Homo confidential

From blackmail to fake marriages, Tab Hunter and Rock Hudson led strange double lives as '50s heartthrobs who were secretly gay.

Published October 19, 2005 2:30PM (EDT)

Even as a kid, watching "Pillow Talk" on Dialing for Dollars during the long, rainy afternoons of the pre-cable era, I knew there was something odd about Rock Hudson. Apparently, a sex comedy can be so devoid of sexual energy that even a child in the latency stage will notice its absence. Later, when I went off to college in the San Francisco Bay Area, I learned what "everyone" knew: Rock Hudson was not only gay, he was the basis for the closeted movie star who romanced one of the male characters in Armistead Maupin's serialized novel "Tales of the City." That, I figured, explained Hudson's implausible performances. Unlike other gay performers, he wasn't a good enough actor to convincingly simulate the lust for Doris Day that he never personally felt.

On the other hand, the bizarre, glossy comedies Hudson made with Day were huge hits. Plenty of Americans bought Hudson as a heterosexual leading man, enough to make him the No. 1 box office attraction for several years in the '50s and '60s. Enough to prompt shrieks of shock and disbelief throughout the land when Hudson died of AIDS in 1985.

Now, having read Robert Hofler's "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson," I have a better understanding of what made Hudson so stilted on-screen. His desire for his leading ladies was patently artificial, yes, but so were his teeth, his walk, his voice, even his smile. Rock Hudson was a male Eliza Doolittle, the masterpiece of Henry Willson, who fabricated a matinee idol out of the raw material of one Roy Fitzgerald, a gauche former sailor and truck driver who could barely cross a room without tripping over his own feet when the two men first met in 1947.

Willson, who started out writing puffery about a set of young film actors for fan magazines in the early 1930s, was a star-maker of genius. Although for a while he worked with the legendary producer David O. Selznick during Selznick's less than glorious post-"Gone With the Wind" years, mostly Willson was an agent. For a time he was one of the most powerful in Hollywood, and eventually he was -- to use a term Hofler is particularly fond of -- the most notorious.

Willson represented some big female stars in addition to Hudson: Natalie Wood, Joan Fontaine and Lana Turner, whom he discovered. (He also saw the potential in Montgomery Clift and Alain Delon, though he failed to sign them on.) But Willson's specialty was handsome, strapping young men, each of whom he rechristened with some preposterously butch moniker: Guy Madison (who inspired a journalist to coin the term "beefcake"), Troy Donahue, John Saxon, Rad Fulton, Race Gentry, Cal Bolder, Clint Connors, etc., even a pair of twins he renamed Dirk and Dack Rambo. Acting ability wasn't required, conventional good looks were a must and willingness to have sex with the ferret-faced Willson was -- while not absolutely necessary -- very, very strongly encouraged.

This Article

"The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson"

By Robert Hofler

Carroll & Graf
470 pages

Buy this book

"Tab Hunter Confidential"

By Tab Hunter

Algonquin Books
358 pages

Buy this book

"The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson" is a gritty, often coarse but well-researched biography of a tough Hollywood power broker famous for his "Adonis factory." Its counterpart, also just published, is "Tab Hunter Confidential," the autobiography of an Adonis and former Willson client. Hunter tells the story of prefab '50s stardom from the other side of the contract. His career was fairly brief; he was a teen idol, swamped with fan letters and photo requests from pubescent girls for a few years (he received 62,000 valentines in 1956), but he never succeeded in landing any really memorable film roles. Even in Hunter's heyday, people joked about his synthetic persona the way they joke today about teenybopper acts like Jesse McCartney and Ashlee Simpson. When Hunter's fame began to dim, he resorted to cheesy B-movies with titles like "Operation Bikini" and an endless grind of dinner-theater engagements that helped him pay the rent and support his ailing mother.

For all that, Hunter seems astonishingly free of bitterness. Most of his indignation is reserved for scandal sheets and two-faced directors and performers who buttered him up in person then, years later, mocked his work. Today, he lives with his younger partner, a producer, and still keeps a hand in the business; he's a living testimonial to the idea that a sweet disposition is its own reward. The smart, cynical, ruthless Willson wound up a paranoid wreck of a charity case, living in the Motion Picture Country Home, a sort of rest home for indigent show business people, until he died in 1978. As Hofler points out with relish, the master name inventor died without enough funds to put his own name on his grave.

Willson was never able to adjust to the transformation of Hollywood in the post-studio era, or to reconcile himself to the fact that he couldn't keep spending money the way he did at the peak of Rock Hudson's fame. (To be fair, much of that money he spent freely and generously on his young clients.) Hunter, by contrast, was flexible enough (and hip enough) to recognize a good thing when cult director John Waters called up to ask him to star in "Polyester" in the early '80s. His agent at the time was horrified by the idea of Hunter starring alongside the transvestite icon Divine, but the role rejuvenated Hunter's career.

