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Remembering Spalding Gray

Actor Spalding Gray, famous for his autobiographical monologues, was found dead on March 7 in New York's East River. He'd been missing for two months. In the first of a two-part series, Terry Gross speaks with people who knew Gray well, including his wife, Kathie Russo, and his friend, Robby Stein. The second program features excerpts of Gray’s Fresh Air interviews.

14:04

Other segments from the episode on March 22, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 2004: Interview with Robby Stein; Interview with Kathleen Russo.

Transcript

DATE March 22, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Robby Stein discusses Spalding Gray's life and suicide
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we begin the first of a two-part tribute to the late actor and
monologist Spalding Gray. He was perhaps the first and probably the best and
most influential contemporary perform of on-stage, autobiographical
monologues. We'll hear interviews with him from our archive and new
interviews about him.

When he disappeared January 10th, his family and friends feared that he had
committed suicide by jumping off the Staten Island ferry. Earlier this month
his body was found in New York's East River. He was 62. Gray had always
wrestled with depression; it was often the subject of his monologues. But his
depression became consuming after a car accident in 2001 that shattered his
hip, fractured his skull and caused a brain injury. Most of Gray's fans
probably felt like they knew him. In his monologues, he would share the kind
of personal stories that many people wouldn't even confide to a best friend.
His shows were extraordinary. He was an actor whose best performances were
portraying himself in his monologues. Although he was dyslexic and had
trouble writing, he was incredibly gifted at telling stories, no matter what
the subject was: his latest phobia, physical disorder or relationship crisis.
He could get you laughing without diminishing the gravity of the problem.

The ability to stand back and report on his life was his artistic gift. He
thought it was also his problem. He was always standing back, observing and
thinking. Several of his stories were about this predicament. He wanted to
experience a perfect moment, but that was usually impossible because he was
too trapped in his own mind to let go. Here's a brief excerpt of his
monologue "It's A Slippery Slope" about learning to ski. This was recorded in
1996 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

(Soundbite of "It's a Slippery Slope" monologue from 1996)

Mr. SPALDING GRAY: Barney and I started up with all of the locals, and
then we began to ski. And I find I'm only going left.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: I'm going left into the bushes, coming out the other side with
branches in my mouth...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: ...like a Botticelli.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And I say, `I won't, I won't, I won't, I won't bother you. I know
I gotta do this on my own. You go ski. I'm going over to Meadow.(ph)' I go
over Meadow, the green slope. And I am inspired that day when I see what I
see. It's the Adopt A Ski School(ph), and they are taking quadriplegics out
of wheelchairs and putting them in gondolas with these little ski runners.
And they have poles with skis on them. And I think, `Spalding, if you can't
turn right on this slope today, give it up.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: Now I have no instructor; I'm trying to do this on my own. And I
begin, and I'm left and crashing in yard sale; all the stuff was all over.
Picking up my stuff. But you know what I'm impressed by is how wildly I can
crash and still get up without anything broken.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And it's left and crash and left and crash, and then it happens.
It's the inevitable. I can't tell you how it happens. All the time I think I
had to think myself around. It was just a shift of weight, and I never
experienced this in my life, except in 1946 on Thanksgiving Day when I first
learned how to pump on a swing. I suddenly turned right, or something turned
me right and then left, right, left, boom! Down. But I was up again: left,
right, left. People would ski by me real fast, I'd crash. People would ski
by me and fall, I'd crash. I was in such empathy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: Or I'd be skiing and thinking, `You're doing it. You're skiing.'
Crash!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: It was so beautiful. It was like Zen but a little--not as subtle,
you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: If you weren't present, you crashed and the mountain hit you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: I mean, and I realized at that point that all my life I'd been
doing a kind of subtle suicide to myself. I'd always be somewhere else in my
head. I was always thinking, `Oh, I could be there,' or, `I could be there.
I could be there,' or, `I wish I was there.' But now when I'm skiing, I don't
have that as long as I'm skiing. And I'm so excited. I got down to lunch to
join Barney, and we go over to the Blue Slope(ph). And I go to ski with him,
and now it's a two-die day(ph). It is a perfect day that reminds me of the
old days, the Thornton Burgess books my father used to read to me, the "West
Wind" stories when you'd see the cloud (makes blowing noise) with a face and a
wind puffing out of its lips. That's how the clouds looked, only there
weren't wind. It was these long chains of snow flurries. And then the clouds
would pass, and the bright California sun would light the packed snow.

And there were furrows where other people had skied, and we were hopping
through the furrows in other people's rhythm. And we were riding them. We
were dancing in the day. I was with a man, and we were just--we weren't
talking. We were skiing together. And I couldn't stop. At the end of the
day they had to restrain me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: I tried to bribe the lift operator for another run. Barney said,
`Easy, easy, easy. You've been skiing for seven hours.' I'd never done
anything for seven hours in my life and never thought of death once.

