Back Row Book Club: Hunting for Tab
I started reading old Hollywood memoirs about a year ago and since then, I have devoured every one I could find. Occasionally I would grab a more recent memoir but for me, the real jewels were the memoirs from a time when Hollywood was still seen as glitz and glamour because it is just so much fun to read about people tearing away that facade and being like, “do you believe this shit?!”
I highly recommend reading any and all of these that you can find. You know those days when you’re feeling slow and you just want to veg out in front of TV? Read a memoir instead. They’re fast reads, always entertaining, and they don’t rot your brain nearly as much. Insert the “more you know” star here.
I'd also like to dedicate all of my memoir reviews to my roommate Adam and Jenna [Ed. No relation] from Joyride for suggesting an idea that I initially rolled my eyes at and dubbed “too kitschy.”
We’ll start at the beginning: Tab Hunter Confidential was in Gay Culture in the Castro library (real name: Eureka Valley Library) and it’s spine was so big and thick and cheerfully yellow that I was tempted to thumb through it a little. After five minutes of reading, I decided to check the thing out. It was really massive. Over five hundred pages and tall pages at that. Not five hundred paperback pages, nope. Not today, buddy.
In the beginning of the book, Tab writes an introduction about how he’ll give us everything we came for. He’ll give us all the names and all the dirt but we have to promise to read the whole thing. We can’t skip pieces and jump to the good parts because, he says, if he’s giving us what we want, we at least have to give him what he wants. So I agreed (to myself, alone in my apartment) and off I went on the unexpected but also not all that smutty story of Tab Hunter.
I knew of him before I read the book from a variety of sources, most obviously Polyester. There was also an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that featured a movie of his: San Francisco International. It’s one of my favorite episodes since I saw it when I was fourteen and loved anything that mentioned San Francisco. Plus, it was such a great made-for-TV knock-off of all the disaster movies from the seventies. Made-for-TV stuff is always just a bunch of threads loosely tying together some stretched-to-90-minutes story, with overly researched versions in place of real archetypes. For this movie, it’s the TV version of a hippie. Such a great made-for-TV hippie.
What I knew of Tab Hunter came from John Waters and an aunt of mine who used to crush all over him. I knew he had been outted publicly in an invasion of privacy (my opinion of pretty much any paparazzi activity) and that living in Hollywood during the fifties as a closeted gay man must have been surreal, to say nothing of confusing. In this day and age, we’re well aware of the decadence and perversion of Hollywood but dealing with it firsthand and still being told that what you are or what you’re into is not okay opens your eyes to some pretty faulty logic. And that is the crux of Tab Hunter’s memoir.
I did read every word in Confidential as per our agreement. I enjoyed most of it and found some parts to be addicting; the chapters about Tab being taken to court for animal cruelty comes to mind or his reaction to hearing that Troy Donahue was a “Tab Hunter type.” Other parts I read from a sympathetic standpoint but couldn’t quite rectify Tab’s shock at the corruption in the world of filmmaking and his naivety that the old guard had not been like this. It’s easy to read this in 2016 when I did and be like, “um, duh, Hollywood always be fucked,” so in my mind I relayed those parts back to the “faulty logic” that Tab would encounter and be thrown by.
There are a few moments that he presents himself as a near angel that made me roll my eyes. An ex-lover blackmailed him by saying he would hand over their old letters to each other (after he was outted) to some sleazy gossip rag unless Tab paid him off. No doubt this was a dick move on his ex's part, but the context given for it–the context approved by Tab himself–shows someone who suffered in a neglectful and dismissive relationship. Tab’s version of the events are that he was always hustling and trying to work so when his partner asked for more time together, Tab dismissed him saying that he was doing this for them. He goes so far as to quote his partner who told Tab that he didn’t care if they had all this land and all this stuff; that he prefered Tab’s companionship to the material. It’s also pretty clear that Tab was the one who wanted all of it since a lot of their expenses were horse-related and apparently Tab Hunter loves horses. I certainly don’t condone blackmail but for Tab to act like this was such a betrayal, a stab in the back that came out of nowhere, is a little silly. For my money, they’re both wrong, but that tends to be how I think of most anyone in a committed relationship.
Here and there, Tab gives us moments of sex and smut but in reality, he was more of a workaholic than anything else. His mother was a hard-assed German immigrant so he had an excellent work ethic, which is what kept people coming back to him even after Tab-mania died out a little. He didn’t really drink or do too much sleeping around, and his stories about himself and Natalie Wood being set up as a couple by their agents is more interesting than most of his own sexual exploits. He even gives us a little gossip about Natalie dating Elvis and being underwhelmed with Elvis’s sex drive. More on that in Rita Moreno’s memoirs.
I loved it, overall. It got me started on this whole “reading Hollywood memoirs” kick so yes, definitely gets a thumbs up from me. Make the agreement and read all of it but know that it’s not going to be nearly as dirty as you think, since Tab himself really wasn’t that much of a dirty dude. He’s a little rigid (no offense meant as we need rigid people to make the world work) and he didn't really party, so don’t go into this thinking that it’s going to be sex and drugs of the gay underground culture. You’ll be pretty disappointed.