By Annette Hinkle
As a monologuist, Spalding Gray was never afraid to reveal himself. Phobias, fears, indiscretions and obsessions were all presented publicly with honesty and Gray’s characteristic dose of wry humor, delivered on stage from behind a simple wooden desk.
So when Gray’s life ended in early 2004 — presumably after he jumped from the Staten Island Ferry into the icy waters of New York Harbor — everyone assumed that death marked the end of his stories. His final monologue in progress, “Life Interrupted,” would remain just that. Gray’s last unfinished act of theatre.
But besides his family in Sag Harbor and legions of adoring fans, Gray also left behind boxes and boxes of personal writings. These were the journals of Spalding Gray. The private musings which were the basis of virtually every one of his books and public performances.
“He talked about having them published,” recalls Kathie Russo, Gray’s widow. “He read ‘The Journals of John Cheever’ two or three times. He liked that they were open and didn’t hide anything.”
But Russo wasn’t up to tackling the process of turning Gray’s journals into a book herself. She had already created a 2006 theatrical piece “Leftover Stories to Tell: A Tribute to Spalding Gray,” in collaboration with performance artist Lucy Sexton, and had worked with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on the 2010 documentary about Gray entitled “And Everything is Going Fine.”
So when it came to the journals, she turned to Nell Casey, who interviewed Gray for Elle Magazine and wrote another piece on “Leftover Stories to Tell” for the New York Times, to put them into book form. That book, “The Journals of Spalding Gray,” came out last week and next Saturday, November 5 at 5 p.m., both Casey and Russo will be at BookHampton in Sag Harbor (20 Main Street) to discuss Gray and his writings.
“At first, I wanted a biography on him,” recalls Russo. “But when Nell started reading the journals, she thought it should be a book just on his journals. It was far more interesting than a biography.”
And considering that Gray was a man who always told his own stories in his own words, it made perfect sense to allow him to do that with this project as well. Sifting through the volumes of Gray’s material was, in itself, revealing, and Casey notes that he wrote on everything — small scraps of paper, breast cancer pamphlets, Amtrak napkins.
“I felt he was a very beautiful writer and having read the journals, the story he told was more meaningful than any I could have done myself,” adds Casey.
Throughout the editing process, Casey met with Russo to show her the book at various stages.
“She was very impressive in her ability to allow the project to breathe and be what it needed to be,” says Casey. “It’s not a tribute. It’s very raw. He can be brutal about the other people in his life, and there are definitely things that not candy coated. It’s a warts and all relationship.
Though the journals are the basis for Gray’s public persona and anyone who knows Gray’s work will recognize their beginnings in his writings, Casey notes they go far beyond that.
“When I got the journals, I thought it might be a rough draft of monologues – in which case I thought it won’t be a book,” recalls Casey. “But I was surprised at how broad it was — he wrote about the cost of wanting recognition and having the audience know you. I was impressed with how well he was able to examine that. He was clear eyed, though it spooked him. I’ve honestly never met anyone like him as an artist. He saw and understood the ritual ways his narcissism played out, and the fact he could write about it with such insight is amazing.”
“In his monologues he didn’t address the problem of being a public artist and living his life in the open,” she says. “But in the journals, he deals with it beautifully, articulately and genuinely.”
“You see the raw details of these stories he cleaned up and which were given over to his perceptive charm,” adds Casey. “It was a way he knew how to tell a story to win his audience over. He knew to be self-deprecating and owning up to what he had done was what people wanted.”
Gray was a prolific writer, and the new book includes journal entries dating from as early as 1967 — the year Gray’s mother committed suicide at the age of 52 — through late 2003, just months before he took his own life.
“There are very emotional parts of his struggle – the mother’s suicide. He’s really looking at it for himself,” says Casey. “He’s trying to find truth and meaning in his life. He does it in an extremely genuine way.”
Casey notes that in his writings Gray also offers insights into the life of an emerging performing artist in the early ‘70s.
“New York becomes another character and you see how it changes artists over the years,” she explains.
The liberal dose of humor and manic energy inherent in Gray’s performances probably led many people who met him off-stage to puzzle over his more subdued nature when not in the spotlight. It’s a contraction that Casey sees in his writings as well.
“In his journals he was more searching, more insecure and worried,” she says. “He got an energy from the audience that he probably didn’t get with just a couple of people around.”
“He was lost off stage,” she adds. “I think for him it was a real struggle. He needed the audience, he wanted a witness and to be loved, but he worried about the trade-off that he was losing his sense of self and his private life.”
But for Gray, the moment that changed everything came in June 2001 when he, Russo and a group of friends were involved in a horrific car accident in Ireland. Gray suffered a hip and orbital fracture. He experienced a drop foot as a result of the accident and constantly needed to wear a leg brace. The trip was supposed to be a celebration of Gray’s 60th birthday.
In the months that followed, he also suffered brain trauma due to a skull injury and began to write fewer entries in his journal. The family had also recently moved from the small house that Gray loved in Sag Harbor Village to a larger one in North Haven. Gray became obsessed about the move which he saw as a colossal mistake.
“After we got back from Ireland when he started to go into the brain injury depression, he was not writing that much,” recalls Kathie. “I’d say, ‘Please write and do it once a day.’ And he wouldn’t.”
In fact, the journal’s final entry — which is included in the book — was an audio recording Gray titled “My Last Tape.” Russo found it after Gray’s death and in it, he laments the family’s move (citing a similar move his own parents made right before his mother killed herself), reaffirms his love for his family, his fear of dying and an inability to go on.
In the end, the coping strategies that had always gotten him through life — turning trauma into theatre and sharing it with an audience — stopped working for him.
“The whole mechanism he used to develop a story to get on his feet turned against him,” notes Casey. “He was so debilitated by the car accident and brain trauma he couldn’t perform at same level. He started talking abut his mother endlessly and the move to a house he didn’t love.”
“He had lost the faculty to see things in himself,” adds Casey. “Often he was able to see his weaknesses and indulgences and why they were happening and put them in context of his entire life. He couldn’t do that at the end of his life.”
In the years since his suicide, Russo has set out to ensure that Gray has had a voice after his death. With the theater piece, Soderbergh’s documentary and now Casey’s book, she feels she has accomplished what she set out to do.
Now Russo is focusing on her own work — as producer of “Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin,” a radio podcast that premiered just this past Monday. The inaugural show, which can be heard on WNYC’s website, features Baldwin interviewing Michael Douglas about acting, his famous father and his battle with cancer. More interviews will follow in coming weeks with people like comedian Chris Rock and Republican campaign strategist Ed Rollins.
And next Wednesday, November 2 at Town Hall in New York City, Garrison Keillor will present the 2011 Moth Award to Russo and her family in recognition of Gray’s life and work. The Moth is a New York City based organization that conducts live storytelling events. Tickets are $30 available through The Town Hall box office.
Top: Spadling Gray in Newport, R.I. in 1993 with son Forrest in backpack and step-daughter Marissa Maier. (Kathie Russo photo.)