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Rock Hudson was desperately trying to get treatment for AIDS in France in 1985. Much of that story has been told, but one part hasn’t: After a simple plea came in for White House help to get Hudson transferred to another hospital, First Lady Nancy Reagan turned down the request.
On a Sunday evening in July 1985, just hours after arriving in Paris from Los Angeles, Rock Hudson collapsed shortly after checking into the famed Ritz hotel.
The 59-year-old actor was once one of Hollywood’s hottest stars throughout the 1950s and ’60s, seen as the embodiment of “the American man” — tall, dark, and handsome. A constant fixture on the big screen, he starred alongside leading actresses like Elizabeth Taylor in Giant — netting an Oscar nomination for the role — and Doris Day in a series of popular romantic comedies.
By the mid-1980s, though, while still close with many from Hollywood’s golden era like Day and friendly with Ronald Reagan, another actor of the era and now the president of the United States, and his wife, Nancy Reagan, Hudson was no longer the broad-shouldered icon. He was frail, ill — the airline almost refused to let him board the nonstop flight to France.
After collapsing at the Ritz, Hudson was examined by the hotel’s doctor and rushed to the American Hospital of Paris in the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, and swiftly admitted.
Liver cancer, his American publicist initially told reporters of his collapse. Fatigue, the hospital countered. Anorexia, Hudson’s partner at the time told friends who called Hudson’s California home.
They were all wrong. Hudson was dying from complications related to AIDS.
Although only a handful of people knew it, Hudson was in Paris desperately seeking treatment for AIDS — treatment that even a prominent, wealthy actor could not get in the United States in 1985.
Although more than 5,500 people had died from the disease by the start of 1985, the government had taken few significant steps toward addressing the disease — with the Reagan administration recommending a $10 million cut in AIDS spending down to $86 million in its federal budget proposal released in February 1985.
And so, Hudson traveled to France, hoping to see Dr. Dominique Dormant, a French army doctor who had secretly treated him for AIDS the past fall. Dormant, though, was unable to get the actor transferred to the military hospital. Initially, the doctor wasn’t even able to get permission to see Hudson at the American Hospital.
Hudson’s longtime assistant, Mark Miller, flew to Paris immediately. There, he met with the French publicist, Yanou Collart. Over the following days, the pair, along with Hudson’s American publicist, Dale Olson, tried everything in a desperate attempt to get the dying actor moved to the military hospital for treatment.
These 10 days changed the course of history, as the world learned that Hudson was gay — and why he was dying.
“AIDS was on the front page of virtually every Sunday morning paper in the United States,” Randy Shilts wrote of the Sunday that followed Hudson’s collapse and revelations in his epic coverage of the epidemic, And the Band Played On. The revelations changed the course of AIDS coverage — and the broader attention paid to the disease. Hudson’s death a few months later, on Oct. 2, 1985, made him the first high-profile celebrity death from AIDS that was openly acknowledged as such.
The story was covered extensively at the time. By 1987, Shilts wrote that “[i]t was commonly accepted” that there were two phases of AIDS in the United States: “There was AIDS before Rock Hudson and AIDS after.”
Much of the previously reported material about Hudson’s time in Paris detailed here was covered by Shilts, as well as by Hudson himself in an authorized biography co-authored by Sara Davidson, Rock Hudson: His Story, and in the unauthorized biography of Hudson, Idol, written by Jerry Oppenheimer and Jack Vitek.
One key part of this story, though, has never been told until now — not discussed at the time and lost in piles of paperwork from the Reagan administration. As Hudson lay deathly ill in the hospital, his publicist, Olson, sent a desperate telegram to the Reagan White House pleading for help with the transfer.
“Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness,” Olson wrote. Although the commanding officer had denied Hudson admission to the French military hospital initially, Olson wrote that they believed “a request from the White House … would change his mind.”
First Lady Nancy Reagan turned down the request.
When Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS in the summer of 1984, he was living in a country where, as Shilts detailed, the president of American Airlines opened a breakfast at the Republican National Convention by joking that “gay” stood for “got AIDS yet?”
The disease was still a mystery then, despite the deaths of more than 2,000 Americans from AIDS by June 1984.
Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released the first medical report about the emerging illness in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report in June 1981, the disease was still seen in 1984 as something that only affected gay men and, to a lesser extent, intravenous drug users.
Even as the death count grew, discussion of the “gay plague” was taboo in many places — including the White House. It wouldn’t be until 1986 that Surgeon General C. Everett Koop would bring the policy discussion to the national level with his groundbreaking report on AIDS.
President Reagan did not give his first major public address on the disease until a year later, on May 31, 1987 — well after the number of AIDS deaths in the United States topped 25,000.
Hudson was a supporter of the president, attending a state dinner in May 1984, as he and Davidson wrote, seated at the first lady’s table. There, she asked him about his health. Shilts reported that Hudson told her he had caught a “flu bug” when filming in Israel.
“I’m feeling fine now,” he said.
For Hudson, his longtime desire for secrecy about the fact that he was gay likely was only reinforced by the anti-gay sentiments that the advent of AIDS raised.
That secrecy effort was redoubled when a biopsy taken shortly after the White House visit came back positive for Kaposi’s sarcoma, the purple lesions that became one of the early marks of the AIDS epidemic.
Unlike many, Hudson had the resources to seek out top care. Days after a further biopsy confirmed the diagnosis on June 5, 1984, per his and Davidson’s book, he saw Dr. Michael Gottlieb, the UCLA doctor who wrote the initial CDC report on the disease. A few months later, Hudson went to France — officially to attend a film festival — and saw Dr. Dormant, who had been working on HPA-23, one of the first experimental AIDS treatments.
Hudson remained in the public eye, ever focused on his career, even possibly to the detriment of his health. He returned to the United States to film his guest-starring role on Dynasty, then one of the top-rated shows on air — extending his episode commitment because he enjoyed the work.
But by the summer of 1985, things had taken a turn for the worse. Days before his collapse in France, he joined his old co-star, Doris Day, to promote and film an episode of her new show, days detailed at length in Idol. He looked gaunt, hardly like himself, raising concerns from reporters attending a news conference and furthering a growing rumor mill about what was going on with the movie star.
Rock Hudson’s 10 days in France began, though, with his collapse on Sunday evening, July 21, 1985.
On Monday, Mark Miller, who served as Hudson’s personal secretary for 13 years, had left to join him in France, arriving the next day.
Confusion permeated those and the next days, beginning with the hotel doctor’s initial, tentative diagnosis that the collapse was related to Hudson’s prior heart surgery and continuing through to other confused reports about his diagnosis and prognosis and people — including the French military doctor — not even being able to find Hudson.
By Tuesday morning in California, the Idol biography and Shilts detailed, stories began appearing, first by Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd, declaring, “Rock Hudson Dying of AIDS.”
“The whispering campaign on Rock Hudson can — and should — stop. He has flown to Paris for further help,” Archerd wrote. “His illness was no secret to close Hollywood friends, but its true nature was divulged to very, very few. … Doctors warn that the dread disease (AIDS) is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all communities if a cure is not soon found.”
About that time in Paris, according to the biography, Miller and Collart, the French publicist, were figuring out what to do. Miller told Collart the truth about Hudson — and that the actor had received treatment for the disease while in Paris the previous fall.
Dormant eventually told Hudson’s team in Paris that a transfer to Percy Military Hospital was denied by French officials because of “red tape”: Hudson was an American, and Dormant was able to see Americans only on an outpatient basis.
Three days after Hudson’s collapse, he still lacked permission to go to the French hospital or to have Dormant see him in the American Hospital. His team’s initial attempts on the ground in Paris were not working. So they started working higher up: Collart would work her contacts with French defense officials. Back in America, Olson would ask for help from the American government.
