Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Mike Connolly

While most of us are too young to remember him, Hollywood reporter Mike Connolly (1914-1966) was an influential and popular gossip columnist who was closeted his entire life. His homosexuality was not made public until ten years ago, thirty-seven years after his death, with the publication of “Mike Connolly and the Manly Art of Hollywood Gossip” (2003), a biography penned by Val Holley.

Connolly’s life partner was hair salon owner Joseph Russell Zappia. As Connolly’s fame grew, Zappia had to close his shop, since Connolly could not afford to be linked to a man working in a “gay” field. When Connolly eventually hired Zappia as a legman (an assistant, as he had no journalistic experience), Zappia had to be rechristened Joe Russell, to further obscure any association with his former profession. Such was the paranoia of gays in Hollywood during the 1950s, even those in behind-the-scenes roles.

Although theirs was a true love match, living and working together resulted in bumps along the way. Joe, who took care of household details, would frequently have to rectify disturbances Mike created, often taking heat for troubling things Mike had written. As well, Joe was constantly trying to rein in Mike’s over consumption of alcohol. Gore Vidal said, “Connolly was your typical drunk Irish Catholic queen when he was in his cups, but good company otherwise." His inebriation nonetheless resulted in such unseemly spectacles as public urination into potted plants, being carried out of restaurants and evicted from parties. Essentially, he drank himself to death.

As Connolly became a more prominent figure, there was stress about appearing together at public events, such as weddings, in which case it was necessary for both men to have dates. They could appear as a male couple only when entertaining in their own home. This system of escorting worked both ways, however. During the time when actress Terry Moore was the secret mistress of Howard Hughes, Connolly frequently stepped forward to appear on her arm as a date.

To be mentioned in Connolly’s “Rambling Reporter” trade paper gossip column in The Hollywood Reporter delivered much-coveted status, and Connolly’s coterie of influential gay friends became frequent suppliers of items about themselves. Because of his cleverness, he was able to convey a great deal of gay information in his column to those who could read between the lines. The Hollywood Reporter*, based in Los Angeles, was then a powerful daily entertainment newspaper dealing with film and television productions. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the paper airmailed daily to his desk at the White House.

*A chief rival to Variety, today The Hollywood Reporter publishes a daily PDF edition and a weekly glossy magazine.

Although Connolly’s gay friends loved seeing their own names in print, they were also forthcoming with details of gay Hollywood insider gossip. Thus Connolly’s friends, publicist Stanley Musgrove and agent Bob Raison, who were both close with Cole Porter, supplied Mike with tidbits from Porter’s weekly Sunday parties (Connolly himself worked on Sundays).

A grateful Jane Mansfield sent Connolly this postcard from Rome thanking Connolly for sending press clippings:

Connolly’s gossip column in The Hollywood Reporter began in 1951 and lasted until his death in 1966, and it was not without controversy and drama. In 1963, actress Shirley MacLaine was so angry with what Connolly had written about her career that she marched into Connolly’s office and physically assaulted him. The incident was reported in the New York Post newspaper.

According to biographer Val Holley, “Connolly could outwrite all the other columnists, and he was fun to read. He had the talent for what he did, and loved doing it. He was college-educated, well-read, and had a background in cinema, theater, and vaudeville history. All that informed what he wrote." According to Holley, "If you can imagine gossip as literature, Connolly achieved it. Everybody read Connolly’s columns. Not everyone read Hedda Hopper or Louella Parsons, who wrote nationally syndicated columns.” Holley makes a distinction between trade paper gossip columnists and syndicated columnists. Connolly was a principal source for Hopper and Parsons. He also wrote a syndicated column, and Holley commented, “I found it interesting to compare the ‘Rambling Reporter’ with what Connolly wrote for his syndicated column a day or two later. He removed most of the inside jokes. He dumbed down a lot of it. And he always took out anything that might have brought shame on Hollywood.”

Connolly was also known for his 1937-38 crusade against prostitution in Champaign, Illinois, although he himself was quite promiscuous and thought nothing of paying for sex with hustlers on Hollywood Boulevard. He was seen visiting gay bath houses in both New York and Los Angeles. At the height of his powers, he later battled against communism in Hollywood. According to biographer  Val Holley, these campaigns were attempts by a homosexual to feel more a part of the mainstream. Connolly’s political beliefs were extremely conservative and could perhaps be compared to today’s Log Cabin Republicans. Joe McCarthy was one of his heroes, and Connolly wrote drunken mash letters to Richard Nixon.

At the age of 52 Connolly died from a kidney malfunction following open-heart surgery in 1966. He had suffered from a heart condition as a child, and he was later rejected for military service because of that same condition. Connolly was described by Newsweek as "probably the most influential columnist inside the movie colony," the one writer "who gets the pick of trade items, the industry rumors, the policy and casting switches." Indeed, he was a witness to and participant in fifteen years of sometimes tumultuous Hollywood history, and he was privy to most of Hollywood's secrets during that time.

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