The Hustlers and the Movie Star

5.23.2012

By William Van Meter

Ramon Novarro was the king of the silent screen. In 1968, two very uncommon criminals were arrested for his brutal slaying.

Lorraine married Norman Smith and had two more kids (Paul got into a physical altercation with Norman at their wedding). Tommy and Paul were not close, but the brothers’ names and fates would soon be inexorably intertwined, a blood bond not just in fraternity, but also in lore and crime. But that was days away. Tommy and Paul had wildness in common. Tommy had been in and out of juvenile detention centers and mental institutions. Tommy had run away at 15. They didn’t grow up together for very long in the same household. They had both dropped out of school, but were exceptionally smart.

Paul admits that Tommy was sharper than he was. “He was real smart, probably smarter than me,” Paul says, “but it was like he devoted that intelligence to fucking shit up.” The first thing that comes to Paul’s mind when thinking of his brother was him wetting himself when he was too old to be doing so.

And now, Tommy was in Los Angeles, sleeping on his couch. Paul had last seen Tommy two years prior. Paul had been living in Dallas, and Tommy hitchhiked through. On the second day of staying with him, Tommy stole Paul’s girlfriend’s jewelry, pawned it, and took off.

At 6-foot-4, Tommy -- lanky with an angular face -- was taller than Paul, who had the build of a welterweight boxer. Tommy’s general comportment made Mari nervous, and he was another mouth to feed. “When you first met him, he was real nice,” Paul recalls today. “He was intelligent, but weird. He was able to go from light to dark when you looked at him. He could look like Boris Karloff in a minute, and other times he’d look handsome.”

It wasn’t long before Mari told Paul that she didn’t want Tommy there. This was Paul’s third marriage. When he was 16, he married a 42-year-old woman (it was annulled nine months later). Another marriage at 19 ended in divorce. Paul met Mari through her brother, Larry Ortega. Tall and handsome, Larry was a prostitute and had worked for the infamous arranger “Mr. Richard.” Larry also arranged meetings for his fellow hustlers on the side, and sometimes tried to get Paul to do jobs for him. Larry had been friends with Paul and always told him that if he met his sister he’d fall in love with her. Sure enough, that’s what happened, and they married shortly thereafter.

As the oldest child, Paul hustled to contribute to the household. “I was selling myself to feed my family while my dad was out doing radio towers,” he says. “When I was 10 years old, I would sell myself to the local pervert to get meat, beans, and bread to take home.” Paul wouldn’t consider what he had done since moving to L.A. hustling. “I was a houseguest,” he explains. “There’s a difference. Not much, but there’s a difference. It’s better to be a houseguest, I think. But, you know, I had relationships on that level.” Sex was involved, but Paul attests that it was more of an afterthought, that he had real friendships with the patrons, that they weren’t solely clients. In June of 1964, Paul had posed for nudes in Chicago with physique photographer Chuck Renslow who remembers Paul as a hustler recommended to him by a friend. “He was gorgeous, his butt was beautiful,” Renslow says. “But he was very sullen and didn’t smile.” Paul also appeared in a couple of porn films.

Just before Tommy’s arrival, Paul had been laid off from his contracting job, and he and Mari were penniless. On October 29, Mari and Paul got into a heated argument (about a can of evaporated milk) that exacerbated the situation. Mari left to stay at her parents’ house. It was just Paul and Tommy in the apartment now. Tommy told Paul that he sometimes hustled for money. “He did dumb things like that,” Paul remembers, “like he was confessing and I was the priest or something. I said, ‘You can’t stay with me, but maybe I can fix something up. There’s gay people who might put you up.’ ”

Paul phoned Victor Nichols, a real estate developer with ties to the hustling world, for leads on unloading Tommy. “He asked if Tommy was good looking,” Paul recalls. “I said, ‘Sure.’ He gave me Novarro’s number and I called and talked to him about Tommy. Novarro says, ‘OK. Come on up.’ ” Tommy would later testify: “When Paul and Mari broke up, I felt it was my fault. Paul was in bad shape. I was a nuisance to him. I was just ready to get drunk… I was bored with California. I wanted to go back to Chicago. Paul said we were… going to meet a homosexual for some drinks, and one of us would have to go to bed with him.”

The next afternoon, the brothers hitch­hiked from Gardena to the West Hollywood home of one of Paul’s friends-with-benefits with whom he had briefly lived -- the friend would sometimes drive Paul to his rendezvous with men. Paul asked for a ride to Laurel Canyon. Around 4:30 p.m. they were dropped off outside of Novarro’s home.

Novarro came to the door in a blue and red silk robe and invited the brothers inside. Paul had vodka while Tommy drank beer and tequila. Novarro read Paul’s palm and told him he had a long lifeline. Paul plinked “Chopsticks” and attempted “Swanee River” on the piano. Novarro served them chicken gizzards and ordered cigarettes from the liquor store. In an effort to flatter and impress, Novarro told Paul that he had Hollywood qualities. “He said I could be a young Burt Lancaster, a superstar, another Clint Eastwood,” Paul would later testify. Novarro went so far as to phone his friend, a press agent, and suggest a meeting. That would be the last anyone would hear from Ramon Novarro.

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