‘I woke up and he was dead, lying on the floor…’ | Ramon Novarro and the death of a Latin Lover

The fifth episode of a series of short stories about the infamous murder-mysteries of Hollywood

Ramon Novarro during the golden age of Hollywood.

I woke up and he was dead. He was dead, lying on the floor his face bashed in. It was a mess, a bloody mess and there’s Paul saying ‘Come on, help me.’ And I was like ‘What did you do?’ He said, ‘The fruit was hassling me.’ But it didn’t make sense. I thought that had been the plan all along. We got his number from Larry and phoned up and asked the old guy if he wanted some company. We all knew what that meant. He was lonely, the poor sap. All he had was booze and memories and the occasional bit of trade. All those photographs from the old films around the place. The souvenirs.

‘Any trouble finding the place?’ Mr. Novarro said, when he answered the door. We hitched there. We didn’t have a bean. He was wearing a dressing gown with silky lapels.  ‘You do keep it kinda tucked away,’ said Paul. It wasn’t any big deal. A bungalow really. If this guy’s supposed have so much money, what’s he doing in a shit hole like this? Not a shit hole. But you know, not a mansion either. 

The news of Novarro’s death.

‘How do you know Larry?’ Mr. Novarro said.

‘Wife’s brother,’ said Paul.

‘Oh,’ said Mr. Novarro, his face a little sad.

‘Ex-wife,’ Paul said, giving him that smile.

The idea was to get the old soak drunk, string him along, do whatever needed doing and then find his hidden cash. Rumor was the old guy was rotten with money. Inside, the house looked more promising. Place was a museum piece. All the photos of someone who looked like Rudolph Valentino. ‘Who’s this?’ I said pointing to one. ‘Rudolph Valentino,’ Mr. Novarro said. He pointed to the guy with his hand on Valentino’s shoulder. ‘That is me, in my salad days.’

He spoke nice. A slight accent curled his words. $20 Larry said we could charge. Maybe even $40. Old guy puts it down as gardening work on his cheque stubs to fool the stiffs at his bank. 

‘Let’s have a drink,’ Paul said.

‘Way ahead of you,’ said Mr. Novarro. He had a bottle of vodka all ready with the glasses. ‘All the vitamins of food and none of the calories.’

‘You got any smokes,’  I asked.

‘A filthy habit for one so young,’ Mr. Novarro said. But he called the store and they sent over a carton of Marlboro and a carton of Winstons, because Paul got picky when he was pushing a dude. You gotta understand Paul has always been a nasty piece of work. And a nastier drunk. And he’s my brother but I get scared of him sometimes. Mr. Novarro got me some beer and I drink it with tequila chasers.  

Roman Novarro
Roman Novarro in Ben-Hur

I ask Mr. Novarro about the pictures and the movies. I say ‘I seen you someplace before.’ He nods and smiles and we’re all getting fairly pickled and the cigarettes have arrived – some pal of Novarro’s delivers them, but he doesn’t let him in. Tosses us the smokes and sits down, his dressing gown a little looser so if I get a notion to check out his undercarriage I … And suddenly it clicks. ‘Hey were you in Bonanza, Mr. Novarro?’

Mr. Novarro smiles and strokes his mustache. ‘Please Tom, call me Ramon.’

‘He was! He was in Bonanza Paul,’ I say, gee-whizzing a bit too much.

‘Big deal,’ says Paul and he’s eyeing the place, scoping it out. He keeps pretending to look at the pictures, but he’s tilting them away from the wall to see if there’s anything behind them. He’s getting bored but he sits down close to Mr. Novarro and we all have some more to drink. I ain’t great on tequila. Beer’s more my thing. Tequila has a way of sneaking up on you and then jumping on you at once. .

‘What were you in that I might have seen?’ Paul asks. ‘Besides Bonanza.’  

‘I was in Ben-Hur.’

‘I saw that!’ I yelp again. ‘What’s Charlton Heston like?’

‘Not that one dummy,’ says Paul. ‘He was in the old one.’

‘All the old ones,’ Mr. Novarro says and he’s patting Paul’s leg. ‘The great silent movies. That was me. I was a beauty in my time. They called me the thinking woman’s Valentino. A bit less rapey. If that makes any sense.’

‘Rapey,’ Paul starts a laughing jag. He’s red faced and spluttering and we all join in but I don’t really know what we’re laughing about so we drink some more. And Mr. Novarro talks about movie stars and Garbo this and Valentino that and Paul suddenly shouts, ‘When I was ten years old, I sold myself to old perverts like you.’

Ramon Navarro
Ramon Navarro in Bonanza with Michael Landon

It doesn’t make any sense but it’s something Paul goes on, how he sold his ass to keep us in franks and beans. ‘What are you talking about?’ Mr. Novarro says. ‘Calm down. Have something to drink.’

And so we drink some more. The bottles empty and he goes to fetch more and while he’s gone, Paul starts to go through the drawers. ‘Come on,’ he says. And I help looking behind the bookcase and through the cushions. We are so broke. We had to hitchhike just to get here. No way of getting back unless the old dude calls us a cab and pays for it too.  

There’s a tequila-shaped gap and then I remember we’re eating chicken gizzards that Mr. Novarro has cooked up. And I don’t know but I think Paul and Novarro have already done something. I can’t be sure. I must have been out of it. And Mr. Novarro is telling Paul that he looks like Burt Lancaster. ‘You know I still know people,’ Mr. Novarro says. ‘I could help a handsome young stud like you.’

‘Yeah?’ says Paul. He’s already done some modelling. He knows he looks good. Then we’re drinking again and Paul plays the piano, but he can’t play for shit so he’s just noodling. Showing off his talent. And then Paul and Mr. Novarro go into the bedroom and that’s when I must have finished the tequila and passed out.

Paul says it was me that killed him. Says that I tortured him and tied him up but that doesn’t make any sense. Paul wanted me to say that I did it because he said I wouldn’t get the gas chamber on account of being 17 and all. But it wasn’t true. All I did was help afterwards. I helped move the body and it was my idea to write the thing about ‘faggots’ on the mirror. But that was just to put the police off our trail. It was Paul who wrote Larry’s name to get Larry in trouble. He hated Larry because he blamed him for what happened with his girl.

Ramon Navarro
The morning after

We were still drunk you see and not exactly thinking everything through as we might have done had we not been drunk. All that baloney about us tying him up and torturing him to death trying to find out where his money was… it was all just a crock. And when I yelled at the jury that I’d hit him and carried on hitting him after he shoved his finger up my ass, that was just me trying to get Paul off, I thought they were going to give him the gas chamber. We were already guilty. I figured it can’t hurt. But it was bullshit. I was phoning my girlfriend. She was in Chicago so I don’t get to phone long distance much. So I took the opportunity. Mr. Novarro said he didn’t mind. And that’s how they caught us was me phoning my girl. The phone records. It wasn’t much of a conversation. I guess I wasn’t making a lot of sense. I was on the phone when Paul hit him. I just heard it. A crack and then a thud. I was in the other room see.

I guess I wasn’t sleeping after all. It was all very confusing.      

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