GROSS: An excerpt of "It's a Slippery Slope." We'll hear more performance
excerpts from Spalding Gray as well as interviews with him tomorrow. In a few
minutes we'll hear from his widow, Kathleen Russo.

First, an interview with his good friend, Robby Stein. After the car accident
in 2001, Gray stayed at Stein's house for a while. Stein last saw Gray five
days before he disappeared. Stein is a child psychoanalyst. We talked about
Spalding Gray and his depressions.

In our interview after his monologue "Swimming to Cambodia," he had mentioned
that a lot of people on the set, on location, were smoking a lot of very
heavy-duty marijuana and that Spalding had mentioned that marijuana made him
paranoid. So I asked, `Well, why would you smoke it if it makes you
paranoid?' And he said, `Well, I'm interesting in exploring psychotic
states.' What did you understand about that aspect of him, about his interest
in actually exploring psychotic states?

Dr. ROBBY STEIN (Child Psychoanalyst): I think a lot of his personality was
testing thing. He believed, in a sense--let's just look at that for a
minute--that by exploring something, he would go into it and to the edge of it
and then could come back. And that enabled him to have a sense of both
survival and control. I think he felt that if he didn't experience things in
the world, that they would take him over as opposed to him being able in some
way to live with it and, in effect, control it, although he was much more of
an observer than an active participant in, you know, his state. And that way,
you know, rather than someone who is going out to fix himself, he was going
out to experience himself in every way possible. That's...

GROSS: And then he'd always report on it for us, his audience.

Dr. STEIN: Exactly. And I think that was hopeful for many. You know, he
somehow came back always. I think that's what's so shocking now for so many
people who are friends--is that the reality of that he didn't come back, yeah.

GROSS: I'm so interested in how Spalding transformed his life and his
neuroses and panics into art, into theater, into theater that so many of us,
you know, found ourselves in and got such pleasure from. Did you observe that
process at all? Do you have any...

Dr. STEIN: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...insights that you could share with us?

Dr. STEIN: Well, he was a literary person. I mean, if I talk for a second
about "Morning, Noon and Night," it comes out of, you know, "Our Town," it
comes out of "The Four Quartets," "Formalia."(ph) He understood it deeply.
You know, he transformed that into his life. And he would use, you know,
those works in, for example, that monologue to frame what his day was like.
And then he often would say he didn't have the ability to create fiction. You
know, he just really told the truth in terms of what he saw, not that he was
seeking the truth in inverted commas. It was that, you know, there were these
strange coincidences. I mean, when he moved to the road and the house that
the family now lives in--and that was a big conflict for him, or what he
obsessed over was that move--they changed the road's name from Ferry Road to
Lost At Sea Memorial Pike.

GROSS: Gee.

Dr. STEIN: Now, you know, I mean, it was--you know, that was very typical of
these coincidences, which seemed both tragic and funny at the same time if you
knew him at the time.

GROSS: How did his mental state change after the accident?

Dr. STEIN: The degree of his obsessiveness was unrelenting, and he described
it as `never stopping.' In other words, it was if he was listening to a tape
that had no end, except that ended in his end, which is what he talked about.
And unlike other times where we'd feel like it was part of a rehearsal that
was becoming art, this felt like it was a terrifying and painful experience
that he couldn't change.

GROSS: I mean, you're a therapist as well as having been a close friend of
Spalding's, would you try to talk him out of things that were obviously
delusional, paranoid beliefs?

Dr. STEIN: Sure. Yeah, definitely.

GROSS: Is it helpful to try to talk somebody out of delusions, or is that
hopeless?

Dr. STEIN: It's not hopeless, but it's not also something that anyone can
really do in any predictable way. I mean, I think what many of us tried to do
with Spalding was to contain him and challenge him. He was in Payne
Whitney for, I believe, three months at one point and had a lot of electric
shocks. Afterwards Kathie picked him up, and myself, another friend, Donald
Lipski and Howie Michaels, his other godfather, brought him to Howie's house.
And we spent, well, three days, two nights with him really hands-on, you know,
challenging everything in a direct way, making him talk, getting him to cook,
re-engaging him in the world. And he came out of it a bit.

But I think what is hard for anyone to really digest is that this was like a
cancer. If it was pancreatic cancer, it would feel different. But it was
something that kept coming back and coming back. And even when he--and he
wanted to. I really believe he wanted to. We talked about this; it was
almost like he was on a permanent acid trip and not sleeping. For months and
months and months it never stopped, and that, again, I think is important to
understand about how that wasn't the same as the person who, you know, we all,
you know, know from the monologues. And that was a direct effect, I think--in
effect, the frontal lobe damage.

