- André Soares’ Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro chronicles the life and times of the gay actor.
- A teenage refugee from the Mexican Revolution, Ramon Novarro went on to reach the pinnacle of Hollywood stardom after playing the title character in the problem-plagued production of Ben-Hur, which turned out to be the biggest global blockbuster of its time.
- However unfairly, he’s best remembered for his bloody death at his Hollywood Hills home on Halloween eve 1968.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro tells the ultimately tragic story of the gay actor best remembered for the blockbuster Ben-Hur and for his brutal death
André Soares’ Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro recounts the tragic story of gay Hollywood star Ramon Novarro, best remembered for playing the title character in the mammoth silent era blockbuster Ben-Hur and for his brutal death on Halloween eve 1968.
Born Ramón Samaniego in Durango, Mexico, on Feb. 6, 1899, the future movie star fled the Mexican Revolution of the 1910s, eventually settling in Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, he began appearing as an extra in Hollywood productions.
His big chance came when Rex Ingram, one of the most prestigious and most influential filmmakers of the silent era, cast him as the suavely villainous Rupert of Hentzau in Metro Pictures’ 1922 version of The Prisoner of Zenda.
Ingram, who had helped to turn Rudolph Valentino into a major star by way of the previous year’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, had been looking for a “replacement” to the Italian actor, with whom he had had a falling out during the making of their second film, The Conquering Power. The newly renamed Ramon Novarro was his choice.
Ramon Novarro movies
Ingram and Novarro would work together on four other titles in the next three years, most notably the 1923 box office hit Scaramouche, an epic tale of the French Revolution that turned Novarro into a major Hollywood star.
After Rex Ingram moved to the south of France in the mid-1920s, Ramon Novarro remained in Hollywood. His career, however, didn’t falter. To the contrary. The second-in-command at the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Irving G. Thalberg selected Novarro to replaced George Walsh as the title character in the runaway production of Ben-Hur, which MGM had inherited from Goldwyn Pictures.
One of the most problem-plagued productions in Hollywood history and up until then the costliest movie ever made, the mammoth Ben-Hur went on to become the most successful worldwide blockbuster until Gone with the Wind.
By then one of the highest-paid actors in Hollywood, Novarro would star in several other major MGM productions of the late silent era, most notably Ernst Lubitsch’s bittersweet The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), costarring future Best Actress Academy Award winner and Queen of MGM Norma Shearer; George W. Hill’s military actioner The Flying Fleet (1929), with the Mexican-born star as an all-American navy pilot; and W.S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (1929), a major international commercial hit in which Novarro introduced the immensely popular “Pagan Love Song.”
Early talkie hits followed by end of stardom
Notwithstanding his slight Mexican accent, Ramon Novarro, playing a variety of ethnicities/nationalities, from French to Chinese, made an easy transition to sound.
An aspiring opera singer, he was particularly successful in early MGM musicals like Sidney Franklin’s Devil-May-Care and Charles Brabin’s Call of the Flesh. His biggest talkie hit, however, was George Fitzmaurice’s romantic spy melodrama Mata Hari, in which he was cast as a Russian aviator enamored of Greta Garbo’s titular spy.
After several box office underperformers – including the 1934 all-around disaster Laughing Boy and the costly musical The Night Is Young – MGM declined to renew Novarro’s contract. From then on, he would make sporadic film and television appearances until his death in 1968.
Catholicism vs. homosexuality
As depicted in Beyond Paradise, Ramon Novarro’s personal life was a difficult one.
Besides the frustration of having his operatic dreams shattered and the disillusionment after discovering that his trusted secretary (and former companion) Louis Samuel had left him all but penniless (as compensation, Novarro was handed what would become the landmark Lloyd Wright-designed Samuel-Novarro House in the Los Feliz Hills), there was the fact of Novarro’s sexual orientation.
Although not “openly” gay at a time when homosexuality was seen as a perversion and gay sex acts were against the law throughout the United States, as a young man Novarro seems to have been able to make peace between his devout Catholic faith and his sexual orientation.
He attended gay director F.W. Murnau’s gatherings, refused to get married or date women for appearances’ sake, and began a relationship with top Hollywood columnist Herbert Howe, who, during their time together, also acted as his (unofficial) publicist. (Following their split, however, Howe wrote a scathing article – an extreme rarity during that period – about his former lover.)
As the years went by – especially following the death of one of his brothers and the demise of his Hollywood stardom – Novarro became increasingly torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual urges. His acting career in disarray, his looks fading fast, should he devote himself to the priesthood? Or should he drink himself into a stupor?
In the last three decades of his life, Novarro would be involved in several near-fatal drunk driving accidents. Usually intoxicated, he would also seek the company of young men for hire.
Death on Halloween eve
Following a manhunt and a sensational trial, two of these young men – brothers Paul Ferguson, 22, and Tom Ferguson, 17 –would be convicted of torturing and killing the former MGM star at his Hollywood Hills home on Halloween eve 1968.
Decades later, in interviews with Beyond Paradise author André Soares, both Paul and Tom would affirm that there had been no torture, and that Tom had not been involved in Novarro’s death.
Paul, for his part, would blame his Catholic upbringing for his anti-gay bias in his youth, which had resulted in Novarro’s death.
Ramon Novarro legacy
As it happened, the star of Scaramouche, Ben-Hur, and The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg became known for the bloody manner of his death, which would later be mocked – with the addition of a nonexistent dildo as the death weapon – in the bestseller Hollywood Babylon.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro attempts to rectify that historical injustice by presenting the actor’s life in all its complexity, while making clear the crucial role the former Mexican refugee played in American cinema history.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro in paperback
Update: The hardcover edition of Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro was published by St. Martin’s Press. The paperback edition was published by the University Press of Mississippi in spring 2010. Both editions are available at Amazon.com (hardcover, paperback).
Beyond Paradise is also available on Kindle.
“Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro: Tragic Gay Star” notes
As discussed in Beyond Paradise, tales of a gay love affair between Ramon Novarro and Rudolph Valentino have absolutely no basis on the available evidence.
Ramon Novarro and Greta Garbo Mata Hari movie image: MGM.
Ramon Novarro and Alice Terry Lovers? movie image: MGM.
“Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro: Tragic Gay Star” last updated in September 2023.