Rock Hudson dominated the silver screen in the Golden Age of Hollywood—but the heartthrob spent his entire life covering up a huge secret. Even worse, his utterly tragic end revealed it to the world. From his public passions to his hidden life, here is the uncovered truth about Rock Hudson, Hollywood’s tragic matinee idol.
Like so many other Old Hollywood stars, Rock Hudson’s extremely hunky name wasn't actually his real one. He was born the much more humble Roy Harold Scherer, Jr. on November 17, 1925. His parents, Katherine and Roy Harold senior, were of hardy working-class stock, but as we’ll see, little Rock’s childhood was anything but idyllic.
During the Great Depression, the Scherer family fell on extremely hard times, and Roy Sr. even lost his job as an auto-mechanic. When this crisis happened, Rock’s father put his son through utter torment. The patriarch quickly abandoned the family before his son turned four years old—and sadly, the very worst was yet to come.
In 1932, Hudson’s mother Katherine ended up marrying Wallace Fitzgerald, who was a stern, retired Marine officer. Hudson absolutely despised Fitzgerald…and for very good reason. Fitzgerald was domineering, and even forcibly adopted Rock without the young boy’s consent, turning him into "Roy Fitzgerald" against his will. However, his own father was just as brutal.
From a young age, Hudson learned some cold, hard lessons. When he told his father he wanted to be an actor, Roy Sr. reportedly physically hit his young son. According to one of Hudson’s biographers, after this incident and others like it, "he learned that you could talk about pretty much anything—except what you truly felt". Sadly, his tormented childhood had a chilling effect on him.
In high school, Hudson was very far from his seductive image. He spent most of his time delivering newspapers and performing in his local glee club. Most people who knew him back then remembered him as a quiet boy, and, even when he was famous, people called him "a pathologically shy man". But beneath his reserved exterior, young Hudson had a penchant for scandal, even then.
As a young man, Hudson joined the Navy for a brief period of time, and there’s evidence that he fathered at least one child while serving. In 2014, a woman named Susan Dent surfaced, claiming she was his long-lost daughter. Oh, but it gets better. Other sources claim he actually fathered two daughters with two different women during this period.
This was Hudson’s first scandal, but it was far from his last.
Poor Rock couldn’t catch a break for much of his young adult life. While trying to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles, he had to work a bunch of side jobs to make ends meet, and when he applied to study drama at the University of Southern California, they rejected him because of his bad grades. For Hudson, his thirst for success was only a losing game. That's when his desperation took a dark turn.
Hudson was so desperate to become a star, he went to chilling lengths to get Hollywood to notice him. Not only did he have his teeth capped and take up acting lessons, but he also reportedly had his voice surgically lowered. This had an intense side effect: It robbed him of any decent singing voice, and Hudson avoided most musicals in his career.
With his new look and seductive voice, Hudson continued to chase down an elusive acting career. Willing to do anything to get his foot in the door, he came up with a not-so-subtle strategy.
Hudson never gave up on his dreams, and eventually, he got a lucky break out of his back-breaking hard work. He tirelessly sent around glamour shots of his square-jawed face, and talent scout Henry Willson ended up taking the bait. Willson took the young Roy Fitzgerald on as a client...but it ended up costing Hudson very dearly.
There are reports that Willson brutally took advantage of the naïve Hudson. As actor Tony Curtis later put it about the scout, "Everybody who went with him had to sexually express himself to Henry, I'm putting it nicely". Other sources state that Willson actively blackmailed Hudson about some of his secrets. But that was only the tip of the iceberg.
Almost as soon as Willson met the young boy, he changed his name to "Rock Hudson". The name was a macho combination of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Hudson River, conjuring up an adventurous, masculine hero. There was just one problem: Hudson absolutely hated the name. But he kept his lips sealed, and had to take up the mantle for the rest of his career.
However, once Hudson finally got his foot in the door, he faced down one of his most chilling weaknesses.
When Hudson was coming up in Hollywood, he struggled with a very necessary acting skill: remembering his lines. Despite this, however, he still managed to land a decent number of roles. Hudson started to get a reputation as the go-to man for adventure B-movies. In the early 1950s, Hudson worked on Westerns with names like The Lawless Breed and Horizons West.
But when he finally came face-to-face with his biggest break yet, he faced an onset nightmare.
