The Life and Death of a Big Man

by Karl Niedershuh

It seems that there were two Walter Hudsons. The first was Walter Hudson the 1400-pound fat man, ashamed to leave his bedroom, living stereotype of the perils of obesity. The fat man who lost 900 pounds on a liquid diet in just a matter of months. The fat man who designed clothes for other fat people, so that they wouldn't share his reluctance to go out into the world. Walter Hudson the media star. That Walter Hudson was pure myth, a total fiction, created to serve the press, promoters, and publicity-hounds.

"He never weighed as much as he said, and he never lost as much as he said," contends press photographer Scott McKiernan, a frequent visitor to Hudson's Long Island home. McKiernan first photographed Hudson for Parade magazine, a few days after the notorious accident that brought the reclusive man to public attention; he'd also taken photos of other men weighing as much as 1100 pounds. McKiernan judged Hudson to weigh between 800 and 900 pounds at his peak. Hudson had a delicate frame and a small head that looked huge in photographs, giving the illusion that the rest of his body was that much more enormous - an illusion that Hudson maintained (deliberately or otherwise) by his adamant opposition to getting on a scale. No one ever really knew how much the real Walter Hudson weighed. In the end, even the National Enquirer grew frustrated by his refusal to document his weight, and stopped running articles about him.

As for Hudson's much-publicized weight loss, McKiernan says he probably never lost more than 100 pounds-still a massive amount, when one considers that losing just five pounds puts the body in starvation-survival mode, but far from the hundreds he claimed. Hudson drank his protein shakes six days a week, and ate only matzos and water every Friday as a private rite of penance, but his commitment to getting thin never excluded bribing his nieces and nephews to fetch cookies for him. Hudson the cheerful dieter was another role he played for the press. "I lied a little," he confessed to his diary, after telling one reporter that semistarvation was easy. "I lied because it is very hard. It's a struggle every day. They really don't know how hard I'm fighting."

The other Walter Hudson, the one inside the myth, was a curiously troubled man, a complex collection of pathological anxieties who found peace and refuge in three things: the Bible, his family, and food. The youngest of nine children, Walter was always fat. His childhood was plagued by strange chills and raging fevers, mysterious sores and swellings, and other anomalies-some undoubtedly due to the diet pills he'd been given, some perhaps tied to the causes of his weight gain, most of them probably psychosomatic. As a boy, Hudson was afraid of many things. He insisted that his food be put on separate plates so that the servings never touched: if they did, he was convinced that they'd poison him. Fearful of contagion, he washed his hands compulsively, sometimes seventy times a day. At thirteen, already weighing more than 300 pounds, he suffered injuries in a bad fall that kept him bedridden for several months. That, he later admitted, "may have got me thinking that it was easier to just stay in bed."

Life in Bedford-Stuyvesant only served to amplify his childhood fears. His father left when Walter was still a baby. At fifteen, he saw a friend perish in a burning building; not much later, he watched helplessly as a stranger died of a drug overdose at his feet. It was about that time that he announced to his mother that his legs could no longer carry his 350-pound body. He took to his bedroom, and refused to leave it. He only left the house once in the next 28 years, when his family moved to Long Island. But it certainly wasn't Walter's weight that kept him in his bed. Hudson was never too fat to walk (he used a cane to get around), or too embarrassed to be seen. He'd become nothing less than a classic agoraphobic, transferring all his fears into one greater phobia, a fear of the outside world.

This route to self-restoration worked, in its fashion. Hudson was able to lock most of his anxieties outdoors. Reporters described him as a peaceful and contented man, happy, deeply religious, almost Buddha-like in his tranquillity. "I'm not scared to go outside," he insisted. "I'm not afraid of people because if I was I wouldn't be having my picture in the magazine. It's just that the things that go on I just don't like. I figure I can't hide from it, but I just hate to see it."

Never did he think of himself as ugly, or disabled, or anything less than a functional human being. Living in the bosom of a family that accepted every one of his peculiarities-his size, his Cherokee braids, his phobias, his reclusiveness, and even his compulsive cleanliness-restored both his physical health and his mental equilibrium. He came to think of himself as a healer, a shaman, warding off disease with oils and potions. "People say, 'You believe in that old hoodoo?' But it's not that," he said. "I've got cures that the world has not yet seen." Long before he ever had a girlfriend, he'd earned the nickname "Pappy" through the love and attention he bestowed on his nieces and nephews. As unashamed of his body as the newly-created Adam, he told Jet magazine that the reason he didn't wear clothes was that he simply felt freer without them. He didn't think of his size or his appetite as unusual. "I just ate and enjoyed it," he said.

What Walter ate is a matter of conjecture. Prompted by his handlers, he told People magazine that he dined on three ham steaks or two chickens, four baked potatoes, four sweet potatoes, and four heads of broccoli. He admitted to loving cake, soda, and potato chips. But he also asserted in several interviews that he only needed to empty his bowels once every month or two. This strange phenomenon was characteristic of at least one other extreme heavyweight, Jon Brower Minnoch, who owed his massive size to the fact that his body stored every drop of liquid it could absorb, including the waste water in his digestive tract. Minnoch, who topped 1400 pounds, shed more than 900 pounds of water during one hospital stay. He was never a heavy eater.

As for Walter Hudson, however much he really ate, it wasn't enough to explain his size. "I don't think that if you took a normal person, and fed him 6,000 calories a day, and kept him in his room, he would become as fat as Walter," mused his nutritionist, Dr. Jimmy Carter of Tulane University. "He is extremely efficient in storing calories."

