Ramon Novarro was murdered by two
brothers, Paul and Tom Ferguson (aged 22 and 17, respectively), whom he
had hired from an agency to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex.
According to the prosecution in the murder case, the
two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden in Novarro's
house after hearing rumors on the streets. The prosecution accused them
of torturing Novarro for several hours to force him to reveal where the
nonexistent money was hidden. They left with a mere twenty dollars they
took from his bathrobe pocket before fleeing the scene.
Novarro allegedly died as a result of asphyxiation,
choking to death on his own blood after being brutally beaten. The two
brothers were later caught and sentenced to long prison terms but were
quickly released on probation. Both were later rearrested for unrelated
crimes, for which they served longer terms than for their murder
Silent Forever: The Murder of Ramon
Ramon Novarro, the silent movie star
of classic films such as Ben Hur and The Silver Chalice,
kept many things to himself. Rudolph Valentino’s best friend's biggest
secret was his preference for sex with men, especially young adult
Unfortunately, one of Novarro’s peccadilloes led to
On Oct. 30, 1968, Novarro invited over two brothers,
Paul and Tom Ferguson, for a quiet evening at his estate in Studio City.
He was hoping for a night of intimacy with one of the two young men. The
Fergusons, on the other hand, were looking to fatten their bank accounts.
Older brother Paul heard that Novarro kept a large amount of money
hidden away in his mansion.
That night, Novarro and Paul Ferguson engaged in a
sexual encounter. After the tryst was complete, Paul turned the tables
on Novarro and demanded the actor’s secret stash. Novarro sheepishly
admitted that he had no money on him. He offered to pay the Fergusons
with a check. But the Fergusons knew Novarro was not broke. In fact,
they knew he was quite wealthy. His money, however, was tied up in the
bank and stock market. He was not fond of carrying cash.
The news did not sit well with Paul Ferguson. The 22-year-old
hustler decided Novarro was lying so he began to beat the information
out of the actor. For several hours, Ferguson tortured Novarro with a
silver cane. He pummeled the 68-year-old former movie star on the back,
stomach and groin areas with the makeshift weapon that left numerous
black and blue bruises all over the actor’s body.
Though none of the cane blows proved to be fatal,
Novarro eventually choked to death on his own blood.
During the beating, younger brother Tom Ferguson
called his girlfriend in Chicago. He used Novarro’s telephone to make
the call and spoke with her for nearly 40 minutes. The poor girl could
hear Novarro’s pitiful screams in the background.
When police arrived, they stumbled upon a truly
macabre scene. In Novarro’s bathroom, on the mirror, the phrase "Us
girls are better than those fagits" [sic] was scrawled with a grease
pencil. In addition, Paul Ferguson had been especially sadistic with the
actor. Some claimed that Novarro had been beaten to death with a silver
lead dildo given to him by Valentino. Other sources claimed the sex toy
had been rammed up Novarro’s rectum. Still others say it was shoved down
After the cleanup, police were able to compile a list
of phone calls made from Novarro’s home, including one to Chicago made
on the day of the murder. Police contacted the number in Chicago and
reached Tom Ferguson’s girlfriend. She told the officers about the
frightening phone call she received from her boyfriend.
The police immediately arrested the Ferguson brothers.
Both men’s fingerprints were discovered in several locations throughout
the house. In addition, several witnesses came forward to testify that
the men bragged about the murder.
The Ferguson brothers’ trial became a circus when
Paul convinced Tom to admit to the murder. Paul believed Tom would not
get the death penalty since his younger brother was only 17 at the time
of the murder. Tom agreed to take the fall and confessed to committing
the murders alone.
Tom quickly recanted his confession when prosecutors
informed him they would seek his execution. Tom told the truth as to
what really happened that night and both brothers were sentenced to life
The Ferguson brothers were paroled less than seven
The murder of Ramon Novarro
by J. J. Maloney
In 1926, after having already
squandered several million dollars on the fabled "Ben Hur,"
executives at MGM studio decided to start from scratch. The lead in Ben
Hur was of the most coveted parts in Hollywood history.
The part was given to Ramon Novarro, and remains the
film for which he is best remembered.
