Navarro was born José Ramón Gil Samaniego on February 6, 1899 in Durango, Mexico, to Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego. He moved with his family to Los Angeles, California, to escape the Mexican Revolution in 1913.
Allan Ellenberger, Novarro's biographer, writes:
...the Samaniegos were an influential and well-respected family in Mexico. Many Samaniegos had prominent positions in the affairs of state and were held in high esteem by the president. Ramon's grandfather, Mariano Samaniego, was a well-known physician in Juarez. Known as a charitable and outgoing man, he was once an interim governor for the State of Chihuahua and was the first city councilman of El Paso, Texas...
Ramon's father, Dr. Mariano N. Samaniego, was born in Juarez and attended high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. After receiving his degree in dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, he moved to Durango, Mexico, and began a flourishing dental practice. In 1891 he married Leonor Gavilan, the beautiful daughter of a prosperous landowner. The Gavilans were a mixture of Spanish and Aztec blood, and according to local legend, they were descended from Guerrero, a prince of Montezuma.
The family estate was called the "Garden of Eden". Thirteen children were born there: Emilio; Guadalupe; Rosa; Ramon; Leonor; Mariano; Luz; Antonio; a stillborn child; Carmen; Angel and Eduardo.
At the time of the revolution in Mexico, the family moved from Durango to Mexico City and then back to Durango. Ramon's three sisters, Guadalupe, Rosa, and Leonor, became nuns.
A second cousin of the Mexican actresses Dolores del Río and Andrea Palma, he entered films in 1917 in bit parts; and he supplemented his income by working as a singing waiter. His friends, the actor and director Rex Ingram and his wife, the actress Alice Terry, began to promote him as a rival to Rudolph Valentino, and Ingram suggested he change his name to "Novarro." From 1923, he began to play more prominent roles. His role in Scaramouche (1923) brought him his first major success.
In 1925, he achieved his greatest success in Ben-Hur, his revealing costumes causing a sensation, and was elevated into the Hollywood elite. As with many stars, Novarro engaged Sylvia of Hollywood as a therapist (although in her tell-all book, Sylvia erroneously claimed Novarro slept in a coffin). With Valentino's death in 1926, Novarro became the screen's leading Latin actor, though ranked behind his MGM stablemate, John Gilbert, as a model lover. He was popular as a swashbuckler in action roles and was considered one of the great romantic lead actors of his day. Novarro appeared with Norma Shearer in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) and with Joan Crawford in Across to Singapore (1928). He made his first talking film, starring as a singing French soldier, in Devil-May-Care (1929). He also starred with the French actress Renée Adorée in The Pagan (1929). Novarro starred with Greta Garbo in Mata Hari (1932) and was a qualified success opposite Myrna Loy in The Barbarian (1933).
When Novarro's contract with MGM Studios expired in 1935, the studio did not renew it. He continued to act sporadically, appearing in films for Republic Pictures, a Mexican religious drama, and a French comedy. In the 1940s, he had several small roles in American films, including John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949) starring Jennifer Jones and John Garfield. In 1958, he was considered for a role in a television series, The Green Peacock, with Howard Duff and Ida Lupino, after the demise of their CBS sitcom Mr. Adams and Eve. The project, however, never materialized. A Broadway tryout was aborted in the 1960s; but Novarro kept busy on television, appearing in NBC's The High Chaparral as late as 1968.
At the peak of his success in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was earning more than US$100,000 per film. He invested some of his income in real estate, and his Hollywood Hills residence is one of the more renowned designs (1927) by architect Lloyd Wright. After his career ended, he was still able to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
In 1957, Novarro was awarded The George Eastman Award, given by George Eastman House for distinguished contribution to the art of film.
Novarro had been troubled all his life as a result of his conflicting views over his Roman Catholic religion and his homosexuality, and his life-long struggle with alcoholism is often traced to these issues. MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer reportedly tried to coerce Novarro into a "lavender marriage", which he refused. He was a friend of adventurer and author Richard Halliburton, also a celebrity in the closet, and was romantically involved with journalist Herbert Howe, who was also his publicist during the late 1920s.
In 1934, Novarro was one of the victims of the "witch hunt" for "reds" in Hollywood. With Dolores del Río, Lupe Vélez and James Cagney, he was accused of promoting communism in California. That happened after these actors attended a special screening of the film Que viva Mexico! by Sergei M. Eisenstein, which copies were claimed by Joseph Stalin from the Soviet Union to be edited.
Novarro was murdered on October 30, 1968, by two brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson (aged 22 and 17, respectively), whom he had hired from an agency to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex. According to the prosecution in the murder case, the two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden in Novarro's house.
The prosecution accused the brothers of torturing Novarro for several hours to force him to reveal where the nonexistent money was hidden. They left with a mere $20 that they took from his bathrobe pocket before fleeing the scene. Novarro died as a result of asphyxiation, choking to death on his own blood after being beaten. The two brothers were later caught and sentenced to long prison terms but released on probation in the mid 1970s. Both were later rearrested for unrelated crimes, for which they served longer terms than for their murder conviction.
Ramón Novarro is buried in Calvary Cemetery, in Los Angeles. Ramón Novarro's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is at 6350 Hollywood Boulevard.
