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The Master of Illusion

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Twenty-seven days before Rock Hudson died of AIDS on Oct. 2, 1985 at age 59, he wrote: “I’ve always been a private person…. Now that’s changed—there’s a lot I want to say and not too much time left. I want the truth to be told…. So I’ve asked those who know me best—my real friends—to work with Sara Davidson in telling my story.” For the last month of Hudson’s life, Davidson visited Hudson’s house almost every day and tried to piece together the life of the auto mechanic’s son born Roy Scherer Jr. in Winnetka Ill.

The portrait that emerges in the following excerpt from Rock Hudson, His Story, to be published in July, is often not pretty and is sometimes shocking. The actor cast by Hollywood for three decades as a romantic hero was in fact a complex, secretive man who, as the years passed, grew reckless in satisfying his sexual appetite. Some may wish not to see him this way, to remember the humor and kindness of his film roles and let the rest go. But he spent his life in hiding to protect his screen image and his decision in the end to reveal his secrets reflects a wish to leave a more personal legacy the cautionary tale of his life as told here through Sara Davidson.

Trying to understand Rock Hudson was like trying to penetrate a sphinx. The more I looked, the more mysterious and disturbing the details of his life became. Every day there was a surprise, a new contradiction to resolve, and before long there was nowhere I could put a foot on firm ground. It was like treading on a spider’s web.

Onscreen, he projected the image of a simple soul, not ambivalent or tortured. He was warm and good and pure. He seemed completely what he was at the moment: completely in love, completely brave, completely repentant. Yet in life, Rock was a master of illusion, devious and secretive, capable of being extremely kind and at times heartless. George Nader, the actor and writer who was Rock’s friend for 35 years, said, “There is no Rock Hudson. There are many Rock Hudsons. He projects what will appeal to the person he’s with, and he will get that person’s heart at any cost.”

To his friends, Rock possessed something unique: the ability to make them laugh as no one else could. He was childlike and silly, and he often giggled until tears ran down his cheeks. He took special delight in making people laugh when they shouldn’t. During the filming of Lover Come Back in 1961, he kept making faces at co-star Doris Day off-camera, and she laughed so hard they had to shoot the scene 12 times. Most of us can play like this with one or two people, but Rock could do it with everyone. The gift the twinkle, resided in him

Rock Hudson rarely talked to anyone, even his lovers, about his fears or feelings. Warmth and love were communicated without words. He was the first person to help a friend in trouble, the first to pack boxes and move furniture, to show up with buckets and a shovel to dig someone’s house out of a mud slide. He would leave the studio to take a friend to the dentist, yet he would not let that friend know what he wanted, what he was planning, where he was going that night.

Nothing about Rock Hudson could be taken at face value, I found. Even if he had told the same fact to 10 people, it might not have been true. Often Rock told different friends conflicting stories, and I would be reduced to making a scorecard: How many said yes, how many said no? Then I would weigh the sources and try to ponder Rock’s motives.

As I looked up the men with whom Rock had been romantically involved, I had the feeling I was meeting the same person at different ages. The further back they went in Rock’s life, the older they were in 1985. It was almost comical: I would knock on the door and when it opened, there once again was a figure who was blond, tall and well built, manly, who could easily be taken for straight. But none of these men had had a relationship with the same Rock Hudson.

In 1946 Roy Scherer went to California to break into acting. He tried selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, but after a month he failed to sell a machine. He next found a job driving a truck. Scherer bought a suit and whenever he had a free moment, stood outside the gates of studios, waiting to be discovered. He was lonely. “People weren’t friendly like they were in the Midwest,” he said. “It was very difficult for me to make friends.”

But Long Beach had a gay community, and in 1947 Roy, who had had some homosexual encounters in the Navy, stumbled upon it. There was a bar where men would sit around on stools and listen to a black woman sing bawdy songs. On the weekends gay men would gather on the sand and take the sun in front of an apartment building on Ocean Boulevard.