In a desperate telegram sent at 12:22 p.m. ET on July 24, 1985, Olson made his case directly to the White House in a message addressed to Mark Weinberg — a special assistant to the president and deputy press secretary in the White House.
“Doctor Dominique Dormant specialist treating Rock Hudson in Paris, reports only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness. This hospital is Ministere du la Defence Centre d’Researches du Service de Sante des Armees Percy Hospital in the city of Clamart,” the telegram read, with Olson going on to give the phone number to the hospital.
“Commanding general of Percy Hospital has turned down Rock Hudson as a patient because he is not French. Doctor Dormant in Paris believes a request from the White House or a high American official would change his mind. Can you help by having someone call the commanding general’s office at the Percy Hospital at the above number,” the telegram stated.
“Please advise what can be done.”
The White House logged its receipt of the telegram at 2:07 p.m. on July 24, 1985, a copy of the telegram in the archives of the Reagan administration stored at the Reagan Library shows.
The telegram seeking life-or-death help for Rock Hudson was addressed to Mark Weinberg, a young Reagan staffer who grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and who was 23 years old when Reagan took office and press secretary James Brady brought him on board.
In a 1982 profile in People magazine, Weinberg talked about how, after his parents, the Reagans were his “favorite couple.” At that point, he aimed for a career in Hollywood public relations after Washington, noting that Hollywood is “the same kind of adrenaline-producing industry” as politics.
Three years later, those two worlds collided — on Weinberg’s desk.
The telegram, along with the documents detailing the White House’s response, were initially discovered by a new project focused on “archives activism” that is based out of D.C.
Charles Francis, the president of the newly reconstituted Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., provided the documents to BuzzFeed News after the group — with support from the law firm of McDermott, Will & Emery — obtained them from the Reagan Presidential Library. BuzzFeed News confirmed the documents’ authenticity with archivists from the Reagan Presidential Library.
After Weinberg received the telegram, he shortly thereafter spoke with the first lady.
“I knew the Reagans knew Rock Hudson, obviously from their years in Hollywood, and for that reason I decided to call her,” Weinberg told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview about the 1985 request.
Would the White House intervene on Hudson’s behalf? That was what the publicist was asking for — help getting the actor, lying in the hospital in a dire condition, transferred from hospital to hospital.
Weinberg recommended to Nancy Reagan that the White House refer the matter to the U.S. Embassy in France, because, as he told BuzzFeed News, “This is probably not the [last] time we’re going to get a request like this and we want to be fair and not do anything that would appear to favor personal friends.”
“The Reagans were very conscious of not making exceptions for people just because they were friends of theirs or celebrities or things of that kind. That wasn’t — they weren’t about that. They were about treating everybody the same,” he told BuzzFeed News.
He told BuzzFeed News that he couldn’t recall precisely what the former first lady said, but he did remember that she agreed with his recommendation, saying that they “had to be fair” in terms of treating Hudson the same as anyone else. Weinberg noted that when the White House begins making calls on something “then things happen.”
“The view was, ‘Well, we’re so sorry’ — and she was, they were both very sorry for Rock’s condition and felt for him and all the people — but it just wasn’t something that the White House felt that they could do something different for him than they would do for anybody else,” Weinberg said.
So, in a memorandum to Bill Martin, a special assistant to Reagan with the National Security Council, Weinberg then summarized the situation and his call with the first lady.
“I spoke with Mrs. Reagan about the attached telegram. She did not feel this was something the White House should get into and agreed to my suggestion that we refer the writer to the U.S. Embassy, Paris,” he wrote at the time.
“That refers to special treatment for a friend or celebrity. And that’s all it refers to. It had nothing to do with AIDS or AIDS policy or — that’s a whole different issue. We weren’t talking about that,” Weinberg told BuzzFeed News. “I know, I know that conversation,” he added, referencing long-standing criticism of the Reagan administration’s response to AIDS.
