The life of matinee idol Ramon Novarro was bookended by immense stardom on one end and then, in his very last breaths, immense tragedy. On October 30, 1968, the secret he tried so desperately to hide throughout his glamorous career came out in one infamous, violent act. After that "Bloody Wednesday," the legacy of this Latin Lover was never the same. This is his story.
In many ways, Novarro’s beginnings were steeped in tragedy. Born Jose Samaniego on February 6, 1899, in Mexico, his family were wealthy doctors and dentists, and there was even a legend they were descended from Mexican royalty. A huge family of 12 children, they lived on an enormous family estate they called "The Garden of Eden"—and like Adam and Eve, they soon had a brutal downfall.
In 1913, when Novarro was barely a teenager, the Mexican Revolution erupted, throwing his family into total chaos. Suddenly, they were targets, and the brood moved around the country for a time before finally fleeing to Los Angeles to escape a potentially dark fate. But for Ramon, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Before Novarro had turned 18, he was already set on being a heartthrob. While in Los Angeles, he befriended famed Hollywood power couple Rex Ingram and his wife Alice Terry, who both saw good old dollar signs in the young man’s sweet, serene face. Before they started promoting him, however, they asked him to make one big change.
Ingram and Terry didn’t think the soon-to-be star’s birth name of "Jose Samaniego" was going to fly, and pressured the teen to change it to a more silver-screen friendly moniker. Even that didn’t go to plan: According to legend, he chose "Navarro" after his friend Gabriel Navarro, but after a typing error ended up Ramon Novarro. Either way, the rest was history.
Besides his new name change, Ramon Novarro had one more Hollywood strategy up his sleeve. At the time, Rudolph Valentino was the King of Hollywood and the prince of most women’s hearts, but Ingram and Terry cleverly positioned their protégée as competition for the so-called "Latin Lover". Yet even though these elder stars helped Novarro immensely, their relationship had a dark side.
Ingram believed Novarro could be a star, but he was also shamelessly using him. The director had actually worked with Rudolph Valentino first, but found him too difficult—and he was hoping the naïve Novarro would prove easier to control. As if to test this theory, when Novarro tried out for Ingram’s film The Prisoner of Zenda, the man made him go through three grueling screen tests just to get the part. And that wasn’t all.
When Ingram promoted his newest male ingénue, he forced Novarro to take up Rudolph Valentino’s mannerisms and his physical traits, down to the very last creepy detail. When Novarro took publicity shots, Ingram even made him comb his hair in the exact same way that the Italian heartthrob did. As we’ll see, though, Novarro’s rumored connection to Valentino only got more eerie as time went on.
In 1923, Novarro finally got his big break, and it was an enormous one. That year, Rex Ingram directed him in the blockbuster Scaramouche, opposite none other than Alice Terry. The film was a huge success, making back its huge budget handily at the box office and turning Novarro into a household name. Yet somehow, his most famous role was yet to come.
Right after Scaramouche, Novarro nabbed the lead role in the legendary biblical epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. But how he did it was scandalous. Initially, he lost out on the part, and producers cast athlete-actor George Walsh as the title prince. When that production turned into a fiasco, the studio took over, fired Walsh, and cast Novarro instead.
Reportedly, Walsh was bitter about his replacement until the end…but Novarro didn’t seem to care.
When Ben-Hur came out, it was more than an instant sensation, it was also an instant controversy—and Novarro was right at the center. As the wealthy, glamorous Jewish prince Ben-Hur, Novarro wore a series of tight, shiny, and short costumes, setting his female fans atwitter once more and firmly cementing his "hunk" status. But behind the scenes, things were much less glamorous.
Novarro’s role in Ben-Hur often required him to go sans shirt, but his buff appearance in the film was actually a total trick. Although he got a trainer while on set and tried to amp his muscles up, he still ran a little too pudgy for the producers’ tastes. Eventually, they gave up entirely and just had the makeup department paint muscles on him. And there was some other movie black magic going on…
Novarro’s 5'6" tall frame was way too small next to his strapping co-star Francis Bushman, who played the movie’s villain Messala. Desperate to make their leading man look intimidating next to his rival, filmmakers made Bushman stand in a ditch whenever he had a scene with Novarro. Movies: They’re all lies. Then again, Novarro was hiding something even bigger…
Despite his legions of straight female fans, Ramon Novarro was bound to disappoint them in bed—and vice versa. The Mexican heartthrob was actually thoroughly gay, even as he desperately tried to conceal this fact from the public eye, keeping his private life intensely private. Behind the scenes, though, Novarro’s love life was running wild.
