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Lavender Marriages in Classic Hollywood: Background information when reading Siren Queen

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Siren Queen

by Nghi Vo

Siren Queen by Nghi Vo X
Siren Queen by Nghi Vo
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  • First Published:
    May 2022, 288 pages

    May 2023, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Elisabeth Cook
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Lavender Marriages in Classic Hollywood

This article relates to Siren Queen

Print Review

Publicity still of Rock HudsonNghi Vo's Siren Queen follows protagonist Luli Wei through an alternate version of historical Hollywood. While many aspects of the novel's world are fictitious to the tune of spells and supernatural beings, it also explores real-life social and political issues of the time and place, including the phenomenon of "lavender" marriages. A lavender marriage is one meant to create the appearance of heterosexuality while concealing the real sexual orientation of one or both partners. The phenomenon is often associated with gay and bisexual actors during Hollywood's classic era (1910s-60s), who were under significant pressure from studios to project a heterosexual image. Marriages for this purpose were even sometimes arranged by Hollywood studios.

In Siren Queen, Luli enters into a secret relationship with another actress, Emmaline Sauvignon. Emmaline, in the meantime, is involved in a public romance with a male actor known as Cassidy Dutch, for the sake of her career. Luli considers allowing herself to be seduced by her co-star Harry Long when he insists on taking her to his house for dinner after a day on set, similarly thinking of the need to protect her reputation. She soon realizes that Harry is not actually trying to seduce her, but has invited her to his home in a gesture of friendship and solidarity; he knows about her relationship with Emmaline and wants her to meet his boyfriend Teo. The studio Harry works for eventually forces him to make public plans to marry an actress named Lana Brooks.

In real historical Hollywood, it wasn't only that stars were pressured by studios to perform heterosexuality; in many cases, they were beholden by "morality clauses." Under these clauses, studios were able to terminate a performer's contract if they engaged in behavior considered socially unacceptable or scandalous. While what is considered scandalous has changed since then, these types of clauses still exist.

One early speculated Hollywood lavender marriage was the 1919 union between silent film actor Rudolph Valentino, rumored to be bisexual, and actress Jean Acker, rumored to be gay. Their marriage soon ended in divorce, and Valentino went on to marry Natacha Rambova, a costume designer believed to have been involved in a lesbian relationship.

One of the best-known cases of a suspected lavender marriage took place between heartthrob Rock Hudson and his secretary, Phyllis Gates, in 1955. Hudson is today widely considered to have been gay, though he never spoke publicly about his sexuality.

Other speculated lavender marriages include that of actress Judy Garland, who may have been bisexual, with director Vincente Minnelli, who lived as an openly gay man before achieving fame; and that of Janet Gaynor, the first winner of the Best Actress Academy Award, with costume designer Adrian Adolph Greenberg. Like Minnelli, Greenberg lived as openly gay for a time, and Gaynor's sexuality has been a subject of speculation.

By their very nature, Hollywood lavender marriages are difficult to confirm. Regardless of what is known about a person's sexual or romantic life, there may always be more that is unknown, and there is often no way to determine how someone defined their orientation or what their marriage meant to them. Siren Queen's exploration of the phenomenon of lavender marriages invites reflection not just on historical Hollywood's homophobia, but also on the broader culture that still puts celebrities in the position of having their private lives scrutinized in the context of social mores.

Rock Hudson, courtesy of IMDB

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Elisabeth Cook

This "beyond the book article" relates to Siren Queen. It originally ran in June 2022 and has been updated for the May 2023 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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