Anyone who thinks obit writers have it easy, here's a tale for you.
Several years ago, an e-mail was sent to my editor reporting the death of Marc Christian, the former lover of Rock Hudson, the 1950s and '60s romantic leading man and later star of TV's "McMillan and Wife." You might recall the tabloid frenzy that erupted when Hudson, who had maintained a resolutely heterosexual public image throughout his life, announced in 1985 that he had AIDS, which was sweeping the gay community. He died a few months later.
Christian, a former bartender and self-described musicologist, had been involved with Hudson for about three years, including a period of several months when Hudson knew of his illness but continued to have unprotected sex with Christian without telling him of his diagnosis.
Christian tested negative for AIDS after repeated tests. Nonetheless, he sued Hudson's estate for damages and emotional distress. In 1989 he won a $21.7 million jury award, later reduced to $5.5 million. In 1991, he settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. The case made headlines around the world, which would make Christian's death newsworthy.
To verify his death, I started with the person who reported it to us to in an e-mail. Normally, people who volunteer such news are eager to share it, so it was unusual to get no response. Finally, a response came but the details were sparse: It said Christian had died somewhere in Europe and his ashes had been scattered abroad. The e-mailer offered no other information.
Lacking contact information for Christian's next of kin, I did the next best thing: I called Marvin Mitchelson, the famous palimony lawyer, who had represented Christian in the Hudson case. Mitchelson had not heard of his former client's death but promised to look into it. When I told him about the mysterious e-mailer, he expressed concern. "There could be foul play," he said, and urged me to take the matter to the authorities.
This was the first time an obit assignment gave me the creeps. Given the circumstances, foul play seemed plausible. Anyone who files a lawsuit makes enemies, and Christian had won a nice bundle of money from Hudson's estate, which could make him a target. But I wasn't convinced that something horrible had happened.
Then, a day or two later, Mitchelson called back with good news. He had spoken to Christian's sister, who told him she had just received a birthday phone message from her brother. So the report of Christian's death had been premature. Case closed.
Still, I puzzled over why someone wanted us to believe Marc Christian was dead.
Through a careful review of the e-mails and some Internet sleuthing, I found out who that someone was.
It was, I believe, Marc Christian.
I found a phone number (another long story) and left a rather irate message on his answering machine. Then I threw the file away and hoped I wouldn't be on the obits desk when he did finally die.
I'm still here, but maybe he isn't.
Around June of this year, I received another e-mail saying Marc Christian was dead. (Again.) This time a credible name was attached: Pat Broeske, a former Times feature writer. But Broeske was passing along secondhand information and could offer no useful contacts for verifying Christian's demise. Alas, the gracious and helpful Mitchelson was unavailable, having died in 2004 of cancer at age 76. Christian's other trial lawyer, Harold Rhoden, was also dead.
News clips from the 1990s said Christian lived in Hollywood, so I called the Los Angeles County coroner's office to see if it had any record of his passing. Nothing. I put Marc Christian out of my mind. Until an official source materialized, I was determined not to waste another minute on it. Maybe he was just fooling with us again.
A few weeks ago, my editor handed me a printout from a Google news group citing a new report of Christian's passing. I groaned.
This time the "news" emanated from a blog by Michael Musto at villagevoice.com. Musto could not verify Christian's death, but that didn't stop him from publishing an item headlined "Marc Christian Has Passed?" It was picked up as fact by other bloggers and websites, including the Huffington Post.
So I called the L.A. coroner again. Again, they had no record of a Marc Christian. Because Christian had family ties down south, I called the Orange County coroner's office. Nothing again. This didn't mean he wasn't dead, only that the circumstances of his death were not unusual enough to require the coroner's services. I had real bodies to bury, so I consigned Marc Christian to the bottom of the pile. But he continued to gnaw at the edges of my consciousness. Was he dead, or wasn't he?
Some days later I went back to read the comments posted on Musto's blog. I had a good chuckle. Some were funny, some were extremely nasty, others were X-rated. None were useful.
Then I came upon one comment that made me sit up. The writer said that Christian's full name was Marc Christian MacGinnis and that he died on June 2, 2009, from complications caused by pneumonia. Another poster said he found a record of the death on the Social Security Death Index. I found the index on the Web, entered that name and there he was.
But was it the Marc Christian I've been chasing?
Another poster said Christian owned a house on Knoll Drive. I Googled Marc Christian and Knoll Drive and a Christian Marc Macginnis popped up as the owner of a house in the 3400 block of Knoll Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Further Googling showed that this Macginnis purchased the house for $545,000 in April 1992, about eight months after the lawsuit against Hudson's estate was settled. A realty website says a sale is pending on this house for more than $1.2 million.
Then our top-notch researcher, Kent, found a second blog entry by Musto that said Christian's sister's name was Susan Dahl. He searched public records and found a document linking Dahl and a Marc MacGinnis to the same address in Irvine. Christian said in various news stories that he grew up in Orange County. This felt like progress, but it still wasn't enough to hang a story on. Further Internet searching did not produce a good phone number for Susan Dahl. So, once again, I'm back to square one.
Although I hate to admit it, it drives me nuts that I don't know if Rock Hudson's litigious ex is dead.
Anyone out there with a solid lead? If so, drop me a line here or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Elaine Woo
Caption: Marc Christian, left, with attorney Marvin Mitchelson, announcing his lawsuit against Rock Hudson's estate in 1985. Credit: Los Angeles Times