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Tab talks

Tab talks

Tab Hunter Confidential

The meeting of newly out '50s matinee idol Tab Hunter and radical literary lion Felice Picano produces some sparks and many remarkable exchanges--and the revelation that both slept with Anthony Perkins

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 Yankees! 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 Trash, 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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