Lewiston writer Mark Griffin may know the real Rock Hudson — his stardom and his pain — better than anyone on Earth.

What would you do if the life of another were in your hands — his 59 years, 66 feature films and 124 remembrances of loved ones and colleagues? And what if that life had been an iconic yet enigmatic one, knowable only through traces and tendrils of history and hearsay?

Well, if you were Lewiston author Mark Griffin writing about Hollywood film star Rock Hudson’s life, the task would be perfectly clear: You would descend into your basement writing studio for four years to arrange and weave the pieces — glittering, tattered, mysterious — into an illumination of a life that had been waiting to be examined with the degree of care and accuracy it deserved. You would come up for air once in a while, say, to visit your subject’s hometown or spend time with his loved ones in order to better understand him, but the magnitude of the task would have you spending countless days working underground, both literally and metaphorically.

The passage of time would come to be marked by the sudden appearance of foliage spotted through the frame of a top-of-the-wall basement window, followed too soon by branches lacquered in layer upon layer of ice, and then finally, the welcome burst of tender green shoots and new shafts of light slanting into the studio. Weeks would sometimes feel like years, and memories of events thought to be from weeks ago might have taken place months before.

While undertaking his momentous task, Griffin would experience rare illness, the sudden death of a sibling and other family emergencies, and complete a number of other writing projects for film magazines and newspapers that were in progress before he signed with HarperCollins Publishers.

“It was like I was just suddenly dropped into this really intense life, both professionally and personally,” Griffin said.

“If you think about Rock’s life and all of the hardship he experienced — abandonment, abuse, betrayal, AIDS — the subject matter itself takes you to some pretty hard places. Writing ‘All That Heaven Allows’ required more of me than any creative endeavor I have ever worked on before, but I also couldn’t have imagined a more perfect fit with a subject. Early reviews have referred to ‘the writer’s empathy,’ and there could be no greater compliment for me than that.”

Griffin, who wrote the 2010 biography on Hollywood film director Vincente Minnelli, “A Hundred or More Hidden Things,” already knew that a combination of meticulous research, coast-to-coast sleuthing and uncompromising validation of information would be the pillars of his prodigious task.

“So much was written and rumored about Rock, from the ‘fanzines’ of the ’60s to sensationalistic tell-alls to downright vengeful posthumous money-grabs,” Griffin said.

“It is too easy for some biographers to go the gossipy, salacious route, especially when the subject had challenges or was controversial, but that does nothing but dehumanize the person you are writing about,” he said. “I made every effort to not fall into that trap, of course, and also had to vigilantly maintain a balance between empathy and clear-eyed objectivity without getting swept up in the charisma of Rock Hudson.”

One reason Griffin had to be extra wary about maintaining objectivity was that literally all of the people he interviewed for the biography — from Hudson’s hometown pals to his Navy buddies, from family members to his inner circle of friends, from top film stars to those who were at Hudson’s bedside when he died — had wonderful things to say about the actor. This is simply unheard of in the world of biography and is true testimony to Hudson’s exceptional character.

“One actor I interviewed said, ‘I loved him — I bet everyone tells you that,’” Griffin said. “And the thing is, it was true. People didn’t only have wonderful stories: They wanted to pay tribute to this larger-than-life legend who showed generosity of heart throughout his life, no matter how badly the world was treating him.”

Roy Harold Scherer Jr., whom the world would come to know as Rock Hudson, was born in 1925 in Winnetka, Illinois, into a life beset with pain from nearly the beginning: He was abandoned by his father, then raised by an abusive stepfather and a mother who loved him but failed to protect him. A country boy with silver-screen dreams that seemed impossible to reach, World War II beckoned Hudson to enlist in the U.S. Navy, where he would serve as an aircraft mechanic until 1946. Post-discharge, he went to California, determined to shoot for the stars. He found work as a truck driver, while chasing every lead that might gain him entry into the Hollywood world he had dreamed of since childhood.

Hot leads repeatedly ended cold and caused hope to waver, but Hudson weathered the disappointments until, at last, he was discovered by notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson. Willson would catapult Hudson, who had almost no acting experience, onto the big screen and mold him into the dazzling persona who would become America’s No.1 star for more than a decade.

The realization of Hudson’s Hollywood dreams would come at a personal cost he could not have imagined.

Griffin emphasizes the importance of remembering that American culture was in a very different place in the ’50s and ’60s than it is today: “Now, our culture is all about the eager ‘exposure’ of every aspect of existence — we live in a reality-show, talk-show world, but that was not at all the case for Rock, who was forced to pretend he was someone he was not — both personally and professionally — just to survive.

