Beyond Paradise ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
Most people today will not have heard of Ramon Navarro, or, if they’ve heard of him at all, it’s because of his vicious murder at the hands of two “male hustlers,” Paul and Tom Ferguson, in 1968, and the sensational trial that followed. With his death, Navarro’s closely guarded, decades-long secret was out: he was a Hollywood homosexual and, in his later years, was in the habit of inviting “male escorts” to his home and paying them for sex. With his sexual predilections and his uncontrolled alcoholism (many run-ins with the law for drunk driving), he was, as one of the lawyers said at his murder trial, an “accident waiting to happen.”
Ramon Novarro (née Ramon Gil Samiengo), was born in Durango, Mexico, in 1899, into a large, devoutly Catholic family. As a teen, he made his way to Hollywood and, after a series of lucky breaks (bit parts and dancing stints), he became the protégé of Rex Ingram, an influential director of silent movies. Ingram used Navarro to great effect in some of the popular movies he directed in the 1920s and—if not overnight, at least pretty fast—Navarro became a bona fide “star,” with a loyal and devoted legion of fans at home and abroad. Between 1925 and 1932, he was THE top male movie star in the world. In 1925, he starred in Ben-Hur, the biggest and most expensive movie made during the silent era.
When movies switched to sound in the late 1920s, it was with his pleasant (though heavily accented) speaking and singing voice that Ramon Navarro segued into sound movies, while many of his contemporaries in silent films were not able to make the transition. Though small of stature (5 feet, six inches) and slightly pudgy, he had other assets that made him a favorite of audiences: a handsome face, an undeniable charm and appeal, coupled with a genuine talent for screen acting. Women loved him and men did not feel threatened by him.
Every star that rises, however, must fall. After 1932, his bosses at MGM (Mayer and Thalberg) began putting him in movies that were not only unsuitable for him (at age 32, he played a college football player in a movie called Huddle) but were almost destined from the start to fail. After a series of box office flops, the studio dumped him in 1935 and, at age 36, he was washed up. He tried for decades to recapture his box office magic, but nobody wanted him anymore and he was relegated to playing small parts in cheap productions. He was successful for a while on the concert circuit and in summer stock, but soon his heavy drinking began to undermine everything he attempted. From the age of 36 to the end of his life at 69, he was merely a “once-was” or a “has-been.” Many of the once-great stars of his generation shared the same fate.
Beyond Paradise by André Soares is the fascinating and unforgettable story of a likeable star (to some a hero) who, in the end, became a tragic figure. Ramon Navarro’s story is a story of the twentieth century and of one of the defining industries of that century. Beyond Paradise reads like a novel, is never boring and is never bogged down in extraneous detail the way some nonfiction books are. The final chapters that cover Navarro’s murder and the subsequent trial are gripping. Highly recommended for those interested in Hollywood biography and lore from the golden age of movie making. A time and place that are no more and will never be again.
Copyright © 2016 by Allen Kopp