The Tragic 1968 Death Of Ramon Novarro

Arguably the most famous actor to come out of the silent film era was Rudolph Valentino. He was, for a time anyway, comparable to the 1910s and 1920s version of George Clooney or Brad Pitt; impossibly handsome, selling out theaters, the subject of column after column in the gossip rags. Unfortunately, Valentino's star was extinguished with his death in 1926, as the Los Angeles Public Library reports. 

However, silent films were still a thing, and the man to take his place as silent films' devastatingly-handsome leading man, as Factinate reports, was Ramon Novarro (above). Like Valentino, he was chiseled, exotically foreign, and what's more, the fact that he acted in silent films meant that his thick Mexican accent wasn't a hindrance (at least, before "talkies" became a thing), as the Golden Globes website reports.

Unfortunately for Novarro, he was also gay, at a time when being publicly gay was career and social suicide. Further still, as Lambda Literary reports, he was internally conflicted, being a devout Catholic who had a difficult time reconciling his sexual orientation with his faith.

It would be his closeted homosexuality that would play a role in his death. The actor, in his later years, was known to pay sex workers for their services, and he was ultimately killed by two men pretending to be sex workers.

A Closeted Superstar

In 1925, Ramon Novarro appeared in what may arguably be the highlight of his career: "Ben-Hur," the epic silent film that would be remade decades later with Charlton Heston. As the Golden Globes website reports, Novarro was on track to become a bona fide star, and that was reflected in the fan mail that he received, the lion's share of it from women, drawn to his "androgynous" good looks, as Noël de Souza Describes them, and his chiseled body, shown off in the revealing (by the standards of the time) costumes he wore.

Behind the scenes, however, Novarro was a conflicted man struggling with alcoholism. He was gay, and he was driven to stay in the closet by societal expectations and the demands of Hollywood, and as already mentioned, his deeply-held Catholic faith didn't allow room for his sexual orientation.

Novarro managed to keep his sexuality private as his career ebbed. By the 1960s, his star had dimmed to the point that he was basically in retirement, living out his days in his mansion and frequently entertaining sex workers, as Lambda Literary reports.

A Salacious Murder

Two young men – identified by Lambda Literary as brothers Paul Ferguson, 22, and his brother Tom, 17  learned of Novarro's predilection for paying for sex and hatched a plan. Pretending to be sex workers, the men gained entry into Novarro's home and eventually began torturing him in an effort to learn where a supposed $5,000 in cash was hidden (there was no cash), according to the LA Times. Eventually, the men beat the aging star so badly that he died, having choked on his own blood. 

Novarro didn't get justice in death. During the trial, the defense tried to play it off as if he deserved to die, calling him "an old queer." The assailants' mother did the same, saying, "[H]e deserved to be killed, he was nothing but an old f****t." As Lambda Literary reports, a later rumor would suggest that Novarro was choked by a sex toy that had been gifted to him by Rudolph Valentino (he wasn't). The brothers were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, only to be let out a few years later.

Meanwhile, LA Times writer John Rechey noted in 2003 that the homophobia that informed Novarro's murder was still persistent. "The repressive pressures that made possible the atrocity persist today, keeping famous actors closeted, even homophobic," he wrote.