GROSS: Did you think he'd really go through with the suicide?

Dr. STEIN: I hate to say this but yes. And that's--you know, I wish I didn't
feel that way, but, unfortunately--I had run or supervised a hospital in
London when I worked there for many years, the suicide ward. And it was
becoming more and more evident to me that nothing was happening. I think I
should have recognized a little bit more--But how could I?--I guess, that in
the end, when he was more organized and calmer, that that was the most
dangerous sign. And I certainly talked to friends and...

GROSS: Wait. Let me stop you there 'cause that's something that I don't
really understand. You know, just as it appeared like he was getting a little
better and he started to do his monologue about life after the accident,
that's when he killed himself. You said that there's often a period of
calm...

Dr. STEIN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that somebody who's suicidal uses as an opportunity to take their
life? Could you explain that?

Dr. STEIN: Well, I think what happens is the answer's there; that in some
way, the pain of it all, the way you see people suffering around you, the way
in which your anger can be ameliorated--and he was angry--that what happened
was that the way out became an end to all of that, and it became the only way.
And I think when he resolved how he was going to do it and, I think, before
they were tentative practices, there was relief, there was--in a profound
way. I think that that's what happens. I think the person feels--they see
that they can end the pain, and it's clear. And at that moment they make a
plan, and that's when they're resolved and, also, it's most dangerous.

GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us. I really appreciate you
sharing some of your memories of Spalding Gray. Thank you.

Dr. STEIN: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Robby Stein is a child psychoanalyst in private practice in New York
City.

Coming up, we'll hear from Spalding Gray's widow, Kathleen Russo. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Kathleen Russo discusses her marriage with Spalding
Gray and his relationship with their children and his suicide
TERRY GROSS, host:

Today we're remembering actor and performance artist Spalding Gray. My guest
is his widow, Kathleen Russo. They had two sons together, who are now 11 and
six years old. Russo runs the Washington Square Arts & Films agency, which
used to represent Gray. Fans of Gray's work will know Russo as a character in
his monologues. In fact, she entered the monologues in a part of his life
that stunned his fans. While he was in a long-term relationship with Renee
Shafransky, the woman who became his first wife, he had an affair with Kathie.
She got pregnant and gave birth to a son. Several months later Gray left his
wife to be with Kathie, their son and her daughter from a previous
relationship. I talked with Russo about Gray, their relationship, his work
and the monologue that he was working on about his life after the car crash
called "Life Interrupted."

On stage he had this distance, this ironic distance, and this kind of
reportorial ability to comment on the things that really troubled him. Was
he able to have that kind of distance and that kind of ability to look at
himself and laugh in real life?

Ms. KATHLEEN RUSSO (Spalding Gray's Widow): I would say yes. It would take
some time, but I would say yes. But after the accident, no. No. It became
very difficult for him to have distance. And what I was hoping when he was
working on this new monologue, "Life Interrupted," that that would help him
start creating that distance, so he could get beyond this big, complicated
crisis that happened to him two and a half years ago. But, really, for the
first time it wasn't happening. And that's the thing about "It's a Slippery
Slope" and "Morning, Noon and Night" and "Gray's Anatomy" and "Monster in a
Box." I mean, once he was on stage, it really help therapeutically for him
to get distance from whatever was plaguing him that he's talking about in the
monologues.

GROSS: Kathie, I just have a quick question about what it was like for you,
as his wife, when he was on stage? You entered the picture in the monologues
in "Slippery Slope." And, you know, "Gray's Anatomy," the monologue before
that, ends with him getting married with grave reservations to Renee
Shafransky. And he's about to, like, back out of the whole thing when the
monologue ends, but they do get married. And in "Morning, Noon and Night," he
talks about how, you know, while he was married, he has an affair with you;
you get pregnant, and he tells the story in "Slippery Slope" and in "Morning,
Noon and Night." And I always couldn't imagine what it was like for you to
have such a kind of private thing played out on stage and to have people who
don't know you form opinions of you by Spalding's monologues.

Ms. RUSSO: Which they did, yeah. Right, right.

GROSS: Of course. Yeah. So...

