How ‘We All’ Came to ‘Have AIDS’: Rock Hudson’s False ‘Legacy’
Written by Elizabeth Ely & Cal Crilly
Thirty years ago this spring, actor Rock Hudson tested “positive” on the new “HIV test.” A year and a half later, he was dead of so-called “AIDS” after sensational media reports set off a sexual panic. We look at the more likely causes of death – and why those causes matter. It was the world’s most famous case of “AIDS.” In June 1984, actor Rock Hudson, the good-looking, crew-cut symbol of perfect American manhood, received his diagnosis of the new syndrome, based on a “positive” result on a test that had been on the market for less than two months.
The hype around Hudson’s illness and death turned AIDS into a general “epidemic” from an affliction among a subset of gay men. But we find other, more likely, causes for Hudson’s death. The idea that AIDS could happen to anyone, accordingly, rests on a lie.
In the official biography he commissioned while wasting away, this famous yet very private man wrote, “I want the truth to be told, because it sure as hell hasn’t been told before.” The media indeed didn’t tell the truth, in the rush to enroll us all in a sexual hysteria.
In another troubling precedent, a claimed Hudson lover filed the first lawsuit for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Since then, we’ve seen widespread legal system abuse against alleged “HIV positives” based on a questionable medical diagnosis. And we note the only token objections from AIDS organizations, which stand to gain from the hysteria as more otherwise healthy people seek “HIV tests.” (This propaganda tactic later became known as the “Magic Effect.”)
Stopping by Doris Day’s Place and into the Headlines
Hudson had long been rumored to be homosexual but more likely bisexual. By 1985, he was a very sick man. That July, a gaunt, 59-year-old Hudson stepped onto the first episode of the Doris Day’s Best Friends TV show to greet his visibly shocked former leading lady. Hudson had already undergone quadruple-bypass heart surgery. Soon after, on July 21, he collapsed in a Paris hotel, prompting his publicist toannounce that he had “inoperable liver cancer.”
Meanwhile, the public wasn’t taking scattered clusters of illness among gay men seriously enough to advance the career of UCLA Medical Center’s Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who had discovered the first five cases of a new pattern of gay illnesses in 1981.
In a suspiciously helpful development, a week after Hudson’s collapse, the actor confirmed through a spokesperson that he was “dying of AIDS.” Elizabeth Taylor reportedly phoned up Hudson to thank him for his announcement because she believed it would “save millions of lives.” He had been a friend of Taylor’s since working together on the set of the 1956 movieGiant.
Hudson’s announcement that he had AIDS suddenly became a big story, useful for promoting more widespread “HIV testing” and kick-starting an industry generating hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Not so coincidentally perhaps, it also benefited Taylor’s personal doctors and her own AIDS charities.
Enter, Elizabeth Taylor, Femme Fatale
Hudson had been delivered into Gottlieb’s care originally by Dr. Rexford Kennamer. Kennamer, who died only recently, had been Taylor’s trusted doctor since at least 1959. Gottlieb confirmed to Hudson the AIDS diagnosis, as the rare AIDS-defining skin cancer Kaposi’s sarcoma, at Kennamer’s own office in Beverly Hills.
Gottlieb also happened to be one of Taylor’s physicians. He and two other doctors were later charged with writing the actress more than 1,000 prescriptions of 28 controlled and addictive drugs – in, as the complaint said, “doses incompatible with life” – to the actress for five years. (They received a mere “reprimand” in 1994.) Taylor had reportedly been desperate for pain relief after several spinal surgeries. Did Gottlieb exploit Taylor’s dependence on him for sleeping pills, painkillers and tranquilizers to put the first celebrity AIDS case in the news?
The very year that he allegedly began prescribing drugs to the actress – 1983 – Gottlieb collaborated with Taylorto establish the National AIDS Research Foundation. Their organization merged with the somewhat more skeptical New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation, run by, among others, Drs. Mathilde Krim and Joseph Sonnabend, to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) in September 1985. This was less than two months after Hudson’s admission ignited heterosexual fears, and the new organization benefited from $250,000 of Hudson’s own money (as documented by his own business manager and estate executor, who later became AmFAR’s treasurer).
AmFAR, from its beginning, dropped the skepticism, refashioning AIDS into a general sexual epidemic that could ensnare anyone. That agenda led to Sonnabend’s resignation by the end of the year. Krim made frequent public appearances with Taylor, where they emphasized that everyone was at risk.