Even on the set of his blockbuster Magnificent Obsession, Hudson was wracked with nerves, and the consequences were horrifically embarrassing. While acting opposite his co-star Jane Wyman, Hudson still kept forgetting lines, forcing scenes to go for 30 or even 40 takes. Wyman’s reaction to her leading man was unforgettable.
Even though Wyman also had to do retakes whenever Hudson messed up, she never got frustrated or made him feel small—and Hudson was forever grateful for her kindness. Years later at a party, he approached her and confessed, "You were nice to me when you didn't have to be, and I want you to know that I thank you and love you for it".
Despite his behind-the-scenes struggles, Hudson powered through—and stepped onto an exciting and terrifying new path.
In 1954, Hudson became a sensation. His work in the romantic drama Magnificent Obsession made practically everyone with a pair of eyes, well, obsessed with him. The film was a box office smash hit, and one magazine named Hudson as 1954’s most popular actor. Fame had finally found Hudson…but fate had some disturbing curveballs to throw his way.
Throughout all his years in Hollywood, Hudson struggled with his biggest secret: He was gay. Many co-stars and producers knew about his sexuality, but the public was entirely unaware, thanks in large part to his many handlers who suppressed the information in the papers. Even so, Hudson still had to go to disturbing lengths to keep it hidden.
Without a doubt, Hudson’s most famous film role was in the 1956 classic Giant alongside his fellow matinee idol James Dean and screen siren Elizabeth Taylor. Today, however, the film is infamous. It was the last of Dean’s starring roles, and he tragically perished in a car crash before the flick was even finished. Yet that was far from the only scandal on set.
Hudson and Taylor got along very well…but maybe a little too well. Hudson had actually hand-picked Taylor to be cast over Grace Kelly in the film, and the pair apparently spent the entire shoot living the dream and drinking chocolate martinis together until the crack of dawn. However, some of their late-night hangouts bordered on downright scandalous.
Throughout the shoot, Hudson and Taylor lived across from one another in their private homes. According to witnesses, Taylor would make her way over to Hudson's backyard, dressed only in her negligee. Before long, it was commonplace for the townspeople to sneak a peek at the famous stars dining in the backyard. What's more?
Considering Taylor's skimpy attire, there's no doubt that their boozy soirees had tongues wagging. James Dean and Hudson, however, were an entirely different story.
According to reports, Dean was an absolute terror while filming Giant, and he directed most of his rage at Hudson. He didn’t like that he received a lesser billing than Hudson, and resorted not only to urinating on set to mark his territory, but also to cruelly insulting the more sensitive actor. Except that wasn’t even the worst part.
Dean, whose own sexuality was in flux, despised that Hudson was pretending to be straight. He also accused Hudson of coming onto him. Tormented and pent-up, Dean soon came up with his cruelest taunt yet. One day, he reportedly tackled Hudson and French-kissed him. But this was only the beginning of Hudson's troubles.
In 1955, the secret of Hudson’s bedroom preferences almost came to light in the most brutal way imaginable. Confidential magazine contacted Henry Willson and threatened to expose Hudson's lifestyle to the public, complete with all the gory details. In order to hush up the article, Willson had to give up information about his other clients—yet Hudson paid an even higher price.
Although Willson let his clients Rory Calhoun and Tab Hunter take the fall instead of Hudson, the burning threat still hung in the air. Very soon after Confidential nearly exposed him, Hudson took desperate measures to make sure it never happened again. As a result, his eyes swung over to Willson's secretary, Phyllis Gates. Being with a woman would certainly be the perfect cover-up...or so he thought.
After a shockingly brief courtship, Rock Hudson married his blushing bride, Phyllis Gates. However, this quickie wedding was one for the books. In fact, things moved so fast that Gates herself admitted she was surprised Hudson even proposed. Spoiler: This did not end well. Though Gates insisted she was in love with Hudson and didn’t marry him to cover up his identity, the couple was doomed to a heartbreaking end.
Rock Hudson was all smiles at his wedding ceremony and reportedly said, "When I count my blessings, my marriage tops the list". Despite his seeming bliss, it didn't take long for this union to go up in flames. Three years after tying the knot, Gates divorced Hudson in 1958, giving "mental cruelty" as her reason. Hudson, for his part, let her go quietly without making a fuss.
Of course, there was far more to the story than met the eye—but it was only until much later that the truth behind his only marriage bubbled to the surface.