Ms. RUSSO: It was not easy. It was not easy, especially once we were public
as a couple. It was easier before we were public, obviously, because I could
just sit in the audience, and no one knew who I was. But once people realized
who I was, especially when he was playing "Gray's Anatomy" and we were living
together then--and people would assume, you know, if they didn't know that
they had broken up, that I was Renee. And I'll never forget this one time at
Lincoln Center. This woman came up and she was so happy to meet me that I
didn't correct her. I just was like, `Thank you, thank you,' because she was
like this 80-year-old little woman. She was just so thrilled to meet who she
thought was Renee, the character, that I just let her believe it. But I felt
a lot of scrutiny. I felt--until it became apparent to the audience that this
family that he definitely but wasn't sure he wasn't until he got into the
thick of it really, really gave him a lot of joy. And then that's when
people--I felt audience members accepted me better. But at first it was
extremely difficult to sit there and listen to him getting married to someone
else and know that we have this other life going on at home.

GROSS: He didn't expect to be a father. You know, he didn't plan on being a
father.

Ms. RUSSO: No.

GROSS: And it was a surprise to him when he became a father. And I'm
wondering what it was like to watch him change his attitude. I mean, you
know, just knowing him from his monologues, he fell so deeply in love with his
children. Can you talk a little bit about watching that transformation from
being just so, like, not interested in having children to falling in love with
them?

Ms. RUSSO: Well, for me because I had a daughter when we met and she was
three years old, I knew he was going to be a great dad because he was so good
with her and playful and engaging that I just thought, `This man, you know,
would be a great dad if he wanted to me.' And he really--he talks about this
in "Slippery Slope." He was attracted to me because I had a child, too. That
was a first for him as well. And he was actually told that he couldn't have
children; I mean, that there was something wrong there, that he couldn't have
children. So I think he kind of thought, `Well, it's not going to happen.
It's not in the cards for me. This woman has a child. This is an interesting
situation, one that I'm not used to. And let's explore this a little bit.'

And then, obviously, when I got pregnant with Forrest, it was a shock to
him. He had no idea that he could even make someone pregnant. And we'd been
together for quite some time and, you know, nothing had happened before like
that. But when he first saw Forrest, which wasn't until Forrest was eight
months old, it was immediate. It was a very natural thing that came to him as
soon as he held his son for the first time. And, I mean, I have to say to my
credit, I was really--you know, before he saw Forrest, I was just like, `Let
him come to me. He knows we're here. If he wants the relationship with his
son, he knows how to reach me.' And as soon as he came and met Forrest and
bonded with him that first night, then I said to him, `You know what? You
need some time alone with your son.' And we had a place upstate--or he had a
place upstate at the time. And I said, `Why don't you take Forrest there for
the weekend and see what it's like to be a dad on your own without me hovering
over, you know, changing the diaper, this and that? You go. You take him.'

And he did. And I think it was really quite an experience. And he talks
about it in "Slippery Slope." I mean, Forrest was weaned from breast feeding,
but he got up in the middle of the night and he's screaming for a bottle, and
Spalding left it in the car and he had to go out, and he couldn't find it.
And he's giving him milk out of a shot glass because he didn't know what else
to do to get him to calm down. And he's changing the diaper. And it it was
the best thing I think I could have done--was just leave him alone for the
weekend and really see what it was like to be a dad. And when he brought
Forrest back, it wasn't like, `Whew, I'm glad this weekend's over.' It was
like, `I want more.'

GROSS: Kathleen Russo will talk more about her late husband, the actor and
performance artist Spalding Gray, in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our interview with Kathie Russo, the widow of
Spalding Gray, and talk about the car accident in Ireland that sent him into a
depression that he never recovered from.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today and tomorrow, we're remembering the late actor and monologist Spaulding
Gray. His depressions were a frequent subject of his monologues. He never
recovered from the depression that followed the car accident in 2001 that
shattered his hip and fractured his skull. His body was found in the East
River earlier this month. His family thinks he committed suicide.

Let's pick up where we left off with his widow, Kathleen Russo. They had two
sons together, who are now 11 and six years old.

He didn't expect to become a father. He didn't think he wanted to be one.
Russo says that once Gray spent time with his son, Gray's attitude changed.

Ms. RUSSO: He was not so much the narcissist that we all, you know, remember
in the earlier monologues and it was a welcome change from--for his friends and
family members to see him take the role as the caretaker and not have himself
come first for the first time in his life.

GROSS: Do you think that helped...

Ms. RUSSO: It was an interesting transformation.

GROSS: Did that help get him out of his head because he was so...

Ms. RUSSO: It did.

GROSS: ...absorbed on his mental state and it was great for his art but I bet
he would have liked to get out of his head more often.

Ms. RUSSO: He did get out of his head and it wasn't just the children. For
the first time he said in a relationship with a woman, we were--I'm very
athletic, I'm very outdoorsy and I took him camping for the first time. I
bought him a bicycle and make him--you know, bike 10 miles a day was like a
normal thing for us to do. And I found through exercise that Spaulding was
able to finally get out of his head and the skiing in the winter played a big
part in that. I bought him his first pair of skis. He was such an indoor
guy when I first met him that to spend eight hours outside for him was unheard
of and I grew up in upstate New York and for me, you know, being stuck in the
city was almost unbearable at times. So I was like, `We need to get out. We
need to go hiking. We need to go biking.' And he really appreciated that I
would, you know, push him to do these things because it would clear his head.

