Rock hudson the gentle g.., p.1
Rock Hudson: The Gentle Giant, page 1
The Gentle Giant
Copyright © 2017 David Bret
David Bret has asserted his moral right to be identified as the Author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or any information storage or retrieval system without the permission in writing from David Bret.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
This book is dedicated to Carlos and Bosworth Raphael.
La vie sans amis c’est comme
un jardin sans fleurs.
1: Roy Meets Rock
2: Magnificent Obsession
3: “Why Aren’t You Married, Bick?”
4: Gentleman Prefers Blonds!
5: Rome and Its Aftermath
6: Roy Harold & Eunice Blotter
7: “Wanna Have Some Fun?”
8: “That Fucking Oblong Box!”
9. Threes on Their Knees
10: The Sleeping Prince
11: The Last Sunset
Appendix I: Marc Christian vs The Rock Hudson Estate
Appendix II: How Did Rock Get AIDS? A Defence
Appendix III: Filmography
Appendix IV: Television/Theatre/Album
Appendix V: Biopics & Documentaries
Bibliography & Interviews
“He was one of the gentlest, kindest men in Hollywood—and all those journalists should burn in hell for the bile they printed about him when he died.” Marlene Dietrich.
Why didn’t Rock tell me he had the virus? I might have been able to help. Improbable as it seems, right up to the very end he believed he would beat that thing. He wished to remain proud, brave, to hold his head up high for my sake. He did this by appearing in several episodes of Dynasty. I advised him to rest, but he reckoned working enabled him to forget the monster that was slowly devouring him. Rock Hudson was an exceptional man, one to whom I owe the most beautiful moments of my life.
This was Marc Christian (1953-2009), the last of Rock Hudson’s stereotyped lovers—with few exceptions his small army of conquests were big, blond, macho and muscular—addressing a live audience (by then not quite so ignorant of AIDS) on the French television programme Stars a la Barre, four years after the actor’s death from an AIDS-related illness.
At a press conference of 2 November 1985, one month after Rock passed away, Christian’s attitude—and public opinion—had been less sympathetic. Then he had announced that he would be suing the Hudson estate, Rock’s manager and best friend Mark Miller, and two unnamed doctors for a staggering $14 million because, he claimed, they had conspired to endanger his life by keeping the true nature of Rock’s illness from him, whilst he and Rock had continued having unprotected sex.
There was outrage amongst both gay and anti-gay activists across the United States when Christian won his case—though not without a considerable reduction in damages after Rock’s lawyers launched a Pyrrhic appeal.
A surprisingly shy, sensitive and intensely private man, Rock gave only a handful of in-depth interviews, vetted by him before
being submitted for publication. I have drawn heavily on the original, unexpurgated conversations for this much-revised edition of Rock Hudson—namely the ones with David Castell, Joan Mac Trevor, Gordon Gow, Gérard Néves and several others whom Rock was able to trust. These are to be found in the Bibliography. Of equal importance are the stark revelations of Sara Davidson and the now known to be extremely dubious ones of Rock’s “lavender” wife, Phyllis Gates.
On 24 August 1983, two years before his death, Rock came close to baring his soul when granting an unprecedented interview to Professor Ronald L Davis, Director of the Southern Methodist University of Dallas’ Oral History Collection of the Performing Arts. Being permitted to use these tapes freely was an enormous privilege, and large segments of the interviews form the series of statements and confessions accompanying my text. The tapes and transcripts of the interview are currently housed in the archives of the SMU’s DeGolyer Institute.
As an actor, few would deny that Rock Hudson’s abilities were limited compared with contemporaries such as Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, William Holden and even James Dean. Complex lengths of dialogue are said to have confused him, his emotional approach to a role was considerable but his intellectual standing during his formative years was virtually non-existent, and during his early films he frequently fluffed his lines, requiring many takes for the simplest line. In addition, his on-screen movements were cumbersome, even wooden at times. On the other hand, Rock was a consummate professional. There were no on-set tantrums or challenging of directors instructions, never any fights with co-stars, making him not only a delight to work with but a joy to be around once the cameras stopped rolling. His most important quality, which lights up the screen in even his most banal pictures, was his natural, limitless charisma.
Now, as I did back in 2004 when I first published Rock’s exciting but ultimately tragic story, I leave the last word to my late friend Sheridan Morley, a hugely respected literary and theatrical figure who met Rock several times during his later years, and spoke of him with the utmost reverence:
He had been programmed by the studios to be charming, but charm came naturally to Rock Hudson. He really was the last of the great gentlemen stars, there’s absolutely no doubting that. Rock Hudson wasn’t just a nice man—he was a very nice man.
This, then, is the story of that charming, very nice man.
1: Roy Meets Rock
“He’s just a great big, amiable boy. That’s the first thing that struck me about him, and I imagine it’s what appeals to the mother in all women.” Yvonne de Carlo, co-star.
