A Look Back at Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington's Secret 'True Love' Story (Exclusive)

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Garlington — who Hudson famously called his 'true love' in his biography — died in December at age 86, PEOPLE has confirmed

<p>Photograph by Courtesy Martin Flaherty & The Rock Hudson Estate Collection/HBO</p> Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington in Puerto Vallarta, 1963

Photograph by Courtesy Martin Flaherty & The Rock Hudson Estate Collection/HBO

Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington in Puerto Vallarta, 1963

Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington’s love story was brief, but it was the greatest love of the legendary actor’s life.

On Sunday, PEOPLE confirmed that Garlington died at age 86 in December, nearly four decades after Hudson’s own death in 1985. The star was just 59 at the time, and had been diagnosed with AIDS a year earlier.

The pair dated from 1962 to 1965; Hudson famously called his former partner his “true love” in his biography, which was published posthumously.

“I broke down and cried,” Garlington told PEOPLE in 2015 of the moment he read Hudson’s biography, Rock Hudson: His Story, which revealed his lasting love more than two decades after they’d ended the relationship. “I just lost it. He said his mother and I were the only people he ever loved. I had no idea I meant that much to him.”

Garlington had been a young film extra when he first met the Pillow Talk star in 1962. At the time, “he was the biggest movie star in the world, and the rumors were that he was gay,” Garlington recalled.

“So I thought, ‘Let me get an eye on him.’ I stood outside his cottage on the Universal lot, pretending to read Variety, which was probably upside down at the time. He walked out and down the street. He looked back once. That was it.”

A year later, Garlington got a call from one of Hudson’s friends, asking if he’d like to meet the actor. “I think he had me checked out.”

Related: Rock Hudson's 'True Love' Shares Touching Message 30 Years After the Actor's Death: 'I Have Felt So Guilty About Not Being There for Him'

<p>Silver Screen Collection/Getty</p> Rock Hudson, circa 1960

Silver Screen Collection/Getty

Rock Hudson, circa 1960

Throughout their relationship, the decision to keep it private was never a discussion. Hudson “assumed” Garlington would, but “he wasn’t paranoid” about it.

“Nobody in their right mind came out. It was career suicide. We all pretended to be straight,” Garlington said of the culture at the time. Once, at a movie premiere, he and Hudson met Paul Newman and his wife, and the pair “kind of laughed” about a look that Newman gave them that seemed to hint that he knew they were together. “I just read it in his face,” Garlington recalled.

Once, they were almost caught after a fan broke into Hudson’s house and slept in his bed. “In a drawer on a side table were pictures of me with no shirt on. She didn’t find them, but it shook him up. He realized he was vulnerable. He put gates on the house after that,” shared Garlington.

Related: Rock Hudson: The Incredible Life and Heartbreaking Last Days of a Movie Icon

Garlington, who later became a stockbroker, said that the two “couldn’t take any pictures together, it was too dangerous,” so they only took pictures “of each other” — with the exception of one trip to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in 1963. Garlington shared the never-before-seen shots of himself and Hudson from their vacation with PEOPLE in 2018, as the two “just lived the life of two normal gay men that loved one another” while they were there.

“We walked on the beach and took pictures of each other with his camera and drove around in an open jeep,” Garlington recalled. “ There were no paparazzi and no one knew we were there. We were just comfortable being us.”

The only picture they ever took together in a public place was at a bar in New Orleans. “His agent told him that he was never to have one of his boyfriends in a photo because if anyone saw it, they would suspect he was gay.”

<p>Images Press/Getty </p> Rock Hudson circa 1985 in New York City.

Images Press/Getty

Rock Hudson circa 1985 in New York City.

Garlington shared that he wished the Giant star “had been born thirty or forty years later. He’d be more relaxed and at ease and it would have been a happier life. He’d also be elated by how much has changed.”

"He did not have the opportunity to live his life the way he wanted to and he had to go around hiding,” said Garlington.

The two broke up in 1965. Said Garlington: “One of the reasons we went our own way was because in a way I wanted a father figure and he was not strong enough. Rock wasn’t a real strong personality. He was a gentle giant.”

By the time of Hudson’s death 20 years later, the two had lost contact. Garlington was “shocked” by the news.

“AIDS killed everybody in those days. I called up the people taking care of him, but they said he was so sick that he wouldn’t know who I was and it was best to remember him how he had been before.”

Related: Rock Hudson: Here Are the 6 Biggest Revelations from New HBO Doc About Legendary Actor's 'Double Life'

Garlington told PEOPLE that the star's AIDS diagnosis “changed so many people’s attitudes” because Hudson “was so widely loved and appreciated.”

“He had a huge impact, much more than he ever realized,” he said. “I remember how handsome he was and what a great time we had together. He was the kindest man I ever met.”

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Following Garlington’s death in December — the result of complications from internal bleeding and prostate cancer — his husband, Paul, told PEOPLE, “I would like him to be remembered as the love of many people's lives but most notably mine and Rock Hudson's.”

Paul elaborated on Garlington and Hudson's life together, which he said was mostly spent at home watching movies and enjoying time as a "quiet domestic male couple."

"Everybody loved Rock for being a movie star and for his handsomeness and charm, but they all wanted something from him,” Paul continued. “But Lee loved him for who he was, rather than what he could do for Lee. Lee just loved him.”

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