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Alan Shayne

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What Destroys a Legend Most?

Posted: 02/13/2012 4:17 pm

I recently read an article in the New York Times about a new book called Full Service by Scotty Bowers revealing the secret sex lives of the Hollywood stars of Yesteryear. I can't wait to find out if Rin Tin Tin had orgies in the kennel. Why can't we let these actors rest in peace as we admire their great talent and beauty on the DVDs that are now proliferating? But obviously we can't, and so more gossip will be gobbled up by an envious public. Because that's what it is -- gossip. All of the people are gone and no one is here to refute even the most exaggerated claim. Why is it that we want to find the sexual Achilles heel of these titans? They had everything: fame, money, beauty, but I suppose that's the reason we search for something rotten in Denmark. We have to find whatever was kinky and that will prove that their lives weren't any better than ours. I read that the new "Tell-All" recounts how the author, a bartender, procured "150 women or more" for sexual liaisons with Katharine Hepburn and I was stunned. Was this another Katharine Hepburn he was writing about? It certainly couldn't be the one I knew and admired.

I met Katharine Hepburn in 1978 after I had asked my friend, the great director George Cukor, to see if she would be interested in a television film of The Corn Is Green. At the time I was president of the Television Division of Warner Brothers and I was going through properties that we owned that I could revive. As a young actor, I had seen the great Ethel Barrymore do the play on Broadway and it had always stayed in my memory as a beacon to encourage young people to believe in themselves. I had felt that Bette Davis was too young when she did the movie version so that a romance with the young miner she was teaching was implied and I thought that was wrong. Hepburn was in her early seventies and perfect in age and temperament for the role of the teacher who discovers talent in the young man. She agreed immediately and we began work on the project that would be directed by Cukor and filmed in Wales.

Miss Hepburn was adamant that we must film in the country where the story takes place, even though she would have to rough it a bit, in order to give the film the authenticity she demanded. When I flew over to see her, during the shooting, I found her in a tiny drab cottage, the only decoration skeins of brightly colored wool she had found at the local loom and spread around the room to give it life. She was the most fastidious person I have ever met. Her Yankee upbringing traveled with her throughout her life. Her home was spare. The chair and ottoman she sat on, before a roaring fire, were worn and cozy, just like the rest of the house -- everything necessary but nothing superfluous. This was the way she dressed and the way she lived. Lamb, roast potatoes, string beans, mint jelly and peanut butter cookies was the bill of fare and if you didn't like it, you could go someplace else. When I sent her flowers, I found the closest thing I could get to wildflowers that she loved to gather along the dirt roads of the village of Betws-y-Coed when she was not filming. She was never idle, either looking for her next project or painting or tending to friends who were ill. She didn't gossip -- there wasn't time. This is the woman who has been painted (and I choose the word carefully) as having been with "over 150 different women" sexually. When did she get the time?

Having worked for years in film and television, I can tell you just how difficult a star's life is. Work begins very early in the morning when they have to be in make up and they sometimes have to work very late. Life during a film is often on location in makeshift dressing rooms waiting and waiting to be called to the set. But Miss Hepburn didn't sit around. She was interested in every aspect of the production, never hesitating to get into other people's domain, sometimes to their exasperation. But her ideas were always constructive and served to make the film better. In her spare time she was a great athlete, constantly honing her tennis skills and swimming in the cold Atlantic whenever she was at her home in Connecticut. Did Scotty Bowers procure women for her and send them off to the jungle during The African Queen? She was in her forties and I imagine at her sexual best so maybe women were being shipped to her by the boatloads. And why did Bowers procure only 150 women or more? Why not two hundred or five hundred? The number is so absurd. I don't know about your sex life but the thought of being with 150 women or men is a bit exhausting. Can you imagine the time that would consume? Having to meet them, the preliminaries and then the actual act. When could you get your work done and, as I've said, Miss Hepburn was one of the busiest and most prolific stars of all time as well as the most exacting. But what is interesting about the article I read is that Bowers says he was not a pimp and didn't charge people to arrange liaisons. What a generous soul. Think of the time it took him to round up 150 or more women in Hollywood who wanted to go to bed with Miss Hepburn. Did he stand on street corners or just put his finger randomly into the Los Angeles phone book?

After Miss Hepburn gave up the small house she rented with Spencer Tracy on George Cukor's estate and Cukor had died, we inherited Margaret, the cook who had worked for them both. Margaret was reticent to discuss her former bosses and we were careful not to express too much interest. She did say that there were terrific fights and that Mr. Tracy drank as we all now know. But she did tell us something that has remained with me that tells me more about their relationship than I'm sure I can get from a salacious book. In the night, often, Spencer Tracy would have bad dreams and he would cry out. Miss Hepburn, who was in an adjacent room, would rush to his side and hold his hand. She would lie down on the floor by his bed until he could fall asleep again. Often in the morning, Margaret would find them together, Spencer Tracy asleep on the bed and Katharine Hepburn asleep on the floor beside him still holding his hand.

I saw Scotty Bowers once when he was working as a bartender at a party in Hollywood, I was taken aside and a whisperer told me he was the famous Scotty who, in his heyday, served a tray of hors d'oeuvres with his private part among the canapés. The party was about thirty years ago and Scotty must have been in his fifties. I looked at him and saw an ordinary looking bartender who could have been sent over by Central Casting. I remember thinking, "Can this be the same man that people tell so many stories about? I wonder if they're true." How could I guess then that Scotty had ambitions to be a legend himself even if, in the process, it meant destroying other legends who could no longer fend for themselves.

Alan Shayne is co-author with Norman Sunshine of 'Double Life: A Love Story From Broadway To Hollywood'.