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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/28/19

Tab Hunter: American culture's hat trick

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Tab Hunter at the Chateau Marmont, 1976 In 1976, Tab Hunter discusses his career in an interview that was featured in the documentary .Making it in Hollywood., filmed in the Chateau Marmont Hotel.
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He had it all, and survived to relish it. Beauty, stardom, even an okay love life. The epitomy of Hollywood in its heyday. And it was all a (well-meant) ruse. Tab was happy to stay 'in the closet' right to the end. He accepted his sexual orientation but was 'not comfortable discussing it.' His work with John Waters and Divine were 'the high point of my professional life, even though it led to another label being hung on me that I have no use for: Gay Icon.'

Ne Arthur Gelien, rechristened Tab Hunter (Art loved riding and shooting) by sleazy agent Henry Willson, who Art/Tab insists never got his lecherous paws into his pants. Tab survived the poison of Hollywood long enough to leave his mark and then have a real life afterwards, despite his 'secret'. And that's the way he wanted it.

He claims (not all that convincingly) that 'professionally, the 'keep quiet' strategy worked. Allegations of homosexuality did not ruin me. 'Young love' topped the charts after the smear articles [ Confidential ], it did not influence taste and opinions of mainstream America. I learned street smarts the hard way, on the boulevards and byways of Hollywood. It prepared me for the stable of Henry Willson.'

He was beautiful as a child and a prince charming as a teen, escaping to a classroom at break to fend off girls and boys (who resented his adulation). Then there was the church organist. A neighbourhood girl tried to seduce him, he felt guilty, couldn't perform on command, then a police complaint (unfiled). Not a stellar first love.

His brother Walt, only a year older, took him riding at the public horse riding club in Los Angeles. He fell in love with horses, and they proved a good excuse for not wanting sex. He dropped out of school, where he was more or less mobbed, and joined the coast guard at 15, experiencing a religious oneness in nature on the ocean.

Bars weren't my style. Sometimes curiosity would get the best of me, and I'd test the waters with other boys, intrigued and relieved to find other kids who shared my 'unspoken secret'.

A Hollywood actor-agent and horse lover, Dick Clayton, took a shine to him, insisting he should be a movie star. Then, in 1950, Art/Tab was arrested in a raid on a 'pyjama party', i.e., a gay gathering, but already his beauty and charm began to play its magic. Though he hadn't even audition anywhere, he was plucked from the others in his crowded cell, freed by an attorney who specialised in the discreet handling for agents, producers and studio bosses.

How could this handsome, athletic guy not be a movie star? That moment was in fact the future Tab's first 'screen test', though it would haunt him throughout his career. Art's future agent (friend of Clayton) Henry

Willson (creator of Rock Hudson) knew all the dope on all actors. When Art/Tab finally dumped him, Willson took his revenge by leaking Tab's arrest to Confidential in 1955, when Tab was at the peak of a dazzling career.

Incredibly, in his memoir Tab Hunter Confidential: the making of a movie star (2006), Art/Tab writes that he bears no grudge. This was bound to happen as Willson was typical of Hollywood: Tab had abandoned Willson (who had done very little and got nothing in the line of favours from Tab), so he was fair game. Mentor and friend p roducer Edward Small told him: personality is a commodity. He joined a (messy) class action suit against Confidential, and breathed a sigh of relief when he wasn't called to witness.

That lack of hate and desire to 'get back' is the reason Tab had such a great life. A lesson for all. When things got bad, he always seemed to have enough money to retreat to his farm-of-the-moment with his beloved horses. He never seemed to make any enemies. He was always self-effacing, apologetic about his looks and sudden fame.

When he was asked to record something (it wouldn't matter if he had any talent), he went to the studio, and they decided to record 'Young Love', a new song, which hadn't caught fire. Two days later, it was on radio stations across the US, making him millions. His performance on The Perry Como show in 1956 is so awkward, ingenuous, it's touching. He bumped a furious Elvis from top spot for 5 weeks. Too much alike, they were never friends, but neither were into gossip.

Tab sang in a church choir as a boy, so he could actually sing. Despite feeling rejected by the church for his 'sin', he was a professed Catholic. He jokes how he'd pray for God to bless Sonja Henie, the reining world figure skating champion until 1936 and Hollywood star till 1941. He was also a competitive figure skater, winning regional pairs championships. His first love was the legendary spinner Robbie Robertson .

We shared something we wanted, it felt right, we allowed it to happen. Even if we could have talked about it, I doubt we would have. There were snide comments. We didn't have to deny anything. In 1953 homosexuality was denied by culture at large. Such things weren't talked about.

Robertson was told by the US skating federation not to let Tab come to the 1956 Olympics or he would not win. He told them he didn't care. And lost to the other American Hayes Jenkins. Tab's talent at charades is captivating in Stump the stars in 1954.

Tab's films eerily recap his life as image in Hollywood:

Island of Desire (1951) with Linda Darnell

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Eric writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and PressTV. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. His "Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games", "From Postmodernism to Postsecularism: Re-emerging Islamic Civilization" and "Canada (more...)
 

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