The days of peacefully storing calories ended abruptly when Walter Hudson became a celebrity. On a September morning in 1987, returning to bed from the bathroom, he slipped and fell to the floor, wedging his body in the door frame. He was trapped there for hours, until rescue workers sawed him free and rolled him back to bed. His ordeal attracted a flood of media attention. Within a month, that attention had shifted to self-appointed nutritionist Dick Gregory, who told anyone that would listen that Hudson was using his Bahamian Diet plan. Gregory had signed a $100 million contract to promote the Bahamian Diet, and Walter Hudson was just what he needed to earn that money. Sales of the diet powder soared.

Hudson stood in awe of Gregory, putting him in the role of the father he'd barely known. But Gregory was at best an abusive parent. He told the press that Hudson weighed at least 1200 pounds, and that he was miserable. He brought in aides to watch Hudson around the clock, to make sure that he consumed no more than 1600 calories per day. He posed Hudson for the cameras in a black-and-white striped shirt and pants: a prison uniform, to emphasize the idea that he was a prisoner of his own body. "They were designing to make him a poor, pitiful fat person," complained one of his friends. "Just because he's big, that doesn't mean he can't be happy, too."

After three months of nonstop promotion, Gregory announced to the press that Hudson had lost 400 pounds, and set a date and time for his prodigy to take his first trip outdoors. When Hudson failed to perform for the cameras, Gregory left in a huff, taking his project director, his "holistic health specialist," and his public relations people with him. He left a single memento behind: a set of refrigerator magnets in the shape of a pizza, a hot dog, a waffle, and a taco, a perverse joke from the ex-comic. He returned to Hudson's side only once after that, to have his picture taken at the funeral.

Gregory's departure opened up the floodgates. Hudson the fat man could sell newspapers, but Hudson the dieter could sell diets, and that's where the money is. Getting him thin would have been the coup of the century for anyone's diet program. Everyone wanted a piece of Walter. Nutritionists, hospital administrators, advertising men, and talk show hosts all fought to exact their own personal pound of flesh. A parade of diet gurus passed through his bedroom, offering a quick fix or a quick buck, pushing protein, exercise, psychotherapy, and biofeedback. Richard Simmons sent his champion dieter to try to coax him into the fold. A company called Optatrym put him in a 30-minute TV commercial, claiming that he'd used their protein powder to lose over 900 pounds. (Gregory promptly sued Optatrym for $50 million.) Another company used him as front man for a line of women's clothing. Practical jokers would call to ask if he wanted to star in an ad for Twinkies, and he would half believe them. After all, it was no stranger than anything else that had happened in his life.

The diet gurus told Walter Hudson that he was destined to become a star. All he had to do was lose weight, and he could have everything he'd ever wanted. It's easy enough to convince fat people that a thin body makes everything wonderful. Imagine the visions of glory that a man must have when he's already famous just for being fat. Imagine the promises, the temptations, and the outright lies that coaxed him from his private world and into the spotlight. Gregory told him that Bill Cosby and Michael Jackson would perform in his living room as he got thin, convinced him that Washington and Hollywood would hang on his every word. Still terrified of leaving his house, Hudson told his diary dreams of walking the sidewalks of Paris, of floating on the canals of Venice, of preaching in the streets like Martin Luther King. Anything was possible, anything at all, if only he got thin.

So Walter Hudson played the game as he was taught. He let himself be cast in the role of an addict. At more than 800 pounds, he found himself too small for the part he had to play, so he exaggerated himself to fit his new persona. He claimed to have eaten impossible meals, while maintaining that he only had one bowel movement per month. He claimed to have reached impossible weights, though he never lost his mobility. He claimed to have achieved impossible weight losses, though he refused to step on a scale. He learned to say, and perhaps to think and feel, what others expected of him. And it all worked, to a degree. His Associated Press obituary stressed his career as a dieter as much as his exaggerated size.

Walter Hudson never got thin, though he sipped his protein shakes for three full years, until a doctor finally told him that Gregory's formula was "tearing his stomach up." As soon as he switched to solid food, all the weight came back. That was enough to shatter even Hudson's sanguinity: "He was bitter over the travesty of liquid diets," says his niece. He started another diet, a different diet, and was losing weight again when he came down with the flu. Three days later he was dead.

To call his death unexpected would be a gross understatement. Only four years ago, when he was first discovered by the outside world, Walter Hudson's health was nothing short of remarkable-not merely remarkable for someone his size, but remarkable period. Once Hudson got over his childhood ailments, both real and imagined, he was never sick a day in his life. He'd never even had the flu before. "He possesses a morbidly obese body that is mindbogglingly sound," reported The Daily News. "His heartbeat is regular. His kidneys and lungs function normally. Says Dr. Gerald Deas of Downstate Medical Center, who regularly examines Walter: 'His cholesterol and blood sugar levels show the chemistry of a healthy 21-year-old.'"

So how did it happen that this man, who consistently confounded doctors with his good health, came to die so suddenly this Christmas Eve? What had so transformed him in four short years that he couldn't even survive a common virus?

The simplistic answer offered by the medical profession is that his heart was never designed to supply blood to so many pounds of flesh. Yet to accept the fact that it had done so for years without showing the least sign of stress, yet failed utterly at the first sign of a minor illness, is to swallow the proverbial camel and strain at the proverbial gnat. The politically correct answer is that dieting killed him. It may well have done so. Hudson's main source of nutrition for three years was a liquid diet with a dubious reputation for provoking sudden cardiac failure. Yet I see Hudson somewhat differently: not as a victim of dieting, but a victim of the mythology and marketing of dieting. I see a clear case of murder by media. Walter Hudson was a man who was promoted to death.

Fame killed Walter Hudson. Like so many celebrities before him, he fell into the crack between image and reality and couldn't get out. How paradoxical it is that death, which changes everything, changes nothing. The real Walter Hudson is dead. The myth of Walter Hudson will live for years to come. ß

Dimensions Library