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Biography: 'Perry Mason' star Raymond Burr led secret gay life

by Nick Langewis

A new biography delves into the life of screen star and philanthropist Raymond Burr during an era in which open homosexuality in Hollywood was taboo.

Hiding in Plain Sight: The Secret Life of Raymond Burr, written by New York Post writer Michael Starr, chronicles the life of a man whose acting career began as a contract player for RKO in 1937, gaining notice for his role as a prosecutor in 1951's A Place in the Sun, and then in a supporting role in the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window.

As Burr rose to fame and popularity for his starring role in hit TV series Perry Mason, he strongly guarded his personal and romantic life as curiosity grew about him. "I am an unmarried man, as opposed to a single man," he said to one reporter in 1957. "A bachelor, according to the dictionary, is a man who has never been married. An unmarried man is not married at the moment. Many of these terms have fallen into disuse."

The main cover for Burr's lack of female companionship was his grueling work schedule on Perry Mason. There was, though, a story about his past to lend him an air of heterosexuality: Burr claimed to have married an actress by the name of Annette Sutherland in 1942, who would later die in a plane crash. However, the only relationship with a woman that can be documented was his marriage to Isabella Ward from 1948 to 1952. He also claimed to have a son that died in the 1950s, but there are no records of such a person ever existing. Rumors also spread of Burr's romantic involvement with movie actress Natalie Wood.

"He would answer the inevitable queries about his supposed marriages by reciting the facts of his brief union with Isabella Ward," Starr wrote. "If the questioning went any further in relation to Annette Sutherland or, God forbid, son Michael, he begged off with a terse, 'I don't discuss that.'"

The actor, in addition to his "extended family" on the set of Perry Mason, did have one steadfast ally in gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, whose son William was his co-star, playing private investigator Paul Drake. On receiving a letter from a "male conquest" threatening to out Burr, Hopper kept it in her confidence and said that she would "stand up and swear anything" to protect the actor's reputation.

In 1963, Burr began a relationship with actor Robert Benevides, who would be described as his "long-time companion" in a 1993 TV Guide article. Their acquaintance began on the set of Perry Mason and their attraction quickly grew. The two became inseparable, and Benevides was seen as a friend and a personal assistant with Burr's backing while he worked on a movie script. They would remain together until Burr succumbed to metastasized kidney cancer on September 12, 1993. During their relationship, Burr and Benevides grew orchids and maintained vineyards in California's Dry Creek Valley, which remain owned and operated by Benevides as Raymond Burr Vineyards.


Originally published on Tuesday May 27, 2008.

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