And with the children, he could just get into their world and it was a great
escape for him. He welcomed it at any moment. You know, he never felt like
fatherhood was work. It really felt--I would say 99.9 percent of the time, it
was really enjoyable for him.

GROSS: I remember in--I think it was our interview after "Morning, Noon and
Night" which was his interview about being in a family, he said he didn't want
to turn his family, particularly his children, into a sitcom. And he wanted
to protect the family from that.

Ms. RUSSO: Right.

GROSS: But I found myself wondering since Spaulding's life was the material
for his art, where would that lead him? If the main focus of his life, his
family, was going to be off-limits for the monologues, what would he write
about? So did the joy of having a family also kind of change what the central
focus of his art was going to be?

Ms. RUSSO: Yeah, it presented a big--right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. RUSSO: It presented obstacles for the first time where he felt--see, I
didn't believe him when he said he wasn't going to write about the family. I
said--I was like, `You'll eventually get to it, but it'll be something else.
It won't just be about our everyday life, it'll be some crisis involving one
of our family members maybe or something.' But it was an obstacle and before
we went to Ireland, he was really having a writer's block where he felt, `OK,
"Morning, Noon and Night" is about four years old now. What do I do next?'
And in hindsight now, looking back, I think he was starting to panic about
where he was going to go to next in his, you know, work; what the next
monologue was going to be.

GROSS: Can we talk about the accident?

Ms. RUSSO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: The family went to Ireland for his 60th birthday.

Ms. RUSSO: Right.

GROSS: And you were in a car accident there. What happened?

Ms. RUSSO: Well, unfortunately, it was only the second day we were there and,
if you've been to Ireland, we were in County Westmeath, which is in the middle
of Ireland. And the roads are really--we've been there many times, but the
roads, particularly in--country roads were very narrow and you had to slow
down to let another car go by you. It was that tight. So we--the five adults
went out for dinner and my daughter and her cousin were watching the kids back
at this place where we were staying. It was John Scanlon's place, the big PR
guy who, unfortunately, died a month before we were to arrive at his place in
Ireland and--but his widow still insisted that we go because she said he would
have really wanted us to use the place, but it--you know, of course, now you
look back on that and, `Well, there's a sign.'

So we were coming back from this restaurant and it was just starting to get
dark and we're coming to a fork in the road and I was going to turn right and
I saw through the hedges this car just coming right at us. And I was driving.
Spaulding and two other women were in the back. And when the person that was
renting the car I was driving was next to me. And--because I became the
designated driver at dinner 'cause everyone else was drinking too much. And
we--I saw the headlights. And it was--whenever someone describes an accident
to you, they say `Everything slows down.' It's true. It's like--it probably
took two seconds but it felt like, you know, 10 minutes for this to
happen--the crash.

And he crashed right into us, head on. We weren't even moving. And then we
all blacked out and I remember waking up and the engine's on my lap and
there's smoke all over the car and people are moaning and screaming and I just
thought, `I've got to get out of this car somehow. I just have to.' And I
thought I was internally bleeding.

And when I finally opened up the car door and fell out, there was Spaulding on
the ground and I couldn't even see his face, it was, you know, full of blood.
And he was out of it. I thought he was dead.

GROSS: What were his injuries?

Ms. RUSSO: At the time, they told us just that he shattered his hip, which
when he came to, that's all he complained to. He said, `Oh, my hip. My hip.'
And he was--he couldn't move. But later on we found out that he had also
fractured his head but it wasn't until almost a month after the accident that
they discovered it. Despite me protesting for them to--or begging them to
please do MRIs on his head, they said, `Oh, no. He doesn't have a fracture.
It's just his hip.'

GROSS: Kathie, what were your injuries?

Ms. RUSSO: Actually the air bag I think did the most injuries. It just
bruised the tissues around my heart. So they were really keeping me in for
observation to make sure, you know, that I didn't internally bleed, I guess.
And I was there for five days and after five days they still wanted to keep me
there and I just left because I couldn't do anything from the hospital. I
knew I had--it was a country hospital and I knew I had to get Spaulding out of
there and I couldn't even make phone calls from the hospital so I just left
and went back to the place where we were staying and immediately got on the
phone and got in touch with the head of the Irish Arts Council, Patrick
Murphy, and who helped me move Spaulding to an orthopedic hospital outside
Dublin. And I knew he needed something else other than that.

