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A Tribute to Spalding Gray: Part 2

On March 7, the actor and monologist Spalding Gray was found dead in the East River in New York. Gray, 62, had been missing for two months. His family believes he committed suicide. Gray was best known for his autobiographical monologues, including Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and It's a Slippery Slope. Over the last 19 years he was a frequent guest on Fresh Air. We listen back to excerpts of his performances and interviews: Swimming to Cambodia (rebroadcast from Aug. 20, 1985), Monster in a Box (rebroadcast from Sept. 21, 1990), Impossible Vacation (from May 8, 1992) and Gray's Anatomy.



TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Profile: Tribute to Spalding Gray with past interviews of him

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today we conclude our two-part tribute to the late actor and monologist
Spalding Gray. He developed a style of on-stage autobiographical monologue
that was emulated by so many other performers it became a genre. He was the
best. Depression was something he fought all his life, but the depression
combined with physical pain became unbearable after a car accident in 2001
that shattered his hip, fractured his skull and injured his brain. When he
disappeared in January of this year, his friends and family feared he had
killed himself by jumping into the river. His body was found in New York's
East River on March 7th.

We're going to listen back to excerpts from several of Gray's FRESH AIR
interviews, starting with the 1985 conversation we recorded when he was
performing his most famous monologue, "Swimming to Cambodia," which was filmed
by Jonathan Demme a couple of years later and became an art house hit. In
addition to performing his own work, Gray co-starred in several films,
including "True Stories," "The Killing Fields" and "Beaches." And he played
the stage manager in a Broadway production of "Our Town."

But he wasn't quite cut out for conventional acting. In his monologue
"Swimming to Cambodia," he talked about why. The monologue was about his
experiences making the 1984 film "The Killing Fields" about the Cambodian
genocide. Gray played an aid to the American ambassador.

(Soundbite of 1985 interview)

GROSS: Let me ask you, from your monologue, I get the impression that one of
the pastimes in off hours was smoking Thai marijuana.

Mr. SPALDING GRAY (Monologist): Some people did that, yeah.

GROSS: And I get the impression from you that it makes you paranoid when you
smoke it. So I guess my question is: Why did you smoke?

Mr. GRAY: I am fascinated by psychotic states and have been for years. My
mother had a very severe nervous breakdown, eventually committed suicide in
1967 after a two-year period. And not just because of that, but I've always
been interested in abnormal psychology, and I guess it's something that I
would do in another lifetime. I'd be interested in going into being a
therapist. And I know that sometimes I get bored with health, with life as it
is. It gets flat. And I often think that the marijuana is the perfect way to
break through and go into that other realm. And then afterwards I always
repent and say, `Now why did I want to do that?'

But within that sometimes there's a number of very--wonderful experiences
happen in the sense of being able to let go with the perfect moment that I
describe in the Indian Ocean, where I am not holding on to anything and I'm
able to open up and feel this terrific `at oneness.' So it can go sometimes
either way, and that way it was healthy and I was outdoors. But usually it is
a kind of grinding paranoia that keeps me awake. And certainly I really
understand my personal paranoid state and am tired of it and bored of it. I'd
rather go on to other things. And that's why I like "Swimming to Cambodia" as
a monologue. I think it's the first monologue that has transcended the
personal neurosis because it is--God, it's so involved with that otherworld
condition, and it's so much bigger. It's very humbling, you know, to--one
doesn't--I don't get as involved--dwell so much on the personal neurosis when
I think about that Cambodian genocide.

GROSS: You play yourself when you're doing a monologue.

Mr. GRAY: Aspects of myself, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, right. I know your experience is really transformed in it.
It's not a literal rendering of what happened.

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: But when you're in real life, do you ever feel like you're playing
yourself, too?

Mr. GRAY: I will play often--with Renee, I will do it where I'll be
depressed. When I'm mildly depressed, it's as though I'm one of those people
that makes histrionics to avoid anxiety because to--when the anxiety's, you
know, articulatable, then you make up a new histrionic anxiety to cover the
one that you're not really getting to. And it's an overlay of histrionics
there that has become a performance for me. It could go the other way and try
to cut that away and go to therapy. At this point in my life I think I've
made a career of it and wouldn't be interested in doing that.

But I remember--I have a monologue called "The Personal History of the
American Theater." And in it, I say, `You know, some people are born people.
They're just born people, and they make a decision to become a lawyer or a
doctor or an actor. And they go to school to study it, and they're
professional. For others it's an ontological state. I was one. I hate to
admit this,' I say in the monologue, `but I saw life as a flat thing, and I
would theatricalize it from taking cues from the outside world.' I'll give you
an example. It's Fourth of July. I'm a young kid, and I hear a few fireworks
go off: bup, bup, bup, bup, bup! And I rush to the window and go, `Mom, Mom,
come quickly! Rush Jaman(ph), our neighbor, is up on his roof shooting his
kids.' And this was before that happened a lot, you know, in the old days
before it really happened a lot. And my mother would rush to the window
believing me for a moment, you know. I would draw her in onto it. And she'd
go, `Oh, Spuddy, dear, don't.' You know, `Why do you have to do that?'

