Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Ed Wood Wednesdays: A review of the two-volume Bunny Breckinridge biography (Guest Author: James Pontolillo)

John "Bunny" Breckinridge was the subject of an exhaustive biography in 2018.
Rod Woodard, 2018, Bunny Breckinridge: Exalted as an Early Hero of the Gay Rights Movement, Book One (401 pages) and Book Two (440 pages), self-published, numerous small photos throughout, available for $9.99 each on Amazon in Kindle format only.
John Cabell Breckinridge, Jr. – known as Bunny to friends and acquaintances – was born to wealthy ex-patriate American parents in Paris on August 6, 1903. His familial line, with roots deep in Colonial Virginia and Antebellum Kentucky, established their fortune through tobacco, cotton, and the legal profession. As the great-grandson of both U.S. Vice President and Confederate general John Cabell Breckinridge and Wells Fargo Bank founder Lloyd Tevis, Bunny lived a life of inherited wealth, luxury, and prominence. Just before the outbreak of the First World War, his parents moved the family to England. Bunny spent 1916-1922 at Eton College, Oxford University, and Cambridge University before taking a grand tour of Europe.
Portrait of Bunny as a young man.
In 1927, while working as a drag/burlesque entertainer in Paris, Bunny married a minor member of French royalty who accepted the fact that "he liked the boys." They had a daughter but divorced two years later. For the next decade Bunny performed onstage in French revues. Toward the end of 1938, he inherited part ownership of the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. From then on Bunny’s primary residences were in Hollywood and Carmel-By-The Sea, California, while he continued to travel overseas regularly.

As an internationally-known, openly gay socialite with a bigger-than-life public persona from the 1930s to the 1980s, Bunny was frequently written about in Paris, New York, Hollywood, and San Francisco newspapers. If there was an elite party of note, he was sure to be in attendance. Society columnists loved to regale their readers with tales of Bunny’s lavish parties and zany antics. In 1954 he garnered extensive press coverage after claiming that he planned to undergo sexual reassignment surgery in Denmark, after which he would marry the man of his choice. Bunny’s plans came to naught though after the Danish government threatened to bar his entry. 

Two years later, Bunny played a lead role as an alien ruler in Ed Wood’s film Plan 9 from Outer Space. The pair first met through their mutual friend Paul Marco, who played the role of Kelton the Cop in three Wood films. At the time, Marco, Breckinridge, and David De Mering (who played the co-pilot in Plan 9) were living together in Marco’s modest home – despite Bunny being independently wealthy.

In August 1958 Bunny and three other men were arrested on child molestation and conspiracy charges related to their involvement with two brothers, aged 11 and 13. In March 1959 he was convicted on 10 counts of sexual perversion and crimes against children. A month later Bunny was judged not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to the Atascadero State Hospital. He was paroled for good behavior after six months. 

Bunny returned to his sybaritic lifestyle only somewhat constrained by the terms of his parole. On a trip to France in the 1960s he met a divorced American expatriate. Like Bunny’s first wife, she too accepted that Bunny "liked the boys." A whirlwind romance was followed by marriage and a blissful month or two in Paris. The pair then returned to Bunny’s home in Carmel where irreconcilable differences quickly led to a divorce.

The trust fund that fueled Bunny’s grand lifestyle was worth approximately $20 million in the late 1970s, but dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. At least $6 million abruptly vanished due to a bad investment made by his lawyer. Much of the rest was apparently lost to graft and general financial mismanagement, but the courts never resolved the exact circumstances. A series of health problems landed Bunny in a Monterey nursing home where he spent the last three years of his life. By the time he passed away at age 93 on November 5, 1996, Bunny was an impoverished ward of the state. He is only remembered today due to his brief association with Ed Wood.

