Skip to content

Rock (of Gibraltar on the) Hudson

The steamy private life of the seismically successful Cinemascope stud

How tall was Rock Hudson?

The answer seems to be ‘it depends’.

Wikipedia and others give his height as 6’4”, which seems to be his ‘official’, ‘studio’ height. But some sources give his height as 6’51/2”, and in the 1959 screwball, saucy (for its time) romantic comedy Pillow Talk – my fave Hudson flick – his fake homo ‘Texan’ alter-ego ‘Rick Stetson’ (clearly a mocking reference to ‘Rock Hudson’), refers to himself as being 6’6”. IMDB points out that in movies where he appeared with that other famously tall actor John Wayne, whose official height was 6’41/2”, Mr Hudson was clearly taller.

For reference, Tom Cruise is nearly a foot shorter, at 5’7” (ish). Cruise has famously spent most of his career making himself look taller, by the deployment of various visual tricks and props – though in 2022, after decades of mockery, he finally, manfully came out at as a short arse at the age of 60 (Top Gun 2 didn’t attempt to increase his stature or reduce that of his co-stars). Hudson by contrast seems for most of his career to have been slightly closeted about exactly how very tall he was.

And 6ft 51/2 is probably too tall today, when each new generation seems to scrape the sky more than the last, but was freakishly tall in the 1950s – even for an all-American corn-fed boy. What’s more, the widescreen camera makes the vertical more noticeable. It’s what sometimes gives his on-screen performances a gracefully-awkward pathos – as he stoops down to the more mortal level of his letter-boxed co-stars, particularly his leading ladies whom he wooed, clinched, and kissed so convincingly, at least in the highly ritualised, post-Hayes style of mid-century Hollywood. His preposterous height is also one of the reasons why I think his real talent was for comedy.

(If you think that I’m making too much of Hudson’s stature, consider that Wikipedia gives the height for male actors such as Hudson and Cruise, but not for female ones such as Doris Day and Nicole Kidman.)

All of which makes the revelation that Mr Hudson was a BIG size queen even funnier. Something, ahem, touched upon in the new Hudson documentary All That Heaven Allowed (now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video), in which he is referred to as ‘the Tom Cruise of his day’ – though Tom Cruise, 61, is now two years older than Hudson was at the time of his death in 1985, at 59.

‘They were mostly young and pretty and showed huge baskets,’ one of Hudson’s gay friends and occasional lovers Joe Carberry says of his boyfriends. The doc, directed by Stephen Kijak, also features a riveting recording of a telephone conversation between Hudson and someone who sounds like an unctuous waiter at a high-class restaurant selling the dish of the day, talking excitedly about a ‘damn fun boy’ who ‘is 6’2” and works out’.

‘How’s the equipment?’ asks Hollywood’s leading male heartthrob, matter-of-factly, in that unmistakable, smooth, deep, Chesterfield king-size voice.

‘Well, the equipment is about, oh, nine inches I’d guess, and he’s very good in that department too.’

Hudson is sold and agrees to meet the ‘fun boy’. I’m sure a good time was had by all.

Hudson died nearly forty years ago from Aids-related illness – very much the ‘gay plague’ at the time – becoming the first and most famous celebrity victim of the disease as well as (very briefly) the first out gay Hollywood star.

There have been of course numerous books and documentaries about Cinemascope’s biggest male attraction, as well as countless newspaper and magazine articles, so much of the story is well-known. The latest re-telling includes the now over-familiar meme/montage of camp clips from his movies, some of them cut to make it seem that he is talking romantically to a male star rather than a female one which, frankly, gets tired quite quickly.

I won’t offer a proper review of the doc, which has its merits as well as some omissions – you can read that here and here – but All That Heaven Allowed’s main claim to relevance is focusing on “the Tom Cruise of his day’s” hidden private gay life. Thus, putting Hudson, a famously ‘closeted’ star of Hollywood movies ‘where everyone was straight and looking to get married’ as one contributor puts it, into the context of the emerging 1970s/80s post-Stonewall out-and-proud gay world. A world that he was never properly part of, nor could he be, except mostly symbolically, right at the end of his life.

Hudson at swim, photographed by his boyfriend Lee Garlington; and with him in Puerto Vallarta, 1963

It features several interviews with surviving gay friends and lovers, along with photos and charming home movie footage of their golden time together. And Armistead Maupin. Rather a lot of Armistead Maupin, who is now seventy-nine, and became a friend of Hudson’s in the late 1970s. Sometimes you almost forget that this is documentary about the demi-god Rock Hudson rather than the slightly less glamorous author of Tales of the City.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I heartily approve of the frankness about filth in the doc. Gay men have a flair for filth. It’s their vocation. So, we learn that size queen Hudson was ‘vers’: a friend recalls a one-off abortive attempt at sex with Hudson, ‘He was quite large, and I couldn’t manage it!’

Another friend, Ken Maley, remembers taking him to a San Francisco sex club called Glory Holes. ‘We watched Rock walk around and go in a booth and you could hear this scream, “Oh my God, it’s Rock Hudson!” It obviously didn’t bother him because we didn’t leave. We stayed quite a while.’

Which is a reminder that Hudson’s sexuality was an open secret. Gaping, even. He was only ‘closeted’ in a technical, almost contractual sense. He didn’t try terribly hard to hide the fact he was a HUGE homo. In fact, he was in many ways massively indiscreet. He had, for example, regular ‘clothing optional’ pool parties, frequented by the dreamiest, humpiest young men that could be hoovered up in West Hollywood. Unsurprisingly, as his biographer Mark Griffin states in the doc, ‘Virtually every bit-player, makeup man, assistant gopher at Universal [Hudson’s studio] knew the score’.