Just before he gained international superstardom, Novarro took up with the composer Harry Partch, staying with him through the early 1920s. But he soon dealt his lover a heartbreaking betrayal. Whether stardom went to his head or he was afraid of exposure, Novarro dropped Partch like a hot potato as soon as he became famous.
Hollywood wasn’t ready to accept a gay leading man, but more tragically, Novarro could barely accept himself. His family raised him as a staunch Roman Catholic, and he could never shake the feeling that what he was doing was a "sin". This persistent belief affected him deeply, and Novarro eventually developed a raging alcohol problem that many trace back to his sexuality. Later in life, this would catch up to him in a big way.
In 1924, Novarro met Photoplay celebrity journalist Herbert Howe, and quickly started a torrid affair with the news writer. Together, they hid in plain sight. Howe would write about Novarro in his columns as his "closest friend," which only those in the know understood as code for "lover," all while Novarro’s profile got a boost. Oh, but they got more ingenious than that.
As long as Novarro was private about his lovers, the studios let him do whatever he wanted. In fact, they helped him create smokescreens, feeding news to the press that he was going on dates with starlets without ever making him actually meet the women. The best part? Herbert Howe, his real paramour, was the one writing these false stories.
It seemed like a match made in heaven, but the couple was doomed to a bitter end.
In 1928, after nearly half a decade together, Howe and Novarro broke up, sending shockwaves through subterranean Hollywood. Well, it must have been a shock for Howe, too, because he immediately took to his column and penned a vitriolic revenge article about his ex Novarro. Among a certain set, its contents were utterly infamous.
In his article, Howe accused Novarro of nothing less than malice and coldness, claiming he was incapable of showing any inner life or warmth in a relationship, and suggesting he very likely had no inner life at all. Concentrating all his skill for wordplay on obliterating his ex-boyfriend, Howe scathingly wrote that, "Off-screen he is a theater with the lights out". Novarro’s response was nothing short of drastic.
Sore from his breakup and newly burned by Howe’s caustic bitterness, Novarro tried to escape in the most bizarre way possible. True to his Roman Catholic roots, the heartthrob decided the best thing for his life and happiness was to…become a full-blown monk. He even approached a monastery, but they rejected him because they didn’t think a Hollywood star could be serious about enlightenment.
In the mid-1920s, Novarro got a huge and disturbing windfall. In 1926, Rudolph Valentino passed at the tender age of 31, leaving thousands of frenzied female fans mourning in his wake. But what was bad for Valentino was very good for Ramon Novarro, and he quickly became one of the leading romantic actors of the period. Only, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.
Nobody expected Novarro’s next move, and nobody liked it, either. In 1929, Novarro decided he wanted to become an opera singer and went over to Europe to make his debut. It ended in disaster. For reasons that are lost to history, the debut never happened, and Novarro only had modest success singing in his next films. Sadly, success did not keep coming.
The next years of Novarro’s life are tinged with slight desperation. His work in The Barbarian opposite Myrna Loy was just a re-tread of his earlier hit The Arab. Besides that, the film was so seedy and so intent on showing Loy nearly half undressed, the censorship boards banned it from release. His true career low, however, was up next.
Novarro’s role in Laughing Boy was opposite the "Mexican Spitfire" Lupe Velez, but neither actor brought passion to the screen. The fact that the two Mexican stars were playing Navajo people is cringe-worthy in the first place, but critics at the time also took aim at Novarro’s embarrassingly bad wig and aging face. Audiences felt the same, and the film flopped. And Novarro’s nightmare was just beginning.
A year after Laughing Boy made Novarro a laughing stock on the Hollywood scene, his studio pulled him into a meeting he’d never recover from. In 1935, infamous Hollywood "fixer" Eddie Mannix asked to see him, then told Novarro he was washed up, costing the studio money, and that they would pay him $19,000 to break his contract and never return.
Humiliated, Novarro nonetheless accepted, and it was a steep downhill from there.
