The public knew Tab Hunter as one of Hollywood's hottest stars, the object of every teenage girl's affection. He seemed to have it all -- fame, money and talent.
But in his new book, "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star," Hunter reveals details of his private life that he could not share until now. Hunter writes about how his father abandoned the family, his mother struggled with bouts of instability, his brother was killed in Vietnam, and how he himself suffered molestation by a school choir master. Even when he made it out of a life of poverty, Hunter was haunted by fear that the public would discover that he is gay.
"Better to get it from the horse's mouth, I decided, and not from some horse's ass," Hunter has said.
In the book, Hunter describes how he became a Hollywood creation, right down to his name, which was chosen because he loved riding hunter and jumper horses (His given name is Arthur Gelien.) The studios were always setting up dates with potential leading ladies, from Natalie Wood to Debbie Reynolds.
"Natalie was like a little filly finding her legs," Hunter recalled. "Debbie was fun. We used to play baseball with her mother's biscuits they were so bad."
Hunter never confided his true sexual identity to any of his "girlfriends," describing himself as "very private."
Hunter paid Confidential magazine $10,000 to suppress photos of him and fellow actor Anthony Perkins, whom he dated for a few years. But Hunter said the public would have believed what it wanted, even if the pictures came out.
"I became the hottest star at Warner Brothers at that time. It was amazing," Hunter said. "People believe what they want to believe."
Hunter said he is not bitter about having to hide his private life at the peak of his career, and still has trouble feeling pride about his sexuality.
His satisfaction about his career is reflected in the final passage of his book, which Hunter read for "GMA":
"If you happen to spot me, in the middle of some seemingly insignificant chore, lifting my face to the sky and mumbling something -- don't worry. I'm only saying, 'Thank you.' That's what life is all about."
You can read an excerpt from "Tab Hunter Confidential: The Making of a Movie Star" below.
Chapter 1: Male Kelm
On July 11, 1931, in New York City, twenty-one-year-old Gertrude Kelm gave birth to a second son. Her first, Walter, was born eleven months earlier, so small he could fit in a cigar box. To honor this additional blessing, the infant's father visited Bellevue Hospital bearing gifts -- "gift," to be precise: a nickel candy bar tossed on his wife's bed. He left quickly, without suggesting a name for his squalling newborn. That's why it reads only "Male Kelm" on the official papers. Alone, Mother carried me home, wrapped in a blanket borrowed from a nurse.
Eventually, my mother named me Arthur, after a friend of her father's she greatly admired, the distinguished German actor Arthur Kronenberg.
Named for an actor. Maybe it was fate.
My mother was sixteen when she came to this country, arriving from Germany in 1927 with her parents and three siblings, aboard the United States Lines ship George Washington. Her father, John Gelien, known simply as Opa (the traditional German term of endearment for a grandfather), was a chef for the steamship company. Forever away at sea, Opa was like a phantom within his own family.
Gertrude, his eldest daughter, was an unconventional child. A tomboy, she never liked other girls and took no nonsense from anyone. She didn't get along with her siblings. Her brothers she branded the Spineless Wonder and Wishy-Washy. Sister Charlotte, nicknamed Lottie, was barely tolerated. Not that Gertrude was around any of them much. As soon as the Geliens arrived on these shores, she was put to work, doing housekeeping and odd jobs around Manhattan.
It was a lonely, loveless existence, made tougher by the botched tonsillectomy she'd suffered in Germany. The doctor damaged her vocal cords, leaving Gertrude with a horrible stutter. Ashamed, she communicated by means of a pad of paper she carried everywhere.
Although he was rarely around to offer any Liebe, Opa admired his daughter's fierce, independent spirit. Ida Gelien, however, displayed a different attitude toward the child. Gertrude's refusal to act in character -- more like a "girl"-- earned her mother's wrath. When Gertrude came home five minutes past curfew from her first date, her mother locked her outside overnight in the snow, to teach her a lesson.
Gertrude learned fast: she got the hell out.
I have no idea how or where my mother met Charles Kelm. It wasn't something she ever discussed. We weren't even sure what he did for a living. But he wasted little time in tying the knot with this stubborn and strong-willed working woman. She jumped at the chance for a new life.
Memories of my New York childhood are sketchy but mostly miserable. I'm on a sled, being pulled along the sidewalk during a snowstorm. I tumble into the gutter, screaming and crying.
I remember a sobbing woman washing clothes in a sink by candlelight. I assume it's my mother. I can still see, too clearly, Charles Kelm beating a woman in a dank apartment. I know that was my mother. My brother and I, too young to do anything, could only plead for it to end.
When Opa learned how bad things were in our tenement walk-up, he orchestrated our escape. He bought new jackets, shirts, ties, and short pants for Walt and me, and we were shipped with our mother to the opposite end of the country -- San Francisco, the Promised Land. Using his connections, Opa got mother a job as a shipboard stewardess with Matson Lines, for which he now worked. He even found an apartment and covered the first two months' rent. We reclaimed the family name, Gelien.
In a way, I owe everything to Opa. I can't imagine what life in New York would have been like if we'd stayed. More misery, for sure. Murder, maybe.
