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Beyond Paradise

Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro

André Soares
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Beyond Paradise
    Book Description:

    The first Latin American actor to become a superstar, Ramon Novarro was for years one of Hollywood's top actors. Born Ram¢n Samaniego to a prominent Mexican family, he arrived in America in 1916, a refugee from civil wars. By the mid-1920s, he had become one of MGM's biggest box office attractions, starring in now-classic films, includingThe Student Prince,Mata Hari, and the original version ofBen-Hur. He shared the screen with the era's top leading ladies, such as Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer, and became Rudolph Valentino's main rival in the "Latin Lover" category. Yet, despite his considerable professional accomplishments, Novarro's enduring hold on fame stems from his tragic death---his bloodied corpse was found in his house on Halloween 1968 in what has become one of Hollywood's most infamous scandals.

    A lifelong bachelor, Novarro carefully cultivated his image as a man deeply devoted to his family and to Catholicism. His murder shattered that persona. News reports revealed that the dashing screen hero had not only been gay, but was dead at the hands of two young male hustlers. Since then, details of his murder have achieved near mythic proportions, obscuring Novarro's professional legacy.Beyond Paradisepresents a full picture of the man who made motion picture history. Including original interviews with Novarro's surviving friends, family, co-workers, and the two men convicted of his murder, this biography provides unique insights into an early Hollywood star---a man whose heart was forever in conflict with his image and whose myth continues to fascinate today.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-458-4
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Anthony Slide

    I have long thought that Ramon Novarro’s finest performance on screen is in the title role of the 1927 Ernst Lubitsch productionThe Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.When first seen he is rather gauche, not exactly aloof but somewhat withdrawn from the all-male student company around him. As he discovers romance for the first time in the quite lovely form of Norma Shearer, he blossoms. Here, we have what Sigmund Romberg described in his original-source operetta as “the sunshine of our happy youth.” Of course, it all fades away as the demands of society intervene. Life changes so seldom...

    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. ONE Mexican Roots
    (pp. 1-11)

    Get Out Your Maps! And look up Buango [sic],” proclaimed a geographically challenged fan magazine writer in the January 1923 issue ofPhotoplay.“Never heard of it? Neither did we. But it’s destined for immortality.” That city—actually Durango, Mexico—was the birthplace of Ramon Novarro (born Samaniego), Metro Pictures’ fast-ascending romantic star. According to Metro’s publicity department, in the veins of the handsome young Mexican heartthrob ran the blood of the earliest Spanish conquistadores mingled with that of Aztec royalty, a studio-created myth that only partly matched Novarro’s actual family history.

    In the ninth century, a half-Moorish prince of...

  6. TWO Arrival in Paradise
    (pp. 12-25)

    My mother thought it was the closest place to paradise,” recalled Carmen Gavilán, and for a family recently arrived from a country torn by a bloody revolution, Los Angeles probably did seem like paradise. In the late 1910s, the city was surrounded by open spaces and green hillsides with rows of flowery pepper trees, while its streets were lined with date and fan palms. Near-constant sunshine, pure air, and a leisurely pace further contributed to the city’s paradisiacal allure.

    But for all its apparent serenity, the sleepy Mexican town of several decades earlier had been transformed into a fast-growing American...

  7. THREE Ramon’s Columbus
    (pp. 26-40)

    After watching Rex Ingram’s 1921 adaptation of Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’sThe Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,playwright and film critic Robert E. Sherwood remarked that the picture “will be hailed as a great dramatic achievement; one which deserves—more than any other picture play that the war inspired—to be handed down to generations yet unborn.... [It] is a living, breathing answer to those who still refuse to take motion pictures seriously. Its production lifts the silent drama to an artistic plane that it has never touched before.”

    The nearly bankrupt Metro Pictures had a large financial stake inThe...

  8. FOUR Ascendant Star
    (pp. 41-65)

    Ingram knew he had in Novarro a star in the making, but despite the director’s care in grooming and promoting his newest male discovery, others remained skeptical. “It is generally felt in Hollywood that Rex has made Barbara Le [sic] Marr a star by the work she did inThe Prisoner of Zenda,” read a December 1922Classicarticle by Harry Carr, “but that his ‘find,’ Ramon Novarro, is something of a disappointment. It is hard to say just what Rodolph [a temporary alternate spelling] Valentino’s appeal is; but apparently Novarro hasn’t it.” Ironically, Carr would become one of Novarro’s...

