Friday, October 19, 2012
THE OTHER SIDE OF VINCENT PRICE
Victoria Price, now a television writer, shares the father she knew in Vincent Price: A Daughter's Biography (St. Martin's $27.50). In the book she explores the many gay rumors about Vincent. Now, exclusively for The Advocate, Victoria reveals a personal memory not included in the book--the story of how she came out to the "scariest" man in the world.
I was standing at the bar in West Hollywood, Calif.'s club of the moment one night in the spring of 1989, talking with a group of hip Hollywood women I hardly knew, when a blond woman with a wry expression came over to me and said, "You're Vincent Price's daughter. Your father's gay, isn't he?" I don't remember my mumbled reply--except that, sadly, it wasn't very witty--"I don't know" or "He was married three times." But I do remember that I was shocked. Not because it was the first time someone had suggested that he might be gay or at the very least bisexual, but because, until that moment, I hadn't really understood the degree to which my 78-year-old father's sexuality, whatever it might be, had become public property to be discussed, analyzed, bandied about, as one might share a recipe or chat about the weather. I found it a discomforting revelation.
Vincent Price became a Broadway star in 1936, when he was 24 years old, playing Prince Albert to Helen Hayes's Queen Victoria in the hit play Victoria Regina. Success came overnight, and Helen took it upon herself to counsel her inexperienced young costar. "An actor is a public servant," she told him. "Never forget that." My father followed this advice assiduously throughout his more than 55-year career. He was unendingly generous to his fans, never refusing an autograph or declining an interview, and answering every fan letter personally. He led his life as an actor cum public servant with exemplary grace, even treating his occasional presence in the gossip columns with equanimity. And when his camp horror films or his superb portrayal of Oscar Wilde in an acclaimed one-man show or his marriage to the sexually adventuresome British actress Coral Browne raised idle chatter about his sexual orientation, he took it in stride. So why didn't I?
I came out to my father in my early 20s. We were driving down the hill from his house and I blurted it out in the car, eager to get to the other side of my uncomfortable announcement. "Oh, I know," he said, calmly negotiating a hairpin turn. "Coral already told me." My stepmother had, it seemed, guessed.
My father treated my bombshell with unruffled elan, tenderly solicitous of my well-being. He asked me about my partner, my lifestyle, my feelings. And after I had nervously delivered a heartfelt soliloquy, he quietly said, "I know just what you mean. All three of my wives were jealous of my friendships with men. But those friendships have always been very important to me. There can be a wonderful connection between two men or two women." Then he reached over and held my hand.
Shortly after my father told Coral the news, she presented me with a coming-out gift--a box of 40 silk bow ties! After spending most of World War II as the toast of the Savoy Theatre in London, my stepmother fled the Blitz during the last months of the war, taking refuge on the coast at Land's End. There she met Radclyffe Hall and her partner, whom Coral referred to as "the dreaded Una Troubridge." Coral's lesbian fashion sense remained stuck somewhere around D-Day.
After I came out my father and stepmother were nothing but supportive. Vincent was asked to join the honorary board of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, and accepted; Coral lent a sympathetic ear to my romantic troubles. Both were eager to meet anyone I brought home, though my stepmother rarely missed an opportunity to flirt outrageously with my girlfriends or to comment on their looks or style. One woman, she told me with a very knowing smile, "does it very well." I took that as some kind of compliment. In fact, my lesbianism was probably my most salient quality as far as Coral was concerned. My stepmother and I had always had a rocky relationship. Although she loved me, she was extremely jealous of my close bond with my father and often made all of our lives quite miserable as a result. When she tumbled to the fact that I was gay, suddenly she felt much better. In her mind, I was no longer a threat.
When Vincent Price met Coral Browne in 1972, he was 61 and she was 59, but they fell in love like two teenagers. It wasn't just Coral's beauty, talent, or sexual abandon that seduced my father, it was also her reputation as a "scarlet woman," her famously bawdy humor, and her easy acceptance of other people's sexual preferences and proclivities that he found so appealing. They became known as a stylish, sophisticated couple, epitomizing the best of show business glamour and panache. When some suggested that their marriage might be one of convenience, they just laughed. They knew better.
I have sometimes wondered whether, if my father had not been married to Coral when I came out to him, his response would have been different. Would he have worried about me or, like many parents of gay children, felt responsible in some way? But Coral's laissez-faire approach to sexuality had had a liberating effect on my dad. Born in 1911 to an upper-middle-class family in St. Louis, he was raised in a society still clinging to late Victorian manners and mores. As he made a life for himself in the London and New York City theater and later in Hollywood, he gradually shed the constrictions of his upbringing and moved through the world with an openness that was remarkable for his era. But it was not until he met Coral that he flung his last remaining inhibitions to the wind.
When Coral died in 1991, my father was alone for the first time in more than 40 years. But he was also ill, his body succumbing to Parkinson's disease and emphysema, though his mind remained as vital as ever. So my father's secretary and caretaker, Reggie Williams, and I organized a circle of my mostly gay male friends into a group that Roddy McDowall took to calling "the angels." Attractive, interesting, and talented all, the angels took turns with Reggie and me in caring for my dad. We cooked him dinner and looked after his physical needs. But mostly we helped keep his mind and his interest in the world alive. As the months turned into years, my father found in all of us a new family. Increasingly, as he looked forward to a future he would not see, he began to envision a world not bound by the artifice and rigidity against which his generation had had to fight. And he felt a great sense of hope.
In the spring of 1993, my friends and I decided to go to the march on Washington. On our second night in D.C., we gathered around a pay phone and called my dad. We described the festivities and the fun we were having, and then we laughingly said that we wished he could have paraded down the streets with us, all waving our rainbow flags. His voice already ravaged by the illness that would take his life, he said, "I wish I was there."
After my father's death in 1993, I was asked to write his biography. I agreed, but with much trepidation, because once again I found myself facing other people's myriad theories about my father's sexuality. "Are you going to discuss your father's relationships with men?" one old friend asked me. "I know someone who has proof that your father was gay," said another acquaintance. But after a year of reluctantly chasing paper trails and interviewing supposedly airtight sources, not only had I uncovered nothing, but I also realized that I was searching for an answer that I did not wish to find.
My father once told me that he had had a passionate relationship with a man that was "like a love affair without the sex." He treasured his friendship with this cultured academic, who shared his enthusiasm for language and the arts, but my stepmother grew jealous of the time my father and his friend spent together and threatened an ugly divorce. The dissolution of that friendship, my father told me, had broken his heart.
In the end, it was Roddy McDowall who best summed up the "question" of my father's sexuality. "What we don't know," Roddy mused, "is what sex meant to him. If we don't know that, we don't know anything." Roddy was right. I will never know the most intimate details of my father's sexuality and, to tell the truth, I'm glad. Because what I do know is so much more important. I know, for example, that he cherished friendship and love between two people, whatever their gender or sexual preference; that he never judged people on the basis of their sexual choices; and, most important, that he accepted me, my partner, and my friends for who we were--with nothing but love. That was the father I knew; that was his legacy to me. That is the life I have written. And in doing so, I can only hope I have treated his life with as much understanding and compassion as he treated mine.