Almost immediately, the relationship Walt and I had with our mother started to mirror what she'd experienced with her father. We wouldn't see her for weeks at a time, as she went to sea to earn her salary. Imagine a single woman trying to raise two boys during the depths of the Depression. Imagine the emptiness she felt, able to see us only when her ship returned to port.
We never doubted our mother's love and devotion, but we saw more of our caretaker. We lived in a rented room in Mrs. Kelson's Divisadero Street apartment. Mother was away so much it made no sense to rent a place of our own. Always draped in a long fur-collared coat, cloche pulled down low on her head, Mrs. Kelson was a dour figure, like a ghostly image in a Depression-era photograph. I liked her gap-toothed smile, but we didn't see it often enough.
Mother gradually mastered her stutter and learned to speak normally. She never lost the husky Teutonic accent, though, which, combined with her Dietrich-like features and demeanor -- perfect posture and a reserved elegance -- gave her the appearance of a foreign agent in some spy serial. Her aloofness was accentuated by piercing pale blue eyes that could freeze you in your tracks.
Eager to better our station, she studied in her spare time to be a nurse, with a specialty in physical therapy. The bump in pay allowed her to enroll Walt and me in a private school. Nothing was more important to our mother than a good education: "What you learn," she declared, "no one can ever take away from you."
We'd almost get used to her prolonged absences, when some little thing would hit like a hammer. "Take this note home and have your mother sign it," a teacher told me one day. I almost burst out crying. Another time, Walt and I were horsing around outside when he tore his pants leg wide open. We exchanged frightened looks, anticipating the scolding we were in for -- until we realized there'd be none. Mother wasn't due back for another three weeks.
Barely school-age, Walt and I had some adventures straight out of Tom Sawyer. We wandered near Fisherman's Wharf, where we got too adventurous and lost our shoes in the muddy shallows of Aquatic Park. Not wanting to trudge home barefoot after dark, we dug up a mess of worms, which we sold to a charitable fisherman. That's how we made carfare home. Naturally, it was one of the rare times Mother was ashore. We got a thorough lashing when we slogged in, shoeless.
Mother tried to make the most of our limited time together. Once, she took us to Pier 35 to watch the Lurline sail for Hawaii -- cheap entertainment during hard times. I was seven years old and thrilled by the pomp and pageantry, the brass band and colorful streamers and billowing waves of confetti. We got as close as we could to the gangplank, where I stared at an adorable little girl with shiny blond curls and huge dimples, bundled up in a white fur coat -- a doll come to life. Photographers swarmed around, flashbulbs popping like crazy. All this fuss over a kid my age -- I couldn't believe it.
But then, I'd never seen a Shirley Temple movie. "She is a famous movie star," my mother explained. It was the first time I'd ever heard of such a thing. On the way home that day I'm sure I wondered how a kid like me could become a famous movie star.
In the cramped elevator of a hotel on Mason Street, Mother introduced us to Harry Koster. He lived there when he wasn't at sea. Mr. Koster ran a ship's galley, just like my grandfather Opa. Maybe that's why Mother trusted him when they'd met aboard the Monterey, a Matson cruise ship.
Mr. Koster was a huge, dark-haired man with a Dutch accent, who reeked of tobacco. As the elevator rose, Mother dropped a bomb: "Harry and I have been married. You will treat him as your new father."
Walt and I reacted like miserable brats. We didn't get enough time with our mother to share any of it with another man, even one who vowed to provide for his new "family" so that Gertrude Gelien could remain home to raise her children properly. From Mother's perspective, it was a marriage of convenience. Tired of treading water, she saw Harry Koster as a life preserver. If Walt and I had been more mature, we'd have understood that she remarried for our sake, not hers.
Within months, we moved to Long Beach, where Mother's family had relocated. Opa had suggested his daughter and her family join them, with the expectation that they might become a close-knit clan, something they'd never been.
It didn't work out that way. Opa died not long after the move, and Gertrude Gelien remained distant from her mother and siblings. Her new husband didn't even bother to go south with us. His home was the Monterey, sailing back and forth to Australia, a round-trip, literally, to the ends of the earth. His paychecks, however, were faithfully routed to his wife.
When Harry did appear, Walt and I made his life hell. "You're not our father!" we'd taunt, dispensing sullen disrespect, nonstop. Unfairly so, because Harry seemed to genuinely love our mother, and he treated her well.
But Mother didn't love him in kind. Not once did I see her show Harry any kind of warmth, not even when they reunited after his long weeks at sea. Years later, she would confide to me: "I have never been in love."
That reality was, I now believe, at the root of my mother's eventual crisis.
Protection, more than affection, is what Mother offered to Walt and me. Her stern demeanor may have masked a vulnerable, sensitive heart, but the armor was virtually impenetrable. Her maternal devotion, overall, took the form of lessons, dispensed daily from the Gertrude Gelien Compendium of Clichés:
"For every door that closes, two open."
"Always have a goal, and when you reach it -- set another."
"Every experience in life is worth having -- if you learn from it."
