Almost everyone in the "underground" world
of gay bars in the fifties knew that Rock Hudson was gay.
Even if he had not been unabashedly public in his cruising--the
Farmers Market at 2:00 A.M.--he would have been suspect
during those years of "closetry" simply because
he was one of a stable of handsome, or "pretty,"
young men whom Henry Willson--a notorious and powerful
agent--plucked out of everywhere and transformed into
screen "heartthrobs" with unlikely names, Guy,
Tab, Rory, Troy.
None was more famous than
Rock Hudson. According to Hofler's knowledgeable "The
Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty
Deals of Henry Willson," Willson gave Hudson etiquette
lessons at famous restaurants (forbidding him to gather
dinner dishes), taught him how to speak seductively (forcing
him to scream with a sore throat), had his teeth straightened,
and supported him well during a period of probation. Afterwards,
he lived luxuriously off Hudson's stardom and that of
his other discoveries--until almost all fired him.
Unlikely legend insisted
that he had sex with all his finds. Many were not gay,
though perhaps available. Several resisted his overtures.
Still, Willson's fame was such that squads of hopeful
young men, gay or not, were eager to accept his terms
of probation-- and definitely not because of his physical
appearance: "He had the silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock."
What remains astonishing
about Hudson is that the rest of the world had to wait
30 years--and the tragedy of AIDS--to learn that the ultra-masculine
romantic hero was gay. To achieve necessary concealment,
when reputations were smashed by mere bruiting of homosexuality,
Willson and studio heads resorted to hiring thugs to threaten
death to potential blackmailers.
Though Hofler does not
deal with this aspect, threats to secure a reputation
were not limited to homosexual exposure. When Sammy Davis
Jr.'s dating of Kim Novak threatened to arouse racial
animosity harmful to Harry Cohn's Columbia Pictures, Cohn
hired hit-men to threaten to kill Davis.
Studios dictated rigorous
public behavior for gay stars. At hints of exposure, Hudson
quickly married Willson's secretary. A cadre of young
actresses accompanied gay stars to Hollywood events, as
escorts and purported objects of courtship. Photographs
of actresses Terry Moore, Vera Allen, Natalie Wood, and
others appeared with gay dates. Dippy gossip columnist
Louella Parsons announced spurious romances, including
Willson and Margaret Truman's.
Those protective subterfuges
were occurring during the "red witch-hunts"
led by Senator Joseph McCarthy through the House Un-American
Activities Committee, a campaign that spread from exposing
"commies" to exposing "queers" in
government, a dangerous time Hofler vividly evokes.
Even the FBI became involved
in an investigation of Hudson's sex activities, despite
the fact that insiders knew that FBI head J. Edgar Hoover
was gay and, it was steadfastly rumored, had appeared
at a New Year's eve party in drag with his friend Cardinal
Spellman. The bully at McCarthy's right hand was Roy Cohn,
who eventually died of AIDS, and who, during the hearings
to expose "commies and queers," was accompanied
by his lover, David Schine.
Exposure was not the only
reason for hiding. A sex act in private between consenting
adults was punishable with years in prison. Men dancing
with men in clubs might be arrested for "lewd conduct."
A vice raid on an innocuous pajama party netted Arthur
Gelien, who five years later became Tab Hunter.
Wily maneuvers witnessed
by this reviewer were needed to overcome such arrests.
In a club in Topanga Canyon, lights flashing off and on
warned same-sex couples on the dance floor to shift partners.
Gay men would dance with lesbians, a legal coupling. Thwarting
a raid by provoking embarrassment, the pianist in a Hollywood
gay bar would burst into the strains of the bridal march
when a cop and a member of the shore patrol were identified
walking down the stairs together like a couple.
Hofler chronicles Willson's
life of privilege. He roams through the origins of his
paradoxical right-wing attitudes, early intrigues to obtain
power, conspiracies hatched in glamorous fabled night
clubs, the Trocadero, the Macombo. He describes nasty
sexual antics among powerful studio heads.