For the first time Roy was introduced to a large group of men who were open about their sexuality. One man Roy met was Ken Hodge, who had worked in radio for many years on the staff of Lux Radio Theatre. Ken was 36, and Roy was 21. Ken seemed the essence of sophistication: His blond hair was beautifully styled, he was well dressed, and he lived in a penthouse with a sweeping view and beautiful antique furniture. Ken was the first person Roy had met who had any connection to show business. Ken had left the business and moved to Long Beach to manage his aunt’s properties but he was casting about for a way to return

Ken and Roy became lovers, according to Herbert Millspaugh, a retired clerical worker who lived in Long Beach in the late ’40s and knew Ken and Roy. It was Ken who arranged for Roy to have his first publicity pictures taken. Ken offered to become Roy’s agent; he would groom him, guide him, and together they would launch a new star with a new name: Rock Hudson.

In 1948, Roy and Ken Hodge moved to Hollywood. Ken began working his contacts; he used his savings to throw parties to introduce Roy to people in the business. At one party, Henry Will-son showed up, took Roy aside and told him to call him at his office—he was head of talent for the David O. Selznick Studio. Without telling Ken, Roy called on Henry. “By the time he left,” says Millspaugh, “he had signed a contract, something Ken had not thought to do with his protégé. Henry became Roy’s agent, and Ken moved back to Long Beach and proceeded to go to pieces. ”

Henry Willson was a notorious homosexual. He had an entourage of young men who accompanied him to nightclubs and came to his house in Stone Canyon for swimming parties. Willson was not attractive: He was short, with a soft chin and flaccid body, a prominent nose and receding frizzy hair. He always wore a dark blue suit with a vest. “He exuded evil,” George Nader says.

But Willson was brilliant at spotting talent and launching careers. To celebrate the signing of his contract with Rock, Henry took him to dinner. They drove to the Biltmore in Santa Barbara, a formal old hotel that reeked of money and the splendor of early California aristocracy. Rock had never eaten at such a place. The dining tables were set with china and crystal, silver candelabra and hand-embroidered linen. When he finished eating, he stacked his dishes as his grandmother had taught him—the butter plate, salad plate and dinner plate on top of each other—and set them in a corner of the table Henry told Rock “I see right off we got problems The first thing is we, do not stack dishes You’re a movie star not a busboy!”

During his first years in Hollywood Rock was introduced to George Nader and his companion, Mark Miller, a singer who later gave up his career to be Nader’s business manager. The three hit it off instantly. They found they could laugh together and have nutty fun, and they would be loyal friends all their lives. One of the reasons they became so close was that in 1951 they could not go out freely and be seen with other men. Homosexuals were ridiculed as “fairies.” Rock Mark and George rarely spoke about being homosexual, or if they did they used code phrases like “Is he musical?”

Rock and George knew that if they were going to be stars, they had to present a masculine image without a chink, without a suggestion of softness. Rock was terrified of being caught in a sexual situation with a man. He always had two phone lines when he lived with someone and made sure his roommate never answered his phone. He was careful not to be photographed with a man. On the set, if he met someone, they would exchange phone numbers with the stealth of spies passing nuclear secrets.

According to one friend, Stockton Briggle, who would later direct Rock in Camelot, he was “the straightest homosexual I ever met. He had no feminine traits or mannerisms, even when in private among friends.” He enjoyed flirting with women and occasionally had affairs, but all things being equal, he preferred to be with men. He never responded to men who were obviously gay, and he liked it if they had also slept with women. The fact that a man liked women made him more masculine in Rock’s eyes. If he met someone straight who showed any wedge of curiosity any sliver of receptivity Rock would move mountains to win him.

While Rock was getting to know Miller and Nader and making his first pictures, such as Scarlet Angel and The Lawless Breed, he was not romantically involved with anyone and wanted to be. With that in mind, in 1952, Mark and George, who had moved to a beach house in Venice, Calif., invited Rock to dinner with a young man they’d met, Jack Navaar. (This was his stage name; when interviewed in October 1985 he had resumed his former name and was living with a young wife and three small children.)

Jack was 22. He had been hearing, “You should be in pictures,” most of his life. He was lean and fit, with blond wavy hair and a caustic wit.

Rock was quiet through dinner that night, but afterward he surprised everyone by saying to Jack, “Let’s go up to my place and listen to records.” The next morning Rock cooked breakfast. He liked to make what he called “Greyhound Bus Station eggs”—he would crack them right into the skillet and scramble them fast so the white and yellow didn’t mix.