So as soon as we got him to the orthopedic hospital, almost a week later, they
said he absolutely needs an operation. We have to put a metal plate in his
hip. And apparently we got the best orthopedic surgeon in Ireland to do it.
And he did a good job from what we could tell.

GROSS: But I think he had several subsequent hip surgeries after that, too,
didn't he?

Ms. RUSSO: Well, he did have one just this past September because what
happened is the nerve damage from the accident, as the scar tissue built up,
he had what you would call a dropped foot--he couldn't feel the top of his
foot and he had to wear a brace up to his knee all the time or he would trip.
And for Spaulding, as I was telling you before, how physically active he used
to be, that meant hikes were out. He couldn't hike anymore because the brace
really interfered with that. He could bike. That was OK for some reason.
But the hiking, the walking, he missed enormously. It was--he felt like an
old man overnight, you know, at 60 years old, because of this injury. So the
operation he had in September, they went back in, they scraped the scar tissue
off the sciatic nerve and they felt it was a successful operation and they
said it's going to--you know, your nerve grows back a millimeter a day. So
they thought it would be a year to 18 months before we saw any change in his
leg, but they were hopeful that this was the right, you know, decision and
that he would be able to walk one day without a brace.

GROSS: My guest is Kathie Russo. We'll talk more about her late husband,
Spaulding Gray, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Today and tomorrow we're remembering the late actor and performance
artist Spaulding Gray. His body was found in the East River earlier this
month, an apparent suicide. He never physically or mentally recovered from a
car accident in 2001.

Did you feel like you recognized--like was he a different person in your mind?

Ms. RUSSO: He became that slowly, yes. Yes. And, you know, I have to say
right after the accident, he really was--he did really well right after the
accident. It wasn't until September 11th, 2001, which of course was the World
Trade Center and it was also our moving day in Sag Harbor. Way back, six
months prior to that, we decided to move from our cute little village home to
a bigger, older house in the--a mile outside the village. And for Spaulding,
he chose to focus on this move as what was really, you know, the point of no
return, I felt. That he felt that moving from his beloved Sag Harbor house
to this house outside the village was the thing that was responsible for his
downfall; not the accident really, just this move, what it represented to him
in his mind. And that became his focus and he started to obsess on it like he
has, you know, obsessed on other things and went way beyond any other
obsession he's ever had before.

GROSS: That must have been really difficult for you because--I mean, you
probably helped organize the move and, you know...

Ms. RUSSO: I did it all, right.

GROSS: Right. And so--I mean, what do you do? Do you feel really guilty
about it or do you just say, `This is kind of irrational behavior'?

Ms. RUSSO: Well, you know, I have to remind myself that when we bought the
house in February of 2001 that we did it together. And that he was of sound
mind and body at that time and that we both realized we were going to miss
living in the village, but we realized that we needed more room for our
growing family, especially as the boys got bigger. For Spaulding, it was
easier to blame the move--because look, there's a solution to every problem.
I would say to him over and over, `If you don't like where we're living, let's
go back to the village. Let's find a house that works for us in the village.
Let's just do it. I don't care where we live, but I care about you being
happy.' And we would do this. We spent two years looking at places in the
village and he would always come up with something wrong with that house. It
wasn't the old house. He would always compare it to the old house. That's
all he wanted was the old house. He wanted his old life back.

And I just have to remind myself that it was this neurosis that prevented him
from seeing any solutions to the problem and that I was willing to assist him
in any way to come up with a solution but that he just didn't want my help.
It was something that he, you know, was just determined to live out somehow.

GROSS: Did you feel you could reach him? You know, that he was communicative
and that he--that you were able to reach him in a way that you were before?

Ms. RUSSO: It was really hard. It was really hard. But I have to say even
until the last day I saw him, we still--you know, as much as we would fight
about, you know, his condition, and this and that, we still had a very loving
relationship and thank God the last exchange that we had, we hugged and kissed
each other and told each other that we loved each other. And I had given him
for Christmas a trip to Aspen and I was helping him with his luggage to meet
the Town Car waiting for him outside. And when he kissed me, he said, `Thanks
for the trip, honey.' And I looked at him and I go, `You never call me
"honey." Thanks.' I mean, he never called me honey. And I thought, `Wow, he
must really appreciate this trip. He's looking forward to it.' It was a
really sweet exchange. But even though I couldn't reach him in the two and a
half years--I mean, I did reach him but it was harder to reach him, we still
had a very loving relationship.

GROSS: When did you start worrying about suicide?

Ms. RUSSO: Probably in June of 2002.

GROSS: What changed that made the possibility of that a reality?

