October 2nd. 1985: The Life and Death of Rock Hudson (November 17, 1925 – October 2, 1985)
In the 1980’s Rock Hudson, a leading Hollywood actor, became the first major celebrity to die of AIDS-related complications.
While his career developed in 1950’s Hollywood, Rock Hudson and his agent Henry Willson kept the actor’s personal life out of the headlines. In 1955, Confidential magazine threatened to publish an exposé about Hudson’s secret homosexual life. Willson stalled the article by disclosing information about two of his other clients. Willson provided information about Rory Calhoun‘s years in prison and the arrest of Tab Hunter at a gay party in 1950. According to some colleagues, Hudson’s homosexual life was well known in Hollywood throughout his career, and former co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Susan Saint James claimed that they knew of his homosexuality, as did Carol Burnett.
Soon after the Confidential incident, Hudson married Willson’s secretary Phyllis Gates. Gates filed for divorce after three years in April 1958, citing mental cruelty. Hudson did not contest the divorce and Gates received alimony of $250 a week for 10 years. Gates never remarried.
An urban legend states that Hudson “married” Jim Nabors in the early 1970s. Not only was same-sex marriage not recognized under the laws of any American state at the time, but, at least publicly, Hudson and Nabors were nothing more than friends. According to Hudson, the legend originated with a group of “middle-aged homosexuals who live in Huntington Beach” sent out joke invitations for their annual get-together. One year the group invited its members to witness “the marriage of Rock Hudson and Jim Nabors”, at which Hudson would take the surname of Nabors’ most famous character, Gomer Pyle, becoming Rock Pyle.
The “joke” was evidently already in the mainstream by the very early 1970s. In the October 1972 edition of MAD magazine (issue no. 154), an article entitled “When Watching Television, You Can be Sure of Seeing…”, gossip columnist ‘Rona Boring” (a take on then gossip columnist Rona Barrett) states: “And there isn’t a grain of truth to the vicious rumor that movie and TV star Rock Heman and singer Jim Nelly were secretly married! Rock and Jim are just good buddies! I repeat, they are not married! They are not even going steady!” Those who failed to get the joke spread the rumor and as a result, Hudson and Nabors never spoke to each other again.
Shortly after Hudson’s press release disclosing his illness, William M. Hoffman, the author of As Is, a play about AIDS that appeared on Broadway in 1985, stated: “If Rock Hudson can have it, nice people can have it. It’s just a disease, not a moral affliction.”
At the same time, Joan Rivers was quoted as saying: “Two years ago, when I hosted a benefit for AIDS, I couldn’t get one major star to turn out. … Rock’s admission is a horrendous way to bring AIDS to the attention of the American public, but by doing so, Rock, in his life, has helped millions in the process. What Rock has done takes true courage. Morgan Fairchild said that “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face. In a telegram Hudson sent to a September 1985 Hollywood AIDS benefit, Commitment to Life, which he was too ill to attend in person, Hudson said: “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.”
Hudson, a friend of Ronald Reagan and his wife Nancy, made a simple plea to the White House for help to get him transferred to a hospital in France in his greatest hour of need.
“Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” Dale Olson, Hudson’s longtime friend and publicist wrote. Although the commanding officer had denied Hudson admission to the French military hospital initially, Olson wrote that they believed “a request from the White House … would change his mind.”
First Lady Nancy Reagan turned down the request.
On the morning of October 2, 1985, Hudson died in his sleep from AIDS-related complications at his home in Beverly Hills at age 59, less than two months before what would have been his 60th birthday. Hudson requested that no funeral be held. His body was cremated hours after his death and a cenotaph was later established at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Cathedral City, California.
Hudson’s revelation had an immediate impact on the visibility of AIDS, and on the funding of medical research related to the disease. Among activists who were seeking to de-stigmatize AIDS and its victims, Hudson’s revelation of his own infection with the disease was viewed as an event that could transform the public’s perception of AIDS.