In May 1953 Rock and Jack started living together. They had a private code, “one-two-three,” which meant “l love you.” When people were around, Rock would rap three times on a counter or nudge Jack three times under the table or say, “one-two-three.” “He was a very romantic man,” Jack says. On Sundays, they would get dressed up and alternate going to visit Rock’s mother, who was living in Arcadia with her third husband Joe Olsen, and Jack’s mother, who lived in Santa Monica.

Klieg lights swept the sky on May 11, 1954, as Rock Hudson arrived at the Westwood Theater for the premiere of Magnificent Obsession, his first major film. His date was Betty Abbott, a script girl; Jack Navaar came in a separate car, wearing George Nader’s tuxedo and escorting actress Claudia Boyer.

“Rock! Rock! Turn around! Look this way, please, just for a minute!” Rock’s eyes were lit with brilliant sparks as the strobe lights flashed.

“What’s your date’s name, Rock? Are you engaged?”

As Rock walked up the red carpet, he spotted Jack Navaar’s mother and sisters standing behind the rope with the fans. He broke rank to go over and kiss them. Jack followed and years later said, “Rock didn’t have to do it—that’s why I couldn’t help but love him.”

Magnificent Obsession grossed $5 million and turned Rock Hudson into Universal’s most profitable star. His fan mail rose to 3,000 pieces a week. Rock was treated differently by everyone after Magnificent Obsession. He told Mark and George, “A lot of folks say I’ve changed, but I haven’t.” But Rock did change. Mark says, “Before, Rock would answer the phone, ‘Hiya!’ Now, it was a deep ‘Hellow? This is Rock Hudson speaking.’ He became an instant authority on everything. He could walk on water ”

Rock and Jack began to quarrel more frequently during this period. “I couldn’t go anywhere with Rock—even to dinner—without people watching him and trying to get near him,” Jack says. “I was jealous of the acclaim and attention he was getting, but I also liked it. Thousands of people wanted him, but I was the one that Rock Hudson wanted.”

In June 1954, Rock left for Europe to make Captain Lightfoot. Jack drove him to the airport and walked him to the plane. When Rock took his seat by the window, he used the overhead light to flash their code: one-two-three. I love you.

While Hudson was traveling through Europe, Navaar was spending time with Phyllis Gates, a young secretary who worked for Willson. “I had a tremendous crush on Phyllis,” Navaar says. “I could understand why Rock thought he could fall in love with her, because I could have. She knew how to make a guy feel fabulous. It was a talent.”

On Sundays they would go to a bar in Santa Monica, the Tropical Village, which was frequented by gay men and lesbians. One weekend Jack and Mark Miller took Phyllis to Laguna Beach. They went to a bar called Camille’s. Phyllis started talking to a woman, and Jack and Mark say they did not see her the rest of the weekend.

Phyllis had two weeks off that summer, and Willson called Jack and said, “Why don’t you and Phyllis take a trip? Rock’s away and you’re just sitting there. Phyllis wants to visit her family.” Jack agreed, and they drove Rock’s new, yellow Lincoln Continental convertible across the Rockies to Montevideo, Minn., where Phyllis’ family lived. “I felt secure doing this because Henry had proposed it,” Navaar says. “Later I realized Henry had instigated the trip to alienate me from Rock.” Willson felt that the men’s relationship was threatening Rock’s career.

To save money, they checked into motels as Mr. and Mrs. Navaar and shared a room but, Jack says, they did not sleep together. In Montevideo, they stayed with her family, and her relatives and friends came to meet “Rock Hudson’s roommate” and see “Rock Hudson’s car.”

When they returned to Los Angeles, Navaar found he was in trouble. Rock called from Venice, Italy, angry and accusatory. The more Rock grilled him, the angrier Jack got, and the long-distance call ended badly.

“Everyone turned on me, including Phyllis. She disappeared,” Navaar says. “Everyone treated me like I was dead meat. So I did exactly what they wanted me to do. I dumped the keys at Henry’s office and moved out.”