"Soap and water are cheap -- never forget that."
"Good things happen to good people."
"Whatever you do, thank God every day."
"Constructive thinking brings good results."
"Things may not be good now, but they'll get better."
These platitudes were one reason why I never confided anything to my mother: she wouldn't respond with a comforting hug or a reassuring smile, but only with one of her patented bromides.
Harry Koster's salary couldn't keep us going indefinitely. Mother landed another job, this time as a nurse on the Avalon, which sailed overnight from the mainland to Catalina Island. We moved to a tiny apartment on the island for the summer of 1940 so we'd all be together when Mother finished her daily circuit.
Whenever Walt and I heard the whistle of a departing steamer, we'd race to the end of the pier, dive off, and wave like crazy to the ferry passengers, who'd throw coins into the water. We'd compete with other kids to scoop the money from the shoals. That's how I became a good swimmer, diving deeper and holding my breath longer than any of the other boys.
Walt and I would spend all day, every day, exploring the island and cap it off at night hunkered over his bed, counting out what was left of our scavenged loot: pennies, nickels, dimes, and sometimes -- as rare as gold doubloons -- quarters!
Summer over, we moved back to Long Beach, where prewar life was idyllic. I couldn't have been happier. Our landlord lived in the house next door, and every morning he'd be out front by six, watering his garden. I'd jump out of bed, slip on shorts and a T-shirt, and run barefoot into the yard to help him dig in the dirt and tend the plants, something I still love.
We saw a lot of my aunt Lottie in those days -- not to imply that Mother approved. You'd never believe they were sisters. Lottie always wore slacks, had a casual way about her, and brimmed with wisecracks and good humor. My mother disapproved of trousers on women, was very formal, and rarely appeared in public without gloves and a hat. Lottie's off-color jokes grated like nails on a chalkboard to Mother, who'd sniff, "Please, try to elevate your mind," whenever Lottie had us in stitches.
Lottie often took us to the Pike, Long Beach's grand harborside amusement park, where we'd spend hours in the arcades and on the rides: the Deep Sea Diving Bell, the Dodge 'Em Cars, the Laff-in-the-Dark Funhouse, the Crazy Maze, and the awesome Cyclone Racer. Sometimes Lottie'd get so wound up, laughing and carrying on, she'd pee her pants. Walt and I would have to stand around her on the bus ride home, hiding her big wet spot. Mother found no humor in our retelling of such stories. "There is nothing funny," she'd tsk, rueful that she was related to such a "low character."
One of Mother's fortune-cookie aphorisms was "I'd rather have one room in a good neighborhood than a mansion in a bad one." Maybe that's what led her to constantly uproot us. All things considered, it came as a shock when we abandoned Long Beach for a worse neighborhood in Los Angeles. Mother had gotten a wartime job with Lockheed Aircraft and needed to be nearer the factory.
Having so little, it was easy to start over. So we did. Repeatedly.
First, it was an apartment on 69th and Figueroa, a stucco-and-asphalt corner with little charm. At least it had Beverly Peck. She lived halfway down the block. Like us, no father in sight. She lived with her mom and a gigantic grandmother who had arms like wobbly ham hocks. I never saw Beverly's grandmother anywhere but parked on a kitchen stool, minding a perpetually bubbling pot. Every time I walked in, every time, she'd say, "You're too skinny. Here, eat this."
Our mother couldn't boil water. Walt and I spent a lot of time over at Beverly Peck's.
Beverly became Walt's girl, as much as an eleven-year-old can have a "girl." Once he lost interest, however, Beverly and I became inseparable. On my own, I'd never have been able to talk to her -- I was painfully shy. But watching Walt, I learned. That's how it was for me, always coasting in Walt's wake. Without him, I might never have left the house.
Beverly and I would save dimes during the week, and on Saturday she'd gather them in a little handkerchief, tied tight. We'd hop a streetcar downtown to the Clifton Cafeteria, where Beverly's mother worked. Free lunch! The best thing about Clifton's was the Sherbet Mine -- you stuck your arm into a frosty cave and pulled out a dish of lime or pineapple or rainbow sherbet.
Bellies full, Beverly and I would walk hand in hand to the downtown movie palaces. Our little stash of coins bought us entry to theaters like the Million Dollar and the Orpheum, where we spent the rest of the day watching the latest double features. I was ten years old. Those blissful Saturday afternoons with Beverly Peck -- and Robin Hood and Zorro and Captain Blood -- were what turned me into a lifelong movie lover. Beverly wouldn't stay in my life very long. The Geliens were soon on the move again, this time to a nicer neighborhood, a better school.
That's what my nomadic childhood was like -- never in one place long enough to develop "lasting childhood friendships." Not one. My mother's obsession -- granting us a better upbringing than she'd had -- produced a sorry side effect: it made us distant from people, just as she was. I later came to think of my mother as a self-sufficient survival machine. In her operating manual, it said in big capital letters: to avoid serious injury, never get close.
My childhood lessons came from the same manual: after Beverly Peck, I never got close to anyone, knowing I was only going to leave them behind in a few months.