”Of course we’d heard he’d married,” says Don Bachardy, a longtime gay friend of actor Tony Perkins. ”I thought that was just awfully odd behavior for him. Did he honestly think that marriage to Berry Berenson could make him a heterosexual?”
Maybe. Maybe not. But ultimately that was not the point. According to Split Image: The Life of Anthony Perkins, it was more important that Hollywood believe Perkins, who married photographer Berenson at age 41 after years of gay affairs, was straight. This fascinating book, part standard celeb bio, part posthumous outing — call it a bioutgraphy — is the story of life in the Tinseltown closet. It is also one of the first books to examine the dual life of a major gay celebrity.
Of course Split Image is also the story of the pitfalls that can waylay an ordinary actor — straight or gay. Author Charles Winecoff, a UCLA film-school grad, painstakingly illustrates how one unforgettable movie — in Perkins’ case, 1960’s Psycho — can result in the kind of typecasting that kills a bright career. Once the heir apparent to James Dean after a string of dazzling stage performances in Tea and Sympathy and Look Homeward, Angel, Perkins, by 1981, was reduced to doing aftershave commercials in Japan.
But Split Image is at its most powerful as a window into an especially claustrophobic era for gay actors. Winecoff details what one of Perkins’ male lovers calls ”the excruciating dance of the fifties” like an anthropologist. He brings to life the seedy trysts in Times Square gay porno theaters (where Perkins sometimes passively watched other men have sex on the stairs), the arranged dates with starlets for Modern Screen, and the fear gay actors had that magazines like Confidential would expose them — the way it did with Tab Hunter, allegedly one of Perkins’ first lovers. ”Within the circumstances, it was a love affair, but to anyone else, we were ‘college buddies,”’ explains one of Perkins’ early lovers, a Harvard scholar called William. ”Gay lovers who acted like gay lovers were something that only existed in the Greek Isles…. This was the fifties, a public person could not go public, even if he wanted to. And Tony didn’t want to.”
Needless to say, if a leading man copped to being gay in the ’50s or ’60s he would have deep-sixed his career. And Perkins was nothing if not ambitious. ”Nothing was going to get in the way of his career,” says comedian Alan Sues. Indeed, Perkins rarely comes off as a sympathetic character. He freely described himself as a mama’s boy and lived platonically for years with a domineering older woman named Helen Merrill while enjoying often kinky sex with a succession of male lovers.
Yet Perkins’ puzzling (at least to his friends) marriage to Berenson in 1973 seemed more than just a showbiz sham. Berenson, who’d had a schoolgirl crush on Perkins, pursued him relentlessly, and the couple eventually had two sons. By all accounts, Perkins was devoted to Berenson and his boys, though his gay friends privately doubted his claims that he was faithful to her. Unlike Marion Winik, the NPR commentator who wrote a riveting memoir of her marriage to a gay ice skater, First Comes Love, Winecoff is never able to convincingly capture the odd ties that can sometimes bind a homosexual man and a straight woman. But Winecoff does show that Perkins — in trying to hoodwink Hollywood by marrying — may have actually brought himself real happiness. ”It was a real sense of marriage between them,” says writer Dominick Dunne. ”Whatever they had, it was wonderful. I mean, it was a real family.”
The book’s strength lies in its voluminous research and wonderful, gossipy detail. (Winecoff claims that Rock Hudson was ”ecstatic” when James Dean, his costar in Giant, was killed in a car crash, crowing that one of his main competitors had been ”eliminated.”) Its weakness is its flat, pedestrian prose. Winecoff (who met Perkins once when he sold him porn in a gay bookstore) admits in the preface that he has felt haunted by Perkins since adolescence and saw the actor as his ”doppelganger.” As a result, the book suffers from a sense that the author is an obsessed fan as well as a biographer.
Though Winecoff’s book is the first to expose the breadth of Perkins’ double life, he was scooped by the National Enquirer, which broke the story of Perkins’ battle with AIDS in 1990. (He died of complications from the disease in 1992.) Winecoff’s triumph is in detailing how complex both Perkins’ public and private lives were and how the homosexual closet can be more ambiguous than some gay activists might want to admit. B