“So you have this larger-than-life figure who was living a glamorous, cinematically scaled life, but enveloped within that was a very vulnerable human being who was always looking over his shoulder and had to keep the most personal parts of his life hidden. At any moment, if the wrong information got into the wrong hands, his career would have come tumbling down.”

The “real” Rock Hudson — the unassuming, down-to-earth, nice guy beneath the incandescent star persona — was known by few, Griffin said.

“Rock’s sister Alice Waier said his life was like ‘The Three Faces of Eve,’ that he lived a compartmentalized life. His friends Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett got one version, his lovers got a different one, the friends and family back in Winnetka yet another and his fans still someone else. All of these were the ‘real’ Rock, but they weren’t all of Rock at the same time. It was simply too dangerous to reveal too much of himself, so he couldn’t.”

When Griffin began his research on Rock Hudson, aided by assistants in Georgia and Wisconsin, his first question was always: Can this source be trusted?

“While so much has been written about Hudson, you often find in both film star and gay history that the truth has been purposely buried,” Griffin said. “The entourage around a star relentlessly hid the truth out of a well-founded fear that it might tarnish the icon’s carefully constructed ‘larger-than-life’ image. For me, knowing the truth of the vulnerable human being beneath the Prince of Hollywood persona makes Rock all the more endearing. But that was not the case decades ago.”

In order to get as full and true a picture of Hudson as possible, Griffin methodically, exhaustively interviewed friends and family of the star and at least one co-star and/or crew member from each of his 66 films. He also gained unprecedented access to Hudson’s personal correspondence and private diaries.

“Hudson, the ultimate movie star of the Golden Age, was one of the last of the era of studio-manufactured stars,” Griffin said. “So many of those who knew Hudson are no longer living, and those who still are, are well into their 80s and beyond, so there was really a sense of urgency collecting their stories.”

Griffin talks about Rock Hudson as the embodiment of so much more than himself, from Hollywood legend to posthumously pivotal figure in gay history and mainstream AIDS awareness, to the ultimate exemplar of achieving the American dream.

“Starting from rural Illinois, Rock went from sailor to truck driver to Hollywood star. He really built his career from nothing, piece by painstaking piece. How much more ‘American dream’ can you get?”

The sad part, Griffin said, is that along with the glory and glamour of success, Hudson’s life carried so much suffering.

The title for Griffin’s book was inspired by the movie “All that Heaven Allows,” a 1955 drama starring Hudson and Jane Wyman. The movie — which examines the debilitating pressures exerted by societal norms, regrets and the redemption found from being one’s authentic self — provided a fitting title for Hudson’s biography.

“One of the most poignant expressions heard repeatedly from Hudson throughout his life was, ‘I learned to keep my mouth shut,’” Griffin said.

“It was what he had to do to get through life from the earliest age, so he did, until he no longer had to. When it was announced that Hudson was battling AIDS — this was back in 1985, when it was still perceived with great fear and stigma — Hudson received 30,000 letters of support from all over the world. I hope he knew how loved he was, just as he was.”

Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman in a scene from director Douglas Sirk’s classic tearjerker “All That Heaven Allows” in 1955. (Photo courtesy of Photofest).

Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James drew huge ratings when they starred in the long-running television series “McMillan & Wife.” (Photo courtesy of Photofest)

Screen legend Rock Hudson starred in such Hollywood classics as “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), “Giant” (1956) and “Pillow Talk” (1959). (Photo courtesy of Diane Markert)

Doris Day and Rock Hudson in an iconic sequence from their blockbuster 1959 comedy “Pillow Talk,” the first of three enormously successful films they starred in together. (Photo courtesy of Photofest).

Rock Hudson and his close friend, Carol Burnett, as they appeared in 1966 when Hudson guest-starred on Burnett’s variety special “Carol and Company.” (Photo courtesy of Everett Collection)

Rock Hudson was one of the most successful stars that Hollywood ever produced. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Oscar-nominated actor was the No. 1 box office attraction in the world. (Photo courtesy of Diane Markert).

Rock Hudson and Marilyn Monroe at the Golden Globes in 1962. (Photo courtesy of Photofest)

“All that Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson” will be released by HarperCollins on Tuesday, Dec. 4. Universal Pictures has optioned the biography, with a plan for it to be directed by Greg Berlanti, director and producer of numerous television shows and movies, including last year’s film “Love, Simon.”

The cover of “All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson” by Lewiston native Mark Griffin, which will be published on Dec. 4 by HarperCollins. (Photo courtesy of Photofest)

In order to get as full and true a picture of Hudson as possible, Griffin methodically, exhaustively interviewed friends and family of the star and at least one co-star and/or crew member from each of his 66 films. He also gained unprecedented access to Hudson’s personal correspondence and private diaries.

