The Violent Death of Ramón Novarro

posted in: Hollywood history | 21
The author outside his Laurel Canyon home, circa 1978.
The author outside his Laurel Canyon home, circa 1978.

In 1968, Ramón Novarro was murdered just a mile or so from where I was living, yet it pretty much escaped my notice.

Looking back, you might think it would have commanded media headlines for days — the bloody murder of America’s first genuine Mexican movie idol, the star of 1925’s “Ben-Hur” and so many other films.

But newspapers back then weren’t what they are today. They were not yet obsessed with celebrityhood and mayhem. Even in Los Angeles, editors clung to their convictions about which news items deserved our attention.

So the story of Ramón Novarro’s bludgeoned body being found inside his Laurel Canyon home blazed across page one for just a single day, then jumped to the back pages. It remained buried there through the ensuing weeks of funerals, criminal investigations and a series of court trials.

A few years after Ramón made his final headlines in the town he once owned, my wife and I bought a small house in Laurel Canyon, only a block or so from where the murder occurred. That’s when I started to take an interest in his story. His was no longer a marquee name from distant silent films. He was part of my own celebrity neighborhood, and well worth the effort of finding out more.

Still, it wouldn’t be until decades later that what I learned about Ramón Novarro found its way into my Hollywood novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders.”

To understand who Ramón Novarro was and how he became a star in his mid-20s, you have to know a little about Rudolph Valentino. Valentino was Italian, but by 1922, he had developed a cult following as a desert sheik. To millions of women around the world, his was the soft, seductive face of romantic love.

Valentino was what ticket-buyers wanted, but only one studio had him and it wasn’t Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. So the upstart MGM groomed the former José Ramón Gil Samaniegos to be their version of the “Latin lover.” Ironically, when he wasn’t being cast as Greeks or Arabs, he played everything from a South Sea islander in “Where the Pavement Ends” to the dashing Continental swordsmen of  “Scaramouche” and “The Prisoner of Zenda.”

In 1923 he was hired by action director Fred Niblo to star in “Thy Name Is Woman” opposite hot-blooded siren Barbara La Marr. He negotiated his own $10,000-a-week contract with studio boss Louis B. Mayer, and was considered for the lead role in “Ben-Hur,” especially after Valentino himself was ruled out-of-the-running.

But the part of Judah Ben-Hur was given to an actor named George Walsh, brother of writer-director Raoul Walsh. When the production started to fall apart in Italy, chief of production Irving Thalberg asked Fred Niblo to take over the reins of the movie, and Niblo insisted that Walsh be replaced by Novarro in the part of Judah Ben-Hur.

Ramon Novarro as galley slave

Ramón became a worldwide star after “Ben-Hur” won wide release in 1926, and he continued to play leading roles well into the era of sound. To elude his mobs of fans, he took to traveling incognito, donning a fake mustache and beard.

But he was never happy making movies. His first love was singing, and he staged several successful concert tours to Europe and South America.  He knew his popularity stemmed mainly from his movies, and that was just one of the gaps in his life between what he hoped to be and what he truly was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After being forced to play a multitude of ethnic roles, Ramón grew obsessed with proclaiming his true cultural identity. He stopped cooperating with studio publicists and used  his own money to pay for George Hurrell glamor portraits of him posed in native Mexican regalia.

 

ramon novarro 01

His other secret was one he shared with only a few other stars: a sexual ambivalence in an age that had no tolerance at all for male homosexuals. As he got older, it was his shadowy secret life that left him vulnerable to the kind of rootless young hustlers who always haunted the streets of Hollywood.

 

On the night before Halloween, Oct. 30, 1968, two brothers he befriended and invited up to his Laurel Canyon home became drunken and enraged, and one of them bludgeoned the 69-year-old actor to death.

Hollywood duplicity had won in the end — no matter how hard Ramón had struggled for his true identity. As I put it in my novel, “He was the last victim of the ‘Ben-Hur’ murders.”

The next year, Sharon Tate was slain by the Manson Family and newspaper editors saw a greater value in submitting to the cult of celebrity and the thirst for mayhem.

 

Learn more about Ramón Novarro and the filming of the “Ben-Hur” chariot race in my reality-based novel, “The Ben-Hur Murders: Inside the 1925 ‘Hollywood Games.'” It is available on Amazon.com as a paperback and a Kindle download. It is also for sale at Barnes & Noble and at Lulu Press.

21 Responses

  1. SYLVIA. DOMINGUEZ

    My Mother used to tell me that she was Cousin to Ramon. Navarro & that Ramon did not use his real name in
    Hollywood…she kept this information t/herself until
    Ramon died because he was gay and she was embarassed that he was gay & did not follow t/Bible.

    • John Harding

      Hi, Sylvia. I just read your comment on Ramon Novarro and was pleased to learn of your connection. Mr. Novarro had a distinguished career that should not be overshadowed by his eventual fate. He was a dancer in the beginning, and he sincerely hoped for a careeer as a singer. Audiences only wanted to see him as Judah Ben-Hur, however. We are all prisoners of our reputations, aren’t we? Thanks for stopping by my blog. John

    • Rick Burchett

      As I remember, Dolores Del Rio and Ramon were cousins. Was she included in family lore?
      As a very devout Catholic, Navarro was conflicted.
      Priests gave him some preference because of his stardom.
      By all accounts Novarro was a generous and kind man who had only two long term relationships.
      By the time his relationships ended, he no longer had star power or his youthful good looks
      Lonely, he turned to a long established call-boy service which catered to the rich and famous.
      The news stories and police ignored the fact that the murders had connections to the so called reputable out call service.
      The police never investigated. Too many very rich and very famous might be exposed.

      • John Harding

        Thanks for the comments, Rick. You’ve clearly followed the research. I wonder if police files on that call-boy service still exist? A story I was told was that actor Bill Haines was caught taking Ramon to his first all-boy bordello during the Culver City production of “Ben-Hur.” Louis Mayer was furious with Haines not so much for his sexual orientation as for jeopardizing the opening of his expensive religious movie. John

  2. Glen Sterling

    Thank you so much for posting such an enlightened article on Ramon Navarro. I am a big fan of his. Of his acting and of his life. So much of that early period in Hollywood is interesting to me. However I was barely 12 in 1968, so the interest came long after many of them were gone. Including Ramon. As you say, not much was made of that in the news at the time. Disturbing though it is. As much as I knew about Mr. Navarro is as much as I didn’t and I thank you for giving me much of what I didn’t know. I did , however, learn of his horrible death, years later. It is still a shock to me now , something that seems to involuntarily enter my mind whenvever I see one of his films. One can’t get away from it. Anyway, I came accross your web page here , while looking up Ramon Navarro, in connection to a book I am reading on Greta Garbo. Funny how things are connected on-line. So thank you Mr. Harding. I will be getting your book.

    • John Harding

      Hi, Glen. Sorry for my delay in replying to your note. It’s very gratifying to hear from other readers who respond tosubjects addressed on my blog. I hope to add more posts soon. Thanjks for the feedback. John

  3. John Harding

    Hi, manu. I try to limit my posts to meaningful things. I’m so glad you approve. I’ll have a new post soon. John

  4. Sean

    What became of Paul Ferguson? The last that I’ve read he was incarcerated in the Jefferson City Correctional Facility. He is not listed as an inmate according to the facility’s website. Did he die?

    • John Harding

      From what I can glean, Paul Ferguson is serving a 30-year sentence for rape in Missouri. Where brother Tom went is a mystery.

          • Bob

            Tom did commit suicide in Palm Springs at the Motel 6. It is online at various sites. He slit his throat. I can’t help but wonder if maybe there is more to it. “May 11, 2019 — Paul admitted under oath that he considered suicide rather than face trial, but … On March 6, 2005, Thomas went to a Motel 6 and cut his throat.”

  5. Anthony Supino

    Hi John, very interesting blog on Ramon Navarro. I just finished reading Beyond Paradise . Being a gay man pushing 60 that was raised in a italian Catholic family, I felt a connection to Mr Navarro, hiding his sexuality from family and friends ending up alone unlike Billy Haines who’s from his era…and it was so sad that such a beautiful man who led a quiet life had to be so brutally murdered. Thank you John for this blog and I will be ordering a copy of your book

    • John Harding

      Thank you so much for sharing your reaction. One reason I write is to get more intimately acquainted with the people and subjects I find of particular interest. I really gained a lot from spending time with Mr. Novarro then in the heyday of his screen career. I hope my portrayal of him is sympathetic. By definition that meant painting some of the attitudes he faced from society at the time. I am a big fan of his performance in “Scaramouche” as well, which happened a year or so before he acted in “Ben-Hur.”… If you would like an autographed copy of my novel, please let me know. Regards, John

  6. Christy Stone

    Paul Ferguson received a 60-year sentence for rape in Missouri.
    If he was 22 (in 1968) when he murdered Mr. Novarro he should be 74 now (2020).
    Still alive after murdering an innocent man. I will be looking for his obit (hopefully soon ) to put an end to that horrific story. What a shame. I always enjoy watching his silent movies on TCM along with all the others.

    • John Harding

      Hi, Christy. I am investigating a report that Paul Ferguson committed suicide in 2005. Thank you for your comment. John

  7. Jacopo

    Dear friends. I write from Italy and ask forgiveness in advance for my bad English. I am passionate about the history of cinema, with particular attraction for the silent era. Always looking for curiosity about my passion, I accidentally stumbled upon this very interesting forum.
    I thought I’d share this link with you. If what is reported there is true, there is something to shudder… in practice we read that, directly from prison, in 2009 Paul Ferguson posted messages on the page dedicated to Ramon Novarro on the Internet Movie Database. Does such a thing seem possible to you? When I read it I didn’t want to believe it…
    Read and say what you think…
    I am baffled.

    https://highshrink.com/2020/08/08/was-ramon-novarros-murderer-posting-on-imdb-from-prison/

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