So right from an early age I was theatricalizing my life, for whatever reason.
And finally it turned into a performance art. And what I was really doing is
autobiographic work. I wasn't so interested in studying a character and doing
that. And I remember my first experience of autobiographic theater. It was
the first play I was in called "A Curious Savage" in boarding school, where I
had to make a--it took place in an insane asylum. I thought I was Hannibal.
I was supposed to have delusions of grandeur. And I thought I could play the
violin, and I was just sawing at it. And I started to do this downstage left
cross, and there was a carpet on the floor that wasn't there for rehearsal.
And it had squares on it, and I just did this improvised hopscotch in
character--or out of character, whatever. I hopscotched across the rug, and
the audience went wild. And right then I realized the terrific power, the
initiation, that I had created a performance piece within that overall play.

And then it was years after that before I thought of lifting the hopscotch out
of the context of other people's scripts and becoming an autobiographic
performer. You know, it was a long evolution. But I look back on that as one
of the original--not that everyone improvises. They all--but they try to put
it as a gestalt with the text. I finally began to want to bring that out and
make it my own.

GROSS: Didn't you audition for that TV series "Hail to the Chief"...

Mr. GRAY: Yes! Yes, that's definitely...

GROSS: which Patty Duke plays the president?

Mr. GRAY: ...part of the monologue. I was the dark horse from the East. I
can't believe they brought me out there. I get out there, they put me up in
the Beverly Hilton. They want me to play Patty Duke's husband; she's the
first president in "Hail to the Chief." Now the only person--they boiled it
down to me and Dick Shawn. There's two of us. And I can't believe this. I'm
very nervous, and I haven't memorized my lines. I should have. I didn't work
real hard on it. Dick Shawn's got his lines down. And so they're rushing us
in like the bullfights, and we have to come in in front of--all the producers
are sitting there in the dark, and you have to come out in this arena in front
of them. And they're sitting in these big, leather chairs judging you with
a--and so they rushed me down. They thought I was on next. And I got there
early and had to sit outside the room and hear Dick Shawn doing his thing.
And nothing could worse.

First of all, everyone was laughing. Second of all, he had memorized his
lines. Thirdly, he knew Patty Duke and was able to put his arm around her.
And I came in, I hadn't memorized my lines. I was so stiff, I felt like a
Kennedy, you know, I mean, with my New England accent. And I thought, `Well,
if they want to go that way, fine.' But I remember putting my arm around
Patty Duke and feeling my arm was made of plastic, you know? And yet in my
monologues I'm very free, which made me believe I was not ready to make the
jump; that somewhere in me I was--you know, Dick Shawn was ready. Hey, he was
there for the work. He got it. Actually, he didn't get the--he got another
role, the CIA agent or something.

But the point is when I'm really in a space and I know my material and I trust
the people, I can be wholly present there. But if I were to get that job and
I would have to sign a six-year contract--it's not that I'm holding back from
that. I would like to be accepted. But I realize I'm pretty esoteric. I was
screened two hours for "The Johnny Carson Chow," and I realized that I--a lot
of my material is really just too much for the average American audience.

GROSS: Spalding Gray recorded in 1985 when he was performing his monologue
"Swimming to Cambodia." We'll hear a 1990 interview with Gray after a break
as our tribute continues. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering actor and performance artist Spalding Gray, who's
best known for his autobiographical monologues. Our next interview excerpt
comes from 1990 when he was performing his monologue "Monster in a Box." The
monster was the 1,900-page manuscript of a novel he'd been working on for
several years. The monologue was all about the interruptions he faced or
created for himself while he was supposed to be completing it. Before I
talked to him about that monologue, he performed a short excerpt from it.

(Soundbite of 1990 interview)

Mr. GRAY: So I got this contract to write this book, and it started to turn
into this huge autobiographic novel. And I knew that that's all I wanted to
do because I had this idea that I'd been doing monologues for so long that I
was too extraverted, and I wanted to get more introverted, in touch with my
private self and work in a more private way of writing. And I thought, `I'll
just do the book.' In order to do the book in ...(unintelligible) private, I
thought I would apply to a writers' colony, and I applied to the MacDowell
Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. And I thought, `If they accept me,
that'll prove I'm a writer.' And they did accept me, and I was very excited
because, well, a number of great writers had gone there, including Thornton
Wilder, who had written "Our Town" and had modeled the town of Peterborough,
New Hampshire, as the town for Grover's Corners.

And I arrive. It's 600 acres of land with about 52 private cabins on it.
Each person has their own little house to work in. And it was wonderful. You
could do anything in that house. I mean, no one could bother you. There was
no telephone. They brought you lunch and delivered it in a little basket, put
it on the steps and tiptoed away, like Yogi Bear, and left you alone. You
could do anything in that house, which was fantastic for me to consider being
in a house and being able to do anything I wanted in New England. That was

So I began the writing process, and basically I hated it. It was dreadful. I
was writing three, four hours a day longhand, doing the book longhand. I
mean, I wanted to isolate myself up there. Just write; no living, just
writing. And I'm writing away, and I'm beginning to have my knuckle swelling
from the pressure of the pen. My knuckle is swelling up and becoming
arthritic from so much writing. And then I'm beginning to lose my sight in my
left eye, and this makes me very upset because the book I'm working on is all
about my edible themes. And I think, `Oh, no, there goes the first eye.'

