Her name was Marilyn Maxwell.
And in typical Bob Hope fashion — he starred opposite the sexiest leading ladies of the day — blonde Maxwell was one of his costars.
Let’s — as this blog will — concentrate on Maxwell. Many stars of her period certainly did notably including Rock Hudson.
What, you ask?
Wasn’t Hudson, by the time he died of AIDS in 1985, an out-of-the-closet gay man whose sole marriage — to Phyllis Gates, his agent’s secretary; it lasted less than three years — was arranged expressly to conceal his homosexuality?
Good question. So, where does Maxwell come in?
Born Marvel Marilyn Maxwell in Clarinda, Iowa in 1920, she was groomed very early by her parents for a show biz career, first as singer with the Buddy Rogers and Ted Weems orchestras. After a period studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, Marilyn landed her first movie role in 1942, opposite Robert Taylor in “Stand By For Action.” In later movies, Maxwell’s costars included Van Johnson, Lionel Barrymore, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable, George Raft and, of course, Hope.
Marilyn was an adept comedienne, and proved to be a sexy foil to the likes of Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny.
But she made her boldest career imprint as a curvaceous straight woman to Hope during a series of the comedian’s celebrated USO tours around the world. Hope would ignite audiences having the well-stacked Maxwell decked out in a tight sweater singing “I Want To Love You” to the troops.
As for the occasional comparisons to Marilyn Monroe, Maxwell would comment: “Hey, I’m the blond with her clothes on.”
Maxwell married three times, the last time (1954 to 1960) to writer-producer Jerry Davis, a union that produced a son.
And this is where Hudson comes in.
“Rock and Marilyn had met in the early fifties and had been instantly attracted to each other, but they did not become romantically involved until 1961, when she broke up with her husband, Jerry Davis, and started spending time with Rock,” according to “Rock Hudson: His Story,” published a year after the actors’s death, and written by Hudson himself with Sara Davidson.
“People who saw them together said they laughed and played ‘like little kids.’ … She’d get him on the floor and tickle him, and they’d wrestle like bear cubs, laughing until tears were streaming down their cheeks.” Hudson called Maxwell “Max” and she called him “Big Sam.” Hudson also became close to Maxwell’s son, Matthew, and threw the boy a sixth birthday party at his house complete with a real merry-go-round and clowns on the lawn.
Hudson even nursed Maxwell back to health following surgery for a ruptured ovarian cyst. “He really, literally saved my life,” Maxwell later said. “He is without question the best friend I ever had.” The friendship deepened to something else for Maxwell, a romance that turned physical.
In “Rock Hudson: His Story,” Maxwell’s longtime (26 years) secretary is quoted thusly: “I know for a fact they were having an affair. Marilyn confided everything in me, and she talked about it in detail. She was in love with him. She said he always told her he loved her but wasn’t in love with her.”
When Maxwell suggested marriage, Hudson agreed on the condition that “you have to let me have my other life too. If you can put up with that…” Marilyn thought it over, finally concluding that “it would make her miserable if Rock was also seeing men.”
Maxwell was found dead in March of 1972 (of a heart attack; she was only 51), slumped on the floor of a closet in her Beverly Hills home. Her body was discovered by her son, then 15. Paramedics arrived, and told the teenager that “your mother’s gone.” Hudson was notified, and rushed to the house to find the teenager slumped in a chair, speechless.
The story goes that Rock Hudson picked Matthew Davis up in his arms, carried him out to his car and brought him home A doctor was summoned, a sedative was administered to the distraught teenager and Hudson took over and made plans for Maxwell’s last rites. Honorary pallbearers at Maxwell’s funeral were Hope, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny — and Rock Hudson.