January 22, 2013

The man who never was

It's been an interesting last week or so if you've been trying to keep up with real people, fictional people, and real people who turned out to be quite different from who they pretended to be.  It brought a whole new meaning to the saying, "You can't tell the players without a scorecard."  And while most people were no longer surprised that Lance Armstrong was not the man he wanted us to believe he was, there was fairly universal shock over the story of Manti Te'o and his fake dead girlfriend.

As that story picked up steam during the week, taking one bizarre turn after another, it was easy to assume that this was probably going to be one of the strangest news stories of the year.  The tale of a star football player and a fake dead girlfriend (doesn't that phrase just trip off the tongue?) boggled the imagination.  Was Te'o involved in the deception?  Was he the most naive football player in the universe?  What, we demanded, was the rest of the story?

And it was somewhere in the middle of all this that my wife turned to me.  "It kind of reminds you of Raymond Burr, doesn't it?"

***
 
Many of you have probably heard the story of Raymond Burr's double life, or at least parts of it.  For years the star of Perry Mason had had an established biography: a happy childhood, a tour of Europe with a Shakespearean company, service in World War II (during which he'd been severely injured at Okinawa and won the Purple Heart), teaching assignments at Amherst and Columbia. There were the three marriages, two of which had ended tragically (and a possible romance with Natalie Wood), and a son, who'd died of leukemia at age 10. Most of you also probably know about Burr's homosexuality, which was more or less an open secret in Hollywood, but a secret to the general public.

Still, it came as something of a shock when, after his death, details came out of the extent to which Burr had manufactured the details of his past life.  For example, there was the story of how his first wife, Scottish actress Arnette Southerland, had died in the 1943 plane crash that also claimed the life of Gone with the Wind actor Leslie Howard.  In fact, there's no evidence of any marriage to Southerland, who in fact wasn't even on that fatal flight.  There's also no evidence that of a marriage to Laura Morgan which, Burr said, ended when she diied of cancer in 1955.* 

*He married his "second" wife, Isabella Ward, in 1947; the marriage, which was brief and ended in annulment, was true, and was apparently Burr's only marriage.

The story of his son, Michael Evan, whom Burr claimed to have on a tour of the United States prior to his death in 1953, was likewise fictitious.  In fact, when you came right to it, virtually everything about Burr's early life - his athletic prowess in high school, the service in World War II (he might have been in the Coast Guard, but never served in the Navy and never won the Purple Heart), the teaching jobs at Amherst and Columbia, the acting troupe in England - was a lie.  People who'd known Raymond Burr for years, who'd worked with him and eaten at his home and considered him a friend - found out that they didn't really know him at all.

It's easy to understand some of it, the fake marriages, for example. Although many people knew of his sexual preference, or suspected it, homosexuality was still a career killer in the 50s and 60s.  Burr didn't flaunt his lifestyle in public; he was anything but dainty in his manner and speech, and the story of the failed marriages provided good cover.  Likewise Burr was not the first star, nor the last, to have padded his CV with facts that couldn't be verified: roles that didn't exist and tours that never happened.

It's also easy to see how he got away with it for so long. Over time, the stories of Burr’s dead wife and son became an accepted part of the actor’s bio. Burr’s general refusal to talk about them with reporters – “I don’t discuss that” was his usual answer – only added to the fiction. And it was understandable; why would anyone want to keep bringing up such a painful past?  Eventually, reporters quit asking about it and went with the established story.

By all accounts, Burr was a true professional and a loyal friend and colleague; one rarely reads of anything bad said about him by those whom he knew and worked with, and there wasn't much motive for anyone to go to the press with salacious stories.  (In fact, had the press been told anything, they likely wouldn't have printed it; the queen of the Hollywood gossips, Hedda Hopper, was the mother of William Hopper, who played Paul Drake on Perry Mason; after receiving one report of Burr's behavior, she assured him "he need only 'call on the mother of Paul Drake and I will stand up and swear anything for you.'")*  Most of Burr's friends and colleagues were circumspect when it came to what they knew of Burr's private life, often neither confirming nor denying any knowledge.

*It's hard to tell whether or not Hopper had known of Burr's homosexuality prior to receiving the information; regardless, it's clear that, even if she believed it, his secret was safe with her.

Still, the depth of the deception, and the length to which he built and expounded on it, was remarkable. Though he may not have discussed his past often, as recently as 1991 Burr talked to Parade magazine about his dead son, saying that "Before my boy left, before his time was gone, I wanted him to see the beauty of his country and its people."

How much did his associates know?  Said Perry Mason producer Arthur Marks, "I know he was genuine in liking and disliking people; I don't think he hid that. But I just know he was putting on a show for the other things about wives and children. That was my gut feeling. I think the wives and the loving women, the Natalie Wood thing, were a bit of a cover." On the other hand, close friend Barbara Hale, who played Mason's loyal secretary Della Street, believed that at least some of the story was true. "He had a great love for Barbara Stanwyck and for Natalie Wood . . . but he said, 'I was too old for [Wood], but oh, my gosh, Barbara.'"  Even with Hale, though, Burr perpetuated the lie.  "[H]e said, 'My wife and little one, that was tragic,' but he said it was 'something I don't talk about that much.' And that's about as much as we talked about it."

It's easy to say that Raymond Burr created this "other" life because of his sexual orientation, but I'm not sure that's all there is to it.  The deception goes far deeper, and far wider in scope, than I would have thought necessary if that's all it was.  No, I think the answer lies more in the mystery that was Raymond Burr the man.  Whether a desire to change the facts of his life to conform to something more acceptable to him, or perhaps just a deep desire for privacy that could only be found through the creation of an altar ego, Burr did what he felt he had to do.  Personally, I think it was that need for privacy that compelled Burr to go to the lengths he did, and given the chance to do otherwise - in today's world, for example, where homosexuality is far less of a stigma - I wonder if he would have done anything differently? 

***

Now, I'm not interested in tearing down anyone's reputation.  Perry Mason is one of my favorite shows of all time, and Raymond Burr one of my favorite actors.  There was much of Burr's life that was not a lie: his philanthropy, his generosity to co-workers and others in the industry (many of whom he didn't even know), his involvement with the USO and his repeated trips to visit the troops in Vietnam.  His lifestyle aside, what I do know of Raymond Burr - what we think is true - I like.

I'm also not interested in imputing the character of Manti Te'o.  I have no idea whether or not he was involved in the dead-girlfriend-hoax, and unless we get convincing statements from the participants, we may never know.  I'm also not particularly interested in imparting motives to him, if he was involved.

No, I just find the whole story - well, for lack of a better word, interesting.  In today's age, it is both easier and harder to create a fictitious life.  Easier in the sense that one can create whole records out of thin air, and also manufacture the "documentation" to back it up.  Harder in that those same resources - the wealth of accessible information and the ease with which it can be obtained - make it that much more difficult to perpetuate the lie.  Clearly, the times have changed since Raymond Burr lived, and it's hard to say if he could have gotten away with such a deception today.

Cary Grant once said something to the effect that he hadn't been born "Cary Grant", but that "Cary Grant" was a creation, a style and a persona, a way of walking and talking and moving, and that he simply acted the part, over and over, until eventually "Cary Grant" became Cary Grant, and he became the man that people wanted and expected him to be.  In the same way, I think all of us have dual personalities: the people we are, and the people we want to be.  Sometimes in becoming the second, the person we want to be, we take factual liberties with the first, the person we are.  Some of those liberties are small; others, as in the case of Raymond Burr, not so small.  It is, however, a quirk of the human condition - and that is something that will never change.

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