So I'm writing, and then when I can't write anymore--it's three hours, four
hours--I'm walking. What do I do? I walk in the woods, and I walk and I
walk. And I get back to the main house, where we're supposed to eat dinner,
and I drink and I eat and I reread what I wrote. And I get up in the morning
and I write, and I walk, and I drink and I drink and I drink, and I eat and I
reread what I wrote. And I get up in the morning, and I write and I write and
I write and I write, and I drink and I drink and I drink, and I eat and I
reread what I wrote. And I drink and I drink and I drink. And I was
get--anything--`Please, something get me out of here. Someone call me and get
me out of this place.'

So I got a telephone call at the main house asking me to come out to Los
Angeles to do a project that the Mark Taper Forum theater had applied for a
grant to have me out there to do a year ago. Wonderful. They had applied to
the National Endowment for the Arts. That was back in the old days when the
NEA was doing wild and crazy things like that, investing in people like
Spalding Gray. And the idea was that I would come to Los Angeles and look for
people who were not involved in the film industry and interview them on stage.
It was to be called "LA: The Other,"(ph) just talking to simple folks about
living in LA. I was supposed to ride the buses of Los Angeles to find them.
So I thought, `This is wonderful. It will get me out of here. I'll work on
my book in the morning in Los Angeles, and then in the afternoon I'll go
looking for "LA: The Other."

So I get out there. The Mark Taper Forum rents Renee Shafransky and I this
Hollywood bungalow in the Hollywood hills, a tiny, little house. And the one
thing I find fantastic: It has a view. I never knew how important a view was
to me. I mean, in New York City, I have a view of a tar paper roof on another
building. At the MacDowell Colony, I was looking out at trees. Suddenly I
had this view of a snowcapped mountain and, 20 miles in the distance, a city
with a mountain by it with snow on it when you could see it for seven clear
days of the year. And I'd wake up in the morning, and it was beautiful--the
birds chirping and the wind chimes--and see the sun coming through the bedroom
window. And I'd get up and go in to my writing table and sit down with my
book and feel the sun coming across the desk, across my arms and follow the
sun and follow the sun around into the living room and sit down and watch the
sun come through the cypress trees and watch the sun come through the palm
trees and have a cup of coffee and have another cup of coffee and watch the
sun come 'round and come through the dining room and watch the sun go down
through the dining room window and have a martini and watch the sun set into
the Pacific Ocean and have another martini. Why go out? Why bother? Why
work on a book?

GROSS: Spalding Gray performing an excerpt of his monologue "Monster in a
Box." By the way, a filmed version of that monologue is available on video.
I asked him to describe that novel he was trying to write.

(Soundbite of 1990 interview)

Mr. GRAY: It's an odyssey of a guy, as I refer to him, a guy who's trying to
become a man by learning the art of hanging out and taking pleasure and joy in
simply being able to be alone in a vacation setting or a paradisiacal session.
His one problem is that he's never really worked much before, so it's kind of
a contradiction in terms to say that he wants to learn how to take a vacation.
But I like the title "Impossible Vacation." And he feels that he can't commit
to the woman he's with, Cleo, his girlfriend and try to settle down and have a
family until he takes this one last, big trip alone, where he learns to be a
guy hanging out. And he's set on doing it in Bali. And he's taking the
money, finally, that his mother's left him after she committed suicide. And
then it's all of those misadventures on the way of this odyssey in which he
remembers back; it's flashbacks of remembering. So it's about the women in
his life, of which there are three major relationships: his mother; a woman
after that, and then Cleo, the one that he's with then.

And so that's kind of the plot. And then it's about every kind of phobia and
digression. And it's about obsessive behavior and drinking and obsession with
beer and getting drunk and all of those male things and sex...

GROSS: And all those things that you probably have, right?

Mr. GRAY: ...and masturbation and all of those things...

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. GRAY: ...all of those that I had. Now I've stopped drinking because of
that. And I'm older, so I masturbate less. So I don't know what's caused the
decline in masturbation. I think it was an eye operation I had on my left
eye, I'm sure.

GROSS: So experiencing pleasure is something you have talked about in your

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: always having problems with. You're always looking for the
perfect moment, never, ever quite finding it. Did you take a vacation this
summer? Did you get away?

Mr. GRAY: I took a vacation, but it was for 10 days, and it was in--it was
the strangest one I've ever had. It was in Amagansett in Long Island in a
small cottage, very teeny, little shack, on a salt pond, very beautiful
setting. And I didn't--see, first of all, I gave up drinking for the first
time, alcohol, since 1976. And I had never lived a summer in my adult life
where I didn't at least have a lot of white wine with fish. I mean, they go
hand in hand. And I was also told by one doctor--I've been to many; there's a
whole other monologue in that--that I had a high level of mercury. So I had
to cut out all big fish 'cause that's problematic with the cataracts. And so
all of a sudden there goes tuna fish, swordfish and salmon.