Though Hudson meticulously protected the secret of his preferences in the newspapers of the day, he really let loose during late-night Hollywood parties. Apparently, when things got hazy at the star-studded soirées, people would often get the privilege of seeing Hudson dress up in a ballerina costume and twirl around the room.
However, he indulged in very real affairs after the party—and some of them were steamy.
Hudson took many lovers throughout his life, with some of his longest-term partners being Marc Christian and his live-in publicist Tom Clark. Hudson’s most famous conquest, however, is the stuff fanfics are made of. Apparently, the adventurous heartthrob Marlon Brando and Hudson shared at least one sensual night together.
But as heady as his rumored affairs were, there was one hard-hitting romance that Hudson never forgot.
In 1962, Rock Hudson met a dashing film extra named Lee Garlington. At the time, young Garlington had caught wind of the salacious rumors about Hudon's preferences, and later admitted that it sparked his initial interest in the actor: "So I thought, 'Let me get an eye on him.' I stood outside his cottage...He walked out and down the street. He looked back once. That was it".
There was an instant connection between the two men, but it wasn't until later that fate brought them together again.
A year after they locked eyes on one another, a freshly-single Garlington received a very intriguing call. It was one of Hudson's friends, asking if he had any interest in meeting the actor himself. For Garlington, this first meeting was utterly nerve-racking. He showed up at Rock Hudson's Beverly Hills mansion, shaking in his shoes and completely unsure of what to expect.
He had no clue that he was embarking on the wildest rollercoaster of his life.
Hudson's towering stature and handsome face were one thing, but his intimidating presence completely overwhelmed his young conquest. Garlington remembered, that he offered him a drink, "but nothing happened. Literally. I was too scared. He said, ‘Well, let’s get together,’ and we did". After that surreal introduction, Hudson and Garlington threw themselves into a relationship with reckless abandon—but it wasn't without its risks.
So began one of Hudson's most torrid affairs. In the evenings, he'd welcome Garlington into his home, spend the night with him, and then bid him adieu in the morning. His lover would leave just before dawn, sneaking out at 6 am. To avoid alerting the neighbors, Garlington would coast his Chevy Nova down the street, refraining from using the engine.
Both parties thought themselves to be exceedingly clever—and, thinking they were experts of deception, they made some very bold moves.
Rock Hudson dared to bring Lee Garlington to movie premieres with him—but he made sure to take the necessary precautions. Both men always brought along a female date. Hudson was no fool: He knew that coming out would destroy his career. But that didn't mean that other Hollywood stars weren't aware of his darkest secret.
There were many people who turned a blind eye to Hudson's gay truth. Garlington later recounted an unsettling red carpet event where he met the blue-eyed star Paul Newman: "Once we met Paul Newman and his wife at a premiere. He looked at me and smiled. I just read in his face—that maybe he knew Rock and I were together. We kind of laughed about it".
Hudson never feared that Garlington would expose him, but his sense of security shifted after he experienced a very close call.
When Hudson and Garlington took a road trip together, an unhinged fan broke into the star's mansion and slept in his bed. Luckily, she never discovered the shirtless pictures of Garlington that just happened to grace Hudson's bedside table. This dramatic event changed the way Hudson regarded his privacy. Suddenly nothing seemed safe from prying eyes.
Shaken by the break-in, Hudson put gates on his house to secure his peace of mind. However, the scare wasn't enough for him to give up Garlington altogether...not yet, at least. On the surface, his professional life seemed as flawless as ever: He went to work every day and kissed his leading ladies. But behind closed doors, Hudson continued to show his lover how much he truly meant to him.
Hudson and Garlington shared a simple love. They hung out at the mansion, went on spontaneous road trips, and visited county fairs. They relished in the moments when Hudson could slip through the fingers of his handlers. However, one trip, in particular, stood out. Hudson's good friend Liz Taylor recommended Puerto Vallarta as a quiet getaway for the couple.
She was right. The trip was unforgettable.
While on vacation, Hudson let his guard down. The quiet beach town afforded the lovebirds some rare anonymity. Together, they strolled along the shore, snapping pictures of one another. Garlington later remembered, "We just lived the life of two normal gay men that loved one another. There were no paparazzi and no one knew we were there. We were just comfortable being us".
