Tab Hunter on (Almost) Being Outed in 1955: "I Thought My Career Was Over" (Guest Column)

Back in the '50s, Hunter was a closeted movie star constantly worrying that his sex life would become front-page fodder for gossip rags. Now, he reflects on a more innocent but still dangerous time.
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Hunter and Wood arriving at the Academy Awards (she was nominated for 'Rebel Without a Cause') in 1956.

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Unless you're of a certain age, you may not know my name, but you can Google it — I was a pretty big movie star in the 1950s. Oh, and another thing: I was — am — gay. That wasn't the sort of topic that one spoke freely about back then, since it could spell the end of one's career, but it was the sort of topic that people gossiped about, and there were no shortage of gossips back then, either.

When I came to town, there were fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen, which worked in cahoots with the studios and were entirely about puffing up movie stars and feeding the illusions that readers across America had of Hollywood. There were also a number of other publications that aimed to take readers behind the scenes and paint for them a more realistic portrait of the movie colony — good, bad and ugly — using information fed to them by studio PR departments, independent publicists, agents, waiters and stars themselves, all of whom had an angle. Their coverage never got too ugly, though, because their access to the stars would have been cut off if they ever damaged the studios' merchandise.

At the time, the trades, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, were the bibles of Hollywood. Everybody in town had them delivered every morning and would read them over coffee. The first thing that many turned to were the columns that ran right behind those publications' front covers — Mike Connolly's "Rambling Reporter" and Army Archerd's "Just for Variety." Both men were class acts. I really liked Mike, in particular — he was a former publicist who always was very kind to me and never made reference to my sexuality, perhaps because he was closeted, too!

The industry catered at least as much to Louella Parsons from the Los Angeles Examiner and Hedda Hopper from the Los Angeles Times — two eccentric women who were old enough to have been my grandmothers — because their readership extended far beyond Hollywood. Louella, a plump and dotty woman who always had a drink in one hand and Jimmy McHugh in the other, was syndicated by the Hearst empire and reached more than 20 million people through 400 newspapers. Hedda, an ex-actress who wore ridiculous hats, reached 32 million people through 85 newspapers. They were the West Coast versions of New York's Walter Winchell and Earl Wilson, who also were showbiz columnists, and they were treated like royalty.

I remember the first time I read my name in their columns — I was really excited because that, to me, meant that I had made it. Over the years they both wrote plenty about me — we'd do interviews at the Polo Lounge or the Brown Derby, with the studio always picking up the tab. Louella, who popularized the phrase "rumor has it," was mostly nice and I liked her; Hedda, on the other hand, scared me a little bit — she was less predictable and had more of an agenda and an edge to her. Neither would openly discuss my sexuality — they couldn't in those days — but both periodically made subtle references to it in their columns, wondering when I was going to settle down with a nice girl and then, after the studio began pairing me with my dear friend Natalie Wood on faux-dates, asking if I was "the sort of guy" she wanted to end up with.

Even though Hedda and Louella could be prickly, I read and respected them because their intentions basically were pure — they loved Hollywood and were trying to preserve its decorum and moral order. If they were around today, they would be disgusted by the Hiltons and Kardashians and appalled by the National Enquirers and TMZs.

The publication that really caused problems back then was Confidential, a "rag" — relegated to the upper shelves of newsstands behind cardboard placards so that kids couldn't see the filth it was peddlingthat came along at just about the same time that I did and really got down in the gutter. It didn't observe limits because it didn't desire cooperation from studios and stars; rather, it aimed to embarrass them. Its stories generally started from some grain of truth and then a cockamamie story was built around it. It really shook up the town for a few years until Maureen O'Hara sued them for publishing a story, about her supposedly having an affair, that was demonstrably false.

In September 1955, just as my career was taking off — I had just starred in one of the biggest box-office hits of the year, Battle CryConfidential targeted me. It all came about because Henry Willson, who "discovered" me and many other "pretty boy" actors, was upset when I left him to be represented by another agent. Around the same time, he learned that Confidential was planning to out Rock Hudson, who still was one of his clients, so he cut a deal with them to keep Rock out of their pages, feeding them dirt on me instead. Specifically, he made them aware of the fact that five years earlier, before I was anybody, I had been arrested for disorderly conduct when police raided a party at which I — and a number of other gay people — were in attendance. Confidential then ran the story on its cover and described it as "a pajama party," insinuating that it had been some sort of gay orgy.

It was all bullshit. I had been invited to the party by a friend and attended it solely for the free food. When I arrived, there happened to be a couple of guys dancing with a couple of guys and a couple of gals dancing with a couple of gals, so I looked and said, "Oh, it's one of those parties," and then proceeded to the refrigerator. Moments later, the cops showed up and arrested all of us. That's exactly how innocent it was. When the Confidential article came out, though, I thought my career was over. Thankfully, at just about the same time, Photoplay, which had a much bigger circulation, came out with an issue featuring me and Natalie Wood on the cover, identifying us as the year's most popular new stars. That probably saved me. After all, in Hollywood, everybody talks, but nothing matters more than the bottom line.

Tab Hunter, now 84, is the subject of an acclaimed new documentary, 'Tab Hunter Confidential,' which THR wrote about in March and which will be released in New York on Oct. 12 and in Los Angeles on Oct. 30 before expanding to 30 other cities across America.

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