During the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1920s, actors and actresses shot to fame—but only if they tailored their images to the demands of the big studios. For LGBT actors, that often meant marrying a person of the opposite sex.
The early 20th century represented a unique time for LGBT people in the country. Throughout the Roaring Twenties, men dressed as women and gender non-conformity and queerness weren't as taboo in big cities as they would be years later.
Queerness could be appreciated on stage, but in the every day lives of major stars it was often hidden in sham unions known as "lavender marriages," according to Stephen Tropiano, professor of Screen Studies at Ithaca College and author of The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV.
These marriages were arranged by Hollywood studios between one or more gay, lesbian or bisexual people in order to hide their sexual orientation from the public. They date back to the early 20th century and carried on past the gay liberation movement of the 1960s.
Lavender marriages were a solve in part for “moral clauses” issued by big studios at the time. The clauses, first introduced by Universal Film Company, permitted the company to discontinue actors' salaries "if they forfeit the respect of the public.” The kind of behavior deemed unacceptable ranged widely from criminal activity to association with any conduct that was considered indecent or startling to the community. The clauses exist to this day.
“We have to remember that a lot of these decisions that were being made, they were economic decisions,” says Tropiano. “It was about a person holding on to their career.”
One of the earliest speculated lavender marriages was the 1919 union of silent film actor and early sex symbol Rudolph Valentino and actress Jean Acker, who was rumored to have been lesbian. On the couple’s wedding night, Acker apparently quickly regretted the marriage and locked her new husband out of their hotel room, according to the The New York Times. Soon after, they got divorced.
Valentino also married costume designer Natacha Rambova in 1923, at a time when his career was starting to take off and the roles he played were seen as less typically masculine, such as in the film “Monsieur Beaucaire” in 1924. His marriage to Rambova ended in 1925, which left some speculating that the marriages of the “pink powder puff” (a nickname Valentino acquired after playing effeminate roles on screen) were coverups to keep the sex symbol’s reputation intact.
Identifying how many Hollywood couples tied the knot to cloak their sexuality is, of course problematic since it’s primarily based on speculation.
“I think the hardest thing for a historian is to kind of sift through what the rumor [is] and what is actually factual," says Tropiano.
One commonly cited source for speculation is the memoir of Scotty Bowers, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars. Bowers’ account details sexual encounters, gay and straight, that he claims he both arranged and took part in, beginning in 1946.
Bowers wrote that he had been sexually involved with leading actor Cary Grant and his roommate, Randolph Scott, for more than a decade. At the time, Grant was cycling through five marriages with women. Grant’s daughter, Jennifer Grant, has disputed the allegations, through her spokeswoman, saying in 2012 that her father as “very straight,” according to The New York Times.
Grant died in 1986, and many of the subjects whose lives Bowers describes are also deceased. Some have questioned whether Bowers' accounts in the autobiography, and the corresponding 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood, are accurate. But the self-proclaimed “fixer” includes details and photographs that he argues back up his claims.
Among the most speculated lavender marriages was between the famed actor Rock Hudson and his secretary Phyllis Gates. They married in 1955 and separated two years later, after rumors of his homosexuality and infidelity began to pile up.
Waves of rumors and speculation around Hudson’s affairs became so widespread that they even helped foster the growth of celebrity tabloid journalism. The publication Confidential became popular in the mid-1950s by featuring salacious celebrity news. The tabloid outed popular figures like Hudson before outing was even a thing. Despite the coverage, Hudson never addressed his sexual orientation publicly before he died of AIDS in 1985.
Some gay actors chose to live openly, despite the risk. In the 1930s, actor William Haines refused to hide his relationship with his partner. Haines was contracted with MGM in the 1920s and ‘30s, while also living with a former sailor named Jimmy Shields.
Even with the common—yet unspoken—knowledge that the two men were romantically involved, Haines’ popularity didn’t take a hit until years later. That’s when he was given an ultimatum, either get married to a woman or he would be dropped by MGM, according to Tropiano.
“[Haines] had to make a choice between getting rid of his male partner and having a career,” says Tropiano. “And he actually chose the male partner.”
Haines then left the silver screen behind to create a successful interior design business with his partner. He’s now often considered one of Hollywood’s first openly gay stars.
Lavender marriages became less prevalent in the 1960s and ‘70s as the gay rights movement gained momentum following the Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Although representation in film and on television was still scarce, the actual lives of the stars on screen—straight, gay or bisexual—weren’t dictated by studios as much as they had been in the past.