But despite this fairytale respite from their secrecy, the couple still paid a serious price for their love.
There is only one picture of Hudson and Garlington together—a stolen snapshot taken at a New Orleans bar. Hudson's agent had explicitly instructed him to never have his picture taken with his boyfriend, as it would arouse suspicion and confirm the rumors. So, despite the intensity of Hudson's feelings, the actor had but few mementos of his time with Garlington.
Instead, he carried these heart-wrenching memories with him for the rest of his life. Because in the end, their romance was never able to go the distance.
By 1965, Garlington came to a heartbreaking revelation. Hudson wasn't everything he wanted in a partner. You see, behind the macho gruff, the actor was sensitive: "Rock wasn’t a real strong personality. He was a gentle giant". Garlington, meanwhile, was in search of a father figure and Hudson just didn't fit the bill.
But, as we'll see, although they went their separate ways, this story wasn't over yet. Later, Hudson would come to haunt Garlington in the most devastating way.
In Hudson’s later years, a lifetime of repressing his true self took a horrible toll on the actor. Hudson became a heavy smoker and drinker, so much so that he suffered a heart attack in 1981 when he was only in his mid-50s. Even after experiencing the chilling medical scare, Hudson refused to give up his habit. However, considering his chilling fate, these were the least of his worries.
The 80s classic TV show Dynasty was based heavily on Rock Hudson’s blockbuster Giant, so it was natural that the producers asked him to come on board and play Daniel Reece on the series. At first, Hudson was delighted to return to stardom and the spotlight, but it wasn’t long before everyone realized something was very wrong.
Hudson had started using cue cards long ago to help him and his bad memory with lines. Yet while filming Dynasty, the actor didn’t just have difficulty memorizing his lines, he also had trouble even speaking them. It got so bad that the producers had to write him out of the show and give him an off-screen end. Soon enough, the horrifying truth came out.
In 1984, Hudson discovered a strange irritation on his neck and decided to go to a doctor for a routine visit to check it out. The diagnosis he got changed his life. It was no ordinary skin condition; it was a cancerous lesion called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Even worse, the doctor knew what a Kaposi’s sarcoma meant: Hudson had AIDS.
Over the coming months, Hudson took his time coming to terms with the diagnosis. When he started losing weight and looking sick, the actor at first told people that he was suffering from anorexia. After all, not only was AIDS little understood at the time, he felt revealing his diagnosis would all but out him as gay. But whether he told his friends or not, he still had one incredibly hard thing left to do.
Shortly after Hudson got his diagnosis, four men got strange letters in the mail. When they opened them, their blood must have run cold. In the messages, Hudson anonymously informed them of his illness, writing: "We recently [slept] together...Please go to your doctor and have a check-up".
Tragically, at least one man, a 22-year-old who had slept with Hudson very briefly, found out he had the disease the very next day.
Over the next months, Hudson continued to work, all while secretly traveling to France to find a cure and try out experimental treatments. But the end was closing in. On July 21, 1985, Hudson collapsed in a Paris hotel. Though his publicist now claimed he had liver cancer, more and more people were starting to get suspicious.
One of Hudson’s most memorable and heartbreaking appearances on TV came just a few months before he passed. In 1985, his old co-star Doris Day—with whom he starred in classics like Pillow Talk—invited Hudson onto her show Doris Day’s Best Friends. Hudson happily agreed, but when he showed up on set, Day took one look at him and nearly burst into tears.
By then, AIDS had ravaged his body, and he was pale and gaunt. He still hadn’t told the public or even most of his friends about his condition, but Day and everyone else knew all wasn't right.
Day remembered her last moments with Hudson in excruciating detail. She later related how Hudson was too sick to even eat lunch, and that she tried to cherish every second with him. As she recalled, "We kissed goodbye and he gave me a big hug and he held on to me. I was in tears. That was the last time I saw him—but he’s in heaven now".
By this time, it was finally time for Rock Hudson's secrets to come spilling out.
By July 25, 1985, Hudson was so sick that his publicist finally had to reveal the tragic truth: He was indeed dying of AIDS. The news rocked the world. Hudson was one of the very first celebrities in history to openly admit to an AIDS diagnosis, and it fundamentally shifted the conversation about the misunderstood, ravaging disease. The public's reaction to the news was staggering.
