Or rather, I met Tab Hunter, who played my grandfather in the movies. Hunter, 74, is the former teen heartthrob and author of the recent memoir Tab Hunter Confidential. Itís a breezy and fun read, and, despite the fact that Hunter is gay, is distinctly low on gossip and scandal. Itís not sensationalistic, but rather the work of a truly unique man - a warm, gregarious, and cheerful person, a former movie star who is both gay and an orthodox Catholic who attends Mass at least once a week.
Hunter got his start in the mid 1940s as a teenager, when he was discovered by agent Dick Clayton. Hunter, born Art Gilien, was soon driving the teenage girls crazy. He went, he notes in his book, from shy Catholic kid from California to “Sigh Guy” and “Swoon Bait.” His picture was on the cover of Photoplay, Movie Life, and Screen Land, to name a few. He had affairs with men - the one biggie was Anthony Perkins of Psycho fame - all the while faking being a stud and escorting scorchers like Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds to premiers.
Hunter also got the lead in the film version of Damn Yankees. As I explain in my book Damn Senators, my grandfather, Joe Judge, was the inspiration for the character Joe Hardy in Damn Yankees. The author of the book that became the play that became the movie was Douglass Wallop. In the late 1940s Wallop dated Joe Judgeís daughter, my Aunt Dorothy. Wallop spent hours at grandpaís house in Chevy Chase, talking old Senatorsí baseball lore. Apparently gramps - who died in 1963, the year before I was born - used to talk back to the tv when the Senators were playing, a scene recreated in the film version of Damn Yankees. Then he makes a deal with the devil, and suddenly heís a virile young ballplayer. For years as I kid, when I imagine my grandfather in motion he looked like Tab Hunter.
A couple months ago I went to a bookstore in Washington to meet Hunter, buy his book and give him a copy of Damn Senators. What I didnít expect was a view into Hunterís conflict with modern gay activism. He has gotten some heat from the gay press for comments heís made about gay marriage and other topics. “Activism is like fingernails on a blackboard tome,” he told one reporter. “The press only presents the worst of people who are gay - the most flamboyant.” Gay marriage? Forget it: “I just donít think itís rightí itís not the time…People need to accept things the way they are and not the way you want them to be and go on from there.” To him, he says, “spiritual growth is the #1 priority in life.” Sadly, but not surprisingly, no reporter seems to have asked Hunter deeper questions about his Catholic faith. Itís no doubt an interesting angle.
Sadly, I would not get the chance. The store signing I attended was a mob scene, with people jammed front to back and snaking through the store to get their books signed. This may have had something to do with the fact that Hunter was interviewed by John Waters, the weirdo director - or, as he was introduced, “the Ingmar Bergman of Baltimore.” Waters is a genuinely funny man, and an underrated writer (if overrated director), and he conducted the interview - mostly - with wit and aplomb. He announced that he, like Hunter, is dubious about gay marriage. “I mean, werenít kids and suburbs and normal life all the stuff we were supposed to be free of?” Scattered applause. “I mean, lesbians are now having more kids than Catholics.” Huge laugh - me included.
But Waters also lowered the tone by playing to the activist gay crowd. Why do liberals, when faced with a gentleman like Hunter, feel so compelled to sully him? Waters - and the crowd - kept pelting Hunter with the same question - how did you manage to hide being gay? Didnít you resent the hell out of being forced to go out with those babes when you were pining for Perkins and other men?
Hunter was class through and through. He circled back again and again to the fact that he was “old-fashioned,” and was raised in a Catholic home to not be a show off or talk badly about others. He wasnít interested in dishing dirt, and if you thought Tab Hunter Confidential was more boring because of that - it isnít - then so be it. Then Hunter offered the eveningís most profound moment. When asked yet again about resenting escorting Natalie Wood or Debbie Reynolds around town, he offered a very simply and graceful rebuke: he loved going out with these women because they were friends. He went further - in those days, you didnít have sex with your date on the first night. People dressed up. They waited. “You waited to see if you liked each other. It was a wonderful time.”
I sincerely hope that that sunk in with the crowd, but Iím not so sure. Again Hunter was asked the question, and again he made the point: it was wonderful, we had a great time. We were friends. A generation gap, or chasm, seemed to gape open in the bookstore. Suddenly the ugly underbelly of certain parts of activist gay culture was revealed - i.e, misogyny. People kept asking Hunter the same question because they couldnít fathom the idea than he, a gay man, could be friends with a woman. Sadly, it was here than Waters choose to drag things back down. “We used to go on double dates,” he said, “then weíd bring the dates home and go have sex with each other.” Huge laugh, applause. Yeah, screw (so to speak) those women. Theyíre not much more than garbage.
Signing time came, and after a long wait I got to meet the man himself. I didnít have much time, and as he signed his book I handed him a copy of Damn Senators. I told him he had played Joe Judge in the Damn Yankees, He was excited and grateful. Then I was wisked away and it was over.
Before going to the signing I had signed Damn Senators “To my Ďgrandfatherí Tab Hunter - You gotta have heart!” The last line is from a famous song from the musical Damn Yankees. I had put it as kind of a joke, but I had been prescient. Tab Hunter does indeed have heart - and class and integrity and courage. I never met my real grandfather, the real Joe Hardy. I could do a lot worse than have Hunter as a surrogate.
Have PoliticalMavens.com delivered to your inbox in a daily digest by clicking here