The Long Goodbye: Rock Hudson 1925-85

It was a bizarre coda to a baroque end. Twenty minutes after the news was announced on television, the doorbell rang. In came Shirley Boone, wife of Pat Boone and member of a Pentecostal church in Van Nuys, Calif. While paparazzi coagulated outside the house, she climbed to the second-floor bedroom carrying a Bible with her name emblazoned on the cover. Over the corpse in the king-size bed, she chanted, “Get the disease out of the body.” Then, grasping Rock Hudson’s thin legs, she began to speak in tongues. While this impromptu evangelical service continued for half an hour, the coroner waited downstairs. “Then it was finally over,” says Marc Christian, who had shared the house with Hudson for the past two years. “He was finally gone.”

Rock Hudson’s death, at age 59 on October 2 at his Beverly Hills home, brought his life into bold relief. The circumstances of his demise assured the actor a place in Hollywood history that his films could not. As the first public figure to announce his affliction with acquired immune deficiency syndrome, Hudson had stunned the world and shattered an image cultivated over three decades. Hudson’s admission, 10 weeks before his death, was cause for canonization in both the medical and gay communities. “His illness and death have moved the fight against AIDS ahead more in three months than anything in the past three years,” says Bruce Decker, chairman of California’s AIDS Advisory Board Committee. “I’m sure Rock’s coming out will stand as a landmark in the gay community,” says activist Armistead Maupin.

In Hollywood, the inevitability of Hudson’s death did not diminish its emotional impact. “Despite what we know about AIDS, you just think people will never die,” says Tony Perkins, who visited Hudson in the hospital in Los Angeles. “I wanted to visit Rock,” says Angie Dickinson sadly, “but I decided to wait until the deluge of friends and the media calmed down. I waited too long.” And Elizabeth Taylor, who used her long-standing friendship with Hudson to galvanize Hollywood into action against AIDS, issued a plea: “Please God, he did not die in vain.”

Still, Hudson’s death was incongruous. For fans who knew him only onscreen, it was hard to reconcile the image of the indestructible and quintessential ’50s movie star with that of the insidious and quintessential ’80s disease. For those who knew him off-screen, it was unexpected that the hard-drinking, easygoing friend for all seasons would emerge in his last days as an emblem for a controversial cause. While his illness cast Hudson in a new perspective, it also engendered a familiar problem, fostering nearly as much myth and misinformation about Hudson as Universal Studios had in his heyday. Did he or didn’t he realize that the world knew of his plight? Did he or didn’t he approve the statement attributed to him at last month’s AIDS benefit in Los Angeles? Did he or didn’t he work on an authorized biography in his final weeks? Ironically, the aftermath of Hudson’s revelation about his illness proved more surreal than real at times. It was as if Hollywood knew how to respect a living legend but not a dying one.

It began with an irritation on Hudson’s neck. He scratched it. Then he went to the doctor. This wasn’t an innocent skin problem, he learned; it was a lesion, the first sign of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that afflicts AIDS patients. In June 1984 Rock Hudson was told he had AIDS.

Two months later Hudson traveled to France for the Deauville Film Festival and a retrospective of his films. On the advice of Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who was treating Hudson in Los Angeles, the actor detoured first to Paris for his initial treatment with HPA-23, an experimental drug that inhibits the enzyme that the AIDS virus requires to multiply. For six weeks he took part in an outpatient program at the Percy military hospital near Paris. His physician there, Dr. Dominique Dormont, was administering one of the few HPA-23 protocols in Paris. The drug later received Hudson’s implicit endorsement: He sent a young American friend to Dormont for treatment too.

By November 1984 Hudson’s appearance had altered dramatically. At a 59th birthday party thrown by Marc Christian at the actor’s Beverly Hills house, guests noticed how drawn and tired Rock looked. “I’ve been on a diet. I’ve been exercising,” explained Hudson. Soon afterward he offered another implausible explanation: He was a victim of anorexia, he told friends.

