Full Service by Scotty Bowers

Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Live of the Stars by Scotty Bowers with Lionel Friedberg (Grove Press, 2013) 286 pages

FS Bowers

Last time I checked, Scotty Bowers was still going strong at 92 (he was born July 1, 1923, so he’s not quite 93 just yet as I write this). This is a good thing, because once Scotty goes, the number of people who can testify first-hand about the wild and crazy days of Hollywood between the end of World War II and the late 1980s, when fear of AIDS made everyone a bit nuts (or become porn stars), will be greatly diminished. And Scotty was not just a witness, he claims to be one of the movers and shakers of what is sometimes called “Hollywood Babylon” (which Kenneth Anger wrote a famous book about).

This book probably only exists because you can’t libel dead people. And almost everyone famous in this book has been long gone. Shocking, I know, the thought that they had sex, sometimes with people they weren’t married to, and of the same sex…and a LOT of it…but get over it.

Trigger warning (I actually know what those are): If sexual topics upset you, or if the very idea that people, men and women alike, are having sex makes you turn away because the whole thing strikes you as sort of icky, then you might want to stop now and read about war or violence or something safer. On the other hand, I’m not the kind of person who thinks that you have to use a certain vocabulary (or not) to talk about sex, so you might be disappointed in that regard also.

This book made me think about things I hadn’t pondered for years. I thought about how my father had fought in the Pacific like Scotty Bowers, although my father fought for the Army’s 77th Division on Guam and Okinawa and Bowers fought for the Marines on Guadalcanal. My father, however, rejoined his family in White Plains, NY (where they had moved from outside Scranton, Pennsylvania) while Bowers stayed in Hollywood after the occupation of Japan ended. I always wondered why my father came back, until he told me much later that he didn’t trust his stepfather, a drunk who abused all his children, with his mother. When my grandparents’ family moved to Rockford, Illinois, my father had married my mother and stayed in New York. At least, my father always said, the war got him out of the coal mines. Next time anyone tells you how wonderful and vital the coal industry is, talk to me, and I’ll tell you what my father thought…you could ask my grandfather, but he died in the mines in 1917.

Back to the book, I promise.

Scotty Bowers—real name George—gives most of what you need to know about his life before coming to Hollywood after WW II on pages 15-17. Born on a farm, the family moved to Chicago in the 1930s and George became Scotty in 1934 when this very good-looking boy of 11 (the book has lots of photos) began hanging around with a girl who had Scottie dogs. People would say “Here come the Scotties” (p. 43) when they strolled by, and, after the girl was gone, people still addressed him as “Scottie.” So the name stuck (and his mother never cared for George in the first place, says p. 18).

After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, young men (and not-so-young-men: they took a lot of older people then than they do now) had two choices: sign up or wait to get drafted. My father waited, but Scotty and a close buddy signed up for the Marines. The Marines were picky, then and now, so there was a bit of extra prestige that went along with being a Marine, even back then.

(I can’t resist telling this story about that…my father-in-law’s cousin, also age 92, told me that even after he signed up for the Navy, the Marines tried to claim him, a big farm boy from North Dakota, thinking he was with a pool of draftees when they all reported for duty. No, no, he told them, I want the Navy…and he told me “There was no way I was hitting the beach and getting killed…I wanted to stay on the ship where the food was better.” And the Marines really couldn’t touch him.)

OK, I’m only going to talk about the book now, I promise/promise.

After the Marines, Scotty took a job pumping gas at a gas station in the heart of Hollywood: on the corner of Van Ness at 5777 W Hollywood Boulevard. It’s not long before he was offered twenty bucks for certain “favors” of a sexual nature. Of a homosexual nature. Now young Scotty, like many farm boys and service members, was not naïve about such matters (which should probably include high school football players and, come to think of it, just about everyone). However, Scotty’s philosophy about such things was years ahead of his time:  “if it feels good, do it” said the 1960s. (Actually, those days it was closer to the Victorian undercurrents that stated “do what you want, but don’t scare the children or horses.”)