In his memo to Martin, while Weinberg noted that the White House would not be intervening in Hudson’s attempts to see Dormant, he added that the president had personally called Hudson. Also, the press should be informed of the call: “Mrs. Reagan asked, however, that we inform the press of the President’s telephone call to Rock Hudson today, which I did.”
Weinberg closed to Martin: “You might want to keep this on hand just in case it resurfaces.”
Sure enough, even as the first lady was telling White House staff not to “get into” the issue, the president — who was friendly with Hudson from his own time in Hollywood, including several years as the head of the Screen Actors Guild — was calling Hudson to wish him well.
Hudson, in the American Hospital and unable to see the only doctor the people around him believed could help the actor, took a call from President Reagan — who had never publicly addressed the AIDS crisis.
Of the call, Shilts reported, a White House spokesperson said at the time, “President Reagan wished him well and let him know that he and Mrs. Reagan were keeping him in their thoughts and prayers.”
Told of the communications and Weinberg’s explanation, Peter Staley — an early member of ACT UP and founder of the Treatment Action Group who was prominently featured in the Oscar-nominated AIDS documentary How to Survive a Plague — was incredulous.
“Seems strange that the Reagans used that excuse, since they often did favors for their Hollywood friends during their White House years,” Staley told BuzzFeed News, pointing out a time when President Reagan personally intervened to assist a fundraising effort led by Bob Hope, as detailed in a biography of the entertainer. “I’m sure if it had been Bob Hope in that hospital with some rare, incurable cancer, Air Force One would have been dispatched to help save him. There’s no getting around the fact that they left Rock Hudson out to dry. As soon as he had that frightening homosexual disease, he became as unwanted and ignored as the rest of us.”
Nancy Reagan does not do interviews of any kind and has not for several years now, spokesperson Joanne Drake told BuzzFeed News this past week. But Drake did talk with Reagan about Dale Olson’s request to the White House for help for Rock Hudson.
“I spoke with her about your request and she simply does not recall the incident in question,” Drake wrote.
From there, the twists and turns of bureaucracy continued, but the story overtook those questions about doctors and hospital transfers to become history-making.
By midweek, though word was spreading, there still was no public acknowledgement that Rock Hudson was gay or that he was seeking treatment for AIDS.
The French doctor, Dormant, was eventually given permission to see Hudson in the American Hospital “late” in the day on Wednesday, July 24.
The change, and later announced reversal to allow Hudson to be transferred to the French hospital, appear to have been the result of Collart’s influence with the right French officials, as Oppenheimer and Vitek reported in Idol.
An August 1985 article in People magazine suggested otherwise, claiming that Mrs. Reagan “telephoned French President Francois Mitterrand to insure that Hudson received the best possible care.” While this also was vaguely referenced as a possibility in Hudson and Davidson’s book, though the sourcing is not clear, neither Weinberg nor Drake, the spokesperson for Nancy Reagan, found the idea of the first lady calling the French president credible.
Weinberg called it “highly, highly unlikely” that Mrs. Reagan would have made such a call. “She would not get involved in those things. I can’t tell you that she didn’t, but I cannot imagine it.”
Drake wrote, after checking with archivists at the Reagan Library, that “there are no documents that mention a phone call made by Mrs. Reagan to President Mitterrand on Rock Hudson’s behalf.” To that, she added: “My experience here says that phone calls to heads of state are well documented and if there are no such documents, then I can only draw a conclusion that there was no phone call.”
In fact, the next action from the White House didn’t even happen until Thursday morning, when Martin, the NSC staffer, asked that the matter be forwarded to the State Department.
“While Mrs. R doesn’t want White House involvement I suggest that State find out details and do what they can,” states a handwritten comment on the National Security Council routing slip that another part of the document indicates is from Martin. Martin did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his involvement in addressing the request.
The request was then forwarded within the NSC to Tyrus Cobb, a staffer responsible for France and several other European countries, for further action.
