Outing Mrs. Rock Hudson: the obits after Phyllis Gates died in January omitted some important facts: Those who knew her say she was a lesbian who tried to blackmail her movie star husband.
Times staff writer Dennis McLellan certainly did his research: He even dug up and read Gates's long-out-of-print 1987 memoir, My Husband, Rock Hudson, before writing his valentine to misguided hetero devotion.
Strange, isn't it, how memories differ? Not one of the more than 200 people I interviewed for the biography The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson remembered Phyllis quite the way McLellan and other obit writers have.
First off, every person I met who knew Gates called her a lesbian. Not straight, not bisexual, but lesbian.
Even before she arrived in Los Angeles in 1953, Phyllis Gates had acquired something of a sapphic reputation on the other coast. "The story going around New York City was that she cruised the ports of Miami looking for Joe Carstairs," says Arthur Laurents. Carstairs, of course, was the famous cross-dressing heiress who spent her grandfather's millions (made in oil) on speed boats, island hideaways, and beautiful girlfriends.
Gates always claimed that she met Rock Hudson innocuously: She was working in L.A. as secretary to Henry Willson, who also repped Natalie Wood and Tab Hunter. Then one day the king rooster of the agency walked in to carry her off to his nest in the so-called bird streets (they lived on Warbler Place) in the hills above Sunset Boulevard.
Mark Miller tells another story. In 1953 he and his lover, matinee idol George Nader, shared a house in Studio City, and it was there that Hudson met Gates at a small party. She arrived with Hudson's then live-in boyfriend, Jack Navaar, with whom she'd just been to see a movie.
So much for Gates being unaware of the Hollywood gay scene. In fact, she may have qualified as that rarest of species: the lesbian fag hag. According to actor John Carlyle, a Willson client, he and his boyfriend used to double-date with Rock and Phyllis on various weekend trips to Palm Springs, Calif., before they married in 1955.
Acquaintances such as Broadway publicist Shirley Herz and literary agent Gilbert Parker recall conversations with Phyllis about her marrying the big gay Rock. "I think it will be fun," she told Herz.
Maybe it turned into too much fun.
"Phyllis had a double standard," Miller says of the marriage. That is: She could go out with women, but Hudson couldn't make it with men. Always the pragmatist, Phyllis feared that Hudson's homosexuality would be exposed and, in effect, derail her gravy train as Mrs. Star.
That's what detective Fred Otash, in his 1976 book, Investigation Hollywood, calls the woman who hired him to surreptitiously tape conversations with her homosexual movie-star spouse on the eve of their divorce in 1958.
In her autobiography, Gates leaves out any mention of secret tapes, but the bedroom conversations she recalls with Rock are nearly verbatim from the Otash book.
Apparently Gates wasn't going into the divorce court unarmed. Nevertheless, nearly 50 years later, the Times obit takes up the charity plate for her: "Gates received a relatively small alimony of $250 a week for i0 years," writes McLellan. (Not mentioned were the car, wedding gills, and Rock Hudson's Warbler Place house, worth $32,000 in 1950s dollars.)
If $130,000 plus goodies is small potatoes for 2 1/2 years of prearranged marriage, it wasn't for lack of trying on Phyllis's part. According to actor Paul Nesbitt, Henry Willson (also Nesbitt's agent) had to order up a Mob hit either to rough up or rub out two blackmailers who threatened Rock. Thanks to Gates, they had evidence of her ex-husband's outre sexual orientation and were ready to go to the tabloids. Never one to mess around with his own meal ticket, Willson made sure the Mob also paid a visit to Rock's recalcitrant ex.
Not that she was cowed for long. Hudson then had to acquire incriminating photos of Gates in order to shut her up a second time. The episode is recorded as a blind item in Liz Smith's autobiography, Natural Blonde.
Having developed a taste for extortion, Gates turned to other women, but was no more successful with her own sex. One wealthy wife she banged and tried to blackmail didn't care if her husband ever found out about the extramarital affair. He too was gay.
The Times remembers a kinder, gentler Phyllis Gates.
They eulogize with her quote: "I had the power to destroy Rock and I didn't use it. To have exposed his other life would have been vicious and vindictive. I faced enough trouble rebuilding my life without bearing that guilt."
The Times somehow left out any mention of Phyllis's various female partners or news that shortly before her death she was named as correspondent with another woman in a divorce suit filed by the husband. The Times did report that Gates's funeral service was held January 10 in Montevideo, Minn. As is standard practice at newspapers, this info was reserved for the last line of the obit. At least the paper got that much right.
Hofler is a senior editor at Variety in Los Angeles.