I killed Spalding Gray. Even though I hoped that the actor-writer-monologuist’s “missing” status meant he simply wandered off to get his head together, I knew he was dead. I did it.
October 2001, New York City was a ghost town. The streets were so quiet you could hear the candles burning outside the fire stations as you walked past.
The Algonquin Hotel hosted the awarding of the Thurber Prize for American Humor. That’s where I killed Spalding Gray, in plain sight of dozens of people. It would be more than two years before his body was found in the East River, just last week.
Multiple sclerosis has taught me about crutches. I use aluminum forearm crutches in weaker periods, though that night I had only a cane. This man’s crutch was one of those light-colored, wooden, up-to-the-armpit forks. Experience told me one crutch was the wrong number.
What I saw of this man—the single crutch, the unkemptness, the crowd’s physical avoidance of him—told me he was a smelly homeless person who had wandered into the Algonquin. As I stepped away from the refreshments table, he speared a hunk of smoked salmon on a serving fork and held it in front of him, apparently puzzled to find he didn’t yet have a plate.
I was fascinated. Would he carry his food the few yards between himself and the plates? Eat it directly from the serving fork? Try to catapult the salmon toward a distant plate, with all the slapstick consequences that implies?
A banquet guest provided the answer, appearing with a plate and, I swear, a little curtsy. When the tottering explosion of gray turned toward me I saw his eyes were immense—not least because of the acres of eyebrows above and bags below—yet the irises were tiny and piercing. You can’t see it on the movie screen, where they seem almost childlike, but Spalding Gray had grave eyes.
He pinned the crutch under one arm and picked up a glass of wine with his now free hand. At least one of his encumbrances—the wine, the salmon, or the crutch—wasn’t going to get far. Instead of enjoying the farce, like a world-weary cosmopolitan man, I helped, like a good Midwestern boy.
“Mr. Gray?” I said. “How about I take all that to your table and you take my cane? It’ll help you balance.”
The world-weary cosmopolitan man saw the flaw in this offer. “Can you walk without that?”
“Sure,” I lied.
He took my cane, walking a few steps away and a few steps back like he was trying on a new pair of shoes. “That does help,” he said. Then, missing the point of the exercise completely, he handed the cane back to me, picked up the plate and glass, and hooked the hand with the wine glass over my shoulder. “Where is your table?” he asked.
Like some sort of bizarre, six-legged clockwork waiter, we wobbled across the room with our plate hands held out for balance.
The reality of the situation hit me. This was Spalding Gray, a New York-Hollywood “somebody” (see Mark Russell’s tribute). I was something else: a tourist, maybe an audience. Our literal physical reliance on one another couldn’t erase the implied distance. I half assumed that when we got to my table it would be swamped by famous people and I would move to my proper station somewhere else.
But I realized I actually had something to talk to Spalding Gray about. I was writing a novel set in Thailand, and my heroine relied on his film Swimming to Cambodia as her entire pre-trip preparation.
“We’re updating that,” he said.
“The monologue. We’re redoing Swimming to Cambodia this year.”
The idea didn’t make sense. The monologue was about a film he’d made 15 years ago, which itself was about events that had taken place a decade or more previously. How would that be a good candidate for updating? I asked. He didn’t answer.
“You,” he said. “It’s odd that I met you. It’s too many coincidences.”
“Such as?” I asked, innocently.
In what must have been a five-minute monologue, he spilled everything behind those incredible eyes. A car accident in Ireland fractured his hip, a rib, and his skull, and he was only in the city tonight because he had been called to a recording studio to redub one line from a movie where he was a psychiatrist and the line was about antidepressants and now, because of the accident and the house, and Oh! the house! he was on those same antidepressants, and did I know anything about antidepressants because he didn’t remember if he was supposed to be drinking wine with them, and, and, and . . .
I was exhausted hearing it, particularly because so many of these things made him cry. I thought I could help by asking questions. If I could peel away the petals of this artichoke of pain, expose the heart, I could ask just the question that would trigger just the realization and make something, somehow, fixed.
The heart was probably the house. It’s hard to say because of the fractal nature of his offstage speech, which wove between topics desperately. I could hardly weigh one idea before he brought up five others and circled around to the first. He frequently apologized for his manner, a manifestation of his severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.
He cried the most when he talked about the house.
“Home” never meant anything to me except my current address. This made me uniquely unqualified to help Spalding Gray, who loved, to the core of his Buddhist soul, a home. The Sag Harbor paradise that was just the right distance from the city and the neighbors, was gone. He couldn’t go back to it now because when “they” bought it, “they” put in a god-awful swimming pool.
So why did he ever sell it?
“I didn’t!” he pleaded. The piercing eyes scanned me for any molecule of understanding.
Others suggested he get a bigger house when his second son was born. “They” sold the house and moved him into a bigger house in what other people would consider an actual neighborhood.
“I can’t walk there!” he cried. “I used to be able to walk, but now there are houses and cars. . . . I’m a walker!”
He followed my gaze to the crutch, now propped against a chair.
“Well, when I don’t have a fractured hip I am!” he said, laughing.
While his crying was overt, his laughter was private and brief. When he laughed, his tears disappeared. His eyes were immediately not red, his lips not quivering.
He said he was in a klesha, a Buddhist hell, made of his lost home and all the other curves and coincidences of his thoughts.
“So what now?” I asked, still imagining myself helpful. “You can’t go back; you can’t be happy where you are. Do you move somewhere else, or do you suck it up and be happy in this new house?”
“I don’t know!” he wailed.
I suggested he do a monologue about it.
“No,” he insisted. “I can’t do a monologue about this. It’s too personal.”
I thoughtlessly reminded him that he had done monologues about his mother’s suicide. “This real estate issue can’t be more personal than that.”
He gasped. “You don’t understand!”
He was right. I didn’t understand that pouring his heart out onstage didn’t necessarily make anything better. Spalding Gray spoke about his pain so he could freeze it, hold it out in front of himself, and sharpen it. This talent gave each of his monologues at least one gasp, showing the audience members their own pain in its most perfect form. (Of Pol Pot’s revolution in Swimming to Cambodia, he says, “Children were torn apart like fresh bread,” and that line will be with you forever.)
How did I kill Spalding Gray? By not empathizing with his house troubles? By shrugging helplessly when he cried about putting on a “happy act” in front of his four-year-old? No. I didn’t even recognize I’d done it until later, when he left and people I didn’t know swarmed around me to ask about him. Something had nagged at me the entire time we spoke. But it was formless, and I didn’t think to say it, to hold it out in front of me and sharpen it.
The distance between us, the fame that separated the “somebody” from the audience, was deadly. If you’re drowning and famous, people will watch you drown. We’ll wonder which of the other people is the paid caretaker who will save you, or think perhaps there’s a stunt coordinator. And if you die, we’ll think, “Wow, I was there when he died.” What we won’t do is help.
I’m sure I was one of thousands who had the chance to help Spalding Gray, and my interaction with him was so brief that he wouldn’t remember it now, in Nirvana, or a klesha, or sitting on a beach by the Indian Ocean. But I had a chance to help and I either did nothing or worse than nothing, depending on how you count someone’s tears.
The last line of Swimming to Cambodia is “I suddenly thought I knew what killed Marilyn Monroe.”
I’ve known for years what killed Spalding Gray.
Davis Sweet is co-author of the forthcoming comic novel Make Over. He edits The Bean Magazine (beanmag.com), a political satire site, with Tony Hendra.