By Michael G. Ankerich
For several weeks, I’ve been trying to twist my mind around The Twisted Heart, a novel by silent film actress Mary MacLaren. Mary is one of the actresses I am including in my new book, Hairpins and Dead Ends: The Perilous Journeys of 20 Actresses Through Early Hollywood.
As part of my research, I felt compelled to pick up a copy of The Twisted Heart. Picking up a copy in not quite how I’d put it, as the book had been published in 1952 and has been out of print for decades.
Unable to find a copy on my recent journey to Hollywood, I searched the net and found a copy in an online bookshop.
I could hardly wait to settle into Mary’s story about a woman, Barbara Moray, who finds love after the death of her husband and child.
Advance publicity hinted that Babs’ love affair was a shocker. The subtitle, The Revealing Story of a Strange Love, gave little away. The back jacket text rambled on about Babs finding all she wanted in Dee Richards: good looks, magnetic personality, lover of the outdoors.
After jumping between the covers of the book, we soon share Babs’ concerns as she discovers Dee’s lack of expertise under the sheets. She’s further rattled by his flirtations with everything on two legs.
Babs’ dilemma, Dee Richards, referred to as a “halfman”, isn’t all she thought she was getting in a companion. The man she’s given her heart to turns out to be homosexual. Not a topic of discussion in the days when father knew best and we loved Lucy.
MacLaren’s heroine tells her story in first person, and so, we follow her torment for over 200 hundred pages as if she were spilling her guts while sitting at our dining room table or swinging on the front porch.
Dee Richards, the man of her dreams, turns out to be the man of her obsession. She’s eager to test their budding relationship by taking a trip together. In an intimate moment, Dee confesses that an accident has robbed him of his ability to adequately satisfy her smoldering needs.
Babs goes blindly forward, checking on Dee’s every move, begging him not to leave her, then pining for him when he’s gone. She catches him exchanging odd glances with, what seems to be, every man he encounters, whether single or in the company of their wives.
We begin to wonder if poor Babs is simply imagining it all. Maybe she’s paranoid, or just plain crazy. The thought crosses Dee’s mind. As a deflection, he accuses Babs of being mentally imbalanced. “Either you’re crazy, or I am,” Babs counters. “But I have cause. Look what I’ve got in life’s lottery.”
It isn’t until page 80 that Babs works up the courage to confront her man. “You’re a queer, aren’t you?” Dee slaps her; she hits back. All she needs is Dee’s denial for her to reconnect her blinders and secure her rose-colored glasses.
To prove his devotion to her, Dee takes Babs on a road trip to the High Sierras, where they, alone in nature, can kindle their passion in the warm glow of a campfire.
Babs, almost wild-eyed with lust, comes close to forgetting her suspicions. A few days into the trip, however, Dee and Babs are fishing when, supposedly by chance, they run into one of Dee’s male friends. Babs is all eyes and ears. To hear her tell it, Dee falls into a trance as he and Tommy lock eyes. Then, Dee “obeys a given signal and follows him to the road.”
“My heart sank,” Babs laments. “Oh, God! I thought. I can’t go through this agony again. I waited with pounding heart and I saw them go up the hill and disappear from sight.”
Poor Babs. She does go through the agony again — and again. Finally, she sees a psychologist, who advises her to release Dee from her obsession and find herself a “normal man.”
Babs is inquisitive. “On what grounds do you psychologists condemn homosexuality?” she asks.
“We condemn it because it has no survival values,” he says, “because of its uselessness, its utter unproductiveness. Of what good are a lot of keys without locks? It is the fitting of the keys into the locks which opens the door to life . . . which makes both the key and the lock functional.”
The professional assures Babs she will not be able to “solve the problem of homosexuality in its entirety.”
“I simply wish to solve my problem with one homosexual man,” she replies.
Her agony continues to the final pages. She loves Dee; she hates Dee. She can’t live with him and her suspicions; she can’t live without him.
Babs finally gets some relief when an old flame reconnects with news that he is being released from the Army and is headed her way with romance on his mind. (Let’s hope that he, too, was not working out his sexuality at her expense.)
What became of Dee? MacLaren makes sure that Babs’ tormentor suffers for his “sins”. Dee is found sprawled, naked and mutilated, across the bed of a hotel room in a sleazy auto court. Babs was not surprised. “I sensed the end would be something like this.”
So, the loose ends are tied up; the story is finished; the bad guy gets what is coming to him. Isn’t that how most stories ended in the day?
While The Twisted Heart shed light on homosexuality in the mainstream in a time when the subject was taboo, the book did nothing to widen the narrow understanding and acceptance of gay men in the early 1950s. MacLaren’s timing could not have been more perfect. Her book was released during the national hysteria spurred on by the shameful McCarthy witch hunt into Communist sympathizers. Gay men, too, were demonized, and became yet another part of society to be investigated, ostracized, and marginalized.
The obvious question I had, after reading the book, is where is Mary MacLaren in this story? Is it purely fiction or was she working out part of her own story, grinding her own ax? There are many parallels between MacLaren and Babs Moray. Both shared a love for animals; both married men with military careers; both ran boarding houses.
MacLaren’s niece, the daughter of silent film actress Katherine MacDonald, had little light to shed on her aunt’s story. While she remembers reading The Twisted Heart years before and recalling that it was quite controversial when it was released, she never heard, through family history, that any of Mary’s husbands were gay. There was no talk, either, of Mary being a lesbian.
Mary MacLaren’s work of fiction is only a tiny piece of her story. While reading it was an important part of my research for Hairpins and Dead Ends, the true and tragic story of Mary MacLaren’s own life and career makes The Twisted Heart seem like a tame story from The Reader’s Digest.
Truth, with all its guaranteed twists and turns, is, my friends, stranger than fiction!