And I'm out there in the water, and I'm not drinking, and I'm getting prepared
for an eye operation. So I could hardly call it a vacation. So Renee said,
`Well, we'll try to take one to Costa Rica because the beaches are beautiful
in January, after you finish your long run at Lincoln Center.' And when she
said that, `The beaches are beautiful--Costa Rica,' I got panicked because,
again, I feel that enormous pressure to have these ultimate perfect moments.
And I don't want to do that. What I'm leaning more toward in my life now
is--and I'm reading more and more Zen books. You know, I think that's
foolish, people who read Zen. They should be practicing it. But I'm reading
the books getting ready to practice it, trying to find a more middle ground
of--the ultimate challenge is the wonderful Zen story where the kind of
flamboyant, magical Hindu is boasting about how he can materialize jewels out
of the air and walk on the water. And the Zen monk says, `Well, that's
nothing. I do the ultimate miracle. When I'm hungry, I eat. When I'm tired,
I sleep.'

So I think, well, if I can slow down and begin to experience simple joys and
have everything more polymorphous from ...(unintelligible) and everything lack
a vacation, that's what I'd dearly like, rather than this crazy thing of
working and then trying to `Relax' with a capital R, which is what America is
all about and why it's so crazy. So I just don't know. The idea of a
vacation frightens me. The best vacations for me are working on films, when
I'm on a film set and I'm doing a small role.

GROSS: Right, 'cause you don't have to work that hard.

Mr. GRAY: It's enforced, and you're with interesting people in a nice
location. And they're feeding you well, and they're taking care of you. And
then you do two or three days work.

GROSS: And you're under no obligation to really enjoy yourself 'cause...

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: ...after all, you're working, right (laughs).

Mr. GRAY: That's the obligation, exactly. I think that's the...

GROSS: Does knowing that you're reporting on your life ever enhance the
pleasure of it, or do you think it distances you more from...

Mr. GRAY: I think it distances me and--well, one of the particular books I
was reading, "...(unintelligible) of Meditation," this morning--I'm starting
to get more interested in that--was that they say, `Are you one of those
people that when you're walking in the woods, you're thinking about what a
great story this will make for your friends?' And I underline that in green
ink, and I thought, `But wait a minute. That is my profession, after all.
And, after all, I do enjoy telling stories, and, after all, I'm very present
when I'm telling the story.' So what I see myself as doing is that's a form of
sacrifice that's part of the work, but I do find it's a distancing.

GROSS: I've been watching your performances for a long time. I remember back
in--I guess it was '77 you did something called "Rumstick Road."

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: And it was a two-person piece.

Mr. GRAY: No...

GROSS: Three persons?

Mr. GRAY: ...four actually...

GROSS: Four, OK.

Mr. GRAY: ...if you count the technician...

GROSS: Oh, which I didn't. Yes (laughs).

Mr. GRAY: ...who is on stage, yeah. Right. He was supposed to be part of
the show.

GROSS: Well, anyways, this was largely about your mother, who was a Christian
Scientist, and her suicide. And it was presented more like tragedy, you know,
as drama. It was not a humorous monologue in any way.

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: Over the years, I guess as time has gone by, you're still talking
about your mother...

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: your work and her influence on you and her suicide. But it's
taken this kind of like dual nature.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah.

GROSS: It's both tragic and comic. And I was wondering if you could talk
about how the...

Mr. GRAY: The process of that.

GROSS: Yeah, the process of humor starting to enter into something...

Mr. GRAY: But that's an interesting and good question, and I've talked about
it a few times when I've done public talks about the work. But I think that I
went through an extremely healing process through art in regards to the
suicide because I did go through the depression, not being able to mourn it
and all that stuff that they talk about. And when I co-founded the Wooster
Group with Elizabeth LeCompte in New York City in the Performing Garage in
1977, we were working on a series of autobiographical pieces. And that sprung
me out. And every night at the end of that I would walk out like Jimmy
Durante in three spotlights and wave goodbye to the entire--you know, even now
I get choked up thinking about it--to the audience, to the group and walk out
the performing garage door.

And around that time, 1979, I was doing my first monologue. And I didn't know
that they were going to be funny. But my New England timing, my New England
accent, my New England understatement was funny to all the New York Jews. If
I had stayed in Boston and done them, no one would have laughed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: You know? They saved me. The New York audience saved me and gave
me my sense of human. So that helped birth it.

GROSS: Spalding Gray recorded in 1990 while he was performing his monologue
"Monster in a Box" about the distractions that kept him from completing his
novel and possible vacation.

In the second half of the show we'll hear the conversation we recorded after
"Impossible Vacation" was finally published, as we continue our tribute to the
late Spalding Gray. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, more of our tribute to Spalding Gray. We'll hear excerpts
of the interviews he recorded about his novel and possible vacation and his
monologues "It's a Slippery Slope" and "Morning, Noon and Night."

(Soundbite of music)

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

Today we're remembering actor and performance artist Spalding Gray, who's best
known for his autobiographical monologues. His body was found earlier this
month in New York's East River, an apparent suicide. He never physically or
mentally recovered from injuries he sustained in a car crash in 2001. Gray
turned his life into theater, transforming his neuroses, phobias, health
crises, depressions, quests and relationships into stories that were very
funny and also very moving. In The New Yorker, he was once described as `the
perfect raconteur for our times.' Today we're listening to excerpts from the
interviews he recorded on FRESH AIR.