Taylor raised funds in the hundreds of millions for AIDS research in the years to come. Hudson’s illness provided a direct boost to her charity work. The biography quotes his closest friends on how the Paris AIDS announcement had made the tickets to Taylor’s AIDS fundraiser dinner into hot items:
Mark [Miller] said thousands of people were donating money for AIDS research, and governments were allocating major funds. The dinner that Elizabeth Taylor was helping sponsor in Los Angeles to benefit AIDS had had to be moved to a larger ballroom after Rock’s announcement. “Before your announcement, they’d sold two hundred tickets. Now they’ve sold twenty-five hundred, and they’ve raised a million dollars.”
“All that because I said I have AIDS?” [asked Hudson.]
George [Nader] explained that Rock was the first well-known person to contract the disease; if it could happen to Rock Hudson, it could happen to anyone.
The Public Loses the Plot on AIDS; Evidence Is Weak Anyway
Before the Hudson announcement, Gottlieb’s discovery of the first AIDS patients was still only a few years old and based on the small number of cases he reported in early 1981. It raised little concern outside communities of gay men living the fast-track lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, bathhouses and enormous numbers of sexual partners. Washington Post medical reporter Dr. David Brown demonstrated, in aretrospective article, what young, ambitious doctors can do if they chase after viruses and ignore poisons. Gottlieb’s quest to nail down the exact nature of one mysterious gay ailment strained credulity because he was really tracking several different diseases. But through “a combination of luck and intelligence,” Gottlieb and others found that a few cases had “many features in common.”
And just how many of these similar cases were there? “Three. It’s a magic number that makes coincidence an unlikely explanation. A series,” wrote Brown in 2001, revealing a bizarre misunderstanding of biostatistics. Nonetheless, one of Gottlieb’s colleagues, gay Los Angeles physician Dr. Joel Weisman, called it the “tip of the iceberg.”
Among five patients “confirmed” to have pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), they found some that showed a pattern: “profoundly depressed numbers of thymus-dependent lymphocyte cells and profoundly depressed in vitro proliferative responses to mitogens and antigens.” (Translation: low T-cells and slow reaction to invaders, when they really should have been on high alert, battling an active infection.) But “Lymphocyte studies were not performed on the other 2 patients.”
All five patients “reported using inhalant drugs,” nitrite inhalants, “poppers.” If three is a “series,” five must be a trend. Yet the team didn’t remark on that. Was five not a “magical” enough number?
The one case that mattered to the public, Hudson’s, was reportedly diagnosed as Kaposi’s sarcoma in 1984. At least one lover of his, Armistead Maupin, later lovingly recalled Hudson’s dispensing of poppers from a leather case embossed with “RH.” Make that six Gottlieb research subjects on poppers.
Ignoring the Obvious
Gottlieb and friends strenuously avoided any notion that poppers caused this new outbreak of diseases now fairly well documented to result from using poppers. Many studies, for example this one, document how they cause the thymus to atrophy, but the U.S. government has refused proposals to fund long-term studies. This information may not have existed in the early 1980s, but studies from the 1970s had raised strong concerns. It is now widely acknowledged that nitrite inhalants are at least strongly associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma (the original “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” which followed soon after Gottlieb’s discovery of the PCP patients).
However, Gottlieb did notice that all of his patients had cytomegalovirus (CMV), which he reported in his formal paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in December 1981. (The first had been a brief placeholder in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.) Perhaps, he said, “A high level of exposure of male homosexuals to cytomegalovirus-infected secretions may account for the occurrence of this immune deficiency.” By 1993 he had recanted:
This proved to be an error. CMV had been reactivated because of immune deficiency. However, I also suggested that a previously unrecognized toxin, microbe, or virus might be the culprit.
So the CMV didn’t cause the immune deficiency; rather, the immune deficiency – caused by another virus – “reactivated” CMV. Gottlieb cited no evidence for the shift in logic. But we suspect his collaboration with AmFAR, Krim and Taylor in promoting AIDS as a disease “We All Have” (hilariously parodied here) was at cross-purposes to continuing to promote a virus common to intravenous drug users and hepatitis B sufferers.
“Gottlieb was convinced he’d found something public health authorities should know about,” Brown wrote, adding with accidental cynicism, “He also wanted to get a paper out of it.”
As for Weisman, “His practice soon became almost entirely AIDS patients. He was the first chairman of AIDS Project Los Angeles. He helped found . . . AmFAR, and served as its chairman from 1987 to 1991.” It would be convenient for such a person to, as Weisman did, “put no stock in the theory [AIDS] was caused by inhalation of ‘poppers’ . . . or other lifestyle exposures.”
Another colleague on the project, Dr. Wayne X. Shandera, had “done no graduate work in either epidemiology or public health. . . . His training consisted of a three-week course in Atlanta.” But then, all he had to learn to count to was three, and on more challenging days, five.
