Phyllis Gates, 80; Former Talent Agency Secretary Was Briefly Married to Rock Hudson in '50s

Times Staff Writer

Phyllis Gates, the onetime talent agency secretary who married Hollywood heartthrob Rock Hudson in the 1950s and later insisted that she married him out of love and not to cover up his homosexuality, has died. She was 80.

Gates, who had a career as an interior designer after her brief marriage to Hudson, died of complications of lung cancer Jan. 4 at her home in Marina del Rey, said Mark Waldman, her attorney.

"She was a lovely, very dignified woman," Waldman said Wednesday.

Born in Dawson, Minn., in 1925 and reared on a 600-acre farm, Gates had worked as a sales clerk, flight attendant and a talent agent's secretary in New York City before landing a job as a secretary for influential Hollywood agent Henry Willson, who represented Hudson, Tab Hunter, Rory Calhoun and a string of other young stars.

In October 1954, the petite brunet Gates met the tall, dark and handsome Hudson for the first time when he walked into Willson's office.

A few days later, Willson invited Gates to have drinks and dinner with him and Hudson. She did, and the next day, Hudson asked her out.

Soon, their budding romance was leaked to the news media, Hollywood Reporter columnist Mike Connolly noting that "Rock Hudson has been enjoying hideaway dinners with Henry Willson's purty secy, Phyllis Gates."

In early 1955, Gates accepted Hudson's offer to move into the rustic two-bedroom house he had bought in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. "Living with Phyllis helped normalize Rock's reputation in Hollywood," Sara Davidson wrote in the 1986 book "Rock Hudson: His Story By Rock Hudson and Sara Davidson."

At the time, Hudson's career was soaring, but he was struggling to keep his private life private -- with Willson's help.

The agent already had fended off a blackmailer who said he had incriminating photos of himself with Hudson, and Willson later learned that Confidential magazine was working on an expose of Hudson's homosexuality.

Even Life magazine in September 1955, had a cover story on Hudson -- "Hollywood's Most Handsome Bachelor" -- reporting that "Fans are urging 29-year-old Hudson to get married -- or explain why not."

In early November 1955, Gates accepted Hudson's surprise marriage proposal.

"I was very much in love," she later told Davidson. "I thought he would be a wonderful husband. He was charming, his career was red hot, he was gorgeous.... How many women would have said no?"

On Nov. 9, 1955, not long after Hudson finished work on the movie "Giant," he and Gates were married in Santa Barbara, with Willson and three friends in attendance.

"I couldn't believe that this was really happening to me, that Phyllis Gates of Montevideo, Minn., was marrying Rock Hudson, the movie star," Gates wrote in "My Husband, Rock Hudson," the 1987 book she wrote with veteran Hollywood chronicler Bob Thomas.

Willson had arranged the secret wedding, but minutes after the ceremony ended, he called Hollywood gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons.

On their way to Jamaica for their honeymoon, Gates wrote, an emotional Hudson toasted her, saying "We must always stick together and not let anyone try to pull us apart. Hollywood is full of a lot of vicious people who spread rumors. You must never believe any of them."

After their honeymoon, the couple settled into married life. She made him meals of meat loaf and mashed potatoes; he bought her jewelry and beautiful clothes.

The fan magazines ate it up.

One magazine story, headlined "When Day Is Done -- Heaven Is Waiting," quoted Hudson as saying, "When I count my blessings, my marriage tops the list."

In another magazine story, Hudson said, "Marriage has turned out to be all I hoped for and more. I'm just a whole lot happier."

At first, Gates reveled in being married to a major Hollywood star -- it was a life of movie premieres, limousines, A-list parties, first-class travel and luxury hotels.

But cracks began to appear in the marriage. Their sex life, Gates wrote, was usually "brief and hurried," and Hudson once told her that "all women are dirty."

She also fielded phone calls from young men, whom Hudson dismissed as "fans," and he would disappear for hours and not explain where he had been.

Hudson, according to Gates, also was capable of dark moods and sudden rages. He hit her twice and once tried to choke her.

Depressed over her deteriorating marriage, Gates began seeing a psychologist. Hudson, she wrote, had "virtually abandoned" her for five months when she was ill with infectious hepatitis in 1957 while he was working on a film in Italy, and he refused counseling to save the marriage.

Gates filed for divorce in April 1958, charging mental cruelty; Hudson did not contest the divorce, and Gates received a relatively small alimony of $250 a week for 10 years.

In her book, Gates said famed Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler, whom she consulted for her divorce, told her that Hudson and Willson had visited him a week before Gates married Hudson and asked Giesler if he could stop the damaging Confidential story. The story never ran.

Hudson, she wrote, later denied marrying her because of the Confidential story. But she received confirmation of his secret life when one of her closest friends told her that Hudson had been unfaithful to her, with an Italian actor, during the filming of "A Farewell to Arms" in Italy.

As Hudson hurried out of the Santa Monica divorce court with his lawyer and Willson, Gates wrote in her book, she thought how "relieved they must have felt, as if the world had been lifted from their shoulders. 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."

That was the last time she saw Hudson.

Shortly before Hudson died of AIDS in 1985 at age 59, he reportedly said he had loved only two people in his life. One of them was Gates.

Gates, who never remarried, is survived by a sister, Marvis Ketelsen; and a brother, Russell Gates.

A funeral service for Gates was held Tuesday in Montevideo, Minn.

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