In the wake of all this personal tragedy, Novarro actually moved back in with his huge family in the mansion had bought for them. He quickly made himself infamous. Film historians think he likely suffered a nervous breakdown around this time—so much so that he brought his current boyfriend with him, exposing his extremely traditional family to his hidden bedroom preferences for the very first time.
Ramon Novarro was always a fighter, and after his breakdown, he tried his hardest to make a comeback. Spoiler: It went horrifically. He went to London to perform a stage version of his movie The Prisoner of Zenda, but when the crowd glimpsed him, they were shocked to see the former heartthrob had let himself go to seed.
The once-beautiful idol now carried around a bloated face and wore a corset to hide his growing belly. But oh, it got so much worse.
It wasn’t just Novarro’s physique that suffered, but also his talent. He could no longer project his voice into the nosebleed seats at the back, and the crowd began to jeer, shouting at him to speak up. Novarro’s response was brutal. He got so upset that he broke character to shout back at them. Unsurprisingly, this move didn’t make the heckling any better.
Ramon Novarro’s less-than-camera-ready body wasn’t just the result of a life spent out of the spotlight. It was also a dark symptom of his inner demons. In his years away from Hollywood, his drinking problem had swollen to epic proportions, and he now often drove around bleary-eyed and recklessly. This had devastating consequences.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Ramon Novarro became notorious with the LAPD for his midnight run-ins with the law, and he got into several car accidents during this time. In one particularly bad crash, the actor even broke his ribs, injured his chest, and lost his driver’s license. Yet behind this dangerous behavior was a darker motive.
Starting in the 1950s, Novarro began calling up male sensual workers to fulfill his needs, and developed a network of men around Los Angeles. Sadly, though, this habit also fueled his drinking and his driving. Every time he used the "sinful" services, the guilty star would take liquid courage and drive around town before calling the hustlers up, leading to his many infractions. Over the years, Novarro’s mental anguish grew and grew.
Ramon Novarro was unusually—and bizarrely—conscious of his image, and some say he went to extreme lengths to maintain his youthful looks. In order to help him achieve a picture-perfect smile, he even used to regularly rub Vaseline over his gums so his lips would always smoothly form a grin. And he had more tricks in his arsenal.
In order to slim up and stay in shape, Novarro became a client of Sylvia of Hollywood, an iconic Los Angeles beauty guru who specialized in helping stars shed unwanted pounds. But he likely didn’t know what he was getting into. Sylvia had notorious methods, and she later confessed that some stars even cried and hid from her stringent exercises. When it came to Novarro, though, she did him even dirtier.
In her later ghostwritten book Hollywood Undressed, Madame Sylvia spilled all her clients’ secrets, including some of Novarro’s supposed bedroom habits. Sylvia claimed that, a good little Catholic boy until the end, Novarro slept in a coffin that was a "replica of the burial crypt…in the Vatican". Was this true? Probably not, but the image sure works.
In 1962, Ramon Novarro was still up to his old habits and crashed his car while driving around inebriated. This time, however, he seemed on the verge of sanity when the officers detained him, and one of the men claimed the actor turned to him and said, "I am old and I just want to die". Novarro later denied saying any such thing…but he would tragically get his wish.
Shortly after this last run-in, Novarro moved to the now-infamous Laurel Canyon area of Los Angeles. The remote canyon was far away for many stars, but it was especially lonely for a man without a driver’s license or much of a career to speak of. During the final years of his brief life, the former matinee idol spent the little money he had on the services of male escorts.
One of Novarro’s favorite "technicians" was a young man named Larry Ortega, a long-time contact who Novarro would often pay with coded checks that referenced "Gardening" or, more pointedly, "Massage". For a while, Ortega and his larger network kept Novarro satisfied and safe. Until, that is, the fateful day the star was left cold on a bed, choking in his own blood.
On the eve of Halloween, 1968, Ramon Novarro received a phone call from a sensual worker who claimed he got the star’s number from Larry Ortega and asked Novarro if he wanted his services tonight. Trusting his long-term network, Novarro invited the man over to his home. When two men showed up, brothers by the name of Paul and Tom Ferguson, he invited both in anyway. It would be his doom.
