Nancy Reagan refused to help Rock Hudson, one of the leading Hollywood stars of the 1950s and 1960s, as he sought treatment for AIDS from a pioneering doctor in Paris, it has been revealed.
Hudson, who kept his homosexuality secret while starring in a string of box-office hits with actors such as Elizabeth Taylor and Doris Day, flew to France in July 1985, during the last months of his life, to seek experimental treatment with the drug HPA-23 that was unavailable in the US.
But he collapsed at the Ritz hotel, and was taken to the American hospital in the French capital. His publicist contacted the White House – the Reagans were old friends – in an attempt to speed up a transfer to a military hospital to be seen by Dr Dominique Dormant, a French army doctor who had previously treated Hudson in secret.
But the commanding officer of the Percy military hospital in Clamart initially refused to admit Hudson because he was not a French citizen. According to documents published by BuzzFeed, Nancy Reagan, the US first lady, declined to help.
Hudson was eventually admitted to the hospital, but died in October 1985. He was the first high-profile celebrity whose death from complications relating to the illness was openly acknowledged, and the revelation that such a big star had AIDS helped raise awareness about the disease in the US and other western countries.
Original documents from the time, obtained from the Reagan Presidential Library by the Mattachine Society, a gay rights group, reveal that Hudson’s US publicist, Dale Olson, sent a telegram to the Reagans at the White House pleading for help on 24 July. It stated: “Only one hospital in the world can offer necessary medical treatment to save life of Rock Hudson or at least alleviate his illness.”
Hudson had been denied permission to enter the hospital because he was not French, but Olson added that they believed “a request from the White House or a high American official would change [the head of the hospital’s] mind”.
It was not a request from a stranger. Hudson had been friendly with the Reagans during the president’s time in Hollywood. But when it landed on the desk of Mark Weinberg, a young Reagan staffer, Hudson’s team did not get the response they were hoping for.
A note written by Weinberg on the same day stated: “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 US embassy, Paris.”
Weinberg told BuzzFeed that he had immediately spoken to the first lady after receiving the telegram. “I knew the Reagans knew Rock Hudson, obviously from their years in Hollywood, and for that reason I decided to call her,” he said.
He added that he advised the first lady that they “had to be fair”, and treat Hudson the same as anyone else, and she agreed. Weinberg recommended that the White House refer the matter to the US Embassy in France, because it was “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 favour personal friends.”
He added: “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 … They weren’t about that. They were about treating everybody the same [...] 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.”
Asked about the phrase “not something the White House should get into”, he claimed it referred to “special treatment for a friend or celebrity”. He said: “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 added that he was aware of longstanding criticism of the Reagan administration’s response to AIDS.
Gay rights campaigners point to the Reagan administration’s reluctance to accept the seriousness of AIDS as a health issue and tardiness in tackling the resulting crisis in the 1980s.
By the beginning of 1985 more than 5,500 people had died from the disease but the US government had taken few significant steps toward addressing it. The administration even recommended a $10m cut in AIDS spending, down from $96m in its federal budget proposal released in February 1985.
Peter Staley, a member of Act Up and founder of the Treatment Action Group, dismissed the argument that the Reagans did not want to be seen to be giving preferential treatment to a friend.
“Seems strange that the Reagans used that excuse, since they often did favours for their Hollywood friends during their White House years,” he told BuzzFeed, pointing to the former president’s personal intervention to help a fundraising effort led by Bob Hope. “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.”
Documents show Hudson was eventually admitted to the military hospital some days after the telegram was sent to the Reagans, after intervention from the then French defence minister Charles Hernu. But Dr Dormant’s diagnosis was not optimistic.
He told the Hollywood star that the disease had progressed too far, and HPA-23 treatment would be of little use. Hudson chartered an Air France Boeing 747 at a cost of $250,000 and returned to Los Angeles, where he was taken to the UCLA Medical Center.
His death, when it came a few months later on Oct. 2, may have signalled a sea change in how the disease was regarded. While he was still in Paris his team revealed the star had been diagnosed with AIDS a year earlier.
For the first time he was spoken about as a gay man and he became the first high-profile celebrity to die from AIDS, after openly acknowledging he had the disease. Two months before his death a Newsweek report noted: “Among homosexuals, the news also produced some tenuous hopes. Now that Aids had struck its first celebrity, many felt, there might be a stronger push behind the quest for a successful treatment.”
President Reagan gave his first major public address on the issue on May 31, 1987, at the request of Hudson’s longtime friend and co-star, Elizabeth Taylor.
At a dinner for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), he said: “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.”
By the end of 1987, more than 41,000 people had died in the US from the disease.