Tab talks

Tab talks

The first time I
encountered Tab Hunter, I was a child too small to go to
school. I joined my mother for a day of shopping and lunch
out. Then she noticed the movie marquee with its
poster of a beautiful dark-haired woman stranded in
the South Pacific embraced by a beautiful blond-haired
young man. The movie was Island of Desire, one
of Hunter’s first, and the title and posters and
movie photo stills all played up its sensuality. My
mother probably figured I’d get bored and fall
asleep. But I stayed awake and “got” at least
half of what was going on.

A few years later
when I was a preteen, the world of entertainment seemed
to revolve around me and my baby boomer generation. Inane
beach, horror, sci-fi, even war movies featured teens:
Tab Hunter, James Dean, Natalie Wood, Pat Boone, Troy
Donahue, and Sandra Dee ruled the silver screen. Boone
and Hunter were pop singers too. My sister played
Hunter’s number 1 hit, “Young
Love,” until we’d had it and hid the little
red 45 RPM vinyl disc from her.

Living in a New
York suburb, I got to see Broadway plays, but Damn
was deemed too grown up for me, so I had to
wait until the movie version. I went to see it for
dancer Gwen Verdon. But she was paired with, you
guessed it, Tab Hunter, who was delightful. Living
across from a pond that froze yearly, I ice-skated daily for
months, and so I naturally had to see the ice-skating
TV musical Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates when it
came out: It starred Tab Hunter, skating like a pro.

In the 1960s, I
was an intellectual. By the mid ’60s, civil rights,
the Vietnam War, and women’s rights dominated
my life. In the ’70s, gay rights, then gay
literature and gay theater took their place. Forget Tab
Hunter. My favorite films were disturbing, challenging
cinema: El Topo, Andy Warhol’s
, and Pink Flamingos.

So you can
imagine my surprise when Tab Hunter showed up, more or less
playing himself, in wryly gifted director John
Waters’s way-out movie Polyester. And even
funnier, when Tab played a Clint Eastwood character in
the wonderfully titled Lust in the Dust.

If at any time in
those decades you’d have told me that I would meet
Tab Hunter, I’d have laughed at you. Even so,
it happened a few years ago at the dinner party in
Montecito, Calif., of a mutual friend—confirming
another pal’s conviction that all famous people know
each other. Tab was there with his attractive,
younger, and very bright partner of the past dozen
years, Allan Glaser.

We all got along
well, so when at lunch this spring they told me of the
upcoming publication of the actor’s autobiography,
Tab Hunter Confidential—edited, it
turned out, by another mutual friend—I thought
maybe it would be fun to read it, then sit down and really
talk with Tab about his career, gay stuff, and life in
general. The book turned out to be a compelling read.

We met at Tab and
Allan’s modest Montecito home. Modest is a word that
can be used a great deal about Tab Hunter. At 74 (!) he
still looks fine. Years of horseback riding and
ice-skating have kept him in good physical
shape—and he remains active. As a person, he’s
down to earth, straightforward, unpretentious, and at
times pretty funny; these are the qualities he prefers
in people around him. I’m told he’s a staunch
friend, loyal partner, and all-around loving person.

Tab Hunter is
also a fine and persuasive communicator, although,
unsurprisingly, by now he’s pretty much got life down
to a series of beliefs, sayings, etc. Given how much
of his career has been shaped—for good at
first, and then pretty badly—by newspapers and
magazines, he was naturally wary about us talking for
The Advocate.

The influence of
Tab’s mother on his life and thought comes out
immediately when you talk with him. Gertrude Gelien, an
emigrant from Germany and a single mother who raised
two sons during the Depression, lived into her 90s,
supported in the latter part of her life by her actor
son. Their strenuous push-pull relationship over the decades
was punctuated by her mental breakdown, just as he was
achieving real stardom in the movie Battle Cry.

Tab Hunter grew
up fast, grew up in the public eye, and—crucially for
me and for the following conversation—came to
maturity a decade and a half before Stonewall and gay
rights. This has strongly shaped and colored who he is
and how he thinks. Just as being younger, a child of the
1960s counterculture, and an activist of the Stonewall
era has shaped and colored who I am.

[Find Picano’s Q&A with Hunter in the October
11 issue of
The Advocate, on sale now.]

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