Editing Larry Kramer, a Man Larger than Life

Helen Eisenbach on The Normal Heart

When someone told me Larry Kramer had died, the words were nonsense to my ears; they simply did not compute. The Larry I knew wasn’t capable of being felled by anything, including death—he wasn’t vulnerable, mortal. He’d always acted as if he were above, beyond, the rules all others lived by, and I believed him.

He was impossible. He made things possible, some of them vitally important.

He was larger than life. It doesn’t seem possible he’s left it.

*

Larry Kramer was afraid of elevators. The first time I met him, I had to leave my 39th floor office in the middle of the workday to confab at a nearby coffee shop.

“Hi,” he said. “Are you gay?”

It was 1985, and I was a young editor at a publishing house whose sales force had recently conveyed to our publisher its desire for gay books, which they said were an underexploited market that could sell well for us. I went in search of some, and soon NAL/Dutton, as it was then known, had amassed a growing list of (primarily literary) fiction and nonfiction with a gay male slant. Gay female authors would come only after I quit the company; during my tenure, the publisher Elaine rejected every lesbian book I brought to her, for reasons known only to her.

Those of us in the room—in the club, as it were—were all in agreement that receiving a letter from Larry was akin to being mugged.

The AIDS epidemic was in its first years, and, trying not to feel powerless in the face of such a horrible scourge, I’d taken my immediate boss Arnold to a play at the Public Theater starring Brad Davis and D. W. Moffett. The Normal Heart was a piece of agitprop about the AIDS crisis, and the failures of will that exacerbated it—plus a love story! It was less successful as drama than as political battle cry, but I felt it was an important work whose message was urgently needed in 1985.

Arnold, who let out a sound of disgust when the two male leads kissed on stage, told me after the play ended that there would be no point in our considering publication if the notices were not good; there was no conceivable market for a failed play, important or not. To my surprise, that Friday, then New York Times theater czar Frank Rich wrote a lengthy and rhapsodic review, assuring the play’s success.

I bought Larry Kramer’s play for publication for $3,000.

I presumed our edition would have a short but meaningful life. Once the epidemic was vanquished, I recall thinking at the time, the book would soon be rendered a historical footnote, but it felt necessary to at least try to do something rather than sitting passively by as people died. As AIDS became a fading memory, the published play would quickly become obsolete, but essential nonetheless for having captured a brief, searing time in history.

You could not have convinced me that 35 years later The Normal Heart would still have relevance, a tragedy the scope of which went unforeseen by better men than me.

*

Over coffee with Larry I marveled at how unlike the rest of us he was: so unconcerned with being liked, able to stand up for what he believed in, to trumpet it to the heavens, not needing to soften his message so he would be accepted. I wondered why more people weren’t that brave.

Larry wrote to tell me I was a murderer.

I saw other sides of him as we worked together. He called me daily, often several times a day, with complaints and demands and occasionally questions. I always took his calls. When another author of mine expressed surprise at this fact—surely one of the perks of being an editor was the freedom and power to ignore one’s authors, he suggested—I explained that dealing with Larry every single time he called was preferable to provoking the rage that I feared would escalate with every instance he was ignored. If I’d ever actually not taken his call, of course, I would have found out whether my assumption was prescient or presumptuous and unfair.

I did notice that Larry was not as confrontational with those in power as he was with the powerless—the heartbroken people attending funeral after funeral of mutual friends, for instance. As Larry delivered eulogies for these friends, he would denounce the mourners in the audience as “murderers” for their inaction, or other sins.

Once, at a dinner party with several gay authors of mine, now all dead—as perhaps is every early activist who battled at Larry’s side—the writer George Stambolian mentioned his impulse to publish a volume called Letters from Larry. Those of us in the room—in the club, as it were—were all in agreement that receiving a letter from Larry was akin to being mugged.

*

My own letter arrived after a price was set for our edition of The Normal Heart that Larry felt was prohibitive for the younger readers who needed it most. We were charging about $6.95 for a trade paperback edition of the play, if I remember correctly. Larry wrote to tell me I was a murderer.

I asked Arnold if there were anything we might do. NAL had recently donated a portion of the profits from Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age to some educational cause; it seemed like a good marketing strategy to appease the suits as well as a genuinely meaningful form of activism. Perhaps we could do something like that here?

I quickly wrote a memo to the CFO and Elaine proposing we donate a percentage of our royalties to a cause: one that benefited, say, gay adolescents and teens, the target audience Larry felt most needed but would not be able to afford his book. Later that day in a big company sales meeting, I looked over at Elaine, whose normally opaque demeanor seemed to be exuding something like fury. I told myself I was imagining this, glancing at the blank yellow pad that awaited her scrawl. But Elaine’s pad wasn’t blank that afternoon: one word was written at the top of the page, underlined, with an exclamation point.

It was my name. Helen!

My body still goes ice-cold at the memory.

As the meeting devolved, it soon became clear that something was up, and that something was me. Eventually I found out that my memo had sent the CFO into a rage: who did I think I was, dictating the price of our books? Livid over my hubris, he’d delayed the meeting to scream at Elaine, who’d screamed at Arnold, who screamed at me.

I never told Larry that my letter about his letter had nearly gotten me fired. I know what he would have said: “Good.” It was the principle of the thing.

