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All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson

All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson

by Mark Griffin


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The definitive biography of the deeply complex and widely misunderstood matinee idol of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Devastatingly handsome, broad-shouldered and clean-cut, Rock Hudson was the ultimate movie star. The embodiment of romantic masculinity in American film throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hudson reigned supreme as the king of Hollywood.

As an Oscar-nominated leading man, Hudson won acclaim for his performances in glossy melodramas (Magnificent Obsession), western epics (Giant) and blockbuster bedroom farces (Pillow Talk). In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Hudson successfully transitioned to television; his long-running series McMillan & Wife and a recurring role on Dynasty introduced him to a whole new generation of fans.

The icon worshipped by moviegoers and beloved by his colleagues appeared to have it all. Yet beneath the suave and commanding star persona, there was an insecure, deeply conflicted, and all too vulnerable human being. Growing up poor in Winnetka, Illinois, Hudson was abandoned by his biological father, abused by an alcoholic stepfather, and controlled by his domineering mother.

Despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Hudson was determined to become an actor at all costs. After signing with the powerful but predatory agent Henry Willson, the young hopeful was transformed from a clumsy, tongue-tied truck driver into Universal Studio’s resident Adonis. In a more conservative era, Hudson’s wholesome, straight arrow screen image was at odds with his closeted homosexuality.

As a result of his gay relationships and clandestine affairs, Hudson was continually threatened with public exposure, not only by scandal sheets like Confidential but by a number of his own partners. For years, Hudson dodged questions concerning his private life, but in 1985 the public learned that the actor was battling AIDS. The disclosure that such a revered public figure had contracted the illness focused worldwide attention on the epidemic.

Drawing on more than 100 interviews with co-stars, family members and former companions, All That Heaven Allows finally delivers a complete and nuanced portrait of one of the most fascinating stars in cinema history.

Author Mark Griffin provides new details concerning Hudson’s troubled relationships with wife Phyllis Gates and boyfriend Marc Christian. And here, for the first time, is an in-depth exploration of Hudson’s classic films, including Written on the Wind, A Farewell to Arms, and the cult favorite Seconds. With unprecedented access to private journals, personal correspondence, and production files, Griffin pays homage to the idol whose life and death had a lasting impact on American culture.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780062408860
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 12/03/2019
Pages: 512
Sales rank: 310,385
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Mark Griffin is the author of A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli.  Griffin, whose writing has appeared in scores of publications, including The Boston Globe, recently appeared in the documentary Gene Kelly: To Live and Dance.  He lives in Maine.

Read an Excerpt



Appropriately enough for one who embodied the American dream, Rock Hudson's story began in an idyllic small town in the Midwest.

"If one must live in Chicago, then one should eat, sleep, love and pray in Winnetka," said A. W. Stevens. Around the turn of the century, the writer had visited the picturesque village in northeast Illinois, located along the shores of Lake Michigan — only twenty miles away from "The Windy City."

Many of the German immigrants who had landed in the area in the 1830s were from Trier — in the western part of Germany — so they referred to their adopted land as "New Trier." In 1869, the city was officially named Winnetka, after a Native American phrase supposedly meaning "Beautiful Land."

Much of Winnetka's natural beauty was attributable to its trees. Several streets were virtually canopied by American elms. The tall, stately oaks and flowering dogwoods shading the main part of town turned it into what has been described as "a living arboretum." As Judge Joseph Burke once remarked, "In order to have a street named after you in Winnetka, you must be from a very old family, or else be a tree."

In 1925 — the same year that ground was broken on Winnetka's New Village Hall — Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., was born. The delivery took place on November 17 at 2:15 a.m. in a rented room at 794 Elm Street, where his parents lived. Junior's father, Roy Scherer, was a twenty-six-year-old mechanic employed at the nearby Elm Street Garage. His mother, Katherine Marie Wood, was a twenty- five-year-old housewife.

By all accounts, it had been a very difficult birth, with Kay's on-again, off-again labor stretched out over five agonizing days. Roy Senior's older sister, Pearl, was a registered nurse. She assisted Dr. Gilbert Lowe — whose office was directly across the street from the Scherers' apartment — with the delivery. "I was right there when Dr. Lowe spanked the breath of life into him," Pearl Scherer recalled years later. "The first night I heard him squall, after his birth, I knew that he'd always be heard the rest of his life."