When we left off we were talking about his monologue "Monster in a Box" about
the distractions that kept interrupting work on his novel "Impossible
Vacation." When that novel was finally published in 1992, we spoke again.

(Soundbite of 1992 interview)

GROSS: I know you got married last August...

Mr. GRAY: Right, right.

GROSS: Renee Shafransky, who's been your longtime companion and also...

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: ...your longtime collaborator.

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: Do you mind talking about why you decided to do something formal and
get married?

Mr. GRAY: Yes. Well, that's part of the new monologue "Gray's Anatomy." And
what it had to do with was this: When I was having my eye operation, Renee
found it very difficult to have access to me because she was known as `the
girlfriend.' And she says, `You're getting older. You probably will be in
the hospital in the future. I think I should be the wife, so that they'll let
me in to see you. It just is easier that way.' And we actually went into
therapy and talked about it, and I proposed to her in therapy. I proposed by
saying, `Do you still really want to get married?'--I asked her. And she
giggled, and I saw that she really did and that was important for her. And I
thought that I could do it, even though I didn't understand why I didn't want
to do it.

And now I probably am understanding that more because what we were before was
a safer thing for me. It was like what you refer to as agricultural time;
it's more circular, in which we reconnect through various anniversaries and
seasons. And the marriage felt, to me, like a dart that was going straight,
linear, toward a dartboard that could only be interrupted by two D's: death
or divorce. And so there was a line there that was supposed to make you feel
more secure, and I think it does Renee. But in me, it made me feel a little
more claustrophobic. And so I think that's the difference in the experience
that we both had, although at the same time she doesn't like calling me her
wife. She does not like that word. So I'm now referring to her as my
ex-girlfriend. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What kind of--you know, a lot of people, like, write their own
marriage vows.

Mr. GRAY: Oh, God.

GROSS: Yeah. And some of them, I have to say with all due respect, are just
like really corny and a little bit embarrassing.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah.

GROSS: So how did you decide to go about that?

Mr. GRAY: This was a very beautiful ceremony, I have to say. A week before
it I almost drowned, and that was quite an experience between there was
lifeguard. We were going to get married on the beach. I almost drowned off
the--look, I knew there was a lot of turbulence coming up around the marriage
because when we went out to select the house to get married--and it was
wintertime, and we were out there alone. And I had a dream that I was lying
on a pile of ashes and that my body was filtering into the ashes, and the
ashes were coming up into my body and there was no separation. And when I
woke up, I thought, `What were those ashes? They were shaped like a what?
Like a sleeping bag, like a mummy bag, like a mummy. Oh, God, oh, God,' I
thought, `I'm not free of her yet.' And that was the dream that first came
around trying to select the house in which to get married.

Then as we get closer to the marriage, I almost drowned, and there was no
lifeguard. And Renee started yelling for men on the beach, and the reason
that they went out is because they recognized my head from the poster
"Swimming to Cambodia."

GROSS: Oh, no (laughs).

Mr. GRAY: Yes, because it looked like the poster. It was as though I was
reliving the poster. And this guy, a chiropractor from Punxsutawney,
Pennsylvania, first reached me with a yellow boogie board. And I grabbed on
to that, and they pulled me in. And they all wanted to photograph me on the
beach standing next to them saying, `If you ever doing a monologue, please
include my name. I'm the chiropractor from Punxsutawney.'

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. GRAY: And so the closer I got to the marriage, the more I started to get
into these panic things. And then just five days before the marriage, a major
hurricane hit, if you remember this, and tore everything apart, all the
marriage plans. And I said to Renee, `I see this as a sign.' And she said,
`I see it as a challenge.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: Well, this is the difference between the two of us. She rallied
her forces; she outdid that hurricane. She brought that whole wedding
together, and it was a very beautiful ceremony. And it was on the beach that
it was--and the sun came out, and we were drinking champagne. And our lawyer
married us, and he wrote the ceremony based on all of the things that had
happened leading up to the marriage--the hurricane, the almost drowning, not
the ashes dream--and said that quote; you know, `Renee saw it as a challenge;
Spalding saw it as a sign.' But he really talked about `being together for as
long as the two of you shall love.' And it was a very simple, beautiful
ceremony that simply retraced our history together. And then we signed the
papers right there on the beach with the wind blowing and everyone standing
around. And it was a small ceremony.

And I have to say the marriage itself was beautiful. You know, the wedding
was beautiful. But the wedding is one thing; marriage is another. And the
people must remember that it's two very different thing. The marriage is
ongoing. The wedding was for a day. I'd love to get married once a year.
Again, yeah, to Renee, it was the lovely party, and the sun came out and all
things blessed us. All things blessed us.

GROSS: Spalding Gray recorded in 1992 after the publication of his novel
"Impossible Vacation." He returned to FRESH AIR in 1996 when he was
performing his monologue "It's a Slippery Slope," in which he described a turn
his life took that stunned me.

