She’d been the Lady Claire when I secured the sail covers, adjusted the spring-lines, and left her snug in her high-rent slip on the posh Gold Coast of the yacht harbor in Newport Beach, California.
Now, five weeks later, I return from Italy to find her formerly white hull now painted an unfamiliar dark green. And instead of Lady Claire , here’s an unfamiliar word, Khirizan, appearing in gold leaf on her trim rear end. Green hull? Okay. But Khirizan written across the transom? What kind of a name is that for a luxurious 55-foot gaff-rigged Newporter ketch? She’s a sailboat, not a Mesopotamian bagel. And one more little thing. Do I still have a job?
“We sold her to some actor while you were in Mazatlan,” says the late Milton Bren, megabucks real estate developer and movie producer, at his home on Lido Isle. “And we sold you along with her, since the new owner can’t sail a lick yet. But he’s a friend of ours, and we sort of promised you’d stay aboard and teach him, okay?”
Mrs. Bren, for whom the boat was originally named, pipes up. “You’ll still be our skipper when we take delivery on Lady Claire II in a few weeks, but our friend needs help now,” says Claire Trevor, artist, art collector, and the actress who gained fame in the “40s co-starring with Edward G. Robinson on radio’s “Big Town.” (She played Robinson’s secretary, Lorelei Killbourne, in case you’re into Blue Network trivia.)
“So please tell me about her new owner, the guy who changed her name and had her hull painted the color of spinach. My new boss. Who is he?”
They’re both grinning as they answer me in unison: ”Just some actor.”
Rock Hudson was, literally, too big for the boat. The sumptuous main cabin had standing-room of 6 feet 2 inches, but it wasn’t enough airspace for him, and he must have cracked his skull against the overhead a thousand times during those first few days. He never got upset about it, though. About anything, as a matter of fact.
Rock’s easygoing attitude wasn’t the only thing that set him apart from most of the pampered Hollywood hotshots who came down to Newport Beach to play boats on weekends. For one thing, it was obvious that he genuinely enjoyed performing some of the bothersome, never-ending maintenance tasks that a two-mast sailing vessel demands. The ones on deck, that is. He didn’t display much interest in climbing up into the rigging.
“Even if I knew what I was doing up there,” he’d say, “I’m just too damn big to scamper up the mast. You’re in charge of scampering, Mike. I’ll stand watch down here with first mate Mister Heineken.”
Then he’d pop open a bottle the same color as Khirtzan’s hull and stretch out in the sun, his long legs reaching clear across the wide cockpit. And later, just when I’d begin thinking about taking a break, he’d send an icy one up to me in a canvas bucket shackled to a halyard. Some boss.
Hudson’s personal qualities – his kindness, courtesy, intelligence, earthy sense of humor, lack of pretensions, and a genuine un-actorish interest in things other than himself and his career – these were especially noteworthy in view of the fact that, at that time during the late ‘50s, he was the undisputed Number One male film actor alive, the biggest movie star on the entire planet. But you’d never know it from talking to him.
Within the past few years, Rock had starred in, among other things, Magnificent Obsession, Written on the Wind, Giant (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), Something of Value, and his most recent hit at this time, A Farewell to Arms. Yet, with all of that, he was the real thing. He understood and appreciated his luck, he accepted his limitations, and he loved making fun of himself.
A word here about man-made Lido Isle. It’s a tiny, dwelling-only community of 26 short parallel streets of luxurious multi-million dollar, “summer places.” The houses are built within inches of each other on narrow 60-foot lots, much in the style of the town-chalets of southern France. At one time, Lido Isle was considered, foot-for-foot, to be one of the most expensive and exclusive residential properties in the world. The only homeowners on the island who weren’t millionaires were billionaires.
Despite their astronomical price tags, almost every house was actually occupied by its owner for only few days or weeks of each year. Rock, however, lived on Lido Isle year-round. He lived there alone, had no hired help, and was the only working actor who owned property on the island.