The Ferguson brothers were painfully young. Paul was just 22 and Tom, 17. Even so, Paul had hustled before and was apparently ready to try again. More than that, Paul was classically beautiful; according to later testimony, after inviting them in, Novarro had told the elder brother he could act in movies and possibly rival Burt Lancaster in stardom. Tragically, that wasn’t what Paul was there for.
The next—and final—moments of Ramon Novarro’s life are mysterious even as they are infamous. Both brothers told different stories. According to Paul’s vague and abstract testimony, he fell asleep during their visit, only to awake to Tom informing him Novarro was dead. However, Tom tells a much more sinister and detailed tale.
According to Tom, he entered the bedroom and saw that Paul had Novarro on the bed. He then watched as his brother bludgeoned Novarro with a prop cane and demanded a large sum of money he thought the star had. By the time Tom went to the bathroom and came back, Novarro’s life had dwindled to nothing. Whatever the truth, Ramon Novarro was dead—but Paul and Tom weren’t finished.
After doing the deed, the Ferguson brothers had to cover it up, and they went to great lengths to mask the scent of their trail. Paul and Tom proceeded to make it look like either a female sensual worker or Larry Ortega himself had been the one to take Novarro's life, putting a rubber in his hand while also writing Ortega’s name on a bedsheet and in a notepad. Then they got another idea.
Though few people mention it about the case, the Fergusons made sure to write one chilling message on Novarro’s mirror, a hastily scrawled and grammatically incorrect: "Us girls are better than [homos]". The eerie message was yet another attempt to keep the blame from them and put it onto a woman. Satisfied, they started to leave—but not before dealing Novarro one final indignity.
According to the court records, just before Paul and Tom Ferguson left Novarro’s Laurel Canyon house, they realized their clothes were bloody and that they couldn’t exactly walk out undetected. To clean up, they took clothes from Novarro’s closet, put them on, and dumped their own ruined garments near his property as they left. None of these ploys worked; the authorities quickly caught up with them.
As for that stash of money Paul claimed Ramon Novarro had? It was non-existent. Novarro had been spending the remains of his fortune on boys and booze for so long that he didn’t have much else to his name. In the end, the Fergusons left Novarro’s house that night with a measly 20-dollar bill they had found in his housecoat pocket. Justice was around the corner, but only the coroner could help Novarro now.
By the time the authorities got there, the former star’s body was in bad shape. He had bruises from head to toe, including in sensitive areas, and officers even found his broken tooth lying on the floor. Eventually, they determined his cause of his demise was asphyxiation; after receiving the beating, blood dripped down Novarro’s throat and clogged his airways. But this led to the most infamous rumor of all.
For years in Hollywood, whispers persisted that when Ramon Novarro met his ignominious end, he hadn’t choked on his own blood, but on an embarrassing bedroom toy. In Hollywood Babylon, cinema bad boy Kenneth Anger claimed that the Fergusons had stuffed an art deco naughty toy down Novarro’s throat…and Anger’s juicy accusations don’t stop there.
According to Hollywood Babylon, the fatal bedroom toy had once belonged to Novarro’s professional nemesis Rudolph Valentino, who had gifted it to the star and engraved the instrument with his initials. Anger even went so far as to claim that Novarro had a shrine to Valentino in his house, and that the toy was the centerpiece of his worship. The truth, however, is much different.
Hollywood Babylon is notoriously inaccurate, and no one on the scene that day remembers anything like what Anger describes. Yet in reality, Novarro’s end was actually more scandalous than this. When authorities nabbed both brothers and the case hit the newspapers, Novarro’s sexuality was suddenly on display for the entire world. Not only were his fans heartbroken, but his public image also fell apart instantly. As for that trial itself…
In many ways, Novarro’s trial was the first chime of the death knell for Old Hollywood. Taking place just weeks before the Manson Murders, it became symbolic of the end of the free love of the 1960s as much as it was the end of Novarro’s carefully constructed private life. Yet in the end, he got justice. The court convicted both brothers, and decades later, Paul finally confessed to the act.
Ramon Novarro’s tragic tale—a matinee idol with a ruinous secret, a macabre end on the eve of Halloween, a symbolic trial heralding the end of Hollywood—has fascinated writers for decades, from Joan Didion to Charles Bukowski. Yet despite the violent "Bloody Wednesday" that ended his life, Novarro’s film work continues to speak for itself. Rest in peace, Ramon Novarro.
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