As Hudson’s team continued their effort to overcome bureaucracy, the decades of secrecy about Hudson’s sexuality came to an end. The San Francisco Chronicle, with on-the-record quotes from Hudson’s friends, detailed his “years of personal conflict about remaining in the closet,” Shilts reported.
The story, written by Perry Lang and Shilts, opens with the news: “Even as Rock Hudson played the traditional role of a cinematic sex symbol in Hollywood, his gay friends in San Francisco were quietly urging him to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality.”
As Hudson was being described publicly for the first time as a gay man — although it is not clear that Hudson was even aware that this was being done — a decision was being made across the ocean that would become an even bigger story: The world was going to be told that Hudson’s health problems in Paris were complications from AIDS.
On Thursday morning — four days after Hudson was admitted to the hospital — Miller, Dormant, and Collart, along with a doctor and spokesperson from the American Hospital, drafted a news release stating that Hudson had AIDS.
“Mr. Rock Hudson has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, which was diagnosed over a year ago in the United States,” Collart told reporters outside the hospital at 2 p.m. in France, detailed by Hudson and Davidson. The hectic news conference led to even more confusion, though — the Idol biography and other sources note that Collart reportedly said at one point that Hudson was “totally cured.”
Dormant’s diagnosis that morning, however, had been far more severe: HPA-23 treatments would do Hudson no good at that point given his deteriorated condition. On Friday, July 26, Hudson and Davidson detail, Dormant told Hudson that he had two choices: He either could stay at Percy Hospital and try to recover strength before seeking treatments, or he could return home immediately to UCLA Medical Center.
Back in the United States, Cobb, the NSC official, wrote on Friday that he had forwarded Olson’s request to the State Department and “instructed them to ask that our Embassy in Paris provide the same assistance to Mr. Hudson they would for any other American citizen.”
He also noted that American action on the request was unneeded, presumably the result of Collart’s requests to French officials. “In the interim, the French had moved, under Defense Minister [Charles] Hernu’s direction, to have Mr. Hudson admitted to the military hospital near Paris,” Cobb wrote — further evidence that there was no call between Mrs. Reagan and President Mitterand on the subject.
Cobb also said that he spoke with White House spokesperson Larry Speakes and State Department officials and, “[W]e agree that, if asked, we note that a request for assistance was received, which that White House forwarded to State,” reiterating that Hudson was provided “the same assistance” that “any other American citizen” would receive.
“I believe no reply to the incoming cable is required,” Cobb concluded. Attempts to reach Cobb for comment were unsuccessful.
On Sunday, July 28, Hudson and Davidson wrote, Hudson chose to return home — even as the illness he fought for more than a year to hide was taking over public discussion in America, from Sunday newspapers and TV news shows to that week’s news magazines.
As Monday came to a close in Paris, Hudson took off in a secretly chartered Air France Boeing 747 that cost him more than $250,000 to return to Los Angeles, where he was taken to UCLA Medical Center and his doctor, Michael Gottlieb.
On Tuesday, July 30, Gottlieb read a brief statement, Shilts reported, updating the media on Hudson’s condition.
“AIDS Strikes a Star,” proclaimed the Aug. 5 issue of Newsweek. “Among homosexuals, the news also produced some tenuous hopes,” the story declared. “Now that AIDS had struck its first celebrity, many felt, there might be a stronger push behind the quest for a successful treatment.”
Less than two months later, on Oct. 2, Rock Hudson died.
The White House did not decide that AIDS would be an issue to “get into” until nearly two years after Hudson’s death.
The actor and friend of the Reagans — struggling to receive treatment in a foreign country — had been regarded, at least by the White House, just the same as everyone else with AIDS at the time.
When Hudson’s illness was revealed, Newsweek and the San Francisco Chronicle both published stories on people the magazine dubbed “AIDS Exiles in Paris.” The “expatriates,” as Newsweek called them, were, like Hudson, seeking HPA-23 treatment unavailable in the United States.