He was born Roy Scherer Jr. on 19 November 1925 in Winnetka, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, and his was a crowded and miserable childhood. His parents were garage owner Roy Sr. and Kay (Katherine Wood), a strong-willed, domineering woman, luckless in her choice of partners, but to whom Rock would remain inextricably close, despite her frequent meddling in his personal life.
“Kay was mother, father and sister to me,” he said. “And I was son and brother to her, regardless of who she was married to.”
When Roy was five, at the height of the Depression that gripped America in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, his father was declared bankrupt and the family forced to move in with Kay’s parents, James and Mary Ellen Wood. These were already sharing their tiny one-room bungalow in Winnetka’s Center Street—one of the city’s poorest districts—with Kay’s brother, his wife and their four children, who upon the Scherers’ arrival were forcibly relocated to the attic.
Over the coming months Roy’s stalwart Catholic grandmother held the family together by the skin of her teeth through an endless series of heated arguments, mostly over money. Mary Ellen also went against her daughter’s wishes by having Roy re-baptised a Catholic one day whilst Kay was at work, though Kay overruled her by insisting that he was the only child in the household who would not attend a Catholic school or church.
Roy Scherer Sr. put up with these living arrangements for over a year, before heading for California in search of work. Initially, Kay fended for herself. For a while she worked as a housekeeper
This arrangement only lasted until the summer of 1932 when, short of cash once more and taking her son with her rather than leave him with her interfering mother, Kay travelled by bus to California, where she found her husband living rough and working as a doughnut-seller. Much as she pleaded with him, Scherer refused to return with her to Illinois, and Roy would not see his father again for many years. On the journey home Kay met a young marine named Wallace Fitzgerald, a loutish womaniser with whom she very quickly became involved.
Kay and Fitzgerald were married in February 1934, straight after Kay’s divorce from Roy Scherer, and a few months later, more financially secure than Scherer had ever been, Fitzgerald left the Navy to work at a local electricity plant and Kay took a job as a waitress, leaving young Roy with her parents. The union was doomed from the start: by 1941 the Fitzgeralds would have divorced, remarried, and divorced again.
Wallace Fitzgerald legally adopted Roy and gave him his name, but precious little affection.
“He took all my toys away and used to beat me regularly, saying he wanted to make a man out of me,” Rock recalled, three decades later.
His stepfather’s disappointment centred around Roy’s lack of interest in all matters academic, despite his enrolment at the Prestigious New Trier High School—“Drop dead gorgeous but thick as two bricks,” was how Tallulah Bankhead later described him—and with the exception of swimming, neither was he much
interested in sports. All Roy ever wanted to be was an actor, as he explained in his 1983 interview with Professor Ronald L Davis of Dallas’ Southern Methodist University:
I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a little boy—but living in a small town in the Middle West, I didn’t say so because that’s just sissy stuff. I once asked my stepfather if I could have drama lessons. When I said I wanted to be an actor—Crack!—and that was that!
This “sissy” tag from his childhood would haunt and persecute him for years, though his desperately unhappy home life made Roy even more determined to achieve his goal. Encouraged by his mother, he decided at the age of ten that he would pay for his own acting lessons by taking a weekend job with a local butcher, plucking chickens and running errands—but afraid that his stepfather would find out and beat him, he spent every cent not on evening classes but on cinema tickets and movie magazines.
Roy’s greatest inspiration as he headed towards puberty was Jon Hall (1913-79), the muscle-bound star of such colourful camp films—with implausible plots and lamentable acting—as Cobra Woman and Ali Baba & The Forty Thieves, and who frequently appeared on the screen wearing as little as the Hays Office permitted at the time. When Roy witnessed the attractive, loin-clothed Hall diving in out of the water in The Hurricane—unaware that the actor’s more hair-raising antics had called for the services of a stunt double—his mind was made up. He recalled, “I’d always been a diver, so I had to be an actor and go to Tahiti and be like Jon Hall!”
There was more to it than this, for at the age of twelve, he later claimed, Roy became aware of his sexuality, having developed a crush on Jon Hall, among others.
At the end of 1940, Roy’s mother bought a run-down property on Winnetka’s Ash Street, and hired a team of poorly-paid navvies to renovate the place and convert it into a boarding house. With her second marriage to Wallace Fitzgerald already on the rocks, Kay was probably hoping that the new venture would repair the rift between them and, as an added incentive to keep her short-tempered husband calm, his prime source of irritation—Roy—was dispatched to live with an aunt.
This temporary measure lasted until the summer of 1941, during which time Roy hardly saw his mother at all, but when Kay brought him back to Ash Street that summer, the situation had improved. Wallace Fitzgerald was gone for good.