The most fascinating parts of both these books describe what it was like to be a prominent gay man in 1950s Hollywood. According to Hunter, there was an unspoken gentlemen's agreement with the industry and press: "the rule was, act discreetly, and people would respect your right to privacy. I'd mastered it." Hunter's longest affairs during this time, with the figure skater Ronnie Robertson and fellow actor Anthony Perkins, took place beneath the radar of even the most avidly dirt-sniffing tabloids.

Willson made a point of never living with another man and was draconian in enforcing the same rule with his clients. He was known to drive past a young actor's house in the dead of night to make sure another man's car wasn't injudiciously parked out front. Those who disobeyed soon saw the roles dry up; Willson didn't want to invest too much effort in a wannabe star who wouldn't play by the rules. Although he regularly took specimens from his stable of pretty boys to clubs and restaurants, he was never seen with less than two at a time. As he saw it "three men always translated as a night out with the boys, two men read as a date."

Willson, like his clients, made a practice of escorting an assortment of actresses and other well-known women to premieres and parties. Willson planted items about his "engagements" to several such notables, including the president's daughter, Margaret Truman, in the press (an engagement that goes unmentioned in her memoirs, written only a few years later). Hunter had an entire alternate-universe love life in fan magazines, where articles elaborated on the ups and downs of his romances with Natalie Wood and Debbie Reynolds. At the peak of "Sigh Guy" mania, whole magazines were devoted to Hunter, featuring fake interviews with Wood about what sorts of presents Hunter gave her and stories elucidating "What Every Girl Should Know About Tab Hunter." The man himself (real name, Art Gelien), was baffled: "Why did so many people want to see me in these absurdly fake situations?" he writes. "Tab Hunter tries on a sport coat! Tab Hunter goes on a picnic! Tab Hunter water-skis!"

In fact, Hunter's stardom happened in the press more than on the screen. "Despite being the subject of a publicity barrage," he writes of the first year or so, "I couldn't get work." He had to either go back to his pre-acting jobs of scooping ice cream and mucking out stables or, as Willson preferred, collect unemployment. "Heading to that ugly redbrick government building," Hunter writes, "I'd pass a newsstand where the latest issues of Photoplay and Movie Life detailed my whirlwind life as a new screen sensation."

Celebrity journalism was at least as potent in Hunter's day as it is now; back then it could manufacture its own world. "Those magazines created Tab Hunter, virtually out of whole cloth," Hunter writes, and he credits them over Willson in making his name. This seems a bit unfair, as Willson was a master at using the press -- particularly party photographs. Once Lana Turner became a star, Willson privately set her up with sex dates (according to Hofler, they both appreciated well-endowed young men). In return she agreed to attend a premiere with Willson protigi Rory Calhoun (in reality an ex-con named Francis Durgin). Willson cannily suggested that Turner wear white fur, to play up the contrast between the actress' blondness and Calhoun's wolfish, black-Irish good looks and dark suit. The photos of the pair are still striking, shot through with all sorts of vaguely taboo sexual innuendo, and they caused a sensation. Up to that point, Calhoun had uttered precisely one line on film.

Another Willson publicity coup helped launch Rock Hudson, initially a marginally competent actor who needed 36 takes to correctly cough out the line "You've got to get a bigger blackboard" in Raoul Walsh's "Fighter Squadron" (1949). Willson had Hudson and well-known dancer-actress Vera-Ellen attend the fancy dress Press Photographers Ball as twin Oscar statues, covered in gold body paint. (À la "Goldfinger," the paint nearly asphyxiated Hudson.) Again, the photographs were plastered everywhere.

With Hudson, however, Willson had found both the supreme creation of his star-making career and a source of perpetual worry. Unlike Hunter, Hudson was anything but discreet. One of Hofler's sources remembers meeting the star at L.A.'s Farmer's Market at 2 a.m., openly cruising for men. "Henry had his standards," said Willson's assistant, "but Rock would sleep with anyone." Hudson seems to have tried to accomplish just that, demanding sexual favors ("the Rock trap") from Willson clients who had landed minor roles in his films, and turning up in search of fresh "talent" for threesomes at Willson's infamously frisky pool parties during the late '50s and early '60s. "Rock's sex drive was enormous," Van Williams, another Willson client, told Hofler.