Although Roy Junior was born healthy — weighing five and a half pounds and not nine or thirteen as he would later tell unsuspecting colleagues — there would be an unusually long recovery period for Kay after her exhausting ordeal. The agony Kay endured giving birth to Roy would haunt him for the rest of his life. "He told me that he had difficulties because he felt that he had ruined his mother's body," recalls actress Diane Ladd, who portrayed Kay in a 1990 television movie. "I said, 'What are you talking about, Rock?' He said, 'I was too big a baby ... nine pounds. I ruined my mother's body trying to get born ... I have horrible guilt.' I said, 'Who told you that?' He said, 'My mother.'"

Some recently unearthed evidence suggests that even before he was born, Roy Junior had caused some significant problems for his parents; though once he became a Hollywood star, all of the details would be carefully concealed. In an authorized 1956 fanzine entitled Star Stories, writer Jane Ardmore promised her readers Rock Hudson's "true life told in exciting story form." Ardmore described the Scherers' Elm Street residence as their "honeymoon apartment," one that Roy and Kay had moved into "a year and a half after their wedding." While this may constitute exciting story form, it bears only a passing resemblance to true life.

Roy and Kay's long buried marriage certificate is dated March 17, 1925, only eight months prior to Roy Junior's birth in November. This would suggest that the young couple had to get married — shotgun style — in order to save face. In many ways, Winnetka was a small town and news — especially any containing the slightest hint of scandal — traveled fast. Several years later, Kay's family would find this out the hard way.

When first married, it seemed as though Roy and Kay were well matched. Not only did they make a handsome couple, but both husband and wife would be remembered as "friendly and fun loving." Born in 1899, Roy was of average height and pleasant looking, the second eldest in a family of seven. Kay, who was born in 1900, would be described in Photoplay terms as, "a handsome, dark- haired woman with the fun-loving temperament and good humor of the Irish as well as an English reverence for thrift and industry." Others remembered both Kay and Roy as impulsive risk-takers. "Your father loved the gaming tables and your mother loved the ponies," publicist Roger Jones once observed in a letter to their famous son.

Both the Scherers and the Woods were working-class families of modest means. Roy Senior's parents, Theodore and Lena Scherer,* owned a 160-acre farm in the township of Preston, roughly five miles north of downtown Olney. As he grew up, Roy Junior would spend many summers visiting Grandpa Scherer's farm.

"Rock's grandfather, Theodore, was a farmer all his life," says Jerry Scherer, another grandson. "He was the hardest worker you've ever seen. He had 152 acres that he made a living on and the other eight acres of his land went to the railroad that went by on the east side. Granddad always used a team of horses to plow. He didn't have a tractor. He was out there doing everything by himself ... When people say, 'How could Rock have worked as hard as he did and make all these movies out in Hollywood?' That's because he grew up seeing his grandparents work their own farm. From an early age, he learned what it took to survive."

Relatives remember that Roy Junior would spend his summers riding the plough horse, chasing after his dog Crystal and attempting to assist with some of the daily chores. "One day, my grandmother asked him to feed the chickens," says sister Alice Waier. "I don't know how many chickens they had but I'm sure it was many. So, he went out to the coops and threw down their feed. Much to everyone's surprise, they all died. Instead of chicken feed, he had thrown down lye. Well, my dad was furious. Not Grandma Scherer. She told everyone not to lay a hand on Junior. It was all a mistake. To say the least, my brother was horrified. But Grandma just took him under her wing. They got more chickens and she showed him how to feed them. She was always looking out for Junior."

In the latter half of the 1920s, Roy and Kay had managed to scrape by on what Roy took home from the Elm Street garage as well as the occasional handout from Kay's family, but all of that changed in the fall of 1929. Even an affluent community like Winnetka wasn't immune to the Depression. Some indication of the family's precarious financial situation can be found in a census report from 1930. By that time, the Scherers had moved to more affordable lodging at 1027 Elm Street, where they rented rooms for $50 a month. Roy Senior's twenty-three-year-old brother, Lloyd, "a gas station helper," was now residing with them.

