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Phyllis Gates, former wife of actor Rock Hudson; at 80

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

Ms. 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 on the west side of Los Angeles, said Mark Waldman, her attorney.

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

Born in Dawson, Minn., in 1925 and raised on a 600-acre farm, Ms. 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 Ms. Gates met the handsome Hudson for the first time when he walked into Willson's office.

A few days later, Willson invited Ms. 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 colloquially noting that ''Rock Hudson has been enjoying hideaway dinners with Henry Willson's purty secy, Phyllis Gates."

In early 1955, Ms. 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 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.

In September 1955, Life magazine 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, Ms. 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 Ms. Gates were married in Santa Barbara, with Willson and three friends in attendance.

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

After their honeymoon in Jamaica, the couple settled into married life. She made him meals of meatloaf 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."

At first, Ms. 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, Ms. Gates wrote in ''My Husband, Rock Hudson," with Hollywood chronicler Bob Thomas in 1987, was usually ''brief and hurried," and Hudson once told her that ''all women are dirty."

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

Ms. 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.

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

Ms. Gates received confirmation of his secret life, she wrote, 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.

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

Ms. Gates, who never remarried, leaves a sister, Marvis Ketelsen; and a brother, Russell.

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