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Letter to Councilman LaBonge
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Review of The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
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"Have you no decency, sir?"
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Review "The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson", by Robert Hofler
Note: a version of this book review appeared in the Los Angeles Times Book Review.     

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." [192]

     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. [91] (The extra "L" in Willson's name remains in ambiguity, not unlike the strange "O" Selznick inserted into his own name, supposedly to suggest "O'Selznick.")

     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." [80] 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" [117]--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" [150] about the two married actors.

     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." [215]

     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 affair.

     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.

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