Tab Hunter, the clean-cut blond boy who for a brief few years reduced a nation of teenaged girls to a helpless swoon, once had the seemingly pleasant distinction of sharing a magazine cover with Marilyn Monroe. Unfortunately, the magazine in question was called Hollywood Confidential, and the featured story was a malicious arrow aimed straight at the heart of Hunter’s burgeoning career.
The magazine’s hit job dredged up a half-decade old incident in which homophobic L.A. cops raided a party reputed to have gays in attendance. Hunter, who’d done little more than open a refrigerator to search for a beer, paid a meaningless, face-saving fine and the incident was forgotten. But by revisiting the incident years later, the scandal sheet was issuing a direct threat to Hunter, who was then one of the hottest young stars in America. However colorful that era of Hollywood may seem today, with its iconic hipsters such as Marlon Brando and James Dean and its iconic scandals such as the murders of the Black Dahlia and Johnny Stompanato, some things just weren’t talked about. Until they were, and then it came out in the form of ugly references to “lispers” and “limp-wristed lads.”
“I was living a double life,” Hunter said in a recent telephone conversation from a Baltimore hotel. But Hunter, who was raised Catholic and still attends mass, means to make a distinction between the inherently phony public existence of a movie celebrity and a private one that is none of our business. “I’ve never been in your face about sexuality. My touch of reality is to be back at home with my animals.”
Last year, Chapel Hill-based Algonquin Books published Tab Hunter Confidential, the actor’s very personal, yet non-gossipy memoir to “keep some other schmuck from getting his hands on me when I’m dead and gone,” as Hunter puts it on the telephone. He will be at Durham’s Carolina Theatre to present Lust in the Dust, his 1985 oater spoof in which he co-starred with Divine. (He also starred alongside Divine in the 1981 John Waters classic Polyester.)
Hunter was raised as Arthur Gelien. In his book, he writes frankly of his strong-willed yet distant mother who raised him and his brother single-handedly, as well as his adolescent enthusiasms for horses, ice skating, showbiz and romance (in approximately that order). Since he was blessed with exceptional physical beauty and conveniently located in southern California, it didn’t take long for talent scouts to notice the strapping young man who was cleaning out horse stables.
Art Gelien became Tab Hunter, and a string of successful–if aesthetically marginal–movies followed, along with a international smash pop single called “Young Love.” While Hunter gamely made public appearances with starlets–many of whom, such as Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds, were genuine pals–he had a private gay life that included intense relationships with a champion figure skater named Ronnie Robertson and a gifted actor from New York named Anthony Perkins. (“Tony was terribly complex and secretive, as I was,” Hunter says.)
These days, the 75-year-old Hunter lives in Santa Barbara with his companion, movie producer Allan Glaser (with whom he coproduced Lust in the Dust). He doesn’t ride much anymore, but he still keeps horses. His most recent acquisition is a 3-year-old filly he has named Harlow (as in Jean), after a distinctive platinum streak on the horse’s mane.
While Hunter is a proud survivor of a closeted time, it remains the case that there are few leading men or women working today who will acknowledge being homosexual. Hunter has no patience with the suggestion that, as a practical matter, openly gay actors would not be convincing in romantic, heterosexual roles. “I don’t think that’s legitimate at all,” Hunter says. “Not if you’re a good actor. You don’t have to be a murderer to play a murderer. Geraldine Page once said to me, ‘Use yourself as a basis for all of your characters. And if audiences don’t get your message, it’s their bad taste.’”
Tab Hunter will present Lust in the Dust at the North Carolina Gay & Lesbian Film Festival on Saturday, Aug. 12 at 4:45 p.m., in Fletcher Hall. Tickets are $12. He will sign copies of Tab Hunter Confidential from 8 to 8:30 p.m. at a reception at Durham Arts Council. Tickets to the reception are $20.