As did, it might be added, anyone who read tabloids and gossip sheets, which were always alluding to Hudson’s same sexing. The fake homo routine his character deploys to bed Doris Day in Pillow Talk was also sailing remarkably close to the wind. Almost a form of flaunting-taunting.

Likewise, the famous scene towards the end of Lover Come Back (1961), where Hudson’s character has to return to his apartment wearing a woman’s fur coat to protect his modesty and a male observer says to his buddy ‘Well – he’s the last guy in the world I would have figured.’

In truth, everyone who wanted to know about Hudson’s real-life sexuality did. Those that did not want to know were allowed their disavowal. A similar story, in other words, to the British singer George Michael in the decade or so after Hudson’s death, before he was arrested in a Beverly Hills rest room in 1998 – someone else whose popularity paradoxically had something to do with his ‘closeted’ sexuality.

Yes, Hudson reluctantly got married in 1955, but the fact that it was to the (rumoured lesbian) secretary of his famously predatory and controlling gay agent Henry Willson shows you how much effort he put into that subterfuge, which ended acrimoniously after just three years.

There is a suggestion in the doc that Hudson’s homo relationships didn’t endure because of the pressures of the closet. That might be true, but it might also be the case that he just didn’t particularly want or need them to. He had a series of handsome gay lovers that he lived with, and went travelling with, as well as a close circle of gay friends that he regularly entertained at his vast, Hacienda style hilltop home in Beverly Hills – and all the fresh, prime meat he could eat.

It seems to me that Hudson had a gay old time in the closet. He got to do pretty much what he wanted (the main stipulation seems to have been avoiding being snapped with boyfriends by the press), enjoyed a celebrity lifestyle when that really meant something, at the height of Hollywood and Americana, the companionship of the hottest gay lovers in town, as well as the adulation of millions – and was handsomely rewarded for his ‘discretion’. 

The documentary touches on his ‘problematic’ conservative politics (he was a staunch Republican), but the surprise would have been if this mid-Western Catholic boy made so very, very good and living the absolute epitome of the American Dream – albeit two-timingly – hadn’t been conservative. Rock Hudson led a ‘double life’ in the sense that it was twice the life of most mortals.

By contrast, I think he would have hated being out – that is, making a public announcement about his sexuality before the by-proxy one he made from his deathbed about having Aids (which may have been done by his PR without his consent). Even if it hadn’t cost him his stardom as a leading man, which it most certainly would have done, as the now Most Famous Gay in the World he would have had to be thoroughly respectable. He would have had in effect to go straight. No more pool parties. No more sex clubs. With a live-in frumpy forever-boyfriend to chaperone him.

Worst of all, he would have had to be a ‘role model’. And there is absolutely no fun in that.

Hudson, who was born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr, hated the super-butch name bestowed by his sulphurous agent Henry Willson, who liked to give all the pliant and plied young men in his stable (many of them, like Scherer, ex-military) a masculine moniker of his conception – e.g., Arthur Gelien became ‘Tab Hunter’ and Robert Mosely became ‘Guy Madison’. In a sense, Willson invented the first male porn names – though these phallic promises were anything but niche: they were pointed right at Main Street, USA.

‘Rock Hudson’, a name that would make us snicker today if we hadn’t grown up with it, was both Willson’s most absurdly butch benediction – masculinity as a gigantic force of nature, something geographic – and his most seismically successful. Rock Hudson became a Cinemascope Colossus bestride the world.

Part of the reason Scherer hated his Willson-given name, I suspect, was that it referenced his height: while ‘Hudson’ was taken from the mighty 315-mile river in the northeastern US, ‘Rock’ referred to the monolithic promontory of Gibraltar that rises 400m above the sea at the entrance to the Mediterranean – and which the Ancient Greeks believed was one of the two Pillars of Hercules.

But Willson’s pagan re-Christening contained within it a truth about Hudson and many of the pretty post-war male Hollywood stars he manufactured – that they were a spectacle. Scenic. Yes, they were marketed as butch (and sissy Willson would school his WW2 vet wards in how to be Hollywood masculine) but they were also objectified. Unlike male stars before the 1950s, they had bodies. Bodies that existed to be looked at. They invited the gaze and were packaged for total consumption – highly hunky Hudson was dubbed ‘the Baron of Beefcake’. Like Hudson, and regardless of their sexual orientation, these new screen idols were ‘vers’ – monolithic and flowing. Arthur and Martha. Active and passive.

Hollywood in the 1950s was competing for audiences – particularly young and female audiences – with the new-fangled inventions of TV and pop music. The ‘even bigger screen’ innovations of Cinemascope and Vista Vision and 3-D, along with stereophonic sound and much increased use of colour, were attempts to offer an immersive aesthetic experience that TV could not. Willson’s manufactured hot boys were his innovative contribution to that immersive aesthetic experience.

Willson was widely-known in Hollywood for requiring many if not most of the young men aching for fame who beat a path to his door to service his sexual appetites – which surely included Scherer – before he would pimp them out to the American public. He was of course being abusive, for entirely selfish reasons – but he was also doing a form of immersive product-testing.

Hudson’s worked-out, towering body, along with his deep voice and confident, dazzling smile, and the cool way he dangled his king size cigarettes out of the corner of his mouth, were proofs of his virility – but also how he invited the audience’s adoration. He was handsome and manly, but also (at least until the 1970s) boyish. He was, in fact, that thing that adult men are not officially supposed to be: beautiful. Although he had other talents, he was primarily an aesthetic star. A visual pleasure.

That famous, confident, flashy, all-American smile also contained within it the needy need to be loved.

Or better still, desired.

Become a patron at Patreon!

Leave a Reply