You’ve probably read about the secret recordings of Rock Hudson, in which the late screen idol’s wife Phyllis Gates confronted him during their brief marriage about his sexual orientation and accused him of cruising for boys. Yet no one is mentioning the significant detail that Gates was anything but the long-suffering, naive wife as she was so often been depicted.
Hudson’s “gay confession” has been revealed as part of a secret file released by the family of private dick Fred Otash (a shadowy Hollywood figure who wouldn’t be out of place in a James Ellroy novel) and is the centerpiece of a fascinating, provocative, if occasionally suspect, expose in The Hollywood Reporter (worth reading for juicy tidbits on Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe, as well).
Gates hired Otash to keep tabs on her wayward hubby and he recorded a very frank argument between the couple in 1958. In their heated chat, according to THR, she demanded to know if he was gay after hearing gossip her meal ticket picked up boys for sex and (paging Dr. Freud!) learning of a Rorschach test he’d taken.
“You told me you saw thousands of butterflies and also snakes,” she said “[A therapist] told me in my analysis that butterflies mean femininity and snakes represent that male penis. I’m not condemning you, but it seems that as long as you recognize your problem, you would want to do something about it.” (Remember this was the ’50s.)
According to the transcript of the argument, husband and wife began to bicker about the stalwart movie star’s penchant for sexual escapades with younger, pliable men — wherever he found them.
“Everyone knows that you were picking up boys off the street shortly after we were married and have continued to do so, thinking that being married would cover up for you,” Gates insisted. (Maybe she should have been an actress.)
“I have never picked up any boys on the street,” Hudson countered. “I have never picked up any boys in a bar, never. I have never picked up any boys, other than to give them a ride.” (Semantics alert: Maybe they picked him up.)
The couple divorced a few months later and neither ever remarried.
All of this is in keeping with Gates’ self-perpetuated myth of herself as a naive, young secretary duped by a rugged movie star and his ruthless, money-minded agent Henry Willson (who, it’s worth noting, was also gay). Yet a crucial piece of the puzzle is missing: Gates was lesbian and well-aware of Hudson’s orientation at the time of his “surprise proposal” (as she’d described it to swooning fan magazine reporters) — all information unsurprisingly absent from her breathless, “poor me” memoir My Husband, Rock Hudson.
Robert Hofler, author of a riveting bio of Willson titled The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, had a decidedly different take on the couple’s union and spoke to columnist Michael Musto in 2006 about Gates, who had died earlier that year. (Hudson, of course, had already passed away of complications from HIV/AIDS in 1985.)
“Phyllis had told various people that marrying Rock ‘would be fun,’” Hofler revealed. “She then became addicted to being the wife of a star, and didn’t want the divorce. Mark Miller, George Nader (a ’50s actor and close friend of Hudson)’s lover, told me that she had a double standard: Phyllis could play around with women, but Rock had to remain faithful to her. In a way, she was just being pragmatic: she feared that Rock’s exposure would ruin his fame, which was in turn her gravy train.”