Nancy Reagan Turned Down Rock Hudson’s Plea For Help Nine Weeks Before He Died

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.

Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in “Giant,” 1956.

Warner Brothers / Getty Images

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 in Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, 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.

Hudson in August of 1982.

Lennox McLendon / AP Photo

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 brought 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.

Doris Day and Rock Hudson, July 18, 1985.

Chris Hunter / AP Photo

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 at his home in Hollywood on Nov. 8, 1984.

Wally Fong / AP Photo

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.

President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan at the White House on May 10, 1985.

Scott Stewart / AP Photo

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.”

Mark Weinberg, aide to U.S. President Ronald W. Reagan.

Dirck Halstead/The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

“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.

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