Although Hudson’s appearance changed, his appeal as a leading man did not. Producer Allan Carr approached him repeatedly about playing the Gene Barry role in La Cage aux Folles on Broadway. In all his film, TV and theatrical incarnations, Hudson had never played a homosexual, and he refused this time too. Shortly before the birthday party, Dynasty creator Esther Shapiro flew to Paris to woo Hudson. She wanted him to join the cast as a possible love interest for Linda Evans. “He was Giant, and we were going after that kind of person,” she says. “He was perfect.” He was also reluctant. Despite six successful seasons with McMillan and Wife, Hudson disliked the hectic pace of a prime-time series, but Shapiro persuaded him to have a change of heart. Shapiro had heard no rumors that Hudson had AIDS. “He never missed a day of work,” she says. “He may not have admitted everything to himself. I don’t think he knew how sick he was.”

In fact, as a man conditioned to concealing his private life, Hudson didn’t acknowledge his illness. Although he lived with Christian, 32, he didn’t tell his housemate he had AIDS. Christian too attributed Hudson’s wasted appearance to anorexia. He learned that Hudson had AIDS only after the actor collapsed in Paris last summer.

Hudson had flown to Paris for a July 22 appointment with Dr. Dormont. On July 21, he passed out in his suite at the Ritz Hotel. Unaware of Hudson’s medical history, the doctor summoned by the hotel first surmised that his patient was experiencing heart trouble. The actor had, after all, undergone bypass surgery only three and a half years earlier. Hudson was immediately hospitalized. When his longtime secretary, Mark Miller, arrived the next day, doctors at the American Hospital in Paris told him that Hudson had a liver abnormality. Shortly thereafter it was erroneously announced by Dale Olson, Rock’s longtime publicist in L.A., that Hudson was suffering from inoperable liver cancer.

When Dormont finally examined Hudson, he decided Rock was too weak to undergo another HPA-23 treatment. Consequently, Hudson made up his mind to return to Los Angeles as soon as possible. The following day it was decided to announce that Hudson had AIDS. According to publicist Yanou Collart, who acted as his spokeswoman in Paris, the decision was Hudson’s. “The hardest thing I ever had to do in my life was to walk into his room and read him the press release,” says Collart. “I’ll never forget the look on his face. How can I explain it? Very few people knew he was gay. In his eyes was the realization that he was destroying his own image. After I read it, he said simply, ‘That’s it, it has to be done.’ ” Four days later Hudson left Paris on a 747 jet he chartered at a cost of 25 million francs ($300,000). “That’s my research budget for four years,” commented Dr. Dormont.

Across America, it is a scenario played out with increasing and alarming frequency. The stricken victim leaves the hospital for home. There, a circle of friends forms a surrogate family and tends to him. When Rock Hudson left the UCLA Medical Center on August 24, his was a homecoming with many repercussions. To help out, Mark Miller had contacted Tom Clark, a movie publicist who had been Hudson’s closest friend for years. The relationship had ended badly in November 1983, however, and the two hadn’t spoken since. Rock’s illness precipitated a rapprochement. Despite the passage of time and the presence of Marc Christian, Clark immediately assumed control of the household. All arrangements to visit Hudson were made through him.

At the hospital there had been a procession of close friends, including Carol Burnett, Claire Trevor and Elizabeth Taylor. Says Tony Perkins, who saw Hudson there: “It was uncanny because he had lost so much weight it made him look like the young Roy [Rock’s real name]. I asked him how he felt about having visitors. He said, ‘Some days, I can’t wait for the next visitors. The next day, I wish people would go away and leave me alone.’ He was astonished at the amount of goodwill coming his way.”

Visiting Hudson at home affected each friend differently. Roddy McDowall was so depressed that Mark Miller asked him not to return unless his mood improved. Ross Hunter, who produced Pillow Talk, says he visited often—the group at the house says hardly ever. An emaciated Hudson entertained Nancy Walker, a former colleague from McMillan and Wife, in the kitchen. “He looked,” says a close friend, “like he was swimming in his clothes.” Producer John Foreman was a frequent guest, and McMillan co-star Susan St. James called often from New York. Toward the end, visits were limited to a mere five minutes.

Back near Winnetka, Ill., where Hudson was raised, his aunt and uncle, Lela and Luther Scherer, tried unsuccessfully to contact their nephew in California. James Matteoni, a high school friend who was later Hudson’s best man at his arranged wedding to his agent’s secretary, Phyllis Gates, sent a note. In reply he received a form letter from an AIDS foundation in Los Angeles.

