had a vague idea that Lauren Bacall had cameo’d in the book—almost everyone does—but when I quickly ran a search (another reason it’s a good idea to read this one electronically; you’ll want to be able to reference it easily), I came up with nothing.

Instead, I turned to my other old Hollywood oracle: David Niven, whose memoirs of Hollywood, Bring on the Empty Horses and The Moon’s a Balloon, are compulsory reading—and not just for the soulless. Urbane, kind, and funny, Niven is a terrific raconteur, and somehow his assertions feel completely reliable. And as I thought, he had plenty to say about Bacall. Indeed, his words make a pretty terrific epitaph: “ ‘Betty’ Bacall was the perfect mate for Bogey—beautiful, fair, warm, talented and highly intelligent. She gave as good as she got in the strong personality department. Women and men love her with equal devotion.”