ROCK HUDSON'S story is flip-page horror, evoking pity -- and terror. It is a story of deceit, dishonor, and personal pain perversely high-stepping into heroic myth. Hudson lived a star's life, and, in October 1985, died a star's death, viewed by the world as the ultimate victim.
Sara Davidson, Hudson's authorized biographer, sees Hudson as a hero in spite of himself -- that is, a man catapulted into legend by circumstance. Her book, Rock Hudson: His Story, doesn't pull any punches: when Hudson was diagnosed with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the actor did not inform his male lover, or his weight-trainer (whom he may or may not have had sex with), or Linda Evans, the actress he kissed on Dynasty (or "Die Nasty," as Hudson called the show). Although there is no clear evidence that the AIDS virus may be transmitted through saliva -- unlike through blood and sperm -- Hudson made a "career decision" to kiss the actress without informing her about the possible risk. "Rock's career," Davidson writes, "had always been the ruling priority; all other considerations came afterward. It was a ruthless, tunnel vision he had applied to all decisions in his life, and it did not change."
Davidson doesn't coddle Hudson, nor does she exploit him. She is aware of all the ambiguities of the situation -- the contradictions, the issues and stakes involved -- and remains clear-headed throughout. Yes, Rock Hudson's secret life is out; it has raised public consciousness (who else do Ronald and Nancy Reagan know who has had AIDS?) about the terrible disease while other famous persons -- soap actors, designers, lawyers -- go to their graves, their "image" intact. (That, of course, gets all of us nowhere.) But this is the story of a single man, how he coped with the hand life dealt him. It is also a story about what fear does to "good" people -- how individuals reacted to Hudson's plight. (When rumors began about Hudson's illness, the actor said simply, "The phones died.") In the end, it seemed, ironically so, that the only ones who did not shrink away were his fans.
Davidson works like a detective, piecing together an enormous jigsaw puzzle. She had full access to the Hudson inner sanctum -- those life-long friends who supported and stonewalled to the end. She interviewed Hudson's ex-wife Phyllis Gates, who has not spoken previously about her "arranged" (more ambiguities) marriage to the star 30 years ago. Names are named, accusations recorded and weighed, and Hudson's hedonism is laid bare. Davidson's critical distance makes the smallest of gestures incredibly poignant: when Hudson was flying back from Paris after experimental therapy, helpless and without companionship, his French publicist kissed him goodbye. Hudson looked up, astonished. "You're really not afraid . . . to touch me?" All his life everybody wanted a piece of the rock; now he had become an untouchable.
Hudson's life was one of willful passivity. Hollywood changed his name from Roy to Rock, shaped his image as he was transformed from "the beefcake baron" to box office boffo. Early on, he was a willing participant on the casting couch. Later, when romantic or business relationships deteriorated, he couldn't bring himself to cut ties. Instead, as Phyllis Gates puts it, "He froze people out." He was a charmer, a coquette. Women felt his sexual magnetism, adored his all-American image. The press respected and protected him -- that is, until the '70s when the preposterous rumor spread that Hudson had legally married TV's Gomer Pyle, Jim Nabors. THE HUDSON AIDS story was too big not to break worldwide; when a decision was finally made by the Hudson group to formally announce the actor had been diagnosed with AIDS, Hudson reportedly said, "Okay. Go out and give it to the dogs." After that, plans were made for Davidson to collaborate with Hudson on a biography. The book is already the subject of controversy, because another biography, Idol, by Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek, charges that Hudson was too ill in his final month to participate in the book or to play any part in the decision-making in the Hudson organization.
There is some evidence to support that claim. Davidson relies heavily on a Southern Methodist University oral history project Hudson participated in in which he discussed his career. Also, nowhere does Davidson quote Hudson speaking directly to her on the subject of homosexuality or AIDS. However, it's a moot point. Davidson's book is alive with full-blown character studies, vigorous reportage, stylish writing and wit. (When someone asked Hudson if he knew all the beauties at an all-male party, the star replied, "The blonds are named Scott and the brunets are named Grant.") It is the definitive Rock Hudson biography, and very, very touching.
Idol, on the other hand, is strictly second string. Since the authors were refused interviews with the major people in Hudson's life (except Marc Christian, who has filed a palimony suit against the Hudson estate), the writers zero in on featured players -- Dorothy Malone, Allan Carr, Mamie Van Doren -- Hudson rubbed elbows with. The effect is a bit like kids with their noses pressed up against a window looking in. The unauthorized book picks up toward the end with morbid interviews with Hudson's cremators and a long description of the bizarre prayer meeting held by Shirley and Pat Boone over Hudson's lesion-scarred, pain-wracked body. After some members of the group fell to the floor speaking in tongues, Boone declared that a miracle would happen, and it did: a few hours later Rock Hudson was dead.
Christopher Schemering is the author of "The Soap Opera Encyclopedia."