Spalding Gray died more than a decade ago. But he seemed such a modern man. Intimacy and distance at play simultaneously.
A few weeks ago, I was in one of my favorite bookstores, City Lights in North Beach, and came across the Journals of Spalding Gray. The book was published in 2011, but somehow I had missed it. If someone had asked me when Spalding Gray died, I would have said, “Three or four years ago?” If that person had asked when I had last seen him on stage, I would have said, “Ten years ago?” I saw him perform one of his last monologues, It’s a Slippery Slope, in 1999 at the Zellerbach Playhouse on the UC Berkeley campus. He committed suicide in early 2004. My sense of the timing of personal history is often way off. I think that’s why Gray kept journals, so he could have them as a resource for his monologues. A wellspring of recollections so he could get it right, or intentionally wrong.
Like so many other lazy folks of this era, I don’t keep a regular journal, but rather a Facebook photo diary. This is my resource. But it doesn’t go back any further than 2008, and Facebook probably owns it and can make it disappear at a moment’s notice. Very Orwellian. I am not sure all those photographs have helped me write a single post, letter, or review.
I loved how minimal the stage was for Gray’s monologues: a desk, a chair, a glass of water, and his notebook. If I am remembering correctly, which may not be the case, I found it all a bit narcissistic. Although he often changed his monologues as he performed them, I ordered the print version of It’s a Slippery Slope to see what it feels like 20 years later. And it is much as I remember it. He reveals his shortcomings, his need for mothering, his affairs, and the ecstasy of finally learning to ski. Like so many awkward kids, he didn’t feel like he was the master of much, except his ability to garner recognition. Skiing was his own very personal victory.
Although Gray’s monologues were self-centered, they were fantastic stories wonderfully told. Now with YouTube, almost anybody with a webcam is monologist. But are they storytellers? He could take the quotidian and make it memorable, personal.
I remember sitting in the audience thinking that he was revealing material that I would want to keep private if I were him. But as his journals suggest, he was expert at revealing just what he wanted—there were several layers left. I’m reminded of that famous Pauline Kael line about the movie Hannah and Her Sisters: deep on the surface. (Kael didn’t like Gray and panned the movie version of Swimming to Cambodia.) He must have made many missteps, where he revealed something he was later not so sure about.
His bisexuality was one of those areas of confusion. On stage, he answered a question about having an affair with a man by saying he had not. But elsewhere he had written and spoken about it. He worried incessantly about AIDS and the chance that he might have caught it from one of his affairs with men. He liked to have sex with men from time to time, but he wanted to live with and be taken care of by women.
In May 1973, he wrote the following in his journal:
“Then during this period I went to a homosexual bath club in Amsterdam and was ‘picked up’ by this German photographer who was vacationing in Amsterdam. He was very aggressive and he made love to me like this beautiful woman. He took time with me with all this incredible foreplay so by the time he began to fuck me I was wide open and had this very intense climax. It was not a very private place and people were watching. This seemed to bother him but it did not bother me. In fact, it made it…intensified it for me.”
In another passage and monologue he writes about giving a blow job “…and I found that I was choking on what felt like a disconnected piece of rubber hose.” I had to laugh at that.
Spalding Gray was depressed and anxious much of his life. In June 2001, he suffered a serious head injury in a car accident in Ireland. Pieces of his skull were embedded in his brain. His personality changed, and you can read it in the journals, which he still kept. He obsesses about having sold a house in Sag Harbor and buying one he hates nearby. He talked about suicide throughout his journals, but the pain at the end is palpable.
The last entry reads as follows:
“When they took me into the hospital, they said, ‘So what prevented you from jumping?’ And I said, ‘It was fear.’ Not thoughts of what I would miss, but just plain out-and-out fear. And that’s…that’s what has people in institutions. The people that are in institutions are the ones that are afraid. Afraid of suicide. Or can’t figure out how to do it, just aren’t clever enough.”
He drowned in January 2004, probably after jumping from the Staten Island Ferry.
In 1981, he wrote, “Wanting to overcome death. Suicide is power over death in that you do it.”