The bookworm

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Sometimes, you just want to run away, screaming. A stranger publicly divulges details of her love life. Your father gives you a blow-by-blow of his intestinal problems. A friend feels a need to describe, in the most gruesome manner, a recent surgical procedure. And there you have it: TMI. Too Much Information.

People talk and tell, and it’s been like that for eons. But in the biography “Hiding In Plain Sight: The Secret Life Of Raymond Burr” by Michael Seth Starr, you’ll read about a scandal-in-the-making that was, amazingly, kept out of the public eye for decades.

Raymond William Stacy Burr was born in May 1917 in British Columbia, his parents’ firstborn. At 12 pounds, he was a large baby and would struggle with obesity his entire life, often “dieting” on cottage cheese, fruit and cigarettes to maintain his weight as an adult.

In 1923, his mother left her husband and moved her children to California, which turned out to be a fortuitous move for young Raymond. At a very young age, he’d expressed dreams of being an actor and, as soon as he was old enough, he sought out lessons. In 1940, he got his first small role in “Earl of Puddlestone.”

For most of his early career, Burr played the bad guy in dozens of films, including nine in one year alone. Along the way, he collected a fictitious biography that included two dead wives, a deceased son and a heroic war-time record. The truth was, Burr had one very brief marriage dissolved by divorce, he was never a father and he never served in the military.

By the time Burr won the title role in TV’s “Perry Mason,” his love life had been fodder for the tabloids for years. His ill-fated romance with Natalie Wood intrigued fans. According to Burr’s friend Hedda Hopper, he was often seen gazing into the eyes of various starlets. But, Burr was gay.

Through the years, and despite a few “close calls” most of Hollywood kept Burr’s secret. Even when he died in 1993, his relationship with his “long-time companion” Robert Benevides, was merely hinted at in many obituaries.

Like most Baby Boomers, I grew up in Perry Mason’s courtroom and sleuthing with Robert Ironside. Because of this and because of the amazing discretion that Hollywood extended Burr in a time rife with paranoidism, “Red” scares, FBI dossiers and gleeful “outing,” I was astonished by this book.

Starr doesn’t postulate much in this well-researched biography, instead offering facts and leaving readers to hypothesize why gossip columnists largely left Burr alone. While doing so, Starr teases us with little-known facts (Fred McMurray as Perry Mason? Never!) and an amazing life-story that’s better than anything a tabloid could ever concoct.

If you’re a fan of Raymond Burr or an old-movie buff, “Hiding in Plain Sight” is now in affordable paperback and shouldn’t be missed. For you, this book is just the right kind of information.

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