Like many kids, I had a weakness for Perry Mason. It was the law drama equivalent of a Harlem Globetrotters game, with its straight-arrow hero (Raymond Burr) invariably trouncing nemesis Hamilton Burger, the hapless Washington Generals of the legal world. There was something strangely reassuring about the film's uncomplicated moral code, where evildoers never prospered and the hero always triumphed.
Then I found out that Burr was gay. My world was rent asunder. The ground beneath me gave way. I was heartbroken, destroyed, shattered. Actually, my response, if I remember it correctly was "eh, whatever". Who cares if Burr was gay? Ah, but Burr was no garden-variety closeted Hollywood homosexual. No, Burr transformed being a closet case into an art form. Not content to merely deny his true sexuality, Burr created out of thin air, self-hatred and denial, a sprawling, overwhelmingly tragic heterosexual life for himself to explain why he was never seen on the town squiring the latest hot little starlet to one premiere or another.
Burr created for himself not one but two different non-existent dead wives as well as a phantom dead son who broke his dad's heart by dying of Leukemia before his tenth birthday, but not before one last tear-jerking road trip with his shattered pop. Then there was Burr's childhood in China, his heroic, Purple Heart-winning service on the front lines of World War II and his distinguished academic career in some of the finest of universities in the country. It was all very dramastic. And all incredibly false.
Burr wasn't alone in fudging his biography. In the Hollywood of yore, studio spin merchants regularly created dramatic backstories for their clients that bore little resemblance to the cold hard facts. If an up and coming thespian was the son of an assistant dog-catcher, dropped out of community college and got his jollies fondling shovels while dressed in lederhosen, a savvy publicist would magically make him the son of a university President, a Rhode Scholar and a lady's man who methodically worked his way through the debutantes, socialites and princesses of Europe. The truth was something the publicity department reluctantly resorted to when it couldn't think up a clever enough lie.
So I was excited to read Michael Seth Starr's new Burr biography, Hiding In Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr. It had all the makings of a riveting read: a tormented, conflicted hero, secrets and lies and a glamorous show-biz backdrop. Alas, like the big homey Jackie Harvey, Starr has nothing but the outside scoop: beyond exposing Burr's fabricated self-mythology as a ridiculous, easily debunked tangle of lies, he has almost nothing interesting to say about Burr. Of course, Burr didn't make things easy for his biographers.
When asked about his dead wives or late son by reporters, Burr would beg off, explaining that the subject was far too painful and private to go into. Burr was an extraordinarily private man. What was his relationship with his longtime lover and business partner Robert Benevides like? How did Burr respond to the gay rights movement and shifting attitudes towards sexuality? You won't find out the answers to those questions and many more from reading Starr's reasonably engaging but ultimately frustrating book.
Starr interviewed thirty people for Hiding but judging from the non-existent revelations I suspect that they had little to say beyond, "Burr was a nice man but awfully private." Starr dutifully recounts Burr's tough childhood, early love of flowers and unusually intense, close relationship with his beloved mother (ah, stereotypes in action) as well as his steady professional rise from dependable B-movie/film noir heavy to one of the biggest, richest stars in television history following the massive success of first Perry Mason and later Ironsides, not to mention the shows' blockbuster reunion TV movies.
Yes, Burr was a big, big star, literally and figuratively. In lieu of intimate details about Burr's psyche and private life, Starr devotes an unseemly amount of his slender book's length to gratuitous references to Burr's obesity. There must literally be at least sixty or seventy descriptions of Burr as "obese" or "portly" or "gargantuan" or "continent-sized". It reminded me of the chapter in Al Franken's Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot where the author takes great glee in referencing the right-wing radio blowhard's stoutness in literally every sentence. Franken's relentless, gleefully, deliberately excessive attacks on Limbaugh's weight problem are as funny as they are cruel. Here, it just comes off as mean and petty. Starr infers, in no uncertain terms, that Burr was so fat that the restaurants in his hometown had a sign that said "240 patrons or Raymond Burr's ass". Also, he suggests that Burr was so porcine that he was in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, wearing ropes and that he was so corpulent that people jogged around him for exercise.
It's tempting to say that Starr maintains a respectful distance in his non-existent coverage of Burr's gay secret life but there's nothing respectful about his treatment of Burr's battle of the bulge. Incidentally, I've read elsewhere that Burr's ass was so fat that it has its own congressman. Despite being so fat that when he went to the zoo elephants threw peanuts at him, Burr nevertheless led an impressive, accomplished life. He was a savvy businessman who owned and ran his own tropical island as well as a number of successful businesses. He amassed a huge fortune and was legendary for his philanthropic endeavors.
He didn't just give away money: he was equally generous with his time, traveling to war zones to entertain soldiers, from World War II on through to Vietnam. He was generous with co-workers and a consummate professional, though like a lot of big stars, he could be surly, distant and demanding at times. It really shouldn't matter that he was so fat his blood type was Ragu. I really resent Starr constantly harping on his weight problems.
Sure, it would have been great if Burr were open about his sexuality but who was he really hurting with his lies and fabrications? Real-life war heroes certainly didn't appreciate Burr crowing about fictional heroics but Burr served his country and the military with distinction in his own way. Take away Burr's lies and closeted homosexuality and Starr's book could just as easily be called Raymond Burr: A Good Dude Who Led A Surprisingly Dull Life. Then again, take away the lies and closeted homosexuality, and there's nothing to Starr's book. Even with those juicy revelations, Starr's book is still a wispy little nothing, unlike its subject, who was so fat that when he went to the beach Greenpeace tried to drag him back into the ocean.