(Soundbite of 1996 interview)

GROSS: At the end of your new monologue you confess that you were having an
affair with another woman at the time you were married and that, in fact,
while you were married, she became pregnant with your baby. And you've since
left Renee, and you're living with the woman who you had a son with. Her name
is Kathie. And you're living together, and, in fact, you're expecting another
child in January. This is such a surprising thing to hear in a monologue.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. Well, it was a surprising event to me to have happened. If
you think that I can fill you in on what I think the underneath of all of that
is, I think I'm still processing it.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. GRAY: But what is the specific question?

GROSS: Well, I'm not sure. I think part of the question is that, for the
first time, I felt myself instead of just kind of identifying with you and
say, `Boy, that Spalding, he really understands neurosis'...

Mr. GRAY: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...I was thinking, `Boy, that Spalding, he did something that really
upsets me,' you know?

Mr. GRAY: Right, right.

GROSS: `I'm really upset that he was having an affair while...'

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: `...he married Renee.' I don't know Renee, but I feel like I know her
through your monologues.

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: Through having followed your life, I know something about her life.
And she feels like a friend, you know, in the way that characters in books
that you read feel like friends.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah.

GROSS: I feel like, well, you know, you betrayed my friend, and I don't feel
good about that.

Mr. GRAY: Right. So how are you feeling now?

GROSS: Well, I'm still processing it.

Mr. GRAY: I mean, it doesn't stay with you. Yeah. I mean, I'm sure that
you don't pay a lot of attention to my life because you have your own and you
have other people that you interview. But that's--you know, when I say
common, I mean not an--it's been a common response from women; that I've
gotten letters, and people have spoken to me about it. And I expected that to
happen because I felt that, too. And this monologue is a watershed monologue
in this sense: that I would say that what happened to me--and this isn't a
disclaimer, and it sounds a little Jungian and romantic but not a midlife
crisis. My press bite on the monologue is, `Oh, it's about surviving a
midlife crisis by finding my balance on skis.' I think midlife crisis is
another one of those American pop psychology words to make things lighter, as
in Peter Pan complex vs. the (unintelligible) eternist, which is a little
deeper in the sense of perpetual child, a more Jungian concept.

And I'd say what happened to me was I really encountered my shadow in a major
way. And it was not just the affair with the Kathie in the midst of getting
married that set these things--that triggered a lot of this breakdown. And
the story of the breakdown--and it's not something I blame--it's not in the
monologue, but it is a very long and complicated tale about me really
collapsing around that period for all sorts of reasons, for overload
situations that were probably exacerbated by the affair. But, you know, I
don't--when I do the monologue, I want to keep the audience laughing. I'm
trying to keep that balance between shadow and light. But there are places
that are very complicated that I probably could go in to write about. But
Renee left me and for good reason. I mean, she had no choice.

But I can remember one of the crisis points was that I was bicoastal at the
time a lot of this was going on, so I had two therapists. So I had one in New
York City and one in Los Angeles. And at the time Renee and I were in Los
Angeles, and I have amnesia around a lot of this because I was pretty out
there. Why we were there, I don't know. But I remember going in to my
therapist and not being able to sit in the chair. I was bouncing out of the
chair, pacing around the room, rolling on the floor, letting out little
yellings, involuntary yelps. And he said he needed Renee to come in the
following day, and the following day she came in and--said, `The reason I
brought you in is that you are his wife. You are legally responsible for him.
And I would suggest that you get a legal separation because he is about to be
put in a straightjacket. We have a law here in California'--I want to call it
the 510 law, but that's the Berkeley area code. I'm not great at numbers, but
it's one of those codes--`that if you have the kind of behavior he's
manifesting in public, he can be put away, and that's what it looks like is
about to happen. And we can't, you know, commit him now.'

So this is when Renee did a legal separation--was right after he said that.
And she had organized friends of mine to go to California when I'd been in
various holed-up situations; in the monologue, I talk about myself going out
to California and her calling to say she'd seen Kathie with the baby. But, in
fact, also, she was going to have three friends go out and have me committed a
number of times, and she would not have been off base on that.

So a lot of stuff was happening. I mean, I feel very, very fortunate to be
back in the saddle. And the woman that I'm seeing now as a therapist is a
very strict and imaginative Jungian, and she is saying, `Stay off the
lithium,' which I was on, `stay off the Klonopin, stay off the anti-Tourette's
drugs.' I was on three different drugs. `You have just wrestled with your
shadow and won. You have survived your mother's suicide. You've survived
your mother's death. You and Renee were in a fused relationship. There's no
way that couldn't have gone down.' Now I'm not a nice guy, and I wasn't a
nice guy there. And where this monologue is different from the others is I'm
no longer the infantilized child turning the audience into a mom, in
particular the women, and saying, `Hey, look at me, I'm drowning. Renee loves
me, she gives me unconditional love, and I always come back to her. But,
also, look out. I'm going out again.' And so all of that behavior that I
talk about in this monologue was going on all the time in the others, but you
didn't know that. And I'm not a nice guy, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughs) Wow. See, that's the thing.

Mr. GRAY: But I still need to do my thing.

GROSS: I was picking up on that in the monologue, yeah. Well, you know,

Spalding Gray recorded in 1996 while he was performing his monologue "It's a
Slippery Slope." We'll hear his final FRESH AIR interview after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Today we're remembering the late actor and performance artist Spalding
Gray. The final interview I recorded with him was in 1999 after his monologue
"Morning, Noon and Night," in which he described his new life as a father. It
was a revelatory experience.