  9. FIVE “How Fate Works”
    (pp. 66-80)

    In April 1924, Novarro’s contract with the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn came up for renewal. Exaggerated reports stated that his weekly earnings skyrocketed from the $500 he had been receiving to an exorbitant $10,000, but the MGM payroll ledger shows a raise of only $500. Even then, $1,000 a week (approximately $10,000 today) was enough for him to begin enjoying a distinctly more lavish lifestyle. Upon his return from Europe, Novarro bought a Lincoln coupé for himself and a $5,500 mansion for his family.

    The new Samaniego home, at 2265 West Twenty-second Street at Gramercy Place, lay in the West Adams...

  10. SIX Harrowing Triumph
    (pp. 81-102)

    Despite Metro-Goldwyn’s attempt to keep the turmoil in Italy out of the news, it became widely known thatBen-Hurwould soon undergo a major overhaul. “TheBen-Hurexpeditions to Italy bid fair to become as numerous as the crusades,” quipped theLos Angeles Timesin late June 1924. “There is still a rumor that the original company may finish the picture, but this seems to be mere camouflage.”

    While the new group was en route to Europe, the studio finally announced that Charles Brabin would be replaced because of ill health, though no mention was made of either June Mathis...

  11. SEVEN A Certain Young Man
    (pp. 103-125)

    By early 1926, Novarro and Herbert Howe had been together for more than two years. Since Howe had had a new house built for himself in Beverly Hills in mid-1925, he and Novarro had been able to spend time together in town without interruptions from either Howe’s brother Milton, with whom Herbert had been living in the Hollywood Hills, or the numerous Samaniegos. Louis Samuel, Novarro’s fellow dance student at Ernest Belcher’s school, still played a part in the actor’s life, but now as his personal assistant. Whatever Samuel felt about Novarro’s relationship with Howe, there was little he could...

  12. EIGHT Crossroads
    (pp. 126-145)

    Following the October 6, 1927, release of Warner Bros.’ part-talkieThe Jazz Singer,industry insiders gradually realized that silent films were doomed. In the next two years, sound was to represent either a blessing or a curse to motion picture performers, depending on their ability to deal with the microphone. For Novarro, it could represent both. Sound would allow him to display his singing skills on film, but the new technology would also make his Mexican accent clearly apparent, and thus seriously limit his choice of roles.

    Even before the sound revolution, Novarro had considered giving up Hollywood for a...

  13. NINE The Singer of Durango
    (pp. 146-176)

    While Novarro lay sunk in depression in Europe, his mellowThe Pagan,referred to by theNew York Times’sMordaunt Hall as “a tale as languid as a Summer’s breeze... gloriously photographed,” opened on May 11, 1929, to excellent reviews and outstanding business. Released with a synchronized score, the picture allowed film audiences to hear Novarro’s voice for the first time—singing “The Pagan Love Song” on the sound track. The star, for his second film in a row, gathered glowing personal reviews.Varietypraised his “capital bit of acting,” Mordaunt Hall his “especially good” performance, andPhotoplayhis bringing...

  14. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  15. TEN Fade-Out
    (pp. 177-206)

    By early 1932, less than five years sinceThe Jazz Singer,the Hollywood landscape had been radically altered. The early-1930s reissues of two of the biggest hits of the previous decade,Ben-Hur(in abridged form) andThe Big Parade,had generated little interest despite the addition of sound effects and a synchronized score (thoughBen-Hurremained a strong box-office pull abroad). A mere six years old, the style and technique of those epoch-making films were regarded as badly outdated.

    In addition, numerous stars of the silent era had retired, been relegated to minor roles, or moved to third-rank studios. First...

