Hollywood Lesbians: From Garbo to Foster is bookended by interviews abruptly terminated by actresses Ann B. Davis and Barbara Stanwyck. The first via telephone, the second in person at the star’s mansion.
Ann B. Davis lives on in reruns as Alice, devoted housekeeper to The Brady Bunch. (After costar Robert Reed’s death from AIDS, his father image was erased from most Brady merchandising.) The sitcom eventually assigned Alice a boyfriend—a butcher. Being butcher than Alice, he reassured mainstream audiences of Alice’s straightness.
I hadn’t intended to upset Davis, who was likable if not TV-lovable. She did participate in Brady reunions, lent her name to a Brady cookbook—admitting she wasn’t good in the kitchen or with kids—and briefly portrayed a truck driver (!) in The Brady Bunch Movie. However, Davis’s third act centered on the Episcopal church and she lived her final decades with a minister and his wife.
Pre-Alice, Davis played boyish singles on the eponymous sitcoms of actors Bob Cummings and John Dynasty Forsythe. When I asked about Alice’s sexuality, Davis said Alice had none—she was a fictional character. Ah, but TV and movies abound with fictional heterosexual characters.
Then I learned Davis was an identical twin. I’d read the theory that such twins share identical sexualities. I mused aloud about a novel where one lesbian twin is opposite-sex married and a mom, while the other, a celebrity, eventually decides to come out. But can’t. Not without automatically outing the twin who’s chosen (and hides behind?) a hetero lifestyle.
Once Davis caught my unplanned drift, she became agitated. Was I suggesting she was lesbian (well, yes, even if non-practicing) and her sister too (no; I knew nothing beyond her marital and parental status)?
Probing Davis’ characters’ sexualities hadn’t alarmed her, but this was non-fiction. Suddenly she thought she heard a doorbell. Flustered, Davis said she was sorry but, uh, she had to go now—goodbye.
I was sorry it ended that way.
By contrast, Barbara Stanwyck was tough and humorless, like close friend and possible lover Joan Crawford. She disowned her adopted son after a magazine interview that asked whether Stanwyck—who shipped him off to military school—hated him. The right-wing actress’ two husbands participated in the McCarthy political witch hunts. Increasingly butch, Stanwyck wound up in western movies and a western TV series, The Big Valley.
I was surprised she agreed to an interview. It was due to a book for which I’d interviewed names like Rock Hudson and director George Cukor (Stanwyck had hoped to work with him). My sapphic questions puzzled her less than Ann B. Davis, so eventually I unfolded a Hollywood Star cover story about “70 Bisexual Actresses!” with Stanwyck’s name on the top left.
We discussed bi and lesbian stars. Stanwyck admired actresses like Garbo who never married, so I brought up studio-arranged marriages. One such—I didn’t say so—was hers to “too beautiful” Robert Taylor, whom MGM believed couldn’t become a star unless he married. (He also got a mustache and aged rather quickly.)
As I zeroed in on Taylor, Stanwyck grew impatient. Then I mentioned a friend whose basically hetero husband, a studio executive, had had an affair with Robert. Stanwyck snapped, “Don’t you dare ask me if it was an arranged marriage!” I hadn’t asked. I’d only noted her ex’s bisexuality.
Asked to leave her house, I reclaimed the newspaper clipping. “I’m sorry to have upset you.”
“Just please get out.”
“Or if the truth upsets you. I’ll take the list with me. At least you got top billing. Thank you for your time.”
Boze Hadleigh is the author of several books that cover popular culture and show business including ‘Hollywood Gays,’ ‘Celluloid Gaze,’ ‘Bette Davis Speaks’ and more.
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