Tab Hunter: America’s Golden Boy
“With his charm and good looks and his magnetic presence he was the embodiment of youthful American masculinity,” is how actor George Takei described his friend Tab Hunter in the documentary Tab Hunter Confidential.
Hunter was an icon of the boomer generation when they were young like us. He was America’s golden boy, a teenage heartthrob, Warner Brothers’ crown jewel of the 1950s. But decades of living in the spotlight with a life-altering secret weighing him down took its toll. The persona of Tab Hunter fed to the masses by Warner Bros and the tabloids of the day varied greatly from the real Art Gelein that so few people really knew.
Arthur Gelein was born on July 11, 1931 in New York City. His father was abusive, so his mother soon took him and his older brother, Walter, to Los Angeles, where she worked hard to support them as a single mother. They were raised in the Catholic Church and attended parochial school. In his youth, Art really enjoyed church and loved his religion.
Art grew into his looks very quickly, and he became the object of affection to virtually every girl in his school. He was a shy, awkward, and introverted kid, so all the attention made him very uncomfortable. So uncomfortable, in fact, that he joined the Coast Guard at age 15 to get away from it all; however, they soon found out that he lied about his age, and he was promptly discharged. He returned to Los Angeles where he cared for a horse stable, and this job got him introduced to big-time actor Dick Clayton. They got to talking and Dick turned him to the notion that he had the looks to become a good Hollywood actor. He introduced Art to Henry Willson, who was the agent for young men looking to break into the business. Willson specialized in pretty boys and Art Gelein certainly fit the profile, but he didn’t have the kind of name you saw on a big marquee.
Willson helped him become Tab Hunter, a name and a face that would rake in hundreds of thousands of dollars for Warner Brothers once they built and molded him into their star.
Hunter was a good actor, not just a pretty face. In 1955, he starred in the World War II film Battle Cry, where he was up against James Dean and Paul Newman for the leading role. He would later feature in films alongside Debbie Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, and Natalie Woods. In the late 1950s, Hunter set off a music career with a cover of Young Love that stayed on top of the charts for six weeks, and he was an excellent horseback rider and a championship level figure skater. Many people also say he was a genuinely nice guy. There was a lot to love about Tab Hunter, and while he was seen as perfect and flawless, he had his secrets and plenty of people would have liked him a little less if they knew.
Tab always knew he was different, but the word “gay” was not something people said casually when he was young. Once, he confessed to a priest, but it only made him feel worse. In the documentary, Tab says that he hated himself for being gay. It was something he never cared to talk about.
Very early in his career, he was arrested under the presumption that he was gay when a party he was at got interrupted by the police.
The story was kept a secret until the late 1950s when Tab wanted to switch agents and Willson leaked the story to Confidential magazine (note: this is also the name of the documentary and Hunter’s memoir), which was the tabloid you wanted to keep your name out of. The rumors of Tab Hunter being gay went around for a while, but he dated many A-list female celebrities to negate those stories, including Natalie Woods, with whom he actually ended up being close friends.
Tab had his private life and he wanted to keep it that way. In the documentary, he talks about some of his most important relationships over the years. His first relationship was with Ronnie Robertson, a very notable figure skater. There were people who assumed their friendship was more intimate than was let on and it allegedly cost Robertson a figure skating championship. He also dated actor Anthony Perkins, but at this point in both of their careers, image was very important. They didn’t like to be seen in public together alone, but they did often take girls out on double dates together. The relationship fizzled out after Perkins snatched one of Hunter’s ideas to further his own career. There was also Neal Noorlag who was Hunter’s longest relationship at that point, nearing seven years.
None of this compares to his long-term partnership with Allan Graser. They became acquaintances when Tab had a movie pitch he wanted to get off the ground, friends, and then lovers as that project was realized in the film Lust in the Dust. They grew old together in Santa Barbara, California and still lived together when Tab passed away from a heart attack on July 8, 2018, just a few days shy of his eighty-seventh birthday. In the documentary, Graser talks about Tab’s view on his film and television career. He had been there, done that, and was moving on from it. He didn’t watch his old movies, he didn’t talk about the “good old days”, he just took care of his horse and lived the way he wanted to.
Being a star in that time period took a lot of liberties away from Tab. No matter what field he was in, he would have had to deal with this secret for the bulk of his life, but Warner Brothers really owned Tab for a long time. They controlled his films and what the media saw of him. When Tab expressed an interest in pursuing a music career with Dot Records, Jack Warner told him he couldn’t work with another production company – so Warner Brothers Records was born. Tab went on many dates, especially with female co-stars and actresses from other studios, but there was always a cameraman in tow. Tab Hunter and Natalie Woods were considered America’s Sweethearts for a period of time because their relationship was food for the tabloid sharks. When Tab decided he wanted to branch out and try to work on his own, Warner Brothers required $100,000 to void the remainder of his contract. After he was let go, Tab Hunter was completely on his own, and his career took a couple of major blows.
Soon, Tab Hunter was making low-budget, mediocre films just so he could afford to feed himself and support his ill mother. There were some dark years for his career, but eventually dinner theater was on the rise and Tab found a new avenue for his creativity. Then he teamed up with director John Waters to make the bizarre and highly entertaining Polyester. By this point, he was starting to become more comfortable with himself. He spoke with a priest about his problems and he was encouraged to renew his faith in the Church. At the end of his life, Tab was happy and living a life that was completely his own, and it had probably been a very long since he felt that way.
These days, coming out has a lower chance of destroying a career in the arts, but for Tab Hunter and other actors of the mid-twentieth century, it meant losing everything. It was somehow easier to become this whole new person that would please the public eye than to be yourself, since that meant certain career suicide. It’s important now to preach that being out is a good thing, but we do still live in a society where being out can still be dangerous. Sometimes being in the closet for safety and survival purposes is the smartest thing to do, and it’s important to also emphasize taking your time. If Tab Hunter had come out when he was young, we wouldn’t know who he is today. Everyone deserves to be out and happy, but only when it’s safe for them.
Tab Hunter Confidential is available on Amazon Prime and received the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.