After Roy lost his job, he, Kay, and five-year-old Roy Junior suddenly found themselves moving out of their Elm Street apartment and in with Kay's parents. The Woods lived in a modest gray stucco bungalow on Center Street in Winnetka. In addition to the three Scherers, Grandpa and Grandma Wood were already housing their youngest son, John, his wife and their four children. Eleven people, all tightly packed under one roof. There was one bedroom, one bath- room, and no privacy. Although conditions at the Wood home were cramped and often chaotic, these circumstances were hardly unique at a time when eight million Americans were out of work.

Kay's father, James Wood, had managed to hold on to his job at Winnetka Coal & Lumber. Born in Armitage, England, Grandpa Wood was over six feet tall and powerfully built, though he never played the commanding patriarch. Instead, he let his charismatic wife take control of their overpopulated household. Kay's mother, Mary Ellen Enright, had been born in Shermerville, Illinois, though her parents were from "the old country" — Ireland.

If the adults in the house were preoccupied with money woes and the unrelentingly grim headlines, young Roy was having the time of his life. The boy with the Buster Brown bob and mischievous smile was clearly Grandma Wood's favorite. "He got away with murder," remembered one cousin. This included taking a single bite out of every apple in the ice box and consuming a pound of uncooked bacon. Although it was obvious who was the culprit, Roy allowed his cousins to take the fall for his antics. Whenever another of Roy's misdeeds was reported to her, Grandma Wood simply looked the other way. Clearly, the woman who enjoyed her dessert before dinner sensed that her disobedient grandson was very much a kindred spirit.

As family lore had it, Kay's doctor had played phonograph records to soothe her during her torturous delivery, which resulted in Roy Junior's early and lifelong love of music. When visiting the Scherer farm, he loved to pump the player piano. At Grandma Wood's, he'd crank up the gramophone and listen to Al Jolson's recording of "There's a Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" over and over again. And even when he wasn't listening to music, young Roy would still monopolize Grandpa Wood's radio. Every week, he faithfully tuned in to The Witch's Tale, listening intently as "Old Nancy, the Witch of Salem," introduced yet another terrifying episode.

If his son was totally oblivious to the troubled times they were living in, Roy Scherer was all too aware of them. Ever since the Elm Street garage had closed, Roy shuffled through his days, feeling useless. Attempts to find work led straight to nowhere. Moving in with Kay's parents had been even more humiliating. He felt like a charity case. With each passing day, Roy grew less hopeful. After mulling it over for weeks, he finally decided it was time to leave. He'd go off and make a fresh start somewhere. It was no good talking it over with Kay. This was something he had to do by himself.

As it happened, Roy Junior was away at Grandpa Scherer's farm in Olney on the afternoon in 1931 that his father walked out. Nearly seventy years after the fact, his cousin Dorothy Kimble remembered Scherer's departure vividly: "I was home from school sick at the time ... Uncle Roy came out of their bedroom carrying a suitcase, and gave me a nickel not to tell anyone he was going. I cherished that nickel. I didn't say a thing. I watched him walk down the street and that's the last I saw of him."

Scherer walked out on everything that day — his wife, his young son, his extended family, and virtually everything he knew. Though he apparently didn't have any connections on the West Coast, he decided that moving there was his best hope for starting over. But were hard times the real reason Scherer decided to take a walk? Several family members have suggested that something else may have prompted his departure. It was said that it was Roy Junior who was the real cause of his father's abrupt exit. "There was family gossip that [Kay] was so devoted to Roy [Junior] that she ignored her husband, and that's why Scherer left," said Kay's nephew, Edwin Wood.

While his father's abandonment was a subject that Rock Hudson never discussed publicly, the editors of a 1950s fan magazine concocted their own version of Roy Senior's departure. As a result, one of the most painful episodes in the star's life was reenacted as a sudsy Ross Hunter–produced melodrama. The kind that usually starred Rock Hudson ...

"You don't understand, Kay, I can't face it, I'm going away to make a new start."

"Oh, but Roy, take me with you. I want to go, too."

"Kay, you don't understand, I'm bankrupt. I spent my last nickel on a railroad ticket ..."

"All aboard. All a ..."

"Kay, I've got to catch the train. I'll write you. Goodbye, say goodbye to Sonny ..."

Fanzine writers outdid themselves attempting to turn this desperate act into something glossily cinematic. Though in reality, Scherer's desertion was anything but a tender love scene. He just left and never came back. In official retellings, The Great Depression would always be blamed for Scherer's walkout. Though Mark Miller, one of Rock's closest friends, claimed that Kay told him the real reason for her husband's abrupt departure.