  16. ELEVEN Illusion of Happiness
    (pp. 207-229)

    I have been playing the same part in different costumes, with different people, all the time!” Novarro remarked soon after leaving MGM. “I don’t want to hang on to the yesterdays. I don’t want to keep remaking the same stories. Viennese romances, football pictures! I left MGM amicably, but that’s the reason. What was the use of making another film with the same old theme?” Novarro seemingly failed to recognize his own responsibility in the matter. Nearly three years earlier, Herbert Howe had chastised Thalberg and MGM for giving Novarro “a dirty deal,” but Howe had also blamed the star...

  17. TWELVE Comeback and Farewells
    (pp. 230-247)

    Novarro’s cycle of guilt-abstinence-binge-remorse was broken only when he was busy at work. But now, in order to satisfy his yearning for artistic expression and to meet his financial needs, Novarro had to seek out acting roles himself. He expressed interest in performing in a motion picture with a “philosophical story which would help people to find themselves,” but no screen stories were offered—“philosophical” or otherwise. He also hoped to appear on the New York stage in the winter of 1941, but found “nothing but trash” among the plays submitted to him. Thus, summer stock, in spite of the...

  18. THIRTEEN The Last Years
    (pp. 248-271)

    In the early 1950s, Novarro spent much of his time alone at El Rosario—a remarkable change for someone who had always been in constant need of company. This newly acquired habit of solitude, coupled with his frequent contact with the priests at the Pala Asistencia and regular visits to other Catholic retreats around the country, led to the reemergence of rumors that he was planning to join a monastery. In fact, those thoughts did cross Novarro’s mind at that time, perhaps because he had been greatly impressed by Thomas Merton’s autobiographicalThe Seven Storey Mountain,an account of the...

  19. FOURTEEN Death in the Hollywood Hills
    (pp. 272-278)

    At 8:30 A.M. on Halloween, October 31, Edward Weber arrived at 3110 Laurel Canyon to report for work. The iron gates of the main entrance were open, but since the front door was locked, Weber had to use his keys to let himself in through the kitchen.

    As he walked into the living room, Weber saw that it was a shambles. Furniture was overturned. A pair of eyeglasses lay crushed on the floor. Calling “Ramon,” he went into the darkened master bedroom. There was no sign of Novarro. He looked into the master bathroom. No one. Weber began searching other...

  20. FIFTEEN The Trial
    (pp. 279-292)

    Like Novarro, Paul Robert and Thomas Scott Ferguson came from a large Catholic family. Paul, born in Selma, Alabama, on March 25, 1946, was the oldest, and Tom, born at the Great Lakes Naval Station near Chicago on January 10, 1951, was the fourth oldest often children. The father, a chronic alcoholic and itinerant steeplejack, had died of spinal meningitis at the age of thirty-three, leaving his widow and children to fend for themselves.

    Also like Novarro, Paul was an ardent Catholic who had at one point considered becoming a priest. By his teens, however, he had abandoned that idea...

  21. Epilogue
    (pp. 293-297)

    In 1978, nearly ten years after the trial of the Ferguson brothers, author Joel L. Harrison publishedBloody Wednesday,an account of the police investigation following Novarro’s slaying and the ensuing murder trial. In his book, Harrison proposes that the Fergusons were guilty of manslaughter, not first-degree murder, and discusses the possibility that the $5,000 was a fabricated motive. He also asserts that Paul’s defense attorney, Cletus Hanifin, had in his possession statements written by his client that incriminated him as the sole perpetrator of Novarro’s death. Harrison then accuses Hanifin of suborning perjury, for, despite that knowledge, the attorney...

  22. Afterword
    (pp. 298-306)

    In 1975, nearly six years after his conviction, Tom Ferguson petitioned the presiding judge of San Joaquin County to appoint an attorney to file an appeal or reopen his case. Tom’s petition was largely based on Joel Harrison’s investigation, including his discovery of the written statements by Paul. As a result, Tom was released from prison on probation and was placed on a work furlough program the following year. After violating the terms of his probation, he was returned to prison, but was paroled on June 15, 1977.

    After his release, Tom worked in a board and care home in...

  23. NOTES
    (pp. 307-366)
    (pp. 367-379)
    (pp. 379-380)
    (pp. 380-381)
    (pp. 382-386)
    (pp. 387-390)
  29. INDEX
    (pp. 391-400)