The Double Life of an Aids Victim

  • "One of these days I'm going to have a lot to tell," Rock Hudson once promised a friend. The day never came, and when Hudson died of AIDS at his home in Beverly Hills last week, his story, as he alone might have told it, died with him. But it was clear that the role he played in life was more dramatic, and infinitely sadder, than any of the parts he had assumed in 65 movies and several TV series. For 37 years he had led a double life: in public he was a romantic star, adored by millions of women, admired by millions of men; in private he was a homosexual who bitterly resented the lies and deceptions that he felt had been forced upon him.

    Yet in one of those plot twists that any screenwriter would have rejected as too improbable to consider, in the last weeks of his life Hudson became perhaps the most famous homosexual in the world, a man whose fatal illness belatedly focused public attention on the disease that killed him. If he had succumbed to a heart attack, his death would probably have occasioned only a brief notice; because he was the most celebrated known victim of AIDS, it became a significant event.

    In keeping with his all-American image, Hudson, 59, was born in the heartland, in Winnetka, Ill. His mother was a telephone operator, and his father, Roy Scherer, was an automobile mechanic who left the family when his son was a child. When his mother remarried, little Roy assumed his stepfather's surname, Fitzgerald. After that, his boyhood was so normal and wholesome that one of his high school chums was later to recall, "It looked like apple pie and ice cream to me." Roy saw wartime service as a Navy airplane mechanic, then headed west to Hollywood. He had once seen Jon Hall swim across a lagoon in John Ford's South Sea romance The Hurricane, and, as he later told it, said to himself, "I can do that."

    And so he could. After hanging around studio gates for several months, he was introduced to famed Agent Henry Willson. "You're not bad looking. Can you act?" asked Willson. "No," said the young man. "What did you say, feller?" asked the incredulous agent. "I said, no, I can't act." To which Willson replied: "Good. I think I can do something for you. Sit down." Willson transformed Roy Fitzgerald into Rock Hudson and secured him an apprenticeship in one of the biggest film factories, Universal Pictures. Fighter Squadron (1948) was his first film. During the next six years, 25 others followed, like The Iron Man and Air Cadet. The studio was his school. By the time his first big picture, The Magnificent Obsession, came along in 1954, he was able to establish his film personality: steady, likable, a man among men.

    The actor who had been inspired by Hall's breaststroke never turned into Laurence Olivier, never attempted the challenging parts taken by such contemporaries as Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift, who reached deep into themselves to express their characters. Hudson knew his limitations, and what he did, he did well. One of his most successful roles was that of the Texas patriarch in Giant (1956), for which he received an Academy Award nomination. His real talent, however, was for light romantic comedy, beginning with Pillow Talk (1959), in which he was first teamed with Doris Day, and ending with his TV series of the '70s, McMillan and Wife. He possessed not only a sure sense of timing but a natural and self-deprecating manner that enabled him to have fun with sex without putting audiences off by actually making fun of sex. His final appearance as an actor was on last season's Dynasty, in which he unsuccessfully chased Krystle (Linda Evans). He was already looking drawn and gaunt, causing many to speculate about his health.

    The public Hudson was summed up by a list of his performances. In private, he had to live by a double standard that seemed, in the last few years, to make him cynical and even resentful. From the moment he attracted enough attention to be noticed by gossip columnists, he had to lie to hide the inescapable fact that he was attracted to men rather than women. In 1955, when a scandal magazine threatened to expose his sexual preference, Universal arranged a hasty marriage of convenience with Henry Willson's secretary Phyllis Gates. Divorce followed.

    Hudson was still hiding as recently as 1980. "Look, I know lots of gays in Hollywood, and most of them are nice guys," he told the London Daily Mirror, which was indelicate enough to ask if he was homosexual. "Some have tried it on with me, but I've said, 'Come on, now. You've got the wrong guy.' " In fact, he had a longtime male lover, and he made no secret of his homosexuality to the show-business friends whose discretion he knew he could count on. His secret became public in July, when he flew to Paris hoping for treatment with an experimental AIDS drug not then available in the U.S. His illness had progressed too far. Several days later, he returned to Los Angeles on a stretcher, in a Boeing 747 that he had chartered.

    The disease took its inevitable course. Hudson was too ill to appear at a Hollywood AIDS benefit on Sept. 19, which raised $1 million. Such an outpouring of money would not have come about had it not been for Hudson's illness. Nor, without the subsequent publicity, is it likely that both houses of Congress would have moved last week toward vastly increasing the appropriations for AIDS research. From his misfortune good fortune may have sprung. His friend and Giant co-star Elizabeth Taylor wrote perhaps the most eloquent epitaph: "Please God, he has not died in vain."