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Writing a Double Life: Biographer Mark Griffin ’90 on Rock Hudson

Mark Griffin in front of book shelf with black and white photo of Rock Hudson behind him
Biographer Mark Griffin ’90. Photo/Keary Nichols

Mark Griffin ’90 has long had a fascination with “Old Hollywood.” As a young boy, he was enthralled with classic MGM musicals. At Emerson, he majored in film history, and wrote movie reviews for the Berkeley Beacon.

In his career as a biographer, he’s gravitated toward film legends who live double lives, compelled to hide who they were by the industry and the times. In 2010, he published A Hundred or More Hidden Things, about director Vincente Minnelli, followed by All That Heaven Allows, his 2018 biography of closeted matinee idol Rock Hudson, one of the first celebrities known to have contracted and died from AIDS.

That biography served as source material for the new HBO documentary, Rock Hudson: All That Heaven Allowed, for which Griffin was an associate producer, consultant, and interview subject. Emerson Today asked the Maine resident about Hudson’s legacy, the process of writing a biography, and how he uses disco classics like strong coffee.  

What inspired you to write a biography about Rock Hudson? 

I felt compelled to write about Rock Hudson for several reasons. First, I thought it was time to reclaim him as an American movie icon.  I thought to myself, ‘Why aren’t we celebrating Hudson in the same way that we do John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe?’ After all, his extraordinary screen career spanned from the late-1940s to the mid-1980s. Many of his films – GiantSecondsAll That Heaven Allows and Pillow Talk – are widely considered classics. 

Beyond his Hollywood stardom, Hudson intrigued me as he has emerged as an important, though controversial, figure in LGBTQ+ history. Hudson’s own physician said that he was “the single most influential AIDS patient ever.”  How did this one individual manage to touch upon so many aspects of our culture? 

What has your relationship been with the production of the HBO documentary? 

Working on the new HBO documentary as an associate producer, consultant, and interview subject was a true labor of love. I genuinely enjoyed working with director Stephen Kijak, producer Carolyne Jurriaans, and the entire team. I marvel at how quickly and efficiently they pulled this project together. I had four years to labor over my biography of Rock. They pulled it off in a little over a year, which is truly extraordinary. It was also gratifying that a number of interviews that I recorded for my book can now be heard in the film.

How did you decide who to interview and how did you go about tracking them down? 

At the very beginning of my Rock Hudson “immersion,” I determined that I would track down and interview as many of Rock’s surviving colleagues, relatives, friends, and partners as possible.  As you might imagine, this was an exhausting process. But I feel strongly that conducting first-hand interviews is invaluable in terms of bringing all of the history alive. During the four years that I was working on the book, I was ably assisted by a couple of intrepid research assistants and a genealogist. We called ourselves “Team Rock.” 

Did everyone know Hudson?

The vast majority of my interview subjects knew Rock Hudson personally. From domestic partners, to lifelong friends, to classmates from New Trier High School in Winnetka, Illinois, I talked to anyone I could find who had some sort of meaningful association. I also reached out to a number of film historians who may not have known Hudson personally, but nevertheless provided very insightful commentary.

Why do you think Rock Hudson’s life continues to interest society?

I think Hudson’s story continues to fascinate us because this one individual embodied so much: the American dream, gay life – pre- and post-Stonewall riots, and the battle against AIDS.  Even though Rock never made any kind of “out and proud” declaration concerning his sexuality, the inadvertent outing that accompanied the disclosure that he had AIDS changed the way that gay people – and the disease – were perceived around the world.

How did you support yourself during the four years that you were working on the book?

Thankfully, my publisher, HarperCollins, came through with an advance that allowed me to focus exclusively on the Rock project. This was especially helpful in terms of traveling to conduct research in faraway libraries and archives or visiting Hudson’s hometown of Winnetka, Illinois, which is about 20 minutes outside of Chicago. It was terrific to have that kind of support and encouragement from a publisher.

What drew you to write about director Vincente Minnelli? 

Even as a precocious little lad, I was obsessed with those grand and glorious MGM musicals of the 1940s and ‘50s. Initially, I was fascinated by the stars of those films — Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, and Fred Astaire.  Then I noticed that most of my favorite musicals were directed by one person…the incomparable Vincente Minnelli. 

I wanted to know everything I could about him.  Yes, he was Liza Minnelli’s father and an Oscar winner, but who was the man behind the movies? Despite the fact that he was married to Garland and three other women, were the rumors that he had a gay life – in the shadows, as it were – actually true? How did he morph from a window dresser at Marshall Field and Company in Chicago to one of the most accomplished directors in Hollywood history?  It’s really amazing that this gentleman directed everyone from Josephine Baker to Jack Nicholson, Sinatra to Streisand. Vincente Minnelli, quite simply, was thoroughly unique and very worthy of closer examination.

What are you working on now?

I just finished a screenplay, which is also Hollywood-themed. The protagonist is inspired by another legendary film star from “the Golden Age.” 

Who else would you like to write a biography about? 

If books sales weren’t a primary concern for a publisher, I’ve often thought that I’d like to write about someone who wasn’t famous, yet lead a fascinating life worthy of biographical exploration.

How has your Emerson experience influenced you professionally or personally? 

Thanks to my Emerson experience, I have had the privilege of befriending and working with some extraordinarily talented and thoroughly unique individuals. The invaluable lessons that I learned from mentors and advisors during my days as a wide-eyed undergrad have served me well ever since: The importance of teamwork, consummate professionalism, and creative ingenuity. I genuinely treasure my Emerson friendships, which in some cases have endured for over 30 years.  

What would you ask yourself if you were interviewing yourself?

Why do you require vintage disco tunes to get your day jump started? 

Anything else you’d like to share?

During my undergraduate days at Emerson, I was a regular contributor and movie reviewer for the Berkeley Beacon. The late ‘80s and early ‘90swas a terrific time to be writing about flicks. The independent film movement was underway and movies were still smart and not dominated by CGI and special effects. Filmmakers were telling important, character-driven stories. Today, what’s landing at the neighborhood cineplex is something quite different and rather depressing, quite frankly.

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