After Navaar left, Rock “went way into the closet,” Mark Miller says. Rock would not live with a man again until the late ’60s, when social attitudes had loosened and his position as a star seemed safe.

When Rock returned from Europe in the fall of 1954, Henry started telling Phyllis, “You and Rock should go out to dinner.” Rock made several dates, which he broke. The next time Phyllis had to get Rock on the phone for Henry, Rock mentioned having dinner and Phyllis laughed. “Don’t bother, you’re just gonna break the date.” Her resistance caught his attention; they had their dinner and afterward, true to Rock’s pattern, he wanted to see her all the time.

In November 1954 Rock bought a two-bedroom ranch house in the hills north of Sunset Boulevard. He furnished the living room with redwood lawn chairs, because he had put all his cash into the house. He asked Phyllis to move in with him, which she did, although she kept her own apartment. Nader and Miller remember being shocked at the arrangement. In the ’50s, two men or two women could live together as roommates, but an unmarried man and woman living together was “living in sin” and was practiced only in the most bohemian circles

Living with Phyllis helped to normalize Rock’s reputation in Hollywood. He told friends that being with Phyllis was a relief. He could do everything with her he had been unable to do with Jack Navaar: take her to premieres, to the set and to dinners given by people in the business.

Rock told three of the men he subsequently lived with that Phyllis was bisexual, and Mark Miller and Jack Navaar say that they saw her in lesbian situations. But when I asked Phyllis last December about reports that she was bisexual, she said, after a long silence, “No. You’re hearing from the wrong people.”

In November 1955 Rock and Phyllis eloped to Santa Barbara. “I was very much in love,” Phyllis said years later. “I thought he would be a wonderful husband. He was charming, his career was red hot, he was gorgeous, 6’6″ tall. How many women would have said no? If I had heard things about his being homosexual, I just put them in the back of my mind. So what if it was true? We were having an affair, and he asked me to marry him.”

On their honeymoon in Jamaica, they stayed at the Half Moon Hotel in Montego Bay. They drove all over the island, swam and lay on the beach and came home tanned, rested and happy. Phyllis says, “It was wonderful. We never had an argument or a cross word on that trip.”

But Rock told friends that he and Phyllis had a terrible fight on their honeymoon, and that it was an awful week. The marriage was to last two years. Afterward the story that was told and retold was that the marriage had been arranged by Willson or the studio to kill rumors that Rock was homosexual. But if the marriage was arranged, it was done so without the knowledge of Phyllis Gates. When I talked with Phyllis, she was working quietly as a decorator in Beverly Hills. She had been young, 32, when she was divorced from Rock but she had never married again. For almost 30 years she had refused to talk about Rock Hudson. But in the final months of 1985, when Rock was dying a tangle of buried emotions came to the surface

“I never heard that my marriage was arranged until recently,” she said. “I used to believe the marriage started with good intentions, but now, I don’t believe it was genuine. Rock charmed women. He acted from morning till night.”

Later, when I told Phyllis that Rock had said he had loved her, she said: “He was lying. Rock never loved me. To me, he wasn’t a very nice man.”

With the success of Giant in 1956 came what Mark and George were to call the “Impossible Years” with Rock, when he became, in his own words, “Charlie Movie Star.” Rock developed a slight swagger; he became more pompous, and everything was on his terms. If he wanted to see a friend, he would unilaterally set the time. He would choose the restaurant and pay—he would never let anyone else pay. If he was invited to a party, he had to approve the guest list ahead of time. He was rude to waiters and at home when he had guests, he would take the seat nearest the phone. If it rang, he would say “Hold it, nobody say a word.” He would talk to the caller then hang up and say “Okay, you can go ahead now”

Rock’s relationship with Phyllis began to deteriorate after Giant. In Rock’s view, Phyllis changed when she became Mrs. Hudson. She went on buying sprees, and she became more possessive; she would call the studio and monitor Rock’s movements through the day. As his relations with Phyllis grew strained, Rock called up Mark Miller. “I have to have a boy. For a year I’ve been faithful; I haven’t had a boy and I’m going crazy. Can you fix me up?”