Fitzgerald’s departure did not result in Roy seeing much more of his mother, for Kay was now forced to support her meagre income from the boarding house by working as a part-time telephone operator at the Great Lakes Naval Training Centre, some twenty miles out of Winnetka. Added to this was Roy’s misery of having to stay on at school for an extra six months because of his abysmal grades. Instead of graduating in the summer of 1943, he did not leave New Trier High until early in 1944. Three weeks later—to be closer to his mother—Roy enlisted with the Navy and was sent on a training course as an apprentice aircraft repairman. The boot camp was at the same training centre that employed Kay. By now, aged eighteen, he had attained his full height of six feet four inches—though people meeting him for the first time often declared he was taller, and expressed astonishment that such an imposing specimen had weighed less than six pounds at birth—and though he was thin and reed-like, photographs taken at the time reveal him to have been better-looking than Jon Hall had ever been, his handsome features marred only by a crooked eye-tooth.
“Fitz”, as pals nicknamed him proved hopeless as a marine. He
was posted to Samar, in the Philippines, on the Lew Wallace, and for two years worked for the Aviation Repair Overhaul Unit. Much of his time was spent unloading fighter planes from aircraft carriers, and on one occasion he accidentally turned on both engines of the bomber he was repairing, causing the machine to veer across the runway and crash into another stationary plane. He is also said to have been very timid for his size, terrified of being reprimanded by superiors for botched repair-work—which he was, time and time again. Despite this, he was not too shy to go looking for men, or to engage in a number of affairs with fellow marines. These naturally were very clandestine, but all the more thrilling, he later confessed, on account of the tremendous risks involved. When the war was over and he transferred to the base’s laundry unit, he indulged in several more.
Roy returned to Winnetka in May 1946, but instead of staying with his mother, after two weeks as a piano mover and still bent on becoming an actor, he joined his father in California. Roy Scherer had remarried and was living in Long Beach with his new wife and adopted daughter. He had set himself up in an electrical appliances business, and when Roy was refused a place at the University of California on account of his poor school grades, Scherer Sr. offered him a job as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Roy was so shy and lacking in patter that in his first month he did not make a single sale. Then, just as he was thinking of returning to Illinois he discovered paradise—the uncloseted, bohemian gay community.
Taking a room in a lodging house and a job as a truck driver with a company owned by a friend of his father’s, Roy divided his leisure time touting for work outside the studio gates—leaning against the tail-plate of his truck, chain-smoking, looking studious but ungainly, and always ignored—and hustling for sex
on the exclusively gay section of the beach. He became a frequent visitor to the men-only bars on Ocean Boulevard where he met his first serious lover—Ken Hodge was the former producer of the Lux Radio Theater. Blond, debonair and fifteen years his senior, Hodge was Roy’s first mentor—a man who recognised his screen potential in that, though Roy was possessed of no acting ability whatsoever, he certainly had the looks and appeal to melt female hearts and bring money to the box office and his own depleted bank account. For several weeks the couple resided in a luxurious apartment at the Chateau Marmont. They then moved to Hollywood, where Hodge rented a small bungalow.
Hodge was so besotted by his lusty young lover that he pledged Roy all the financial support he might need to launch his acting career. He installed him at a gymnasium where in less than a year he filled out, increasing his weight to a staggering 230 pounds of solid muscle. Then Hodge took his protégé to a tailor and kitted him out with a suit—until now
At one such event in Culver City, Roy was introduced to David O Selznick’s talent scout and the former agent of Lana Turner—the infamous Henry Willson. Without telling Ken Hodge, who would almost certainly have advised him otherwise, Roy agreed to attend an audition at Willson’s house in Stone Canyon.
Only weeks earlier, Willson had told columnist Hedda Hopper about the thousands of letters he received each week from movie
hopefuls, “I’m what you might call a Salvation Army worker at heart. The kids in this business know it and that’s why they come to me looking for work.”
The viper-tongued Hopper, accustomed to being allowed free rein when exposing Hollywood bigotry and hypocrisy, would never have risked printing the truth about this man, who—as quoted by Jimmy Hicks, in Films In Review, May 1975—observed of his greatest discovery and most bankable asset:
He was the moviegoer’s ideal of the typical American boy. He had size, good looks, strength, and a certain shyness that I thought would make him a star like Gable. He had the kind of personal charm that makes you think you’d enjoy sitting down and spending time with him.
A bitchy, overweight and wildly promiscuous homosexual in his early forties, almost certainly with Mafia connections, Willson’s power was such that he only had to reach under his desk and stroke some wannabe’s thigh and, with the promise of imminent stardom by way of his seemingly limitless web of contacts, the actor would hop on to the casting couch. And if the young man happened to be heterosexual, Willson would bide his time until the actor had started to make a name for himself, and pounce—threatening to expose his “homosexuality” to the press and, if he still refused to yield, mounting a devious, virulent smear-campaign that ensured he would never work again.
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