At dinner in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 1976, the writer Armistead Maupin urged Rock Hudson, the twentieth century’s most famously closeted heartthrob, to come out by writing a book. Hudson’s longtime lover, Tom Clark, allegedly protested: “Not until my mother dies.” “I remember thinking,” Maupin recalls, “If I were fucking Rock Hudson, I would have no problem at all telling my mother.” It’s the best line in Mark Griffin’s new biography of Hudson, All That Heaven Allows (Harper, $28.99), and it also neatly sums up the way in which Hudson—known or suspected by many around him to be gay—nevertheless occupied a position as an ideal all-American object of desire, a man so unimpeachably manly that even coming out might not have been enough to ruin the effect.
Hudson’s double life is only one of the classic Hollywood ingredients in his story. There’s the father who walked out one day when Hudson was five (apparently he paid a niece a nickel not to tell anyone he was leaving) and showed up again only when he needed his world-famous son to clear his gambling debts. There’s the poverty; the drunk, violent, pointedly hostile stepfather; the needy mother with whom young Roy Scherer (Hudson’s birth name)took refuge in Saturday matinees. And then there’s the sleazy agent, Henry Willson, whom Roddy McDowall described as “like the slime that oozed out from under a rock you did not want to turn over.” An infamous “manizer,” Willson bedded his six-foot-four client, gave him his campily hypermasculine stage name—the Rock of Gibraltar crashing into the Hudson River—and eradicated all perceptible traces of what Griffin calls Hudson’s “inner sissy.”