(Soundbite of 1999 interview)

GROSS: Now you say that children led to what you call the `double-chaos
factor.' Explain what the double-chaos factor is.

Mr. GRAY: When I lived in New York City with two previous relationships
before, two women, Elizabeth LeCompte and Renee Shafransky, in both cases
there were no children. But there was a lot of work. We were doing intensive
work. And I was also out in the city alone a lot. I would take long walks
and be enthralled by what I call the mystical chaos of New York City; that it
should not be functioning, but it is. It's functional dysfunction or
dysfunctional functional. Just, to me, it was total, constant theater. And I
don't mean that in a cruel, distancing way, but in a way you have to do that
with New York to cope with it. And that, of course, leads to irony and all
the rest of the diseases.

But here I was trouncing around New York getting big hits of it, and then I
would come home to the two women that were centering and calming me and
nurturing me. And so, in a way, I was the child in that relationship. And
once there were children in the loft, it was totally chaotic. And, also, they
weren't acknowledging me in the same way, and Kathie didn't have the same
energy to totally aim at me. You know, if I'd come home from a tour--I
describe this in "It's a Slippery Slope"--the chaos of Forrest was up on my
desk naked, Marissa's running around singing her life in opera, and they
notice me, but they don't go, `Oh, sit down. Can I pour you a beer? Was it
hard on the road, honey?' So all of that changed, you see, and I needed to get
to a place that was--where I could walk outdoors and there'd be some peace.

GROSS: Well, do you feel like you've had to become less dependent, in a way?
Because, like you said, in some ways you were the child in the relationship,
expecting a lot of attention and nurturing from the woman in your life. But
when you're a father and the woman in your life is a mother, a lot of that
nurturing really has to go to the kids. So has that...

Mr. GRAY: Um...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. GRAY: Yeah. Well, I'm growing up, and it's really amazing to be growing
up at almost 60. But, I mean, an example of that would be that Kathie has a
talent agency, and she handles solo performers. And she was out booking--at a
booking conference just this Wednesday to Sunday in Kansas City, so I was with
the children. Now we have a baby-sitter that spells me in the afternoon, but
I'm dealing with getting them off in the morning and getting them down at
night. And the storm came; we had the hurricane watch that didn't really hit.
And I had this little sailboat, you know, that I just loved, little Beetle
Cat, you know, 15-foot Day Sailer, that had to be taken out because of the
storm, and they didn't put it in the next day. And I was saying to Kathie,
`But I wanted to go sailing today.' And she goes, `You're whining.' And I
thought, `You know, she's right.' And I said, `But what I need to hear from
you is, "Oh, it's really, really rough. I'm sorry I left you. You're such a
little pooky, and I'm just sorry the children"'--what she says instead is,
`You are so lucky to have such wonderful children, and I've covered you with
the baby-sitter,' and, you know, underlying that as in, `Remember, grow up.'

GROSS: You always seem to need a lot of nurturing. Do you feel comfortable
in the role of kind of being the nurturer as the father?

Mr. GRAY: I do, yeah, because it's such a surprise that--it's like a new
part of me blossomed. So it's a dimension there. And I like it so much that
I get nervous, as far as growth--Forrest will be seven on Monday, and he's
much more independent. So then I need to see Theo being dependent on me, so
that I can still have that nurturing force going. And Theo is a
less-dependent child than Forrest was. It's interesting to see that. But I
don't want to lose that. You know, I don't want to have it taken away from me
by their independence.

GROSS: You know, now when you're talking about your life, you're also talking
about your whole family's lives...

Mr. GRAY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...including your kids. And here's something I'm wondering about:
You explain in your monologues that your first son was born when you weren't
even having a relationship with his mother. And then you got together again
afterwards. Your second son, you know, you at first opted for abortion but
then changed your mind. This is the kind of thing that parents often, like,
never want their children to find out about.

Mr. GRAY: Right.

GROSS: And, of course, I mean, this is, like, on the public record now. So I
wonder how you feel about that, about your kids knowing this kind of stuff
that, outside of your art, you might not have wanted to tell them.

Mr. GRAY: Couple of things I--three things that I think about. One is I've
noticed that throughout the interview, you've been using the word `explain,'
and I wish that I was doing that. I feel that I'm telling, I'm reporting, and
not explaining.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And the other was that I remember when Renee and I were still
talking around and after the breakup and we were having dialogues and having
lunches together, and she said, `I just can't wait till'--'cause she says,
`When your son is a teen-ager, when Forrest grows up, and sees your monologues
published and sees the early dedications to "Renee," and he's going to go,
"OK, I want to find out who that Renee is."' And I thought, `My God, Renee
doesn't know me (laughs). After 14 years of living together and working
together, she would think that I would, like, not do a monologue about this?'
Of course, at the time I also thought it was impossible to do that.