It had been a long and tough road for the 27-year-old
actor, who was born Ramon Samaniegos in Durango, Mexico, in 1899. He
came from a cultivated family (his father was a successful dentist), but
the 1910 Mexican Revolution caused the family to flee to the U.S., where
they lived in poverty for the following decade.
Ramon worked at a number of menial jobs to help his
family, and to support himself. He moved to New York, working as a
singing waiter, and as an usher in a movie house. He was "spotted"
by an agent and offered a short-term contract.
There seems to be some dispute as to when he began
appearing in movies, because many silent motion pictures of that time no
longer exist, and bit players were a dime a dozen. But some film
historians believe his "debut" was in The Little American in
1918, with Wallace Beery and Mary Pickford.
His breakthrough film, however, was The Prisoner of
Zenda, co-starring with Alice Terry, the wife of Rex Ingram, the
director. Ingram suggested that Ramon change his last name to Novarro.
Ingram then directed Novarro in a series of films, including 1922’s
"Scaramouche," also featuring Alice Terry.
There are some who refer to Novarro as a new
Valentino, because of the latin lover phase Hollywood went through, but
Novarro was more than that. He had a fine singing voice, which made him
one of the few stars of the silent film era to seamlessly make the
transition to sound. However, Valentino was one of Novarro’s closest
At MGM, Novarro’s salary reached $10,000 a week –
a fabulous sum in the 1920s – which allowed him to invest in real
estate. His first "talking" picture was MGM’s "Devil
May Care" in 1929.
In later years Novarro had little good to say about
the talking pictures he starred in. When he was interviewed by DeWitt
Bodeen, for Films in Review, in the late 1960s, he said:
"With the exception of "The Pagan,"
in which I only sing . . . and some of Song of India, and a good part of
Feyder’s "Daybreak" – certainly not the ending however –
I didn’t like any of the talkies in which I starred."
He didn’t even mention 1932’s "Mata Hari,"
in which he co-starred with Greta Garbo.
Novarro seemed to be refreshingly free of the egotism
that is so rampant in the film industry.
In 1923, Louella Parsons, the most powerful gossip
columnist in Hollywood, wrote of Novarro, in the New York Morning
"And come to think of it, why
shouldn't Ramon be an optimist. At 23 he is earning a salary of $1,250 a
week, with the possibility of increasing to $4,000 and $5,000 next year.
Coming from Durango, Mexico, he entered a stock company in San Francisco
and played small parts. Among other things he did the Italian doctor in
He learned every part in every play with an avidity that brought him the
admiration of his teacher and fellow pupils. Betty Blythe tells of
studying in the same class with the young Novarro and of seeing him in
one day play three different parts in the same production, doing each
one with equal skill.
Rex Ingram came upon Novarro and cast
him as "Rupert of Hentzau" in The
Prisoner of Zenda The boy before he met Mr.
Ingram had been struggling under the handicap of a name like Samanegas
[sic]. Mr. Ingram rechristened him, helped him and gave him the chance
that was later going to get him many offers from film companies.
And young Novarro isn't going to bite
the hand that fed him. Not Ramon; if Mr. Ingram wanted his last cent he
could have it.
"Rex Ingram is a wonderful
director," said Ramon in a voice that should be worth his fortune
if Spanish accents are being used this year. And it's real, too. If any
one doesn't think Rex Ingram is a great man, Ramon is ready to fight
with him. We agreed with Ramon on the Ingram question, and so we were
rewarded with a smile.
Another hero to young Novarro is Marcus
"You had many offers," we
asked him, "to make pictures?"
"Yes, many, but I would not leave
Mr. Loew. Do you think I would be so ungrateful?"
We looked about for smelling salts
after this noble declaration; it was so unusual. The average motion
picture male star who has reached the top in a few bounds usually spends
his time telling the interviewer what a bum his director is and how
little he knows and what a raw deal he got with his company, but Ramon
isn't following the usual prescribed path. He is grateful and he doesn't
care who knows it."
After starring in a number of musicals for MGM (a
staple of that studio), and being badly miscast in a series of films,
Novarro decided to get out. Over the following years he appeared on the
stage, sang, directed several films – and tended to his investments.
He made a brief return to movies – unsuccessfully,
and appeared on television a number of times.