Ms. RUSSO: We were traveling in California. He was performing there and I
had to go back to, you know--'cause the kids had school, I had to go back, and
he was going to go on, on the tour, by himself. And the performances, they
were not great but they were good. I mean, he did--he remounted "Swimming to
Cambodia" for UCLA to enthusiastic audiences. The reviews were good. People
said, `Well, he walks with a limp now, he looks older'--the critics--but the
work was still being reviewed quite well. He wouldn't get out of bed. He was
in this hotel and he wouldn't get out of bed and I said, `That's it. We're
canceling the rest of your tour. You need to come home and you need to rest.
And we've got to figure out what we can do for you because working and being
on the road, obviously, is not the answer.'

And when he came home, that's when I became really concerned that he might do
something to end his life because he started talking about it for the first
time. I mean, look, he's always talked about his fantasies of suicide, that
predates my relationship with him, but it was the first time I took him
seriously about--it wasn't just a fantasy. He was actually thinking, `Maybe I
should end it all now.'

GROSS: Did you have a sense of what was going on in his head that was causing
him such pain that he wanted to take his life? I mean, do you think it was
the mental pain that was more significant than the physical pain?

Ms. RUSSO: Well, this is a hard one because I do believe that the brain
injury--it was brain trauma. I mean, he had extensive head trauma from the
fracture. The surgeon said there were literally hundreds of pieces of bone
lodged in his brain that he had to get out. So I think for Spaulding, he was
prone to depression anyway and I think it was almost like it was--as I said,
before Ireland he was starting to panic about what he was going to do next. I
think there were signs that maybe a depression was coming on. But I think in
combination with this head injury, it was more than he could process, that he
was able to process physically and emotionally. And he needed a lot of help,
which, you know, I mean, the places that we went to at the time I thought
were, you know, some of the best places. But you realize until you're in the
thick of it, you need to question everything. I mean, doctors are human.
And--wait, did I answer your question? I'm...

GROSS: Yeah. I'm just still thinking about hundreds of pieces of bone lodged
in his brain.

Ms. RUSSO: I know.

GROSS: That's just horrifying.

Ms. RUSSO: I know. It's horrible. Yeah.

GROSS: And what makes it even worse is knowing that it took a while before
doctors realized it.

Ms. RUSSO: Detected it, right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. RUSSO: Right. It was me saying to the doctors--see, you have to realize,
in Ireland, everything's specialized. He was in orthopedic hospital so by the
time we got there, they didn't do the MRIs that I requested at the country
hospital on his head. And so I thought, `All right. Well, maybe they are
right. His head looks fine.' We were playing Scrabble with the kids in his
hospital bed after his hip operation and I literally saw his head sink in. I
mean, I saw this little portion of his head above his eyebrow all of a sudden
go in. I said, `Spaulding, your head just caved in.' He goes, `Oh, my God.
Get a doctor.'

And the doctors run in and they're like, `Well, we're orthopedic doctors. We
can't help you here. We've got to send you to another hospital that
specializes in head injuries.' So off he goes to yet another hospital in
Ireland.

GROSS: Oh, boy.

Ms. RUSSO: And it was at that hospital, because he--Spaulding talks about it
in "Life Interrupted," it was actually--he goes, `It was like something out of
National Geographic. The doctors all walk in, all 10 of them,' and he goes,
`And there's not one Irish doctor in the whole group.' And he just said,
`They're all talking with different accents and telling me some--some of them
are saying, "No, he can fly home to have the operation." And others are
saying, "No, he needs to stay here and have the operation. He can't fly."
And they're going--they're arguing amongst themselves'--and I was there--about
what he should do. And I just looked at the whole situation and Spaulding
being in yet another dormitory room and the thought of having a head operation
in Ireland was just--you know, I couldn't see it. So I immediately got on the
phone and we found the head neurosurgeon at New York Presbyterian to agree to
operate or see Spaulding right away. And I think we flew home three days
after that.

GROSS: Well, so what if anything did you feel you had in your power to do
when you started to think that Spaulding was serious about suicide?

Ms. RUSSO: Oh, gosh. That's a hard question. I felt pretty powerless. I
mean, look, I could easily talk him into going to another hospital, quote, "to
keep him safe." But I knew that I could not institutionalize him, which is
what some doctors actually told me to do with him. And I wasn't going to
believe that that was the only solution. And Spaulding and I, you know, we
talked about this at great length. It was like--I go, `I promise you, I
will'--this was after he had been in many hospitals. I said, `I will not
institutionalize you. To me, that's not a life just to keep you safe. Safe
from what? But you have to work with me here,' you know, I would say to him.
I was like, `If you're feeling suicidal, please tell me. Tell your doctor.
Let's--you know, just give it some time. All these doctors are saying,
"You're looking at a five-year recovery period." We're halfway there.
Believe me, it's worth it and I will work with you every day if I have to.
But please don't, you know, do anything impulsively. Please let's--if you're
feeling really suicidal'--you know, I think I asked him on a daily basis,
`How do you feel today? Do you feel suicidal?' `No, no. I haven't had any
suicidal thoughts today. No,' he would tell me.