At the station, Scotty started pimping for his veteran friends, many of whom were in great need of ready cash. Another friend parked a big RV behind the station, which Scotty then used as a bedroom for his “customers.” Eventually, he moved on to bartending, another good occupation if sex is what you’re looking for, or peddling.

Business was booming throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s, because in pre-cell-phone days, gas stations and phone booths were places you could make and take calls without the people around you paying too much attention. Even after Scotty got married and had a child, he does not want to give up his bisexual lifestyle, and he was lucky enough to have had a wife who was fairly comfortable with this relaxed arrangement.

In the book, Scotty claims to have had sex with folks are varied as Edith Piaf, Spencer Tracy, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, and the abdicated King of England Edward VIII (the Duke of Windsor). He also hung around with or arranged partners for Tennessee Williams, Charles Laughton, Vincent Price, Katharine Hepburn, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn, Gloria Swanson, Noël Coward, Mae West, James Dean, Rock Hudson and J. Edgar Hoover. And this is not even a complete list (well, it almost is).

Not much in the book surprised me, and many of the stories have already been told one way or another. Actually, I was kind of surprised that the Vatican, of all places, has one of the most extensive collections of porn in the world (p. 179). Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey is cited as the source of the story, as is the claim that ex-King Farouk of Egypt was in second place. I guess, to some people then (and now?), this mattered.

The party pretty much ended with the death of Rock Hudson from AIDS in 1985. Suddenly, sex could not only ruin your career, it could end your life. The last fifty pages or so of the book are a sort of sad lament for days gone by. But at some point in everyone’s life, doesn’t it always come to that? It hasn’t happened to me yet, I don’t think…but maybe my reading and writing like this is a kind of warning…:-)

As You Wish by Cary Elwes

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride By Cary Elwes (with Joe Layden) (Touchstone, 2014) 259 pages

AYW Elwes

I have a confession to make (two, actually): I had never heard of The Princess Bride movie (let alone William Goldman’s book) until I met my wife Camille in 2000. Second, when she showed it to me for the first time, sprawled around the TV, both of us on chairs with dogs, I was so tired that I fell asleep as Westley and Buttercup ran down the path to the Fire Swamp. Problem solved, princess rescued. When I woke up, the credits were rolling and my wife asked “So, wasn’t that great?” I, of course, replied that it was very, very good (I liked the sword fight, which I thought was cool) and that I had once met Andre the Giant. I didn’t find out until years later that I had missed more than half the movie, and that the story had really just begun. Forgive me, Camille.

Now, I am the first to admit that certain movies and books are acquired tastes, and that as much as other people really want you to like and appreciate what they like and appreciate, there are films and stories that leave some people flat. So if you are one of those eye-rolling not-that-stupid-story-again people when it comes to The Princess Bride, you can still read this book for what it reveals about the art of making movies. Movie-making is something people know little about, I think, and today it seems that all you have to do is capture some people with sensors moving around and add all the rest with CGI.

But there are still movies made the old-fashioned way, and The Princess Bride is one of them, although it took shape in 1986 (the Star Wars movies, of course, had changed everything not long before). The mountains and scenery are real, the flames are real, even the sword-play is very real. In fact, Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin (as Inigo Montoya) were taught to fence by the same guy, Bob Anderson, who did the Stars Wars light-sabre routines. The sword scene was one of the last to be shot because they both needed every minute of practice to make the scene (described as “the greatest sword fight in history” in the book and script) as convincing as possible. The training was complicated by Elwes’ broken toe (which shows up in the movie in several places, once you know where to look for it) and another accident he suffered on the set (when the evil Prince Humperdinck bops Westley on the head with his sword at the exit of the Fire Swamp, that’s 100% real and drew blood and knocked Elwes unconscious).