He told Dewitt Bodeen he was writing an autobiography,
but that it might not be possible to publish it until after his death.
He said in that interview that, in the 1920s, many stars were allowed
their privacy – that the details of their personal lives were not
published unless they sought it.
There were many in 1920s Hollywood who knew Novarro
was homosexual, but he was widely considered a gentleman, a class act
that kept his private life private – until October 30, 1968.
On that date the 69-year-old Novarro took two street
hustlers, brothers Paul and Tom Ferguson, to his Laurel Canyon home.
Apparently he’d been seeing 22-year-old Paul for several weeks, and
17-year-old Tom had shown up in town.
The gentle Novarro would undergo terrible tortures in
the next few hours, because Paul Ferguson believed the aging actor had
thousands of dollars hidden away in his house.
As the torture was underway, young Tom used a
telephone in a different room to call a girlfriend in Chicago. He told
her they were at Navarro’s home, and that Paul was trying to find out
where some money was. That phone conversation went on for more than 40
minutes. At one point Tom put the phone down, saying he’d better check
on Paul to make sure he wasn’t hurting Ramon, and the girl on the
other end could hear screams in the background.
When Novarro’s body was found the next morning,
hundreds of pictures had been ripped from the walls, in a desperate
search by the Fergusons to find the fabled money – which didn’t
On a hunch, the L.A.P.D. checked the phone logs for
Novarro’s home phone, and discovered a call to Chicago the previous
evening. When they called that number, they talked to the young girl and
she told them everything.
After their arrest, Paul Ferguson convinced his
younger brother to confess to the crime, on the theory that, as a
juvenile, Tom would only face a year or so in jail, whereas Paul would
be facing the gas chamber.
So Tom Ferguson confessed to the murder. Then the
prosecutor moved to have Tom Ferguson tried as an adult – rather than
as a juvenile. When the court granted that motion, Tom Ferguson
immediately recanted his confession.
During their joint trial, each Ferguson maintained
that the other had tortured and killed Ramon Novarro.
Each Ferguson was sentenced to life imprisonment –
even though the authorities had discounted young Tom’s confession.
Not much is known of what became of Tom Ferguson. He
appears to have gotten out of prison and blended into the American
woodwork. If he was, as he claimed, innocent of the murder of Novarro,
then he didn’t have to change all that much in order to go straight
when he got out.
Paul Ferguson eventually moved to Missouri – in the
Doniphan, Missouri, area, near the Arkansas border. He was prone
to swagger around, bragging what a "solid con" he'd been in
San Quentin -- forgetting to mention precisely why he'd been sent there,
or that he'd caused his younger brother to get a life sentence.
Paul Ferguson had several business ventures going –
a business that involved construction, and promoting rodeos. He made a
good deal of money.
Around 1989 he got drunk one night at a local bar. He
was known as a loud mouth – but at 6-foot-plus and nearly 250, he
usually got away with it.
This night he ran his car into a ditch a walked to a
nearby house to use the phone. The woman was alone. She later testified
that Paul Ferguson raped her – with vile details we won’t go into.
Although the prosecutor mentioned there had been an earlier murder
charge, he didn’t know the details – so the court never learned that
Paul Ferguson had killed Ramon Novarro.
Ferguson was sentenced to 60 years in prison, and
appealed. While out on appeal, he was accused of a second rape in
On appeal, his Missouri sentence was reduced to 30
years, and he is serving that sentence today.
Paul Ferguson is about 52 years old, and has seven
years served on that 30 year sentence.
The Murder of Ramon Novarro
September 5, 2008
Silent screen actor Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) was one
of early Hollywood’s leading actors. He got his big break in the 1923
movie Scaramouche, and went on to play the title role in 1925’s
Ben Hur and later appear with Greta Gardo in Mata Hari.
Novarro was gay. Even under pressure from MGM studio
head, Louis B. Mayer, Novarro refused to contract a “lavendar marriage”–something
most homosexual stars did to keep their contracts and stay out of gossip
He was also a devout Roman Catholic all his life, and
at one time considered becoming a priest.
Ramon Novarro was murdered by two brothers, Tom and
Paul Ferguson, whom he paid to come to his Laurel Canyon home for sex.
