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Lee Garlington, Whom the Late Rock Hudson Once Called His 'True Love,' Dead at 86: He ‘Was One-of-a-Kind’

"I would like him to be remembered as the love of many people's lives, but most notably mine and Rock Hudson's," says Lee’s husband, Paul Garlington

<p>Courtsey of Paul Garlington</p> Lee (left) and Paul Garlington

Courtsey of Paul Garlington

Lee (left) and Paul Garlington

Lee Garlington — the “true love” of the late Rock Hudson — has died, his husband, Paul Garlington, has confirmed to PEOPLE. He was 86.

The Atlanta-born stockbroker died on Dec. 6, 2023, in Laguna Beach, California, while he and Paul — who had moved to New Zealand some two decades ago — were visiting the city to celebrate their 37th anniversary.

“We went back to where we had once lived and we were having a wonderful time,” Paul tells PEOPLE.

Related: Rock Hudson's 'True Love' Speaks: How We Kept Our Gay Life Secret

Lee died of complications from internal bleeding and prostate cancer, and is buried in Arrowtown, New Zealand, where Paul will ultimately be buried alongside him, he says.

“I am lucky I have had the love of Lee Garlington,” Paul tells PEOPLE. “We were very compatible in many ways, intellectually and aesthetically, in our tastes in art, history, cars and even dogs. We traveled the world together. And one of the things that was wonderful about Lee was he was loyal to me.”

“Lee was one of the most decent and loving human beings I've ever met and the most important person I'll ever know,” he continues, “and I would like him to be remembered as the love of many people's lives but most notably mine and Rock Hudson's.”

Courtesy Lee Garlington Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington.
Courtesy Lee Garlington Rock Hudson and Lee Garlington.

The “shy” stockbroker, who secretly dated Hudson in the mid-’60s, didn’t care about the glitz and glamour that came with the movie idol’s career success. He “just loved him,” Paul says.

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

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'

Recalling his late husband’s relationship with the star decades ago, Paul says that Lee and Hudson “stayed home and watched movies and enjoyed being a quiet domestic male couple.”

“When they were together, it took a lot of courage and subterfuge because they had to never be photographed together,” Paul says. “They would go to movie premieres at separate times and with female dates. They would be very discreet to the point that after sleeping over, Lee would get in his car and coast down the road [from Hudson's house] in Beverly Hills without turning the engine on so the maid would not know he had spent the night.”

“Even in his home, they put on a facade,” he adds.

<p>Courtesy Lee Garlington/HBO</p> Rock Hudson.

Courtesy Lee Garlington/HBO

Rock Hudson.

Related: 10 Secrets of Rock Hudson's Heartbreaking Final Days

By the late ‘80s, when Lee and Paul began dating, Lee was at times still nervous about public displays of affection. “When we first got together, we went to see the movie Out of Africa and he wouldn't hold my hand in a darkened movie theater,” Paul recalls.

“I told him I only had one time clock and if I don’t get to hold his hand in a darkened movie theater, we wouldn’t get that time back,” he says. “And if he wanted to be with me, he needed to hold my hand — and he did.”

Paul, 59, tells PEOPLE that as a man of his generation, he “straddled two worlds.”

“And yes, we were dealing with AIDS, but I was fully capable of being authentic, of being myself, and Lee saw examples of what I did and I think I dragged him out of the closet a bit,” he says. “It was courageous of him.”

As for Hudson’s statement that Lee was his one “true love” — which Lee only learned after the star’s death from his posthumous biography Rock Hudson: His Story — Paul says Lee “didn't know that Rock had felt that way.”

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

Reflecting years later, Lee told PEOPLE, “I broke down and cried.”

"He said his mother and I were the only people he ever loved,” Lee recalled. “I had no idea I meant that much to him.”

Paul says that that revelation “also highlighted Lee's regret that he didn't stay with Rock,” who died of AIDS-related causes on Oct. 2, 1985. Lee always regretted missing his funeral.

“Rock and Lee never saw each other after 1977, and Lee wanted to go to the memorial and he was told that Rock wouldn't recognize him [because he was so weak and ill at the time],” says Paul.

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"Lee was one-of-a-kind because he was so kind and he was, above all, a very decent person who taught me love and loyalty and whose legacy shall live on in me for the rest of my life,” Paul says. “And I miss him terribly.”

"I was lucky to know him and to love him and to have been married to him,” he says.

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