Novarro's murder served as the influence for the short story by Charles Bukowski, The Murder of Ramon Vasquez, and the song by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, "Tango," recorded by Peggy Lee on her Mirrors album.
In late 2005, the Wings Theatre in New York City staged the world premiere of Through a Naked Lens by George Barthel. The play combined fact and fiction to depict Novarro's rise to fame and his relationship with Hollywood journalist Herbert Howe.
Novarro's relationship with Herbert Howe is discussed in two biographies: Allan R. Ellenberger's Ramón Novarro and André Soares's Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramón Novarro. A recounting of Novarro's murder can be found in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon.
Prize-winning Greek playwright Pavlos Matesis wrote a play in two parts named "The Ghost of Mr. Ramon Novarro", which was first staged at the National Theatre of Greece in 1973.
In the episode "Every Dog His Day..." (Season 3) of All Creatures Great and Small, Navarro is referenced as a crush of the housekeeper, Mrs. Hall.
Navarro's death was referenced in The Sopranos episode Cold Stones.
Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro (Hollywood Legends) by André Soares
Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi (April 19, 2010)
Amazon: Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro
The first Latin American actor to become a superstar, Ramon Novarro was for years one of Hollywood's top actors. Born Ram¢n Samaniego to a prominent Mexican family, he arrived in America in 1916, a refugee from civil wars. By the mid-1920s, he had become one of MGM's biggest box office attractions, starring in now-classic films, including The Student Prince, Mata Hari, and the original version of Ben-Hur. He shared the screen with the era's top leading ladies, such as Greta Garbo, Myrna Loy, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer, and became Rudolph Valentino's main rival in the "Latin Lover" category. Yet, despite his considerable professional accomplishments, Novarro's enduring hold on fame stems from his tragic death---his bloodied corpse was found in his house on Halloween 1968 in what has become one of Hollywood's most infamous scandals.
A lifelong bachelor, Novarro carefully cultivated his image as a man deeply devoted to his family and to Catholicism. His murder shattered that persona. News reports revealed that the dashing screen hero had not only been gay, but was dead at the hands of two young male hustlers. Since then, details of his murder have achieved near mythic proportions, obscuring Novarro's professional legacy. Beyond Paradise presents a full picture of the man who made motion picture history. Including original interviews with Novarro's surviving friends, family, co-workers, and the two men convicted of his murder, this biography provides unique insights into an early Hollywood star---a man whose heart was forever in conflict with his image and whose myth continues to fascinate today.
Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968; With a Filmography by Allan R. Ellenberger
Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: McFarland; Reprint edition (September 17, 2009)
Amazon: Ramon Novarro: A Biography of the Silent Film Idol, 1899-1968
Ramon Novarro was Ben-Hur to moviegoers long before Charlton Heston. The 1926 film made Novarro--known as "Ravishing Ramon"--one of Hollywood's most beloved silent film idols. His bright and varied career, spanning silents, talkies, the concert stage, theater, and television, came to a dark conclusion with his murder in 1968. This comprehensive work details both the private and public aspects of Novarro's life to return him to his rightful place in film history. Includes a complete filmography and numerous photos.
Hollywood's Silent Closet by Darwin Porter
Paperback: 750 pages
Publisher: Blood Moon Productions; 1 edition (April 2001)
Amazon: Hollywood's Silent Closet
Hollywood's Silent Closet provides a banquet of information about the pansexual intrigues of Hollywood between 1919 and 1926, compiled from eyewitness interviews with men and women, all of them insiders, who flourished in its midst. Not for the timid, it names names and doesn't spare the guilty. If you believe, like Truman Capote, that the literary treatment of gossip will become the literature of the 21st century, then you will love Hollywood's Silent Closet. Hollywood's Silent Closet is a vivid portrait of the decadent, homosexual, and gossipy world of pre-talkie Hollywood. It's an Info-Novel where 90% of everything in it is true. It represents the greatest collection of star-studded scandal ever assembled on the film stars of Hollywood's Silent Era. Valentino, Ramon Novarro, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Pola Negri, Nazimova, and many others figure into eyewitness accounts of the debauched excesses that went on behind closed doors. It also documents the often tragic endings of America's first screen idols, some of whom admitted to being more famous than the monarchs of England and Jesus Christ combined. Many of the interviews that went into the compilation of this book were conducted between 1940 and 1974, as the subjects were nearing the end of their lives and were willing, at last, to reveal scandals and insights that had previously been repressed by their own fears and by the media machines of the studio system. Marriages of convenience are the norm as intra-male peccadillos (and lots of lesbian love, too) are swept under the potted palms of the Edwardian age. The hero of this tale is the amiably cross-dressing Durango Jones, a wide-eyed neophyte from Kansas, circa 1919, who hits Hollywood during its Pre-Code excesses, and stays for a sexual feast wherein the banquet consists of many of the era's most flamboyant sex symbols. And although technically, this title has been formatted as a novel rather than a straight-line biography, there's the sometimes disturbing sense that this book is genuinely historical as well as being a jolly and rollicking piece of very savvy entertainment. This is high-testosterone Hollywood at its most compulsively readable. The 60s didn't invent sex-the stars of the Silent Screen did. --Cruiser. Who slept with Mary Pickford's three husbands, her two brothers-in-law, and even her brother? The hero of Hollywood's Silent Closet, that's who! --Trova Roma.
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