Tom was 17 and Paul was 22. Novarro had slept with Paul a number of
times before. On this night he brought along his brother to help him rob
Novarro. The two young men believed that a large sum of money was hidden
in Novarro’s house.
Paul had sex with Novarro, and then the brothers beat
and tortured him looking for the money. After they left the house, he
suffocated in his own blood.
To avoid Novarro’s slipping into unconsciousness, the
brothers dragged him into the bathroom, slapping him awake with cold
water. Novarro staggered into the bedroom. Collapsing on his knees, he
sobbed: “Hail Mary full of grace.”
Tom’s defense attorney, Richard Walton, placed the
blame for the murder on Novarro. “Back in the days of Valentino, this
man who set female hearts aflutter, was nothing but a queer. There’s no
way of calculating how many felonies this man committed over the years,
for all his piety.”
Paul Ferguson blamed his Catholic background: “When
he kissed me, I reacted like a Catholic, what they call homosexual panic.
Some old guy in the desert says, ‘Kill homosexuals.’ It’s inbred…I was
too drunk to be civilized. Whatever my most primitive moral standings
were, I reacted. It had nothing to do with Novarro, nothing to do with
his being homosexual. It all had to do with how I saw myself. And the
fact that my brother was there. And that he could see me in that
homosexual act. It all had to do with my Catholic upbringing, with my
five thousand years of Moses. And that’s the only reason why this whole
thing happened. Because that’s what society teaches you…I think after I
hit Mr. Novarro…I turned around and sat down on the sofa. I got up and
went to find (Novarro) in the bedroom. ‘This guy’s dead’…We didn’t go
there to rob him.”
Novarro was interred in Calvary Cemetery in Los
Angeles. His killers were released from prison after a few years.
PARADISE: The Life of Ramon Novarro" by André Soares
On the evening of October 30,
1968, Ramon Novarro, once one of Hollywood's greatest romantic idols,
now 68 and frail, looking like "a Spanish grandee" in a red and blue
robe, opened the door of his Laurel Canyon home and, with all the
graciousness of his aristocratic lineage, greeted his guests, a burly
young man of 22 and a slender one of 17, his murderers.
The burly young man had obtained
Novarro's telephone number from a previous guest in order to solicit an
invitation for himself and his brother. Both understood why they would
be invited--both had hustled before. Novarro welcomed such young men.
They considered him "an easy touch," "a nice old guy." Only those
closest to him knew his guarded secret, that he was homosexual. He was
not the only one in Hollywood who kept such a secret. It was necessary
self-protection. That, and his rigid Catholicism, created a chafing
Easy camaraderie developed among
the three. Novarro read the older brother's palm and saw a bright future.
At the piano, Novarro taught him a song he had composed. The younger
brother contributed his own tune. The camaraderie--and the liquor shared
steadily with the older brother--made Novarro feel that he was not
buying companionship, and it was companionship that he often bought. He
frequently passed out, drunk, abdicating any sexual connection. He was a
lonely man, his contemporaries dead or in seclusion--Garbo, Fairbanks,
Negri. Perhaps remembering their time, Novarro showed the two brothers a
photograph of himself, a handsome, muscular young man wearing a toga in
the title role of "Ben Hur." Doesn't look like you, the younger brother
Whether coerced by the older
brother, or to indicate that he was still a power in Hollywood, Novarro
called a film publicist to inform--in agitated words--that he wanted to
arrange a meeting for a young man who had star power.
Liquor clouded the sequence of
events into the blurred sequence of violence. In the bedroom with
Novarro and possibly after a sexual connection--both were naked at a
certain point--the burly young man, dressed now, demanded the $5,000
rumored to be hidden in the house. There was no such amount, Novarro
insisted truthfully--he never kept large sums in his home. The younger
brother--who had been on the telephone mollifying a girl he had beaten
up in Chicago--joined the two, adding his own demands for the money.
Novarro's pleading denials
aroused rough shoving that escalated into violent pummeling. Bleeding,
the frail naked man fell. The brothers yanked him up to strike him down
again. One of the brothers danced, twirling a cane like a baton and
wearing a glove he had found in a closet.
