Earlier this week, David Gest, friend of Michael Jackson, star of a recent season of the UK's Big Brother, muse for Tiffany "New York" Pollard's iconic meltdown, and most famously, ex-husband of Liza Minelli, passed away. Gest and Minelli's marriage was tabloid fodder from the get-go, with many claiming the star's new husband was gay. Gest denied these rumors about his sexuality, but if they were true, he would hardly be the first gay man married to a Hollywood star. The legacy of female celebrities marrying gay men is long, and the reason why is more complicated than you may think.
Gay stars have been masking their sexuality under the cover of heterosexual relationships since the first days of film. "Lavender marriages," as they were called, began as a response to big studios including "moral clauses" in their stars' contracts. Gay stars picked wives, often actresses and celebrities themselves, in order to hide their sexualities and keep fans lusting after them onscreen. The fact that Rock Hudson and Cary Grant had affairs with men is now common knowledge. Their girlfriends and wives were careful setups by the Hollywood publicity machine, which was eager to milk their sex appeal as long as possible and keep fans from asking questions. One might assume, because of this, that iconic female celebrities who married gay men were also in on the sham of lavender marriages, but in fact, many straight female stars who married gay men were totally in the dark about their husbands' sexuality.
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Probably the most famous star ever to marry a gay man is gay icon Judy Garland; two of of her four husbands were gay. Garland's second marriage to Vincente Minnelli is perhaps her most notorious; they married in 1945 after Minnelli directed Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, when Garland was only 23 years old. According to the biography Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer, Minnelli lived as an openly gay man before coming to Hollywood, where he began to feel the oppression of the rigid studio system. Garland became aware of Minnelli's affairs as their marriage progressed, once attempting suicide after finding him in bed with another man. After their divorce and a subsequent marriage, Garland married Mark Herron, only to discover his homosexuality and divorce him months later after he beat her.
What made Garland so attracted, and attractive, to these men? Garland was bisexual herself, and although aware of her husbands' sexualities, she considered them to be not static. Bonnie Kaye, a counselor who specializes in women who marry gay men and was once married to a gay man herself, says, "Women—who may have some idea that their husbands may have had a few 'experimental sexual experiences'—believe that people try things, but then they realize it's not who they really are. After all, the men want to marry them—not a man." Garland's own daughter, Lorna Luft, speculated that her mother was unable to distinguish between friendship and romantic relationships with her gay companions. "I remember all too clearly the screaming accusations that filled our house in the middle of the night when she encountered one of her lovers' 'indiscretions.' I didn't hear the word 'fag' from the kids at school. I heard it from my mother."
The apple didn't fall far from the tree with Garland's other daughter, Liza Minnelli, a gay icon in her own right. Minnelli caught her first husband, musician Peter Allen, in bed with another man on her wedding night. If that weren't shocking enough, he had an affair with her mother's husband, Mark Herron. Years after their divorce, Liza set the world agog with her marriage to Gest. After their divorce, Gest sued Minnelli and accused her of everything from spousal abuse to giving him herpes. Minnelli, in turn, blamed the marriage on Michael Jackson (as one does). She told The Joy Behar Show: "I grabbed [Michael]… And I said, 'Why did you let me marry this idiot?' He said, 'I thought you liked him! You look so happy. Your dress was so beautiful. I don't know. Let me go!' And I said, 'Michael, how could you.' He said, 'It's over, relax.' Then we looked at each other and we started to laugh. We really started to laugh."
But Garland and Minnelli aren't the only classic stars who married gay men. America's beloved great aunt, Angela Lansbury, was married for a short time to a man who ultimately came out as gay. Lansbury was 19 when she married Richard Cromwell, an actor who was more than a decade older than the ingénue and who had had an affair with Howard Hughes. The marriage lasted less than a year before Cromwell left her (Lansbury, the original Carrie Bradshaw, was dumped by Cromwell in a note that said, simply, "I can't go on.") Years later, Lansbury explained the marriage to the Daily Mail: "I may have been mature in some ways, but I was also a greenhorn, as they say. He was such an attractive man, so full of fun. He knew all the old movie stars; he was a great friend of Joan Crawford, for instance. He showed me a world full of colors I'd never seen." But why did a man who was seemingly aware of his own sexuality marry the young actress? "Why he wanted to marry me, I'll never know," Lansbury told the Mail.
Another daughter of classic Hollywood who married a gay man is Carrie Fisher, who is as notorious for her rocky personal life as she is for Princess Leia's bikini. Fisher has been open for years about her mother Debbie Reynolds, about her battles with alcoholism, and about her rocky, years-long relationship with Paul Simon, but in the early 90s she married CAA talent agent Bryan Lourd, a man who later came out as gay. Fisher and Lourd had a daughter, Billie, before Lourd left Fisher for another man. "People ask if it lessens the blow that he left me for a man, because it's a rejection of my gender and so isn't personal," Fisher told an interviewer. "But I don't care what people say—I was humiliated and betrayed and I believed I'd somehow messed up. I don't know if I believed I made him gay, but I'd failed, and that's all that really counts."
I was humiliated and betrayed and I believed I'd somehow messed up. I don't know if I believed I made him gay, but I'd failed, and that's all that really counts.
Homosexuality becoming more accepted in the mainstream did not necessarily lead to the end of famous women marrying gay men. Fran Drescher was married for 20 years to her high school sweetheart Peter Marc Jacobson, who came out of the closet two years after their marriage ended. Drescher was devastated at first, telling People magazine she was taken by surprise at the revelation, even though Jacobson loved dressing her and told her about his attraction to men while they were married. "I was born in the 50s, and I didn't even know what gay was," Jacobson explained. "Everyone got married at 20 years old and that was it—there was no choice. That was what you did. Any feelings, you just put them away, and that's what I did, because I loved her and thought we could have a great marriage." Drescher and Jacobson eventually reconciled as great friends, using their experience as the inspiration for Drescher's show Happily Divorced, a comedy about a woman who lives with her gay ex-husband.
Even if having a relationship with a gay man becomes more acceptable for female stars, it's clear that the majority of female celebrities who married gay men did so out of love and not out of a desire for publicity. Most of these women married someone far less famous, and most of these women had nothing to cover up or hide during their marriages. And their husbands aren't to blame, either: Many of these marriages took place during a time when homosexuality was not accepted—or was totally repressed—by society. Even today, when gay marriage is legal throughout the United States, the problem continues. "I would say that 95 percent of gay men who marry women do so with good intentions," Kaye said. "They are not trying to trip up the women they marry—they are trying to 'trip up' Mother Nature. They are so hoping that those attractions to men will pass if they fall in love and marry a woman. Sadly, those feelings don't pass. It's like [a] Jack in the box. You stuff the clown into the box, but it's only a matter of time until you wind it up and the clown pops back up."
Kaye estimates that currently, four million women in America are either married to a gay man or have been in the past. When I asked her if women who marry gay men ignore red flags in their relationships, she told me that was a false conception. "If homosexuality is so confusing to [these] gay men, imagine how much more confusing it is to women. First, we are taught that 'homosexual' means people who are attracted to [the same sex]. [But] our husbands fell in love with us, made love to us, and had children with us. Gay? How could that be? We don't think so, because we are familiar with the stereotypical Hollywood portrayals of gays." So next time tongues start wagging about a female star and the reason for her latest breakup, remember it might have been true love, and not publicity, that guided her.