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The author of this two-volume set, Rod Woodard, first met Bunny while attending the socialite's 70th birthday party in 1973. Even in the autumn of his life, Bunny was well-known throughout Carmel for his galas and attendance was still a feather in one's social cap. Book One opens with a multi-chapter narrative describing their friendship. It then begins a thread that runs through both volumes slowly unfolding how Bunny ultimately ended up in a California nursing home, the curious disappearance of most of his wealth, and Rod's efforts to get him better legal representation as well as a reestablished measure of autonomy. This is followed by several chapters on Bunny's genealogy, heavily footnoted with relevant historical detail. 

The covers of Rod Woodard's two (count 'em!) books about Bunny Breckinridge.

The remainder of Book One covers Bunny’s life from his 1903 birth through 1938. Highlights include his childhood, youth and early homosexual experiences in France; the family's move to England; his college escapades with a focus on student dalliances, homosexual clubs, and affairs with older men/professors; his post-graduation travels throughout Europe; his first marriage and its failure due to his mother's interference; his post-divorce life in 1930s Paris; and his partial inheritance of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel in 1938.

A middle-aged Bunny with his pet cat.
Book Two picks up the narrative in 1939 with Bunny’s relocation to the USA and follows the remainder of his life. Highlights include Hollywood stars and scandals; his travels to Europe and the Mid-East; his adult daughter's attempts to seize control of his trust fund; his party life in the 1950s; his public flirtation with having a sex change operation; his brief association with Ed Wood; the events that led to charges of child sex abuse against him; his trial and subsequent brief committal to a state mental hospital; his second marriage; and the waning decades of his party life. 

Not wanting to end Bunny’s saga on a negative note, the author provides a fictional happy ending – Bunny returns home in control of his life again and metaphorically walks off into a golden sunset – which he corrects with a factual and downbeat epilog.

The books are well-written, but they are not necessarily easy to read. Woodard's use of a discursive "you are there" approach extends even the simplest of events into a protracted narrative. This is amplified by a strongly novelistic style which renders an often-minute level of detail that surely no one could ever actually recall in real life. It all combines into a slow burn portrait of an effete gay man living a wealthy lifestyle disconnected from everyday concerns – The Gay Gatsby if you will. 

Whether Woodard's approach works for you or not will rest solely on your level of interest in Bunny himself and the portrait of a rarified existence few of us will ever be fortunate enough to experience. These are certainly not books for those with merely a passing interest in the man himself. That is not to suggest, however, that there is not ample material here to shock, interest, and titillate the average reader. Caveat lector: Woodard acknowledges the use of pseudonyms and Bunny himself may be an unreliable narrator to a lesser or greater degree.

Bunny lived a capricious, flamboyant life, had an outrageous sense of humor, was renowned for entertaining grandly, and had a penchant for fragrances and costume jewelry. He described his mother Adelaide as a PIC (pretty, insincere, chatterbox). Nevertheless, she was a strong-willed and selfish individual who exhibited an unhealthy level of control over her child’s life until her death in 1958. Bunny was charming, genteel, eccentric, and had a dramatic flair for retelling the events of his life… real or imagined. He often stated that Barbara Bush wrote to him that she could not introduce him to any of her handsome sons because they would surely fall hopelessly in love with him. 