The HIV Story Casts its Leading Man
With such weak data, and facing public apathy, these creative scientists could only have found the Hudson case attractive. The problem was, the actor’s “HIV” status was secret. His going public with it changed all that. In the space of a week since Hudson’s collapse, any effects of having liver cancer were forgotten. Hudson had become an AIDS patient. Motionless on a stretcher, he was lifted out of the American Hospital in Paris by helicopter and put on a chartered Boeing 747 jet bound for Los Angeles – with cameras rolling, of course.
One report estimated the cost of transport at $250,000 to $300,000. The biography reports this as paid for out of Hudson’s own money; he reportedly wanted to “die in his own bed.” Gottlieb et al. now had their HIV star.
Celebrity Rags Spin Toxic, Orphaned Drugs into Lifesaving Ones
At the time of his collapse, Hudson had been in Paris to get an experimental drug treatment for AIDS. HPA 23, as it was called, wasavailable experimentally in France through the Pasteur Institute but not yet in clinical testing in the U.S.
People and the clinical studies duly noted liver damage and blood clots as problems with HPA 23 treatment, but who cared? Fans wanted to know whether Hudson gave Linda Evans HIV when he kissed her on Dynasty. No one with any stature in the media was asking whether the drugs were effective, or why patients should be “desperate” for them rather than treating their actual health conditions. A famous actor was getting a drug; many others couldn’t. It must be good.
Into this teachable moment, Krim dropped a hint that there were all these drugs lying around, waiting to be tested, but the federal government wouldn’t provide the money. Now, suddenly, everyone was concerned about AIDS. “Under increasing public pressure, the Reagan Administration last week went to Congress and increased its request for funds to combat AIDS in fiscal 1986 from $85.6 million to $126.3 million,” Peoplereported in August 1985.
How to Kill a Liver, in 40 Years or Less
Back in Los Angeles, Hudson was in the hands of “his own physicians.” These included Gottlieb, with Kennamer making housecalls to get “blood samples.” Hudson’s doctors in Paris had judged him too weak to take HPA 23 any longer – itself an admission that taking the drug was rough going.
Hudson died in October 1985 after four decades of “heavy smoking and drinking taking its toll on his health.” He had reportedly been smoking a pack a day after his heart surgery, too. We would add to this list the taking of drugs that typically destroy the liver. Even though that initial liver cancer announcement may have been a lie meant to cover up Hudson’s HIV status, the damage to that organ from a year or more of experimental AIDS drugs is inescapable.
Hudson’s taking of HPA 23 had begun with a course of treatment (accounts differ from four to seven weeks) beginning in August 1984. It probably continued with that drug or others after that, as Gottlieb would almost certainly have had access to experimental drugs.
As early as November 1984, according to the biography, Hudson had a severe itch, a rash, and “Vincent’s disease” (a painful, ulcerative gum disease). By the winter months he was suffering loose teeth and a skin infection known as contact impetigo. Not so coincidentally, the only study with a full text available on the Internet, Moskovitz et al., reports exactly those side effects, among others. Says biochemist Dr. David Rasnick: “The damn things are toxic.”
Severe itch, rashes, loose teeth, and skin infections are also signs of scurvy – vitamin C deficiency, which also causes heart disease – and symptoms of lupus or liver damage. And according to the biography, Hudson had stopped eating, also a hallmark of liver failure. The People obituary stated he tried to pass off his weight loss as anorexia.
It was in keeping with the script that People, in its turn, would try to pass off Hudson’s death as being from AIDS rather than from the poisonous, oversold chemicals its own articles had raved about months before. It claimed: “Rock received no specific treatment for his illness.”
And what are we to make of any HIV test he may have taken? A 58-year-old who was recovering from a heart attack and possibly suffering from liver cancer was easy fishing for a test that was originally meant only to screen blood banks for the presence of retroviruses, to calm the panic over what was initially and shamefully called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). The HIV antibody test cross-reacts with tumors by picking up the p24 antigen that is a byproduct of many cellular processes, especially tumor growth. If he had inoperable liver cancer (and possibly other cancers), then why blame it on HIV?
The availability of the test itself spread the panic beyond the original ghettoized “risk groups.” The ELISA test for supposed HIV “antibodies” had only been around since late April that same year, 1984. This was when Dr. Robert Gallo filed the patent on it for patient testing, on the very day he announced HIV as the “probable cause of AIDS” (by press conference and with no academic paper to back up his claim). Testing could now proceed on the general population, telling even healthy individuals that they would soon develop symptoms of AIDS.