For all that Hudson was terrified of disclosing his disease and thus (to him) his identity as a gay man, he need not have been. After Hudson finally confessed his real illness, there was an outpouring of love, grief, and support from his friends and fans. More than that, his announcement skyrocketed the number of contributions people made to AIDS research.
As actress Morgan Fairchild said, Hudson the disease a face". But that didn’t mean the reaction was all good…
After Hudson admitted he had AIDS, people made one disturbing connection. Months before, Hudson had shared an open-mouth kiss during a scene in Dynasty with actress Linda Evans. Though we know today that AIDS isn’t transmitted through saliva alone, back then, the CDC issued a warning saying it could. Many thought Hudson was wrong to not disclose his status to his co-star—but even more, controversy lay ahead.
Not everyone agrees that Hudson was gay. Some critics claim that, especially in his early years, Hudson engaged more in bi behaviors with certain actresses—and one of them says she has the receipts. Blonde beauty Mamie Van Doren claims that she and Hudson once got hot and heavy after a studio-arranged date. With Hudson's laundry pinned up for all to see, however, the damaging rumors had only just begun.
Even the steamy affairs Hudson wasn’t having almost ruined his life. In the early 1970s, a rumor went around that Hudson and his good friend Jim Nabors had married in a secret ceremony. Though Nabors was gay—and very closeted—the pair really were only friends. Yet after the vicious rumor spread, it destroyed their friendship forever.
One of the last people to ever see Hudson alive was his lifelong friend Liz Taylor. After she saw Hudson strapped to an IV and slipping in and out of a coma, her response was absolutely heartbreaking. She became a tireless crusader for understanding and sympathy about AIDS, later pleading to the public, "Please God, he did not die in vain".
On October 2, 1985, Hudson passed in his sleep while at home. He was 59 years old, and just six weeks shy of his 60th birthday. According to Hudson’s own wishes, his friends cremated his body almost immediately after his passing, and never held a funeral in his honor. It didn’t matter: The world still joined together in mourning their idol.
One person was utterly shocked to hear about the actor’s diagnosis: Hudson’s former lover Marc Christian. Christian claimed that Hudson never told him about his disease, and continued sleeping with him after he knew about his status. Terrified that he had also contracted it, Christian took immediate action and sued Hudson’s estate for "emotional distress".
Luckily, Christian never tested positive, but he did win his case. Of, course Christian wasn't the only ex-boyfriend blindsided by this news. Hudson's long-lost love, Lee Garlington, never saw it coming.
When Lee Garlington heard about Hudson's illness, he was crushed. He tried in vain to get in contact with Hudson, but the actor's caretakers dealt him a devastating blow. They informed Garlington that Hudson was so ill, he probably wouldn't even remember him. Gutted, he had no choice but to listen to their advice and take solace in his beloved memories. But wait, it gets even sadder.
Down the road, Garlington decided to read Hudson's biography. He was devastated by what he read on the page. In it, Hudson referred to him as his "true love". Garlington's reaction was harrowing: "I broke down and cried. I just lost it. He said his mother and I were the only people he ever loved. I had no idea I meant that much to him".
In Hudson’s final days, he worried deeply about his soul. As a child, he was Roman Catholic but later became an atheist. Nonetheless, in his last moments, he begged to confess to a priest. In some of his last hours on Earth, Hudson repented of his "sins". Though we don’t know exactly what he said, it may very well have been about his many secrets and gay identity.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, just as their marriage was dissolving, Hudson's wife Phyllis Gates hired a private detective to record her confronting her husband about his bedroom preferences. The tape’s contents would have ruined Hudson. On the recording, Gates asks Hudson about his habits with boys and accuses him of picking men up off the street. But that's not all.
This recorded confrontation began with Gates bringing up a Rorschach test that Hudson had taken. Because he'd seen both butterflies and snakes, she became more convinced than ever that her husband harbored an attraction to men. The image of the butterfly represented feminity while the snake (and its suggestive shape) represented masculinity.
She told Hudson that he had a "problem" and that he should "do something about it". And that's when she broached another scandalous subject matter.
Hudson's wife had a bone to chew with him. She complained that their intimacy was always done at "great speed," asking him, "Are you that fast with boys?" Though Hudson denied picking anyone up, he answered her honestly about sleeping with men, saying he "lasts longer" with boys because "Boys don’t fit". It’s an incredibly frank conversation for a couple in the 1950s.
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