It was a crazy day, the kind that made her ask what she had gotten herself into, she confesses in the book. The gardener is making an ice cream sundae in the kitchen, the butler is scurrying across the patio wearing only a towel, the ex-lover is washing his vintage car out front, and Rock Hudson is sitting at the kitchen table reading his mail.

"The first question I asked him was, 'Why do you want to do this book?' " says Sara Davidson, the 43-year-old author of "Rock Hudson: His Story." "It seemed odd," she says. "There I am walking into the house of a man dying of AIDS and he wants to start a book."

She had never written about celebrities. Beverly Hills was, from Davidson's perspective, far from the milieu of "Loose Change," her bestselling book about three women growing up in the 1960s.

According to Davidson, "He said, 'So much expletive has been written about me. It's time to set things straight.' Those are his exact words. I have them on tape. He said, 'It's time to tell the whole story. It's time to tell the truth about me.' "

The statement is part of the controversy surrounding this biography of Hudson -- the number one box office star of the late '50s and early '60s, a matinee idol who hid his homosexuality from the public until he collapsed in a Paris hotel last summer and revealed an even bigger secret -- he was suffering from AIDS.

At issue is whether Hudson was in any condition to cooperate with Davidson on a book that is supposedly their collaboration and bears his name as coauthor. Since last summer, there have been allegations that all this was being done while Hudson was too sick to know about it. After Burt Lancaster read a statement in Hudson's name at an AIDS benefit in Los Angeles last summer, it was revealed that the actor never wrote it -- although he did approve it, according to his publicist, Dale Olson.

*"I don't want to make any false pretenses," Davidson says. "I did not have an enormous amount of time with him. I'm not claiming that I did."

What time she did have was valuable, she says. "About whether he was lucid or not, it was not a thing where he suddenly went snap," Davidson says, snapping her fingers, "and he was a vegetable. It was absolutely not like that. He had good days -- the first day I met him he was downstairs talking to people, telling jokes, entertaining, sharp. He looked me right in the eye. We sat . . . with the tape recorder going and did an interview for 45 minutes. I said to him, 'Are you getting tired?' He said, 'Yeah, a little.' I said, 'Well, I live nearby and I can come by day or night whenever you're up to it.' He said, 'Oh, it's great to have that freedom.' "

On his worst days, "he was asleep, he opened his eyes, smiled . . . or on the other days he would start a sentence and then kind of in the middle lose his train of thought, and up to the end he'd have a great day and then a terrible day."

*She met him Sept. 4, 1985, and until his death Oct. 2, at 59, she went to his sprawling Beverly Hills home -- dubbed The Castle by Hudson's friends -- almost daily, sometimes asking no more than one question or requesting a point of clarification. "You know, he was not an easy interview . . . He did not like talking about himself," she says.

What she found was a "sphinxlike" man, who told different stories of his life to different people. The system may have forced him to lead a double life, but he rarely chafed at Hollywood. He thrived there. "It was his kingdom," says Davidson.

He had a funny retort for everything and he made everyone laugh -- from friends to fellow actors on the set. He was almost childlike in his love of games and skits at parties. He gave pet names to friends as well as the rooms in his beloved Beverly Hills home where he kept lots of dogs and treated the staff like his family.

Davidson longed for enough time to get to the point where she could joke with him. She says she was told by Hudson's associates that he specifically wanted a woman to write his story. "He felt that if a gay man did it, it would be a gay book," Davidson says, " . . . and he felt that if a straight man wrote it, a lot of it would have been threatening and disturbing and that he wouldn't have been able to write with sympathy."

In the end, she says, she had three good 45-minute interview sessions with Hudson. There are few quotes from Hudson to Davidson; she re-creates his voice from recollections of friends and associates and excerpts from the extensive oral history Hudson gave a Southern Methodist University professor three years ago.

*Davidson and Hudson never discussed his feelings about being gay. They only peripherally discussed AIDS.

"When you begin a book with someone you don't just go in there the first day and start firing off the most blunt horrible questions like, 'When did you know you were gay?' 'Why didn't you tell Marc Christian one of his last lovers you had AIDS?' You don't start like that or the person turns off. You have to establish a relationship of trust and openness . . . If I was there long enough and he saw me, we would develop this relationship where he would begin to open up." She pauses. "I didn't have time for that."

And Hudson knew she wouldn't. During one of her early visits to his house, she recalls, in the presence of his longtime friend and secretary, Mark Miller, "he turned to Mark and said, 'You know the whole story. You're going to have to do it for me.' "

The day he died, Davidson was in New York with Miller, interviewing Yanou Collart, the French publicist who made the announcement of Hudson's illness last summer in Paris.