Hudson unconsciously summed up his own realistic perception of himself about a year later, while we were storing an extra suit of sails in the loft of the garage attached to his house on Via Mentone. He casually mentioned making up his mind to move away from Lido Isle.
“This house is so cool, why would you want to leave it?” I asked him.
“I dunno, I just feel sort of out of place, like I don’t really belong here.” The world’s most popular movie star wiped sweat off his forehead and heaved another heavy sail bag up into the loft. “People who live here,” he said, “they hire people like me.”
Rock’s good-humored patience with the public – their demands, curiosity, and even occasional rudeness – was remarkable.
One morning we were heading out the Newport jetty under full sail when a group of fun-seekers in a powerful runabout recognized the Khirzian. Ignoring and exceeding the 5 mph harbor speed-limit, they cut across under our bow, starting and pointing, and we had to come about in order to avoid a serious collision. We both yelled reminders to them that a craft under said had the right-of-way, to which they responded with internationally recognized one-handed gestures of disrespect before buzzing off.
“Why do you think people act like that?” I asked him as they zoomed away. Rock turned, looked me in the eye in mock dead-seriousness.
“Maybe they didn’t like Pillow Talk,” he said.
Another incident comes to mind, this one etched clearly in my memory because it reveals the spontaneous warmth of the man. Aware that I had a heavy date with a very earthy lady to whom he had kindly introduced me, Rock generously insisted on loaning me his snazzy iridescent blue Chrysler New Yorker convertible for the evening. The next morning, I had to phone and tell him that I wasn’t going to be able to return his car on schedule because…well, er, um…I was calling from Las Vegas. He never gave me the chance to pitch one of my screwball excuses for being late in returning the big sled to him. All he did was laugh and utter one word. “Enjoy.”
One last event. It’s my favorite memory of him, and the most revealing Rock Hudson story of all:
We had just returned from a leisurely two-day sail around Catalina and Santa Barbara islands, making our Newport Beach landfall in pre-dawn darkness. The Lady Claire II had been delivered, and so this was our last two-man voyage together. We secured the ketch, washed her down, and loaded gear into his car.
Five minutes later we pulled up in front of his house, the front door of which was close to the narrow sidewalk. In the half-light of the new day we saw what looked like a bundle of blue and white clothing piled against the bottom of his front door. Rock got out of the car to investigate, and I pulled around into the garage.
When I entered the house, Rock was already inside. He was standing in the living room, staring down from his height in amazement at the bundle, who was red-faced and sheepishly explaining herself.
Turned out that, back before unisexual military servitude, she was what they used to call a WAVE, a female member of the US Navy.
She stammered out her story, apologizing profusely along the way. She was his fan…no, more than just a fan. She was a 24-carat, varsity, dyed-in-wool, steadfast, dedicated, committed-to-the-bitter-end aficionado. She couldn’t help herself. She just had to see where her idol lived.
She told us about being stationed a hundred miles to the south, at the mammoth San Diego naval base. She had chanced upon someone down there who claimed to know Rock’s true home address, and she’d actually bought that information for cash and took a shot at checking it out.
The young WAVE had driven up two nights before, left her car parked on the street over in Newport Beach, and walked across the short bridge to the island. She’d been waiting ever since, had fallen asleep on his doorstep, and her three-day pass was ending at sundown that evening. She was apologetic, disheveled, and embarrassed to tears. But the little trespasser wasn’t sorry. According to her, it was all worth it.
Now, Rock had several options, He could have called the police, of course. Or the island’s private security force. Or the Shore Patrol. Or the girl’s commanding officer. Or he could have hustled her out the door with a scolding. Or he could have sluffed her off with an autograph and a warning. But he didn’t do any of those things.
I left while they were having breakfast. I’ll bet those were a couple of eggs she’ll never forget.
Mike Price is a long-time newspaper columnist, talk show host, and screenwriter who appears as a standup comedy headliner for top clubs and casinos across the country.