Rock Hudson Called This Man His 'True Love'

Rock Hudson was one of the most recognizable faces of the Golden Age of Hollywood, with his handsome visage gracing films such as "Written on the Wind" and "Giant," which earned him an Oscar nomination for best actor. His successful career as a leading man and Hollywood heartthrob saw him star in films and TV shows from the 1950s through the '80s, before he fell ill and died from AIDS-related complications in 1985.

Though Hudson was often depicted on screen as the strapping love interest of leading ladies like Elizabeth Taylor and Lauren Bacall, the actor was also a gay man during an era in which being open about his sexuality would have ended his career. Hudson and many of his co-stars kept his orientation a closely guarded secret, but that also meant that he couldn't publicly date other men. His relationship with the man he'd later call his "true love" blossomed behind the scenes in the 1960s, years before the Stonewall uprising put LGBTQ+ rights and culture in the national spotlight (via People).

How Hudson met his 'true love'

Lee Garlington was a film extra in 1962 when he first laid eyes on Rock Hudson, who by then was then an enormous movie star. In an interview with People, Garlington said he had heard rumors about Hudson being a gay man, so he decided to see for himself. "I stood outside his cottage on the Universal lot," said Garlington, "pretending to read 'Variety,' which was probably upside down at the time. He walked out and down the street. He looked back once. That was it."

But though Garlington may have thought Hudson had paid no mind to the young extra that day, he got a call from the "Giant" actor (via one of his friends) a year later. Garlington went to meet Hudson in Beverly Hills and was "scared to death," he said. "Of course, he was 6-foot-4, a monster. He offered me a beer, but nothing happened. Literally. I was too scared. He said, 'Well, let's get together,' and we did."

Sneaking around

Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington dated through 1965, during which Garlington recalls both the mundane and dramatic elements of their relationship. Garlington told People that he would go to the star's Beverly Hills mansion after work to spend the night and sneak out at 6 in the morning. He even kept his Chevy's engine as quiet as possible so as not to attract attention. "We thought we were being so clever," he said.

In 2018, Garlington shared with People the only photos that he and Hudson took together in New Orleans, and talked about their vacation in the beach town of Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they could relax, be away from paparazzi, and "live the life of two normal gay men that loved one another."

Though Hudson never told Garlington to hide their relationship, as a gay man, Garlington implicitly understood the unfortunate need for secrecy. At movie premieres, they would attend together — with women as their dates. Garlington said that Hudson "wasn't paranoid" until a female fan broke into his mansion while the couple was away. Hudson kept revealing photos of Garlington in his bedside table, which the fan could have found. The star became much more guarded and careful after that incident, and put gates up around his home.

Going their separate ways

In speaking with People, Garlington expressed regret that his former partner, Hudson, couldn't "live his life the way he wanted to," adding that Hudson likely would have been much happier and relaxed living as a gay man today. In the '60s, Hudson was advised by his agent to never take a photo with a boyfriend, or else the public would speculate on his sexuality. Mark Griffin, author of the Hudson biography "All That Heaven Allows," said that the star would have jeopardized his career had he come out as gay. This left Hudson balancing two lives, though he always remained a calm and relaxed man.

Hudson's demeanor may have led to his breakup with Garlington in 1965, with Garlington explaining to People in 2015 that the young actor was looking to the Hollywood star for a "father figure." Hudson "was not strong enough," he said. "Rock wasn't a real strong personality. He was a gentle giant." Though they gradually lost contact, he has many fond memories of their time together.

Hudson brings awareness to the AIDS crisis

Rock Hudson died in 1985 due to complications with HIV-AIDS, the first major Hollywood celebrity to die of the disease. Hudson had publicly addressed his affliction — which, in the 1980s, associated him very closely with the gay community suffering from the disease — revealing a secret about his sexuality he had worked to hide for decades. He had feared he would destroy his career, but his announcement seemed to change the narrative about AIDS overnight (via Smithsonian).

Though Hudson was a longtime friend of Ronald Reagan, who was also a former Hollywood actor, Reagan's wife Nancy refused to help the ailing actor during her time as Ffirst lady. According to Buzzfeed News, in the final months of his life, Hudson flew overseas in an effort to secure an experimental drug from French doctors. After collapsing in a hotel and being admitted to a hospital in Paris, Hudson's publicist tried to telegram the Reagans and plead for assistance in getting military-grade medical treatment. Nancy Reagan refused. A staffer from the Reagan administration argued that the Reagans did not want to show favor to personal friends, but the incident also highlights the Reagan administration's decision to largely ignore the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Remembering Rock Hudson today

Lee Garlington spoke with People in 2018, at age 81, and reflected on the influence of Rock Hudson's public acknowledgement of his AIDS diagnosis. "Because he was so widely loved and appreciated," he said, "his admission changed so many people's attitudes about AIDS. He had a huge impact, much more than he ever realized."

But what personally struck Garlington was a comment he read from Hudson years later in a biography on the actor. The Hollywood star had called Garlington, his boyfriend from 1962 to '65, his one "true love." The sentiment caused him to burst into tears. "He said his mother and I were the only people he ever loved," said Garlington. "I had no idea I meant that much to him." At the time, Garlington had been married to another man for 32 years, but his memories of Hudson as a "kind" and "handsome" man still persisted.