*The last day she saw him, Sept. 30, she was told before going into his room that he was in terrible shape. "I went in and he was sleeping and as I just stood there he opened his eyes and looked at me with clear recognition. And he smiled this smile of such radiance that it absolutely stunned me. It was like there was nothing left in his body . . . He looked right into my eyes -- it wasn't an unfocused thing -- and smiled at me as if there was really a connection there. I said something like 'Rock, we're all praying for you' -- I don't know what I said. And he said, 'Thanks.' "

Despite the joint byline, the book (now No. 3 on The New York Times best-seller list) was really a collaboration with Mark Miller and George Nader -- a longtime couple and 30-year friends of Hudson's -- and Tom Clark, Hudson's former lover who came back to be with Hudson at the end.

As something of a counterpoint to Davidson's book is an "unauthorized" biography called "Idol: Rock Hudson, The True Story of an American Film Hero" by Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek.

Both books reach many of the same conclusions. But Davidson had extraordinary access to the friends and lovers of a man who had zealously guarded his private life, and she sees this as a key to uncovering Hudson.

Oppenheimer has the opposite view. "Miller is a defendant in Marc Christian's lawsuit," Oppenheimer says, referring to the suit by Hudson's lover from whom Hudson withheld information of his illness.

Nonetheless, Davidson has much more about his romantic relationships, more poignant details and more explicit ones, too. Ironically, the overall portrait in the Oppenheimer/Vitek book -- which comes with a slip of paper wrapped around it ominously warning "UNAUTHORIZED" -- is rather gentler than Davidson's. With some exceptions.

Oppenheimer and Vitek contend that Hudson continued to have sex after he was diagnosed as having AIDS.

Davidson portrays Hudson -- especially as the illness progressed -- as ashamed of his disease and disinterested in sex. "I'm not saying he did or he didn't" have sex after his diagnosis, she says. "I couldn't find any evidence." Davidson writes that Hudson was mortified that he had to kiss actress Linda Evans on the set of "Dynasty" and that day used every mouthwash he could get his hands on.

Oppenheimer relates a different story. "There were eight or nine takes," Oppenheimer says. "Rock later boasted to someone that he planted a big fat juicy one on her. I think it was not that he had no concern for this woman but that his mind had just gone up in space by that time."

But the texture of Hudson's life as Davidson portrays it has less to do with AIDS and more to do with the Hollywood star system that molded him and forced him into a double life while making him rich and famous.

"I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a little boy," Hudson said in the SMU interview. "But living in a small town in the Middle West, I didn't say so, because that's just sissy stuff."

So after a boyhood in Winnetka, Ill., just north of Chicago, and a stint in the Navy, Hudson went off to California. He started out an awkward, not particularly handsome, amateurish actor. One of his screen tests at Fox is still shown, Davidson writes, as an example of how far one can go from bad actor to star.

In the end, his first dramatic stumblings didn't matter -- "He had a face which the camera loved," a friend told Davidson.

There were starring roles in B movies and then his first major film, "Magnificent Obsession," in 1954 with Jane Wyman. Hudson and his lover at the time slipped into a sneak preview unbeknownst to the other moviegoers. When the film was over, Hudson ran to his car and sat there sobbing. "He knew at that moment he was a star," Davidson writes. Two years later, George Stevens' film "Giant" won Hudson an Academy Award nomination.

Hudson basked in his stardom. He imperiously set the time when he wanted to see friends, he was rude to waiters and at home, when entertaining guests, he made conversation stop when he answered the phone.

Even so, in Hollywood, Hudson was always considered a generous man. He went wild at Christmas buying gifts for friends. When Watts was burning, Hudson -- never politically active -- drove his housekeeper through riot-torn streets to get a friend of hers and take her back to his Beverly Hills home.

All during this time, Hudson kept his private life and his acting life separate. "This was the 'Dark Ages' when there was no such word as 'gay,' " Davidson writes. "Homosexuals were 'fairies' who were ridiculed and shunned."

One of Hudson's closer calls came in 1954 when the magazine Confidential wanted to write an expose' of Hudson's homosexuality. (The story was never written.) Another close call came in 1971 when a group of gay men sent out gag invitations to a party in honor of Hudson and Jim Nabors' "wedding." The invitation reached a gossip columnist and eventually the false rumor that Hudson and Nabors were a "couple" spread like a brush fire that both Hudson and Nabors had to put out with public statements. According to Davidson, Hudson and Nabors were only casual friends, but the damage was done: Nabors' variety show on CBS was canceled.

All this never quenched Hudson's sexual thirst -- which, as he got older and his career declined, became almost insatiable, the author writes.

"My understanding was that he liked to have one main person and he liked to have other people," Davidson says. " . . . He liked threesomes. He was very interested in sex. He liked the challenge of a new person."

*Sometimes, he asked friends to arrange "beauties parties" for him where 50 beautiful young men -- most of whom Hudson didn't know -- would be invited to the actor's house.

What's amazing was that he never got "caught" in a public sense. "If you . . . invite 50 strange young guys into your house, how do you know one of them isn't going to go right to the National Enquirer and make $10,000 and say, 'I went to this party at Rock Hudson's house and there were 50 young men.' Why didn't anybody do that?" Davidson says.

He also liked women -- and they found him sexually magnetic. Susan Saint James his costar on the popular television show, "McMillan and Wife" told Davidson that she found it hard to believe that Hudson was gay: "I could hug Rock and get goose bumps," she said.