GROSS: So what you believe happened is that he jumped off a Staten Island
ferry.

Ms. RUSSO: Well, that's--from the facts that we have, that's what it looks
like. Although someone told me they read in one of the papers as to where his
body showed up that they thought maybe he jumped from one of the bridges. I
don't know.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. RUSSO: But I think that would have shown up on a--I don't have the
autopsy of it. I would think that would show up. I mean, they said that he
definitely drowned.

GROSS: My guest is Kathie Russo. We'll talk more about her late husband,
Spaulding Gray, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Today and tomorrow we're remembering the late actor and performance
artist Spaulding Gray. His body was found in New York's East River earlier
this month, an apparent suicide. He never physically or mentally recovered
from the car accident that seriously injured him in 2001.

You know, I've thought so much about Spaulding's body being in the river for
weeks before it was found and, you know, I just couldn't help thinking back
about how water figured into a couple of his monologues. You know, in
"Swimming to Cambodia," he's looking for his perfect moment and he finds it
swimming in the ocean, far from shore...

Ms. RUSSO: Right.

GROSS: ...where instead of worrying about getting back, he forgets about that
momentarily and just feels at one with everything and has that perfect moment.
But in another--in a later monologue, he's swimming out at sea I think in
a--in North Beach.

Ms. RUSSO: Before he got married.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. RUSSO: Right.

GROSS: And he realizes he's swum out too far, he's not going to be able to
get back. He's afraid he's drowning. And Renee, the woman who he's with at
the time, you know, forces like two guys who aren't...

Ms. RUSSO: Right.

GROSS: ...lifeguards to go out and come bring him in. So he had these two
opposite experiences of water that he made public in his monologues. And I
don't know, I've just been thinking so much about him choosing water as the
way to end his life and what does that mean.

Ms. RUSSO: And, you know, the other thing is, have you looked at the cover
of "Impossible Vacation" recently?

GROSS: No.

Ms. RUSSO: It's a picture of a man underwater with just his arm up holding a
little flag.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. I remember the poster.

Ms. RUSSO: Yeah. Which I, you know, didn't--I mean, "Swimming to Cambodia"
everyone knows it's Spaulding in the water with--you know, from his nose up.
But I completely forgot about the cover of "Impossible Vacation" till like
maybe two weeks after he disappeared. And how that plays--or even "Slippery
Slope," it's like he's in an avalanche on a mountain, you know, with the ski
tips up and the snow over him. It's all about water. It's all about water.
It plays a very strong theme in his work. It's one of the reasons why we
moved to Sag Harbor because he really wanted to be near the water. And, you
know, he grew up near the water on Rhode Island.

GROSS: Do you have a sense of what he believed about death and what, if
anything, would happen to his--you know, his body or his soul, his spirit if
he thought about that kind of thing. It's the kind of thing he'd bring up in
monologues.

Ms. RUSSO: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But I don't know what he really thought?

Ms. RUSSO: I don't know what he really thought either. I mean, he went back
and forth to believing that there was absolutely nothing after death, to maybe
there is an afterlife, maybe there is something else out there. I don't think
he did anything thinking, `OK, I've got to get to the next level.' I truly
believe, and this is where the acceptance of what he did and the forgiving
yourself, that there was nothing you could do, that he just felt this was his
only option, that he just could not be in this world the way he was any
longer, that he couldn't contribute anything more, he felt, I think, that
there was really no point in continuing. And I have to, I mean--and hopefully
our children will one day accept that, you know, this was his decision and
that we not respect it but we need to understand it. That he was in so much
pain, and pain, even living with him every day that obviously I didn't know
the degree to which he was suffering.

GROSS: Kathie, I'm so sorry for your loss and I just want to say thank you
for sharing some of your thoughts and experiences with us.

Ms. RUSSO: Thank you.

GROSS: And I just want to let you know how much Spaulding meant to me as
somebody who was often in his audience, and who always waited for that next
monologue.

Kathie Russo is the widow of the late Spaulding Gray. She runs the Washington
Square Arts and Films agency which used to represent him.

Our tribute to Gray continues tomorrow with excerpts of several interviews he
recorded on FRESH AIR. You can see photos and video from Spaulding Gray's
career and listen to today's interviews at npr.org.

The excerpt we heard earlier from Gray's monologue "It's a Slippery Slope" was
originally recorded for "This American Life."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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