George Cukor was one of the hardest-working directors of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was involved in the production of the classics Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, and he also helmed beloved Hollywood movies like The Women, A Star Is Born, Adam’s Rib, and Gaslight.
Cukor was finally rewarded with his own Oscar gold when he brought My Fair Lady to the big screen in 1964. The musical won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Cukor was known as a “woman’s director,” which was a euphemistic way of saying he was gay. His sexuality was an open secret around Hollywood, but people talked—especially about his infamous Sunday-night dinner parties.
Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, Hollywood, invites viewers into Cukor’s palatial estate. In the third episode, “Outlaws,” Ernie (Dylan McDermott) informs his team of gas station attendant tricks that they will attend Cukor’s next party. Ernie describes the soirees as lavish events where movie stars like Tallulah Bankhead and Vivien Leigh drink flowing cocktails, go skinny dipping, and get wild with an endless parade of young hunks new to Tinseltown.
Were these Cukor affairs really as salacious as they are portrayed in Hollywood? It turns out they were.
In his biography George Cukor: A Double Life, author Patrick McGilligan devotes passages to the weekly parties:
The guests would meet and munch as the sun went down. Afterward, the friends would pitch in and wash the dishes, and some of the circle would congregate in the suede-walled oval room, with its old-fashioned radio that never functioned, for an after-dinner salon. There would be witty, sparkling conversation about art, literature, theater, and films. There would also be brisk gossip. There would be an assessment of the new young men who had been dotted among the guests. These were the “famous Cukor Sundays,” in Garson Kanin’s words—famous in an open-secret kind of way. This aspect of Cukor’s life was, of course, unknown to many: So innocent of Cukor’s homosexuality was one young actress making her screen debut under his direction, she asked him whether he ever had been married. When the director replied with a straight face that he hadn’t yet met the “right girl,” the actress—who was Shelley Winters—believed him.
In Hollywood, along with famous guests like Bankhead and Leigh, playwright and actor Noël Coward is also in attendance. According to McGilligan, Cukor’s homosexuality was part of the “cachet of the house”:
That was part of what made it unique: There was a flow of distinguished homosexual guests from around the globe, and particularly from England: the author Somerset Maugham, playwright and actor Noël Coward, the noted Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, the photographer and designer Cecil Beaton… and many others… In general, it was the coming together of a global network of almost exclusively homosexual men who in Cukor’s changed life formed a nurturing family—and substituted for the cruising and nightlife of the 1930s.
“Outlaws” also shows plenty of skin, as actors strip down to swim naked in Cukor’s pool. Skinny-dipping was also a Sunday ritual, McGilligan writes: “Sundays was watching some vaguely recognizable and well-endowed actor—Forrest Tucker, say—taking laps in the director’s pool.”
Decades later, Cukor’s Sunday-night parties are still the stuff of legend around Hollywood, proving that Cukor’s influence stretched well beyond the soundstage.
As a longtime friend of the director put it: “He was the mecca. You met everybody through Cukor.”