“Understandably, many Americans have expressed displeasure over the need for AIDS victims to go abroad to get treatment,” the magazine stated. “Last week, however, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed that it would put HPA-23 on the ‘fast track’ for approval, probably sometime next month.”
Hudson — a Hollywood hunk who had been America’s leading man for decades — put a new face on AIDS that forced the country, and the media, to rethink the discussion of the disease.
Despite Hudson’s revelation and death in October, it wasn’t until the next year, and as the story of another person with AIDS — Ryan White, a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through a blood treatment — entered the public spotlight, that the national policy movement began in earnest.
Even then, it took the administration’s own surgeon general, Dr. C. Everett Koop, issuing his groundbreaking Surgeon General’s Report on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome — without giving advance notice to the White House — and the Senate pressing for a presidential commission on AIDS for the White House to take steps toward action.
Weinberg, who worked with President Reagan on his involvement with the Pediatric AIDS Foundation after the president left the White House, defended Reagan’s slow response recently in talking with BuzzFeed News. “In fairness — and I’m not saying this to you, just to people — remember where the country was in the ’80s. We talk about it now, ‘How could he?’ ‘How could we have been —’” he stopped. “Nobody knew, nobody understood. It was all brand-new back then.”
When President Reagan finally decided that he would not ignore the disease, he gave his first major public address on the issue on May 31, 1987 — at the request of another Hollywood star, and longtime friend of Hudson’s, Elizabeth Taylor.
The speech was given at a fundraising dinner for the American Foundation for AIDS Research, or AmFAR, that was held at the start of the Third International Conference on AIDS — nearly six years since Gottlieb’s first report on the disease.
When Koop drafted Reagan’s remarks for the dinner, he wrote, in part, “It’s also important that America not judge those who have the disease but care for them with dignity and kindness. Passing moral judgments is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure.”
Within the White House and throughout the administration, though, many conservatives vigorously disagreed with Koop’s report and recommendations. Regularly, those with anti-gay opinions ruled the day. For Carl Anderson — then a special assistant to Reagan who worked in the White House Office of Public Liaison and now the current supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus — such language was completely unacceptable.
In a two-sentence memo he sent to Mari Maseng, then the director of the Office of Public Liaison, on May 28, 1987, Anderson wrote bluntly, “Failure to make moral judgments on this behavior is why we have this epidemic. To my knowledge, the President has never said that we are to abandon moral judgment on these types of matters.”
Three days later, when Reagan gave his address, he took Anderson’s advice.
“It’s also important that America not reject those who have the disease, but care for them with dignity and kindness. Final judgment is up to God; our part is to ease the suffering and to find a cure,” the president told the room.
No one knew the subtle language change that had taken place. It is first being reported now as a result of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C.’s investigation into the Reagan Presidential Library’s holdings.
The official, if unstated, White House position was that those with AIDS should not be rejected — but could still be judged. Final judgment comes from God, but Americans could pass moral judgments in the meantime.
“Drenched in animus, stigmatization, and an inexplicable nonchalance, the notes and memoranda provide a window into federal discrimination against a despised group, even in the midst of a raging epidemic,” Charles Francis, the president of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., told BuzzFeed News about the documents.
By the time Reagan spoke, Shilts reported, it was known that more than 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS — more than 20,000 of whom, including Rock Hudson, had died. Later data would show the numbers were significantly higher, with more than 41,000 dead by the end of 1987.
Reagan, knowingly or not, at least chose an appropriate setting for the speech.
Although AmFAR is known as Taylor’s cause — she was the force behind it as one of the first celebrities unafraid of having her fame connected to efforts fighting the disease — the foundation was, in the final months of his life, launched with a $250,000 contribution from Rock Hudson.
Correction: The time period denoted in the headline initially was incorrect; it was nine weeks.