At 6’4″, with a dimpled smile and a sweet sexiness that left a generation of women swooning, Rock Hudson was the perfect Hollywood leading man, ruling the box office in the 1950s and ’60s with movies like Giant and Pillow Talk. Yet behind the easy charm he had a secret: Hudson was gay, something that most Americans only discovered with the actor’s death on Oct. 2, 1985. “It was career suicide to reveal you were gay,” says his onetime boyfriend Lee Garlington. In July 1985 Hudson collapsed in Paris, and his French publicist revealed he had AIDS. Less than three months later he was dead at 59, the first well-known celebrity to die from a then little-understood plague that stoked homophobia and terrified the public. His death marked a turning point in how Americans viewed the disease. “People talk about AIDS before Rock Hudson and after Rock Hudson,” says his doctor Michael Gottlieb, 67, the immunologist who first identified AIDS as a new disease and is now on the board of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. “When I first met him, I never could have imagined he would be the pivotal person in the history of the AIDS epidemic, the single most influential patient ever.” Thirty years later Gottlieb and others close to Hudson share intimate memories of his struggle – and his legacy.
In early June 1984 Gottlieb got a call from a Beverly Hills doctor with a celebrity patient who wanted to avoid publicity.
Dr. Michael Gottlieb
There sat Rock Hudson up on the exam table. I had to look up at him to make eye contact. “My, you’re tall,” I said. “How tall are you?” And with this shy, boyish smile, he said, “6’4″.” He had several lesions of Kaposi sarcoma that established a diagnosis. Little was known about HIV and AIDS then. There wasn’t much we could do. Within a week he prepared several letters to past sexual partners. He wanted them to know they’d been with someone diagnosed with AIDS. He didn’t reveal his identity. He said, “I want to do the right thing.”
We didn’t have antivirals then. There was a drug that had worked in retroviruses in mice, HPA-23, which they were using in Paris. I introduced him to [French AIDS researcher] Dr. Dominique Dormont, who conducted the trials. He’d meet Rock at the Ritz Hotel, where he would get infusions of HPA-23 in private.
Hudson kept his diagnosis a secret to all but a few friends. Questions about his health first surfaced when he looked gaunt and frail at a July 15, 1985, public appearance promoting his guest spot on his close friend Doris Day’s variety show.
He walked in. I hardly knew him. He was very sick. I’d bring him lunch, fix him a big platter, but he couldn’t eat. I’d say “What if I get a fork and feed you?” He’d say, “Doris, I can’t eat.” He never said he was ill. When we kissed goodbye, he gave me a big hug and held on to me. I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him.
Hudson returned to Paris for more HPA-23 treatments. On July 21 he collapsed in his suite at the Ritz. French publicist Yanou Collart, a friend, was asked to handle the press frenzy.
My phone rang at 7 p.m. A French news agency said Rock was at the American Hospital, suffering from liver cancer. I went to the Ritz and met [his secretary] Mark Miller. He said, “Rock has AIDS.” Dr. Dormont, a military doctor, was not allowed into the American Hospital, a civilian hospital, to treat Rock. Dormont said he was waiting for authorization from French President François Mitterrand. He said Rock is very good friends with the Reagans and President Reagan will call Mitterrand to ask him for the authorization they need. Time was so short. I got approval [instead] from the French Minister of the Army.
The White House never intervened. In an official July 24 memo, an aide wrote that Nancy Reagan “did not feel this was something the White House should get into.” However, President Reagan called Hudson to check on him.
Mark Miller asked me to give a press conference to say Rock had AIDS. I went to his room. Rock must have lost over 70 lbs. since I had last seen him. He was so thin under the white sheet. I read him the statement. He was too weak to make a decision. I was crying. All he said was, “That’s what they want. Go and give it to the dogs.” At the press conference, they needed barricades to keep people back. Rock was too weak for further treatment. The only way for him to fly home was on a nonstop flight, a 747 or a DC-10. He was too frail to change planes. The American Hospital wanted him out. No airline wanted to take Rock. They wouldn’t believe me if I called asking for a 747, so l called Pierre Salinger, ABC’s chief foreign correspondent in London. He called Air France and got the plane.
Wallace Sheft, Hudson’s business manager
Air France wanted $250,000 for a 747 to fly him home, an enormous amount. They called me from the tarmac to make sure the funds had been wired before they took off. We finally got him home.
On July 30 I met Rock on the roof of the UCLA hospital at 2:30 a.m. Here is the most famous individual in the world with HIV, flying in by helicopter. There were news helicopters everywhere. He was weak and barely responsive.
The public was confused by the disclosure in Paris that Rock had AIDS and whether he had authorized the statement. I was advised to give a brief, bare-bones press conference. I spoke to Rock. He was lying down. I said, “The press wants information on your condition. Should I tell them you have AIDS?” and he said, “Yes, if you think it will do some good.” He couldn’t have imagined how much good it actually did. I don’t think Rock was afraid of it getting out any longer. It was beginning to dawn on his fan base that he was gay.
In August, Gottlieb brought Hudson’s friend Elizabeth Taylor for a secret hospital visit. (She later founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which has raised over $17 million to date.)
We slipped in one of the back freight doors on the shipping dock to avoid being seen and rode up to the 10th floor. Elizabeth was dressed to the nines. I heard a loud bang and I jumped and said, “What was that?” and she laughed and said “It’s just my jewels.” She’d hit the elevator wall with the Krupp diamond. She was nervous about seeing him for the first time, because she knew how sick he was, not because he had AIDS. Elizabeth asked if it was okay to kiss and hug him. She was worried about his immune system. Not hers.
Jack Scalia, Hudson’s costar in his TV series The Devlin Connection
Rock treated me like a son. We watched football on Sundays and ate Mexican food. He told me about having a sled as a kid. A friend had borrowed it and broke it. Afterwards, his dad told him, “You’ll never get another sled.” When I visited him in the hospital, he was very gaunt with all the telltale signs of AIDS. I brought him a red sled wrapped in Christmas wrapping, but Rock was too weak to open it. “Lift it up,” he said. His eyes welled up. That was the most emotional I’d ever seen him. He said, “Well, kid, it’s been a great run.” When he went home, he had it nailed to his bedroom door.
The last time I saw him was about a week before he died. He was in bed. I told him I was contributing money to a fund, the Rock Hudson Memorial Fund for AIDS Research. He was pleased. He said, “Go ahead,” but was too weak to say more. I donated $250,000 because I was angry at the goddamn airline for charging that much to fly him out. That money eventually became the seed money for amfAR, the first national foundation for AIDS research.
Hudson died at home on Oct. 2. A former lover, Marc Christian, filed a lawsuit, claiming Rock had endangered him by not telling him he had AIDS. He privately settled and never contracted AIDS.
Rock was well aware of the publicity before he died. He was glad he had gone public, that it was having an impact. AIDS was so stigmatized that people with it felt abandoned. All they were looking for a was a glimmer of hope, and that only came after Rock went public. It’s the pivotal event in the country’s consciousness of the HIV epidemic. He showed tremendous courage and allowed his diagnosis to change the face of AIDS.