Silent screen star Ramon Novarro was born in Mexico on February 6 1899. One of the highest-paid actors of the early cinema, he invested wisely and when his career declined, limited his work to occasional television appearances. Even at the height of his fame, Ramon Novarro enjoyed discreet romances with other men. Later in life, he hired male sex workers. Sadly, he died violently at the hands of two brothers who falsely believed he kept $5000 cash hidden in his house.
Ramon’s dentist father moved his family to Los Angeles in 1913 to escape the Mexican Revolution. However, he could no longer work because of failing eyesight. With nine kids to feed and most of their assets left behind in Mexico, 14-year-old Ramon went to work. He took any employment he could find, in a grocery store, as a theatre usher and singing and dancing.
He began working as a movie extra in 1916, playing a starving peasant in his first uncredited appearance. By 1923, he acted in leading roles and in 1925, became a superstar playing the title role in Ben-Hur, the biggest of the silent epics.
The following year, Hollywood’s legendary ‘Latin lover’ Rudolph Valentino died and Ramon inherited his friend’s mantle.
Ramon himself attributed much of his success to his looks. He said technicians devoted as much effort to lighting him as to famed Goddesses of the Silver Screen like Gloria Swanson.
“By the time they got through lighting me like a painting, I couldn’t turn my head more than a few inches.”
One day, he complained to the director, “I can’t act when I can’t move.”
“Don’t worry about acting,” replied the director, “Just look handsome. You can act when you get old.”
While many silent movie stars struggled to transition to talking movies, Ramon’s singing voice kept him employed. However, as one newspaper reported after his death, he faced two challenges. Firstly, his speaking voice was heavily accented and secondly, he was constantly ‘thirsty’.
The thirst was for alcohol. A staunch Catholic, Ramon felt torn between his religious belief and his sexual yearnings. Despite long-term relationships with three successive male lovers, his guilt drove him to the bottle.
When his career went into decline, he retired.
“There comes a point in every career when you reach the saturation point. I reached the point in 1935 that I could last five or six more pictures but that would be the end. I decided to get out before I was kicked out.”
Financially secure, he managed his investments, took up painting and accepted occasional television roles.
In 1968, Ramon Novarro announced he was writing his autobiography. He described it as a ‘tell all’ and said publication might have to wait until after his death.
Although his homosexuality was common knowledge among Hollywood insiders, there’d never been a whiff of scandal. Often described as a lifelong bachelor, he told interviewers that unlike many male movie stars he never suffered from ‘woman problems’.
“That’s one of the few mistakes I never made. A career and love just don’t seem to mix.”
On the morning following Halloween 1968, Ramon’s private secretary let himself into his boss’s house by the kitchen door. After noticing upturned furniture and grog bottles discarded on the floor, he searched the house. He found Ramon’s nude and battered body in the bedroom.
Police assumed the murderer bludgeoned the 69-year-old to death with a broken walking cane found near the body. Ramon’s wrists and ankles were bound with electrical cords. There was a condom in his right hand. The left hand of the right-handed actor held a pen. Scrawled on the sheet, a name, ‘Larry’, obviously intended to appear as the desperate attempt of a dying man to reveal his murderer. On a mirror, someone used a makeup pencil to scrawl ‘US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS’.
The investigators soon knew who to look for. Someone made a 49-minute call from the house to Chicago the night before. A 19-year-old woman admitted her 17-year-old boyfriend called her from the house. Tom Ferguson told her that he and 23-year-old brother Paul were attempting to rob Ramon Novarro of the $5000 they believed he had hidden in the house. She heard screaming during the call and Tom put the phone down at one stage to check ‘Paul wasn’t hurting Ramon’.
Paul and Tom Ferguson
Paul and Tom Ferguson were two of ten kids who grew up in an itinerant family with a drunken, abusive father and a mother who never cared much for her offspring. The father died before the kids hit their teens. The boys left home separately and both spent time in juvenile detention centres.
Paul later said he began hustling as a kid to help feed the family. As a young adult, he also appeared in porn films and modelled for adult photographer Kris of Chicago (Upper left in the above image.) The photos appeared in Bob Mizer’s Physique Pictorial with Mizer’s coded squiggles indicating Paul’s availability at a price and that he was willing to top or bottom.
In 1968, Paul was living in Los Angeles where fellow sex worker Larry Ortega was hooking him up with clients. Larry counted Ramon Novarro among his clients. Tom turned up after escaping an Illinois juvenile institution.
Meanwhile, to cut a long story short, Paul had married Larry’s sister. Tom caused problems and the wife left. Paul then wanted Tom gone and the younger brother decided to return to Chicago. But he would need cash. He told Paul that he sometimes had sex with men for money. Paul said he would line something up.
Tom later testified that Paul then told him they would “meet a homosexual for some drinks, and one of us would have to go to bed with him.”
They arrived at Ramon Novarro’s house at 4.30 in the afternoon.
After drinking for a while, Tom called his girlfriend in Chicago. His brother and the movie star went into another room. After a while, Tom asked his girlfriend to hold while he checked on the other pair. He saw Paul and Ramon nude on a bed and went back to his call. When he returned sometime later, Paul was dressed and the older man bound, battered and bloodied.
The brothers tore the house apart in an unsuccessful search for the non-existent $5000 while Ramon Novarro choked to death on his own blood. They then wrote Larry’s name on the sheet in an effort to frame him.
Tom testified that Paul spoke admiringly of Ramon the following day.
“He died bravely… All he wanted out of life was to live and suck a few dicks.”
The brothers turned on each other at their trial, each attempting to blame the other for the murder. They sat at the same table (bottom left in top image) but each with their own lawyer.
Found guilty, the judge sentenced them to life in prison. However, they were released a few years later though both ended up returning following convictions for rape. They never spoke to each other again following their murder trial.
Tom died by suicide in 2005 while Paul died in prison in 2018.
Following the trial, Bob Mizer reprinted one of the nude photos of Paul Ferguson with a few words on the murder.
“How often do you brush shoulders with a psychopath willing and capable to snuff out your life?
“Do you avoid the conditions which would make you vulnerable?
“Can you always trust your judgement?”