Many will be disturbed by the frank and lovingly-detailed accounts of Bunny’s first sexual encounters as an eight-year-old boy with the uniformly well-endowed teenaged and adult men working on his family's estate. It should be noted that Bunny claimed that he voluntarily initiated all of these trysts. In their personal interactions Woodard noted that Bunny could be positively Victorian one minute (recoiling from a photo in a gay porno magazine) only to produce a photo from his own wallet moments later showing himself nude with two other men in flagrante delicto. On the issue of his legal problems, Bunny claimed that he was completely innocent of any wrongdoing – it was a case of rank extortion by the boy's mother. Although Bunny did seemingly hedge his bets by claiming that the boys were promiscuously gay in any event.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Bunny in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The Ed Wood content is limited to Book Two only and is a miniscule part of the narrative. One of Bunny's close friends from this time period ("Jack Soles") had nothing good to say about Eddie.
"Bunny began to involve himself with [a strange mix of people]... One of them was this Ed Wood fellow. He was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, of all things, when I first met him at one of Bunny’s parties. I was totally dismayed by Bunny’s new class of friends… They were just not educated… and their conversations were filled with filthy language… most of the transvestites dressed like sluts and streetwalkers… After learning of Bunny’s acting abilities and financial status, Ed asked him to be in one of his motion pictures… You cannot imagine how absolutely stupid and degrading it was for a man of his stature and background to be seen in such trash… The following year, Bunny was supposed to act in another of Ed Wood’s movies called The Dead Never Die, but luckily it never came to pass… Bunny lived with Ed Wood for almost a year… Wood had no money, but Bunny chose to live with him anyway in Mr. Wood’s small, run-down shack… Thank goodness Bunny and Ed had a huge disagreement, and that was the end of that."
Bunny had even less to say about Eddie and almost none of it was complimentary.
“Oh, that was a hoot and an honor at the time I was making it, darling. Ed and I were lovers. It was exotic and exciting with big-name stars to headline with me. I was thrilled to get up each morning and be a part of it all. However, when I saw the final thing on the screen, with my name as the lead, I thought it was rubbish and was embarrassed to have been swept up in all that craziness… I was to make another film with that man, but decided against it… As it turns out, darling, we were lovers as long as I was putting money into his production company. When I refused to give him more, he said he could not remain my partner if I did not believe in his dreams the same as he did.”
Sic transit amantes.

This is probably as good a place as any to state that, as much as I like actor Bill Murray's hilarious interpretation of Bunny in Ed Wood (1994), he apparently could not have been farther from the mark. The real Bunny with his penchant for saying "darling" with regularity comes across as a much more refined and debonair individual. Murray’s accent and diction throughout the film project a commonness and coarseness that is simply not evident in Woodard's account. In 1994 Bunny was aware that he was being portrayed in the upcoming Ed Wood biopic, but health problems prevented him from participating in any way. Although he died two years after the film’s release, it is doubtful that he ever saw it.

•─────⋅☾ ☽⋅─────•

Woodard is not wrong when he describes his two-volume opus as the story of Bunny's "coming-of-age and coming out as a homosexual during the waning dominance of Victorian sensibilities." Bunny unconsciously personified a particular kind of fin de si├Ęcle ambivalence and social withdrawal commonly seen amongst Western elites of the day. In many ways, he echoed French novelist J-K. Huysmans’ great Decadent protagonist Jean des Esseintes, the eccentric scion of an aristocratic family who retreats from the bourgeois world into an idealized, artistic microcosm of his own creation (A rebours, 1884). Unlike des Esseintes who eventually returns to the everyday world because of the toll artificiality takes on his health, Bunny stayed the course until the end. Or at least until health and financial difficulties cast him into the purgatory of a California nursing home with its nightmarishly recurrent hot dog dinners.

As stated in his books’ subtitle, Woodard makes the case that Bunny should be considered a hero and pathfinder of the gay rights movement through his wildly rebellious, highly sexualized, and ofttimes scandalous lifestyle. There is no doubt that Bunny was openly gay at a time when it was both a daring and potentially dangerous proposition. How inspirational he and others were to the contemporaneous gay community is certainly an unanswered question worth exploring. But the press coverage that Bunny garnered was hardly celebratory of homosexuality in the abstract. 

Setting aside his legal problems, Bunny’s idiosyncrasies, flamboyance, and class affectations meant that he was often treated as the non-threatening punchline to a broader joke that newspapers shared with their readers. More importantly, he was part of a well-protected class of social and economic elites who were generally allowed to live by a different set of rules. Bunny was often insulated from the vagaries of daily life, as well as the consequences of his actions, by the accident of his birth. Bunny Breckinridge: inspirational gay rights icon, the lucky beneficiary of an enviable patrimony, or perhaps both?

In this 1954 photo, Bunny buys a vehicle from Los Angeles car dealer Morrie Roth