"I was on an airplane with Rock's mother, Katherine. After she had a couple of martinis, she said, 'Mark, there is something I want to tell you ...' After another sip, she continued, 'Roy Scherer was not Roy Junior's real father. I was having an affair with a very tall boy who pumped gas down on the corner.' After another sip, she said, 'I never learned of his name. Then I married Roy not knowing I was pregnant. Roy Junior was actually born seven months after I married Roy. When Roy found out five years later, he deserted us.'"

Truth or martini-fueled fantasy? Roy Junior's birth certificate lists Scherer as his biological father. In some photographs, there's an undeniable family resemblance, despite the fact that Mark Miller's stunned response to Kay's confession was, "I've always wondered why Rock looked nothing like Roy Scherer." The date of Kay's mar- riage certificate corroborates the fact that she was already pregnant when she married Scherer, which lends some credence to her story. As for "the very tall boy who pumped gas down on the corner," is it credible that in 1920s Winnetka Kay would have had a dalliance with an anonymous lover? And what — if anything — should be made of the fact that Scherer's younger brother, Lloyd (who lived with Roy Senior and Kay at one point), and Roy Junior's future stepfather, Wallace Fitzgerald, both worked as gas station attendants?

Regardless of why Scherer left, what must it have been like for a sensitive six-year-old boy to attempt to process the sudden and inexplicable disappearance of his father? Not only had he left without saying goodbye, but nobody seemed to know exactly where he had gone. Although everyone kept telling Roy Junior that his father would be back — in a few months, when business picked up, by next Christmas — he eventually figured it out. His father was gone for good. And no matter what Roy Junior did, or how many questions he asked, or how well behaved he was, his father had not only moved on without him but, if some of the whispers were to be believed, because of him.

Around this time, young Roy entered the first grade at the Horace Mann School. A faded photograph snapped in the schoolroom shows a forlorn, pouty-faced Roy. His expression seems to suggest that he'd rather be back on the Scherer farm in Olney. In later years, Rock Hudson would look back on the days he spent there as some of the happiest of his life. One memory in particular would always stay with him. He came in from playing one afternoon to find Grandpa and Grandma Scherer — who were not usually demonstrative in front of others — sitting on the couch, holding hands, and talking to each other in German. Even at a young age, he found this touching. Though he also wondered why he'd never seen his own parents behaving so tenderly with each other.

While she was still legally married, Kay was now essentially a single woman with a young son to support. At a time when jobs were scarce, she took work wherever she could find it. At one time or another, she was employed as a waitress, a babysitter, a live-in domestic, a telephone operator, and an organist — providing the musical accompaniment for silent movies. Even on those rare days when she wasn't working, Kay would return to the theatre as a patron. And Roy Junior was always by her side. "Whatever my mother wanted to see was what I saw, every Saturday," Rock Hudson would later recall. "The only trouble was, my mother was hopelessly in love with John Boles. I was dragged off to sit through every movie John Boles ever made, when I was dying to see Robin Hood or Fu Manchu or Buck Jones."

It was most likely that at one of these Saturday matinees Roy had his first notion that he wanted to do what those people up on the screen were doing. Though he kept this a secret. As he ex- plained to an interviewer toward the end of his life: "Back in a small town, I could never freely say, 'I'm going to be an actor when I grow up,' because that's just sissy stuff. You know, 'Don't bother with that. You ought to be a policeman or a fireman.' So, I never said anything. I just kept my mouth shut."


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Table of Contents

Author's Note xi

Introduction xv

1 Winnetka 1

2 Green Gin 18

3 A Unique Appeal 28

4 Universal 50

5 "We Want Hudson!" 75

6 Double Technicolor 93

7 Is Rock Hudson Afraid of Marriage? 110

8 Giant 134

9 Written on the Wind 149

10 A Farewell to Arms 168

11 The Tarnished Angels 179

12 Pillow Talk 194

13 Strange Bedfellows 228

14 Seconds 260

15 Whistling Away the Dark 283

16 McMillan & Wife 303

17 Blue Snow 336

18 Christian 360

19 This Is Your Life 391

Acknowledgments 409

Notes 415

Bibliography 451

Index 457

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