Tab Hunter, who died in the summer of 2018 at age 86, lived a confidential life, cloaked and out, bearded and naked for the world to see. The Netflix documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential, produced by Tab’s long-time partner, tells the complicated story of the “real” Tab Hunter. He was a gay man — an utterly gay guy — and at the same time a straight-presenting hunk-o-rama. Born Arthur Gelien, rebirthed in Hollywood as Tab Hunter, he performed a life within the limited, boring parameters of a heterosexual man. The studio system of 1950s and the early 1960s Hollywood provided cover for a gorgeous man whose gay-ness co-existed with film roles as the war hero, the love interest, the romantic lead. Studios just paid to have stories killed, when their star was swept up in a gay bar raid, for example. The recent documentary about his life mourns the ways he was forced to closet his sexuality but I ended up admiring the consistent honesty of Tab Hunter. Throughout his life he was comfortable with both his sexuality and with the need to hide it from the public. His style of clothing and self-presentation was unadorned, simple, and straightforward. There was no guile in this man who had to cloak a central part of himself in his performance of his own life.
The man was gorgeous in a specific, interesting way – his family heritage was German, Jewish and Catholic and this was all complicated by an abusive birth father (the abuse targeted Tab’s beloved mother, not Tab and his brother). Tab, or Arthur Andrew Kelm — grew up with a stepfather, was a competitive ice skater and performer, and joined the Coast Guard as an underaged volunteer. His career in film started in 1950 and for almost a decade he epitomized a kind of straight-laced ultra masculine guy in an era of restrictive gender ideals.
His style was minimalist — he chose solid dark tops, simple unadorned silhouettes, clean clean clean lines and colors
He shared this minimalist elegance with his mother, Gertrude Gelien. They both preferred, at least in the photos I could find online of her, simple silhouettes, solid colors, and often with a white collar against a dark solid (as in her peter pan collar and pullover to the left, and his white button-down collar and shetland knit sweater to the right). You won’t be surprised to learn he was very close to his mother — she was featured in several 1950s profiles of this “All-American Male”.
And he was himself in these photographs — he was the confident hunk, the hyper-masculine, ever-so-thoughtful hunk. He was gay, closeted, and embodied a kind of American film ideal of white masculinity in the 1950s. He was all those things. It is striking how even in the era of the staged ‘casual’ photograph in the 1950s Tab — the name manufactured by an agent who specialized in ‘pretty boys’ — managed to be himself, despite all the trappings of the film industry. He wore a uniform all his life but he lived his own life, free of uniformity.