Hudson’s most visible and vocal friend was also among his last visitors. The day before he died, Elizabeth Taylor visited Hudson at home for the first time. He was receiving nourishment from an I.V. as he slipped in and out of a coma. Taylor was alone with him in his bedroom for just a few moments. Then she left.

As befits a Hollywood star, Hudson seemed to take final solace from movies. He enjoyed watching Bette Davis movies (The Letter, Old Acquaintance) on his VCR. In fact, the past occupied his mind as well as his time. As commonly occurs among patients with a severe, debilitating illness, Hudson’s short-term memory virtually disappeared. “He would forget who his recent visitors had been, but he could sure tell you where he was on New Year’s Eve, 1959,” says one friend who kept vigil.

Until the rapid decline in the last two weeks of his life, Rock received no specific treatment for his illness. His 6’4″ frame was afflicted with lesions as well as bedsores. Although Dr. Gottlieb made no house calls, Hudson’s other physician, Dr. Rex Kennamer, frequently stopped by to take blood samples and examine his patient.

Religion reentered Hudson’s life in his last weeks. Although he was raised a Roman Catholic, Hudson hadn’t practiced in years and had come to regard himself as an atheist. But on September 25, at Tom Clark’s request, a priest visited. Hudson made his confession and received Communion. Then he was administered the last rites.

The week before he died, Hudson occupied the attention of different religious visitors. A woman who had stood vigil outside the gate was permitted inside to pray with Rock, and on the night before he died he was visited by a Pentecostal prayer group including that woman and Shirley and Pat Boone. Two of the four nurses who tended to Hudson at home were also members of the group. Says Pat Boone, who knew Hudson only casually from their studio days: “For Shirley and I, there had been a sense of being involved from a distance. We believed that even though there was no medical hope for him, we had a deep spiritual concern and felt that this might lead to a physical answer as well.”

With Clark’s approval, the group prayed for Rock’s recovery in his bedroom. He was unconscious, as he had been for Taylor’s visit earlier that day. “After a while, when we were all standing around his bed, he raised up off his pillow and smiled at us,” says Boone. “It was a real turnaround. Because of this sign of rejuvenation, one of the nurses, with Tom Clark’s help, laid out some nice clothes for Rock to wear the next day.” The following morning Hudson awoke early and was dressed by the nurse. Clark, however, was concerned that it was too soon to be up after two weeks in bed. So Clark later undressed his friend and put him back in bed. About a half hour later, Hudson died.

When a call came from one of the nurses, Shirley Boone and the woman who had stood at the gate rushed to Rock’s home. “It was difficult for any of us to believe that there had been a final reversal in what we’d seen the night before,” says Pat Boone. “He had already gone, but they prayed at the bedside for some time. It’s like the three women who went to the tomb of Jesus. They, of course, had different results.”

As the newspaper obituaries duly noted, there are no immediate survivors. But Hudson did leave a legacy: The day the most famous AIDS victim died, the House of Representatives passed a bill allocating $189.7 million for AIDS research next year.

As Hudson wished, his name will be used to spearhead AIDS fund raising. He donated $250,000 to create the Rock Hudson AIDS Foundation in L.A. His share of the six-figure advance and the royalties from the biography, to be published next summer by William Morrow & Co., will also go to the foundation. The book is to be written by Sara (Loose Change) Davidson, who interviewed Hudson before his death.

Since the body was cremated hours after Hudson died, there was no public funeral. A private memorial service, planned by Liz Taylor, Miller and Clark, will take place on Saturday, October 19 at Hudson’s home for 50 of his friends. With Hudson’s death, the centrifugal force that held together his inner circle has diminished. Clark has already returned to his bungalow in West Hollywood. Miller continues to hold power of attorney over the estate. Christian is still living at the house.

In his final weeks at home, Rock Hudson took short walks beside his pool. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby—another Midwesterner who cultivated a synthetic public image, led a trying private life and came to a tragically premature end—Hudson loved to look out over the landscape. Below him lay the city of Los Angeles. “He would look at that view and go off into another world,” says Christian. “I guess he was wondering how all of this happened.”

—Written by Scot Haller, reported by Cathy Nolan, Jeff Yarbrough and the L.A. bureau

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