To avoid Novarro's slipping into
unconsciousness, the brothers dragged him to the bathroom, slapping him
awake with cold water. Novarro staggered into the bedroom. Collapsing on
his knees, he sobbed: "Hail Mary full of grace."
Taking turns, the two aimed the
cane at his genitals, his head. They bound him with an electric cord and
pounded and struck again. The younger brother scratched the dying man's
face. They discarded his mangled body on the bed. Novarro died, choking
on his own blood.
The two killers ransacked the
house, flinging away photographs of the young star as if rejecting even
his past. To suggest that a woman had perpetrated the crime in vengeful
violence--and scratched the dead man's face--they wrote on a mirror
words that revealed buried motives:
US GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN FAGITS.
Those events are reconstructed
from information in "Beyond Paradise: the Life of Ramon Novarro" by
André Soares, and from this reviewer's related conversations with the
late Jim Kepner, who attended the trial and intended to write a book
about the murder. He produced only a condensed account for The Advocate.
Along with the killers,
Novarro's life was put on trial. It was not rare for violence on non-prominent
homosexuals to be left unreported. A declaration by an assailant that
his victim made a homosexual pass often guaranteed acquittal. The
defense referred to the man who had hidden his homosexuality as "an old
queer." The brothers' mother testified that her younger son had written:
"... he deserved to be killed, he was nothing but an old faggot."
The trial exposed, too, the drab
lives of the brothers, who shared a Catholic background with Novarro.
Raised in poverty, they were soon on their own, working at menial jobs,
stealing, hustling. Squads of other such young men share that
background, fleeing to big cities with nothing but their youth to rely
on--exploited and exploiting--leading a life made desperate by their
knowledge of the brevity of their existence, the brevity of their youth.
They are a group not unworthy of compassion.
Any compassion the brothers'
dingy existences might have aroused before the crime, was obviated by
the savagery of the torture, 22 deadly blows. Unrepentant, they blamed
each other. Both were found guilty of first degree murder, sentenced to
life in prison. The judge recommended they never be released. But they
were, perhaps because of homophobic attitudes toward Novarro. The
younger killer was out six years after his conviction, the older almost
nine years after the murder. Both committed more crimes, including,
separately, rape. Now old themselves, they remain in prison for crimes
unconnected to Novarro's murder.
Soares succeeds in his noble
intention: Novarro "created some of the most indelible characterizations
of the silent and early sound era.... For him to be chiefly remembered
today as a perverted elderly homosexual ... is an injustice to both the
complex individual and to the accomplished--and historically important--actor...."
The death of Novarro incited brutal lies. The most virulent, which
Soares explodes, was invented by a minor film-maker of erotic movies. In
a book of contrived Hollywood scandals, he included a salacious tale
that the instrument of murder was an object given to Novarro by
Soares roams over Novarro's life--from
his privileged Mexican background, his migration into America, his
aspirations for the monastic life--on to his emergence as a Latin lover,
his hidden romances with men, his faked romances with women.
The allure of the Latin lover
faded. At 36, Soares claims, Novarro was a "has-been." But he endured on
the stage, returning to films as a character actor, "forever dreaming of
a spectacular comeback." That "comeback" occurred when his murder yanked
him out of near-obscurity.
The best records of violence--like
Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song"--take the reader into the very
heart of darkness. It is in reporting the crime that Soares's otherwise
commendable book misses. His main source about the murder is Kepner's
report in The Advocate. Court records, he informs without further
clarification about this major omission, have been "lost or misplaced."
He resorts to reportage that fails to convey the enormous violation
involved; and Novarro was doubly violated, by the murder and by the
trial that raked over every intimate detail of hid hidden sexuality.
Some stars die at the exact time
to fulfill their legends: James Dean is forever the rebel; Marilyn
Monroe, the quintessential movie star. Marlene Dietrich chose seclusion
rather than compromise her legend. Novarro's legend is undeniably
tainted by the monstrous ending to his secret life.
Still, the name
itself--Ramon Novarro!--evokes the magic of the grand silent-film
romances, thus securing his place among the greatest stars of all time.
Beyond that, the repressive pressures that made possible the atrocity
persist today, keeping famous actors closeted, even homophobic. That
gives to the life and death of Novarro an enduring tragic and admonitory