Lewiston author Mark Griffin. (Photo by Keary Nichols)

A young Mark Griffin crashing at his writing desk around Christmas at some point in the early 1970s. (Photo courtesy of Mark Griffin)

About author Mark Griffin

Back in the 1970s on a quiet suburban street in Lewiston, biographer Mark Griffin got an early start on developing his twin passions, writing and film. “When I was about 6 or 7, my parents gave me a baby Smith-Corona typewriter and a movie camera; thus began my dual obsession with both writing and film.” The young Griffin began cranking out plays, stories, novellas and scripts, but that was just the beginning. He would gather the neighborhood kids together in his house or backyard to act out the plays he had written, “at gunpoint” if necessary, he recounts with a chuckle. “Yeah, I was kind of a mini-mogul — I was the writer, the director and usually the star,” he says, “My mother was very patient with me taking over the house and trying to re-create MGM in the living room.”

*     *     *

While Griffin had a fairly typical kid’s life on the block, nothing was important enough to pass up an opportunity to watch a vintage Hollywood film or musical on TV. He would, for example, be out playing kickball in the street with his friends on a Saturday afternoon and abruptly drop everything when 3 p.m. movie time approached. “Nobody could understand why I would suddenly leave the game to go watch a three-hour movie from 1954. But how could I possibly miss Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born’?” Griffin explains.

*     *     *

Rolande and Martin Griffin nurtured their son’s ardent interest in old Hollywood films. It was amusing to them that he knew more about the movies that were from their era than they did. Every Friday evening, Griffin could be found sitting too close to the TV, waiting for the PBS Late Show — which showcased old movies beginning at 11 p.m. — to start. He wouldn’t just watch, say, the Bette Davis feature “Dark Victory,” Griffin says. “I would tape record the entire movie, and then listen to it — ‘attentively’ would be an understatement — the next day. This was before the advent of VCRs, so it was the only way to capture the magic.”

*     *     *

Martin Griffin, who was a veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, would come home with more typical gifts of the era for his son, such as a baseball mitt — “that was soon filled with cobwebs and dust,” the younger Griffin recalls. But the father did support his son’s passions, appearing in the form of, say, a Ginger Rogers album, a Laurel and Hardy biography or a 16mm print of “Easter Parade.” “My parents were really good natured about my obsessions and I was never made to feel ‘other.’ My father did once say, ‘Well, I guess Mark will never play for the Red Sox!'” Griffin recalls with a hearty laugh.

*     *     *

“Back in high school, when I was a cub reporter for the Sun Journal’s Academic Advocate, (former) Editor Heather McCarthy invited me to her office from time to time. One day I told her that someday I would like to see my name on the glossy cover of a book, and rather than rolling her eyes as many others would have, she took the precocious ambitions of a 15-year-old boy seriously. She really treated me like a peer.”

*     *     *

After moving to Boston, Griffin had the opportunity to expand his portfolio by writing articles and movie reviews for The Boston Globe and weeklies such as The Boston Phoenix and The Berkeley Beacon. He also spent extended stretches living and working in New York City and Sarasota, Florida, but always returned to Maine, where, among other things, he became a regular writer for the Sun Journal, penning exclusive interviews with Joan Rivers, Tony Bennett, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin and Judy Collins, among others. When asked about Maine as a location for being a writer, Griffin recalls a conversation he had with legendary “West Side Story” lyricist Stephen Sondheim. “Early on in my career, when discussing this subject, Mr. Sondheim said that he couldn’t think of a better place for me to develop my talent than here, as Maine was beautiful and peaceful and had few distractions. He was right.”

*     *     *

Griffin’s father passed away in 1988, but his mother would live long enough to see her son’s name on the cover of his first biography, “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli.” “My mother, who died in 2013 on my birthday, was incredibly supportive of my writing, and she was really proud of the Minnelli book. A couple of days before she died, she was talking about that effort and said, ‘There’ll be a lot more projects in the future.’ It was almost like she had a premonition or something. Rock Hudson was one of my mother’s favorite stars, so I like to think that she had something to do with the project, which I began shortly after her death.” When asked what his mother would say about “All That Heaven Allows: A Biography of Rock Hudson,” Griffin says, “I know she would be thrilled and proud of me, but she would find an indirect way to express it. After all, she wouldn’t want me to get a swelled head or anything.”

Author Mark Griffin sits with his dog, Lucy, at his home in Lewiston. Universal Pictures recently optioned the screen rights to Griffin’s book, which will be published by HarperCollins on Dec. 4. (Photo by Maura Murphy)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: