Gay Celebrity Lives, Then and Now

Biographies of movie and TV stars often make fascinating
reading, but too often the lives of gay and bisexual celebrities are left
unexamined. At least they are until the celebrity in question is safely dead
(and unable to sue). Such was the case with Montgomery Clift, Cary Grant, Tyrone
Power and others.

Raymond Burr (1917-1993) is
another case in point.

Though Burr’s sexual orientation has been the subject of
decades of gay gossip, as far as the world at large was concerned, the star of Perry Mason and Ironside was straight through and through.

Raymond Burr (December 31, 1944)

Photo credit: Hulton Archives/Getty Images

Burr himself was to blame for the public’s ignorance.
Throughout his life, the deeply closeted actor wove a web of heterosexual
fantasy around him. He added a fake military record to his resume, and spun
stories about two dead wives who “died” tragic deaths.

Raymond Burr was briefly married
to an actress named Isabella Ward.  But a brief marriage was not
enough to maintain the actor’s image of rugged
masculinity.  So Burr or his press agents invented for Burr a
fictional military career, two fictional wives (both safely dead) and even a
fictional son (also dead).  Burr even claimed to have enjoyed a brief,
star-crossed affair with the much-younger actress Natalie Wood.

In the midst of all this make-believe, Burr was enjoying a
long-term personal and business partnership with actor Robert Benevides, who is
13 years younger than Burr. The two men met in 1957 (I can confirm mid-1950s
only) and lived together till Burr’s death more than 35 years later. The two
men shared a passion for food, flowers, travel, and fine wines – the Raymond
Burr Vineyards, one of their common enterprises, is still owned and operated by
Benevides.

So secret was their relationship, Burr’s straight fans and
relatives were shocked when the actor died and left his entire estate to
Benevides, who was only referred to in Burr’s obituary as his “friend.” Needless
to say, Burr’s relatives sued for their share of the pie but, thankfully, they
lost.

As an accomplished film and television actor, Raymond Burr
deserves to be the subject of a well-written, well-researched biography.
Unfortunately, Hiding in Plain Sight: The
Secret Life of Raymond Burr
(Applause; 268; $24.95)
is not that kind of
biography. For starters, author Michael Seth Starr could not (or would not)
interview Robert Benevides, relying instead on a 2005 interview that Benevides
gave to Passport magazine.

Starr did interview a few other people who were close to
Burr, primarily Barbara Hale – “Della Street” on the Perry Mason show – and Libby Reynolds, a drag queen who tricked
with Burr waaay back in 1960. But,
for the most part, Starr based his narrative on secondary sources.

As a biography, Hiding
in Plain Sight
resembles the “quickie” movie star books of days gone-by,
fun to read, but without much substance to them.

Starr describes Burr’s film and TV career in great detail,
from his early days as a screen heavy (in both senses of the word) to his later
television breakthroughs. Starr also tells us about Burr’s enduring weight
problem, his business ventures – including the purchase of a South Sea island –
and his trips overseas to entertain the troops.

Excepting his homosexuality, these and other aspects of
Burr’s private and public lives have been well documented before, and by better
authors. Unfortunately, as a look at the private gay life of Raymond Burr, Hiding in Plain Sight will have to do,
at least until a better book comes along.

 

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