As a result, Willson had his hands full fending off blackmailers and spurned lovers once Hudson became a big name. The "dirty deals" of Hofler's title for the most part all trace back to Rock's high jinks. There are the off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officers whom Willson and his on-retainer private detectives hired to rough up the guy with the photos of Hudson in flagrante delicto and the boyfriend who threatened to go public unless he was allowed to sit next to Hudson at events. Yet another client insists that he heard Willson call in a bunch of favors from the Mob (he'd provided stars for the opening nights of Las Vegas clubs) to get two of Hudson's blackmailers "rubbed out."

The great nemesis of gay Hollywood during the '50s was Confidential magazine, a scurrilous scandal sheet that reported on peccadilloes the mainstream press and fan magazines wouldn't touch. Confidential had a standing offer for dirt on Hudson, and two of the star's ex-lovers had turned down $10,000 offers to tell their stories. It was only a matter of time until Confidential got something juicy on Hudson.

Hence one of the dirtiest deals in Willson's résumé: In 1955, he fed Confidential information on the criminal past of Rory Calhoun, his own client, and Tab Hunter, whom Willson had never forgiven for firing him and signing on with his archrival, agent Dick Clayton. Hofler maintains that it's common knowledge that Willson made this trade -- dirt on Calhoun and Hunter (who was picked up in a raid on a gay party in 1950) in exchange for protection for Rock Hudson. Hunter doesn't seem to be aware of it, to judge from his book. In later years, Willson took to claiming that J. Edgar Hoover would "take care" of any blackmailers for him, and Hofler comes up with some mighty suggestive, if inconclusive remarks about an "informant" in the FBI file on Hudson.

Surprisingly, the Confidential exposés did little to hurt Calhoun, whose bad boy image was only burnished by the revelations of his "hardcore criminal past." Even Hunter emerged relatively unscathed. The circulation of Confidential was too small to affect his public image and even when, two years later, Hunter was dragged into a libel trial against the magazine, it didn't affect him much. "In 1957 the mainstream media couldn't even come up with adequate euphemisms for homosexuality -- that's how taboo it still was," he writes. So the press stuck to tales of alleged heterosexual misbehavior and left the more unspeakable rumors alone.

The media did wind up killing Hunter's career, just as he was trying to establish himself as a TV star, but not as a result of his sexuality. He was raked over the coals because his neighbors in Glendale took offense when he rejected their dinner invitations and refused to linger with the local girls who "accidentally" bumped into him outside his front gate. In revenge, they accused him of savagely beating his dog, Fritz, a particularly egregious charge considering Hunter is a great animal lover. He was eventually cleared in a media circus trial, but the damage was done. Ironically, as Hofler points out, "Tab's demise had little to do with a gay arrest, which was completely substantiated, and more to do with the dog-beating charge, which was completely unfounded."

As for Willson's prudence, in the end it didn't really pay off. After narrowly averting a Rock-related crisis, the agent insisted that his top star marry quickly to squelch any further rumors. Willson's own secretary, Phyllis Gates, was the sacrificial beard. To the bitter end, Gates made the improbable claim that she went into it not realizing that Hudson was gay, but for the rest of Hollywood the wedding had the opposite of the intended effect. "When Rock got married -- that's when the industry just laughed itself silly," Debbie Reynolds told a reporter for Buzz magazine. "Then people started talking about [Rock's homosexuality]."

"It was the biggest blow to Henry's career," Van Williams told Hofler. "It put a seal of finality on it, that it was true: Henry was gay, Rock was gay, a number of his clients were gay. He had a lot of straight clients, but they got the reputation: if you're with Henry Willson, you got to be a fag." As Hofler discovered in doing some digging of his own, several former Willson clients -- most notably Robert Wagner -- began to deny that they'd ever worked with him. The man who'd made his name as -- and based his identity on being -- a creator of stars had ended up repelling them.

There are two noteworthy low points described in these books. In "Tab Hunter Confidential," Hunter, caught on the dinner theater treadmill, looks up at the marquee of an establishment where he's set to perform that night and sees that the sign reads not "Tab Hunter in Bye Bye Birdie" but "Special Tonite: Lobster $9.95." In "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson," Willson, by 1972, is reduced to bartering his antiques and silverware with his housekeeper in exchange for her continued services: "I'll give you this lamp if you stay another week."

Both incidents are mortifying, but instructively so. Hunter, blessed with the virtue of humility, has lived to offer up his own setbacks for laughs. He might have played Hollywood's game, but he didn't invest in it or believe in it too deeply, and when it was time to let go, he did. Cheap lobster outranked him on the marquee, but he was working. Willson, by contrast, was pathetically trying to shore up a lifestyle he could no longer afford by selling it off piece by piece. Willson was a brilliant identifier of talent, a consummate showbiz professional, a double-crosser, a cutthroat competitor, a shark. Hunter was a modest talent, an innocent, starry-eyed and inconveniently idealistic. It's funny which one turned out to be the real survivor.

This story has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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