*

I was proud of The Normal Heart, and, perversely, of my relationship with Larry, though I rarely saw him after quitting NAL. I interviewed him for the LGBTQ weekly QW, our phone connection so bad I could barely make out Larry’s inimitable hoarse voice—I kept hanging up and calling him back, crouching under a desk to try to blot out the noise from the office around me. It didn’t help. Later, we both were among a group of writers asked to perform for a Treatment Action Group benefit at the Paula Cooper gallery, Larry reading from his jumbo gay history novel, me from a satire I’d written about lesbianism, or else a love story I’d written about lesbianism. Larry’s book had language and tropes about women that shouldn’t have shocked me but did.

After the reading as a group of us walked the streets of the West Village toward a place for dinner, Larry linked his arm through mine. My heart stopped briefly out of a fear I couldn’t explain; perhaps of failing some onlooker’s purity test over evils Larry was not particularly concerned with (sexism, racism). I’d felt the same fear in a dream I’d had: then President Bill Clinton was walking with me around Manhattan, and gay women I knew kept passing us on the streets, glaring at me for being with a man.

Larry seemed to relish vilifying females of ambition or standing. Some of us can tolerate that better than others. At dinner that night, Larry began to trash a certain idiosyncratic theater director, and I leapt to defend her, railing against the age-old bigotry that continued to foreclose female opportunity and diminish our accomplishments.

I’d misread Larry before; underestimated him now. He was a man ahead of his time.

As I saw his face redden, I learned that the director hadn’t liked or wanted to direct a work of Larry’s at the Public, the theater that had given The Normal Heart its home. I was a bit startled by how emphatically the words had come out of my mouth, more so by how on-the-nose they were in describing his attitude and behavior toward her—most of all by his uncharacteristically muted response. He was briefly silenced, almost as if it were the first time someone had dared contradict him.

*

I didn’t think I could learn something new about Larry until I went to see the next play he’d written. My expectations were low; Larry’s talents were political but not artistic, I knew. But The Destiny of Me, which had among its cast a young John Cameron Mitchell (way pre-Hedwig), turned out to be a not a blunt piece of propaganda but an emotionally rich and even artful drama. The family at its heart was revealed in a complex, involving story inventively told, rich with yearning, anger, love, despair.

I shouldn’t have been surprised years later as I sat watching the Broadway production of The Normal Heart, but once again, I stood corrected. The piece I’d thought was so deeply flawed worked on every level, in a production as close to perfect as a play could be. The cast and staging—every artistic choice, really—highlighted the play’s affecting intercourse between personal and political, a bold gamble of unlikely elements that somehow paid off. It was a far better play than I’d known; I felt lucky to have ever been involved with it.

This wasn’t the first time the passage of years had changed my perception of his work, I realized. The rantings I’d read in the New York Native in the early/mid-’80s had previously transformed into an eloquent and powerful document when collected at the end of that decade in the book Reports from the Holocaust. I’d misread Larry before; underestimated him now. He was a man ahead of his time.

*

Having come full circle with The Normal Heart’s Broadway production, I was excited when I learned that HBO was going to air a star-studded version of the piece. I had qualms about the movie star Julia Roberts, who had failed to convince me she could act in several dozen movies I have no justification for having seen, and though I had sometimes enjoyed director Ryan Murphy’s work, I was realizing that it spoke in a register I could not hear.

As I watched men yell and cry and brutally copulate onscreen, I didn’t recognize the play I’d published. There was no sign of Larry in Mark Ruffalo’s Noo Yawk accent, his prancing, occasional mincing and variably limp wrists. One scene showed what the telefilm could have been: the breakdown given Joe Mantello, who on Broadway had been so miraculous at evoking the humanity Larry hid or mistrusted, alchemizing his flaws and strengths into true valor.

At the end I was startled to see Larry’s name as the author of the screenplay based on his play.

*

The last time I saw Larry Kramer, he was standing in front of the apartment building whose Washington Square Park/Fifth Avenue address he shared with some friends I was visiting. We were walking their dog; Larry’s had to be wheeled. It was a strange exchange; we’d been through something together, but what? We weren’t friends. I wasn’t even sure he recognized me or remembered anything we’d done together. I could no longer play a role in furthering his art, of course, but I’d hoped he’d respected that I’d never pulled any punches with him, the way bullies only respect those who aren’t afraid of them.

A phrase he’d been quoted in The New York Times as saying when he was in dire need of a liver transplant came into my head that day: “People shouldn’t be allowed to die with perfectly usable organs.” I still laugh thinking about the outrage that must have filled his voice as he said it. Who else would have the—what, chutzpah? megalomania?—to make such a statement? As with so many other things, Larry managed to somehow overturn reality, to get a new liver despite his long-standing health issues: hepatitis, HIV, lack of transplant-appropriate youth. I don’t know anyone else who could have pulled that off.

I recall more times when Larry behaved appallingly than episodes in which he shone, stories there’s no value in my reliving, and that would be churlish to repeat. For some reason, though, the memories make me feel a strange affection for him. They make me wish I could call him up and start an argument.

I really wish someone could use his organs.

Helen Eisenbach
Helen Eisenbach
Helen Eisenbach's books include the novel Loonglow and the satire/cry for help Lesbianism Made Easy. She edits, directs theater, writes screenplays, and has published reviews, profiles, and bossy opinions in numerous print and online outlets.





More Story
Hollywood's Unlikely Evolution from The Birth of a Nation to Wokeness On August 10th, 2018, Spike Lee’s movie BlacKkKlansman premiered in the United States, one year after white supremacists...