David O. Selznick searched
magazines for pictures of pretty girls whom Willson would
bring to him for private "auditions." "There
is no expense, as she is coming to Los Angeles in two
weeks to visit her brother," Willson reported about
a certain girl.  (The extra "L" in Willson's
name remains in ambiguity, not unlike the strange "O"
Selznick inserted into his own name, supposedly to suggest
Harry Cohn had a passageway
built connecting his office to the dressing room of contract
actresses. Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century-Fox stopped
his workday at 4 p.M. for private "interviews"
of would-be starlets. Unlike Willson's proteges, few of
the starlets so "auditioned" by Selznick, Cohn,
and Zanuck ever appeared in movies.
Hofler's book is a trove
of enticing gossip and little-known facts--he reminds
that Willson represented not only "pretty boys"
but famous female stars, including Lana Turner, whom he
claimed to have discovered when she was sixteen. To assure
early attention for Hudson, Willson had him and Vera Allen,
in bathing suits, painted gold to represent "twin
oscars" at a Hollywood Press Photographers Ball.
On first seeing herself on film, famous beauty Lana Turner
said: "I hope I don't look like that." 
Willson had A- and B-list parties, the former for his
handsomest "boys" and their most powerful potential
mentors; the second for lesser boys, lesser mentors.
He was not the only one
in Hollywood who had such dual standards. Years ago this
reviewer attended one of Director George Cukor's "boys'
dinners" by his statue-outlined pool; he and others
were served skimpy stew. The next day Vivien Leigh was
to be Cukor's guest; she would not be served stew.
A dishy tone creeps into
the book. Too much is attributed to "Anonymous."
While implicitly decrying contrived gossip, Hofler contributes
his own. A weak disclaimer--"[it] may reveal more
about the teller" --precedes a lengthy heated
account so titillating that it will be repeated as fact
although it is clearly fantasy, Willson's or the teller's.
It involves two of Willson's
handsomest discoveries, one blond and all-American, the
other swarthy and rough, supposedly found by Willson as
he roamed about the city in a rainstorm and recognized
the parked car of one of the two. Braving the rain, he
saw the two actors coupling noisily in the car while thunder
clapped in awe.
It must have been a very
cramped situation for two six-foot-plus-tall actors in
the back of a Jaguar coupe, especially given the act purportedly
performed and the intimate details gleaned by the agent
spying. At the end of this absurd tale, Hofler seems to
authenticate it through a gossipy minor actor, "who
believed every word of it"  about the two married
In one major area, Hofler's
book disappoints seriously. Because he conveys too little
of their vulnerability and pathos--at times seeming to
snicker at them--the pretty boys remain mostly one dimensional.
Whatever their eagerness to become stars at any cost,
that group of young men is not unworthy of compassion.
Hofler quotes a particularly fatuous Tennessee Williams
line, "The beautiful make their own rules."
That may be so for a brief
time. After that terminal period, a less glamorous story
usually occurs. Rock Hudson ended up a shell of himself,
dying with AIDS, hounded afterwards by the man he lived
with last. Troy Donohue, old, developed arthritis and
succumbed to the effects of Vioxx. Nor were all the pretty
boys blessed by stardom. Many disappeared with fading
memories of possibility. Hofler does not wonder where.
Hofler proffers a likely
answer for the decline of Willson and the reign of his
pretty boys: harsh social upheaval--he pinpoints the Watts
Riots. Another reason was put forth by Hudson himself,
"the uglies" took over. Method actors groaned,
contorted, twisted, and gave birth to Dustin Hoffman,
Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, bullying away the pretty boys,
although never entirely; witness soap operas and Abercrombie
& Fitch catalogues.
The closets in are still
overcrowded with Hollywood players terrified of being
thought gay. Rap singers resort to homophobic lyrics to
assert their heterosexuality. Marriages of convenience
still occur. Middle-aged actors perform silly antics to
profess raging heterosexual romance. Tom Cruise went to
court to have a judge decree that he "is not, and
never has been, homosexual and has never had a homosexual
The fascinating world
Hofler so ably depicts is finally a sad one. Henry Willson,
the rich famous star-maker, died penniless in a retirement
home, virtually all of his discoveries having scurried
away to other agents because of the lingering gay association
his name evoked. There is no headstone on his grave.