The World’s First “Fear-of-AIDS” Lawsuit
Hudson’s homosexuality, previously an “open secret” in Hollywood, became even more explosively public when a 32-year-old sociopathic drifter he couldn’t seem to get rid of, Marc Christian, sued the actor’s estate for “intentional infliction of emotional distress.” Although the younger man tested “HIV negative,” he claimed that Hudson continued to have sex with him without revealing the test result. Christian further labeled Hudson as an AIDS patient who had hid his status and was “in denial” about it – an outright lie about a person clearly dying of liver damage from decades of hard living and more than a year of taking toxic experimental drugs.
In 1991, the estate settled the matter with Christian, in effect awarding him $21.5 million (later reduced to $5.5 million) for merely saying he slept with Hudson. In a recent book, the estate’s lawyer suggests Christian may not have been with Hudson at most of the events he cited, and at least one of his house stays was uninvited and unknown to Hudson while the actor was filming abroad. It is unlikely that Hudson slept with Christian at all after his diagnosis sent him into a deep depression.
A Hollywood Ending
The AIDS establishment had exploited Hudson’s image as an idol of American women to build hysteria among heterosexuals for what had until then been a dubiously defined “epidemic” among gay party boys. His sleeping habits may have been Hollywood’s open secret, but as the dashing, ideal screen husband of Doris Day and Elizabeth Taylor, he was an honorary “straight.”
“Elizabeth Taylor . . . used her long-standing friendship with Hudson to galvanize Hollywood into action against AIDS . . . ” gushed People. And yet, during all of Hudson’s last months, Taylor reportedly made just one visit to his bedside – on the day before he died.
The magazine also noted that, on the exact day of Hudson’s death, the U.S. House of Representatives authorized $189.7 million to fund AIDS research.
The AIDS terror unleashed on Hudson also enabled Christian’s lawsuit. This set a frightful precedent, not just for civil suits, but also for using dubious HIV testing protocols to nail innocent people for crimes including reckless endangerment or attempted murder. The trend is only now beginning to reverse: The HIV Innocence Group of the Office of Medical and Scientific Justice has successfully assisted defense attorneys in more than 50 cases on the criminal side alone by providing expert testimony against HIV test results.
The story didn’t end altogether well for Gottlieb, however. He got the attention he needed for his new syndrome but was denied tenure at UCLA School of Medicine. According to an article in the American Journal of Public Health, his own relentless quest for notoriety may have sent him crashing down:
His colleagues and superiors let it be known that his frequent appearances in the media were unbecoming to an academic. Part of the problem, said Gottlieb, was that the UCLA Medical Center aspired to develop cardiac and liver transplant programs, and the physicians feared that if the hospital became too well known for AIDS, transplant patients might stay away. They also foresaw that there would ultimately be a lot of AIDS patients without good health care coverage. AIDS loomed as a threat to the well-being of the hospital[,] and Gottlieb, so publicly and professionally identified with the disease, was becoming a nuisance. Despite or perhaps because of his fame, Gottlieb was denied tenure at UCLA and went into private practice in 1987.
We see no evidence that Gottlieb recanted his CMV theory until 1993. That would, ironically, have worked against the more general HIV hysteria he had helped Taylor and Krim spread.
Hudson was called “the first high-profile Hollywood celebrity to die from AIDS.” Writes the “Turner Classic Movies” Web site, his “greatest legacy may have come in death” – a tacit admission, perhaps, that he had to be killed off to make a point.
Casually dismissed for far too long as just a “gay disease” by the public, AIDS research had traditionally held a low priority among the medical establishment. After Hudson put a recognizable face on the disease, however, public awareness of AIDS increased dramatically. Hudson’s death also galvanized the Hollywood community for the first time to take a stance against the plight, helping to raise money and erase some of the stigma attached with the disease – typified best by his good friend Elizabeth Taylor’s activism, done in honor of her doomed friend. Had it not been for Hudson, it is unknown when, if ever, Hollywood would have come around to embrace this tradition of compassion and awareness regarding AIDS.
The rest, as they say, is history: “compassion and awareness” leading to unnecessary anxiety, toxic drug taking, criminal prosecutions, seizures of children, and a breakdown in research ethics. Cue the credits.
Elizabeth Ely is a Brooklyn, New York-based investigator with OMSJ. She has written on AIDS for magazines Natural Health, The Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, and for the “You Bet Your Life” and “Truth Barrier” blogs. Along with Rethinking AIDS President David Crowe, Elizabeth co-hosts the “How Positive Are You?” Podcast series.
Cal Crilly is a self-taught researcher with an interest in cancer. Currently studying nutrition in Brisbane, Australia, he holds a patent on a test that measures retroviruses against genomic DNA methylation.