Rock was divorced from Phyllis in 1958. He was now the No. 1 box office star in the world, and in 1959 he made his first comedy—Pillow Talk with Doris Day—which made the Hudson-Day team one of the most popular in movie history.

In the ’60s Rock was involved with numerous men, but he did not go out with them socially. He still played one role in public and another in private. He could have his pick of the most beautiful men, but many were so self-conscious they couldn’t perform. Rock told a friend, “I wish I could go to bed with a bag over my head, because when people go to bed with Rock Hudson, they’re so nervous they can’t do anything. It’s a waste.”

In 1966 Rock ended his contract with Universal, but his popularity was waning, and the phone did not ring with offers. He grew despondent.

It was about this time that Rock came out of the “Impossible Years” and returned to being the Rock Hudson his old friends had known—a warm human being who laughed and was kind. “He came down off his high horse,” George Nader says. He also started drinking heavily at night. He would not eat until 10 or 11, because he wanted another scotch and soda and would not drink after eating.

In the early years when Rock had been single-mindedly pursuing his career, sex had come second. But now sex was a daily need. Rock told friends he thought about it constantly. At business meetings or while driving a car, he was thinking about having sex that night.

In 1973 Rock started living with Tom Clark, a Hollywood publicist whom Rock had met in 1964. Tom was completely unlike the men Rock had been with before. He was not a young blond with a mustache. He was 42, nearly Rock’s age, and he was strong-willed and intelligent—an equal match. Rock would live with Tom for 10 years, and just before he died, Rock would tell friends that Tom Clark had been the most important person in his life

At first Rock and Tom seemed ideally suited for each other. They liked the same things: bridge, dogs, drinking, football, traveling, reading, listening to music. “Everything was just right on. There was not one thing that was discordant,” Tom says. Tom had worked in the movie business all his adult life, and he knew and was respected by everyone Rock knew. “I can take him anywhere,” Rock said. “I can introduce him to Princess Margaret.” They traveled together and went out socially without subterfuge. They had a legitimate connection: Tom had become Rock’s publicist and later his personal manager.

When Tom moved into Rock’s Spanish-style stucco house on Beverly Crest Drive, which his friends called “the Castle,” he was euphoric. George Nader says, “Tom was filled with fire and music, throwing handfuls of glitter dust.”

Every morning Tom watched a game show, The $25,000 Pyramid, He could not be disturbed between 9 and 9:30. The staff called him “Lana Lump-up, Our Lovely Lady of Lullabye Lane,” because he would say, “I’m gonna go upstairs and lump up,” meaning he would get comfortable in his robe on the bed and watch television or read.

When Rock came home from work, the two men took a steam bath, then put on floor-length robes, fixed drinks and built a fire in the outdoor fireplace. “How was your day?” Tom would say, and they’d catch up. If they weren’t going out, they might go into the recreation room, which Rock called the playroom, for a long record session. “First Rock got to pick something and then I got to pick something,” Tom says. “We played big band albums and Broadway musicals and opera, and by the time we were through, there’d be records all over the playroom.” They drank through the night and ate late, sometimes not until midnight; the cook would have left dinner on the stove.

Rock turned 50 in 1975, and Tom threw a costume birthday party that he later said was “the prettiest party we ever had.” Tom gathered the guests in the red room of the Castle and signaled the band. They struck up You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, and Rock made his entrance, strutting down the grand staircase wearing a diaper. Everyone whistled and howled.

By 1976 Rock and Tom were quarreling. Jon Epstein, a close friend who produced Rock’s series McMillan and Wife, says, “People can spend their lives bickering and really love each other. I figured it would go on forever.” Stockton Briggle says, “Tom loved and protected Rock magnificently, but Rock didn’t want so much protection. Tom had given up a successful career to be with Rock. It’s hard to respect somebody who gives up his own life and starts doing everything for you. They were never able to face this. They just drank more socialized more and took more and more trips. ”

When Rock drank he became “a viper,” says Mark Miller (who had become the actor’s secretary in 1972). Most of their friends learned to ignore Rock and Tom’s bickering and had no doubts that underneath it was a powerful bond. Nevertheless Rock made Tom his whipping boy, and Tom would say in frustration, “I hope he dies a terrible death: bald. I hope he doesn’t wake up.”