No one should let the fairy-tale-ish and admittedly juvenile aspects of the film deter them from enjoying the movie and this book. Enjoy Vizzini’s “inconceivable” portrayal by Wallace Shawn, Andre the Giant’s struggles to be mean instead of his usual amiable self (and with a sore back yet!), Mandy Patinkin’s noble quest to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the evil Count Rugan (Christopher Guest), and Bill Crystal’s completely unrestrained and over-the-top turn as Miracle Max. Then read the book and find out what really happened behind the scenes and during the scenes. The movie thrives because all of the parts thrived (Elwes admits that it is nearly impossible to tell during production how it all will turn out: the entire cast is seldom even in the same place at the same time and this can lead to very uneven performances). Rob Reiner, the director, was probably one of the few who could turn out this movie and have it appear as such great fun.

The book is peppered with boxed quotes from other cast members remembering the production. Patinkin’s are the most touching. He knew the movie was magic, and Montoya’s convincing grief at losing his father grounds the entire second half of the movie, especially considering that Westley spends a large part of it “almost dead.” Rob Reiner’s thoughts are always enlightening, and Robin Wright appears to have enjoyed making the movie as much as anyone else. However, Wallace Shawn’s few quotes are oddly pedantic about the experience. Instead of reinforcing his reputation as an intellectual, or just reveling in the silliness going on, his comments are more appropriate for some fuddy-duddy professor (Rob Reiner laughed “hysterically” at Billy Crystal’s scenes, but “That didn’t happen during my scenes,” Shawn grouses on page 155). Then again, Shawn was convinced that he was about to be replaced by Danny DeVito (page 157), an idea reinforced by Shawn’s agent(!).

The book includes a very helpful timeline in the chapter headings so you can see how long (and how short) different shots on location, at the castle, or in the studio took. I won’t go into the quotes form the movie, mainly because there are whole wed sites devoted to them. The Princess Bride is not just a book or movie or anything else: it is a cultural phenomenon and a product of a certain time and place. No one would try to duplicate it today without big names and explosions and so many special effects that the characters fade away.

As good as this book is, if you ever have a chance to see Cary Elwes in person, by all means do so. (Elwes went to Sarah Lawrence College, and my professor of Ancient Greek taught there, so (see?) we’re connected!) My wife and I saw Cary Elwes at Dobson High School in Mesa, Arizona, on December 19th, 2014, where he appeared as part of his book tour sponsored by Changing Hands book stores (they now have two: I should talk more about this extraordinary bookstore here, but for now you can just go to changinghands.com). It was part Christmas present to my wife Camille, and the auditorium was nearly packed to capacity. I don’t know how many seats the auditorium has, but the enrollment is over 2,700 (Dobson is the 11th largest high school in the state) and if I have to guess, I’d say the auditorium seats more than 1,000 (I think the 84-acre campus has more than one). Elwes spoke for about an hour and answered question form the audience for about an hour and a half more, a very unique thing among the authors I have seen in action. As much as the poor moderator form the Arizona Republic tried to call for “one last question,” the author plunged into the audience, microphone in hand (the first was “almost dead,” someone in the audience quipped) and posed for pictures, hugged, and joked with anyone who caught his attention. I give Cary Elwes very high marks for patience, good humor, and all around relaxed and relaxing demeanor.

What else? Let me try to relate the book and movie The Princess Bride experience to what I’ve learned from my other reading this year.

After seeing Cary Elwes and reading his book, I immediately went back and watched the movie. The Christmas day marathon helped too, and I never tired of watching poor Westley try to sit against and rise from that tree stump when “Dread Pirate Roberts” is finally revealed as Princess Buttercup’s beloved Westley.

This reminded me that we don’t record a movie or a book in our heads when we encounter it, a point made by Peter Mendelsund’s What We See When We Read. So in spite of my sleepy first encounter with the movie, and seeing Cary Elwes talk about the book before I actually read the book after Christmas (it was wrapped up under the tree, after all), I can still enjoy the book and the movie over and over again. Whether you read in a foxhole (see When Books Went to War) from a battered and stapled paperback, or read in bed form a tablet, the story – and you! – are different every time.