Exactly one year ago today I blogged about having read actor Tab Hunter’s autobiography; Tab Hunter Confidential. I enjoyed it. In reading Hunter’s book I became aware of another book; The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson: The Pretty Boys and Dirty Deals of Henry Willson. Willson was Hunter’s agent for a time as well as the agent of a number of mid-century heart-throbs including Troy Donahue, Guy Madison, and, most notably, Rock Hudson. It sounded like something I might enjoy so I sought out a copy from my public library.
Willson was an interesting character. The son of an affluent East Coast family, he moved to Hollywood and became a powerful agent. He also worked inside the studio system as a talent scout for David O. Selznick in the years after Selznick made Gone With The Wind. That Willson was gay was an open secret in Hollywood. He had a well-earned reputation for finding attractive young men, giving them a catchy new name and making them matinée idols, however briefly, despite any limitations of their talent. He believed that if a performer, male or female, had star quality they could be taught to act. The reputation he earned for what his clients might be asked to provide in addition to the requisite 10% ultimately contributed to his downfall as actors, concerned about their reputations, refused to be associated with him. Many actors who were clients would later deny having had a business relationship with Willson.
A life-long conservative, Willson was the West Coast equivalent of Roy Cohn, the powerful, conservative closet-case in New York and Washington D.C. Both were ruthless and unscrupulous with vocal contempt for anything that smacked of homosexuality, except for the parts that went on behind closed doors. Ultimately Willson died friendless, destitute and all but forgotten. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Los Angeles.
The book is full of ‘dishy’ stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood as well as the entertainment industry’s transition at the end of the studio era and the rise of television.
What is difficult about the book is the author’s obvious contempt for his subject, and almost everyone else mentioned in the book. The ‘dirty deals’ caption in the title should have been a warning. I don’t think I was through the introduction before the author referred to Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter and a minor character in Willson’s life, as “bovine”. This is not bitchy-funny, drag queen-esque humor. Humor is rarely found. It is just harsh. The author, Robert Hofler, rarely misses an opportunity to describe Willson as physically unattractive or ugly. He adopts a relatively neutral perspective in describing the ‘casting couches’ of the Hollywood moguls; even when the aspiring starlets involved might not have quite reached the age of consent. He rarely alludes to Willson’s activities of this type, however, without describing them as “notorious” or “infamous”. It is possible there is some underlying homophobia giving rise to a double standard but I don’t think that is the case. It just reads like an agenda. Never miss an opportunity to cast the subject in the most negative possible light.
One thing that seems clear is that Willson had a great deal to do with defining the popular notion of masculinity in the years between WWII and Vietnam. He was able to divine the public’s taste for male beauty and meet that need in a way that had never been done before. In the end, the book is dishy, albeit mostly warmed-over dish I’d heard before. I have no doubt that it is accurate. I believe that Henry Willson was probably not a very pleasant person. The book would have been a more enjoyable read, however, if that were conveyed in a less heavy-handed manner.