Similarly Doris Day told people who asked, "He seems very straight to me."

There's no better example of this than Phyllis Gates, who married Hudson in 1955. After their divorce three years later, it became Hollywood legend that theirs was the classic studio-arranged marriage. Davidson concludes that no one -- not even Gates herself -- will ever know. She writes that friends who socialized with the couple said they delighted in each other's company, and that Gates was in love with him.

And the marriage appeared to sour for common reasons -- he complained she was nagging and possessive; she said he was never around. "I don't believe he acted with cold calculation; he was a romantic," Davidson writes.

Shortly before he died, Davidson says, Mark Miller asked Hudson who in his life he had really loved, and he mentioned a man named Lee Garlington -- whom Davidson interviews in the book -- and Phyllis Gates.

Hudson never seemed tortured by the burden of two images. "When I started this," Davidson recalls, "my first question was, 'God, how could he have done this? Didn't it cost him? Didn't it hurt him inside? Didn't he pay a price for it?' And finally after three months, everybody saying, 'No,' I thought, 'Well, maybe they know something I don't."

Davidson says Hudson's torment began when his box office slipped in the late '60s. In the '70s, he would end up doing television -- which he had always disdained. Even "McMillan and Wife," a financial and popular success for Hudson, never satisfied him.

According to Davidson, there was some initial awkwardness between Hudson and Saint James, 20 years his junior. He saw her as a flower child who nursed her babies on the set; she saw him as an old-guard movie star who ate steak all the time and made fun of the environmental movement. But they eventually became friends, and their chemistry on screen was dynamite.

"I worshiped that man," Saint James told Davidson. She and her husband went to Hudson's house on Sunday nights to watch the show, and he cuddled her babies on the set.

But depressed by his work, Hudson went through a personal decline, drinking almost constantly. A quintuple heart bypass in 1981 reformed his drinking habits somewhat and gave him a restored outlook on life. Three years later, after a White House dinner, Hudson received a photograph of him with the Reagans, signed warmly by the couple. In the photo, Mark Miller noticed a large pimple on Hudson's neck that had been there for a year. Miller urged Hudson to check it out. The diagnosis came in June 1984. The lesion was Kaposi's sarcoma -- AIDS.

The attention that followed the announcement of his illness stunned him. There were reams of letters, offering support and medicinal cures. An affectionate telegram from Madonna -- he'd never met her -- left him baffled.

"Don't forget Rock was already a star who had waned . . . ," Davidson says. "He was already a has-been . . . suddenly he was in the headlines and on the covers of magazines. He was tickled. He was kind of enjoying the notoriety."

What Hudson did in the year between finding out he had AIDS and telling the world was risky to himself and others: Fortified by the experimental treatment HPA 23, he accepted a role on "Dynasty" even when his Paris doctors advised him to stay in France and receive more treatments.

His lover at the time of his diagnosis -- Marc Christian -- has been examined and shows no signs of the virus; he has, however, filed a suit against the estate. Davidson writes that Hudson never told Christian that he had AIDS because Hudson was afraid Christian would go to a newspaper with the story.

Christian's lawyer, Marvin Mitchelson, says that because the book relies mostly on Nader and Miller, "It's very colored by the fact that they're trying to protect Hudson . It does contain slander."

As for Christian's suit, "The simple fact is that he wasn't told and they continued to have a relationship for almost a year after he was diagnosed . . . Every day of Marc's life if he has a cold or anything, he'll think he has AIDS."

Reaction from Hudson's friends is mixed. "I like the book very much," says Hudson's business manager, Wallace Sheft, who is involved with the AIDS foundation, set up in Hudson's name, that will get a portion of the book profits. "There probably could have been some more compassionate anecdotes."

Dale Olson, Hudson's publicist at the time of his death, said, "I hate it. It's not about the man I knew." Olson does not fault Davidson -- "I think Sara is a good reporter and writer" -- but the people who talked to her. "When I finished reading that book I thought to myself they painted a picture of an egotistical, self-centered, promiscuous, narcissistic faggot. And he wasn't."

Hudson's friend, producer Stockton Briggle, who was at The Castle the day Hudson died says that Davidson "does capture him to a certain extent." But as for his promiscuity: "I was never witness to any kind of sexual excesses," Briggle says. Davidson writes about Hudson making the rounds of gay clubs with a friend in San Francisco. "I never knew him to do anything like that," Briggle says. "I was with him in a number of cities and he never expressed any interest."

Davidson calls her own experience working on the book "just a nightmare . . . " The prospect of the other Hudson biography in the works turned her own project into a "horse race," Davidson says. "I hated it. I gave up a year of my life," she says. "I didn't see my husband for a year. I didn't see my kids."

At the beginning she felt little for Hudson. "I'd never been a big fan of his," she says. " . . . and I was so nervous and uptight at being with a dying man." But after his death, "something strange happened as I began to do the research. I began to fall in love with him. It was almost like from the grave he was charming me."