I think it's really, really good to get it out there and to pay attention, to
really pay attention, to his--in this case, Forrest's--reactions. He saw
"Morning, Noon and Night." He's a little bit aware of "Slippery Slope," but
he sat through the whole production of "Morning, Noon and Night," and
afterwards slowly things surfaced. And this is a dialogue--but I'm very, very
careful--and I think this is the only way you can go at it--is that you keep
him--and I really don't know how to do this when he gets closer to being a
teen-ager--but keep him conscious, you know, keep a dialogue going where I
would answer the question by, you know, saying, `This is how Daddy works.
This is what I do, and this is, you know'--`Hey, would you rather not be

GROSS: Right.

Mr. GRAY: `It's not a bad life, Forrest. It is not a bad life.'

GROSS: (Laughs) Then Daddy's a drama queen. Daddy's a...

Mr. GRAY: Yeah, yeah. `This is how Daddy makes his living, Forrest. Now do
you want me to do something? Because we'll be living in quite a different
situation. Are you ready to give up the big house and move into an outhouse?'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Spalding Gray recorded in 1999 when he was performing his monologue
"Morning, Noon and Night." We'll conclude our tribute with an excerpt from
one of his performances after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Spalding Gray was always in pursuit of a perfect moment or at least a
moment when he could get out of his head, stop thinking and fully experience
the moment. We'll end our tribute with an excerpt from his monologue "It's a
Slippery Slope" about learning to ski, a sport which he threw himself into in
his 50s and became obsessed with. Here he is describing a day at Aspen, where
he's been befriended by three locals: Maggie(ph), her boyfriend Jake(ph) and
their friend Martha(ph). They're all skiing down the big mountain Ajax.

(Soundbite of monologue)

Mr. GRAY: Something's happening that is right. And Maggie's the provocateur.
She keeps passing over a snuffed out marijuana joint that she wants to relight
every time we're on the lift, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And, `Oh, no, no, thanks. Really, that stuff just makes me think.
I don't...'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: Well, actually `think' is the wrong word. I'd be a scholar if that
was the case. I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: It just makes me grind my gears, junk head, around and around,
garbage, nothing productive, really. I mean, if I was dancing all night at a
club or something, I'd take it. But--`Oh,' Maggie says, `really? Spalding,
skiing is like dancing in the day. It's like dancing in the light. Don't say
no. Just say maybe.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: So next time around Maggie and I are alone on a double-lift, and
she just lights it and passes it over. I don't think about it. I just go
(makes inhaling noise). I sit back, and I begin to think. I begin to think
so hard that I don't get off the lift, and it goes around.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: They stop and I'm hanging up there. He goes, `Hey, rock 'n' roll.
Hey, man, having a good day?' They're helping me down, the skis are falling
off. `They are too big,' I'm thinking. And the marijuana is making them seem
big. But I have to say, in defense of the hemp, it really does loosen up my

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: Not that you're supposed to have loose hips when you're skiing, but
boogie on down, I'm skiing with Jake now. And I like that, this new male
thing, you know, because usually I always felt I had to talk to a guy. We're
just skiing together. And I'm up at the top of the mountain waiting for
Martha and Maggie to come up, and Jake says, `I want to show you something.'
`Oh, God, no. He's going to try to teach me something.' Suddenly I feel like
a frozen banana.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: `No,' he said, `don't freeze up. You're doing fine in your turns.
But you know what? After you turn, you're sliding down the mountain; you're
sliding down the mountain because you're not edging. Just watch me for a
minute.' And I look over--`Oh, wow, I'm able to see it. I'm able to take it
in.' He rolls his skis in just slightly into the mountain and edges. And, oh,
yes, I'm behind him. And what a difference (singing) an edge makes. We are
skiing now down Ruthie's Run, a terrain that was so steep I was simply
crashing down it before. And now I am realizing that you have to be out of
control to be in control. For a second you have to be falling down that fall
line and then catch yourself, and you have to have the leap of faith. And I
never had faith in my life until that day. You've got to believe you're going
to turn right in order to turn right. And it's a leap of faith and around:
`Wow, I doubted everything until this moment. A leap of faith and I'm around.
' And I'm falling into the light, and I can feel the gravity pulling me, the
earth a mother--a leap of faith and I'm around; a leap of faith, I'm around; a
leap of faith, I'm around. And Maggie shoots behind me with stereo earphones
on yelling, `Think of it as a white wall of death.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And I'm able to keep my balance in the face of this, and I know
where she gets her kicks. And I know she's hoping I'll do a monologue about
this, and she will be in it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: We have a wonderful afternoon. It's timeless. It's so energized.
It's so oh--and so--and they bid farewell, and they say, `It's almost 4:00.
We've got to run the mountain. You download.' I said, `No. I want to ski
down with you guys.' `Spalding, you know what? It's really not safe. There's
only one way down the mountain at the end of the trail. It's Spa Gulch.' And
the locals refer to that often as the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: It's icy, it's dark. The shadow comes in. Maggie blew her ACL
attendance out last year. You could hear them pop up the gulch like hot
spaghetti. `Don't want to do it.' `I do!' `It's your choice.' So I opt--my
plan is that I'm going to follow Martha, the blind ski instructor. I hadn't
skied with her yet, ski instructor for the blind. She was like a sleek
weasel, really, really smooth, fast, confident. And I'm right behind her.
And what's exciting now is that we're running the whole mountain, so the
rhythm starts to build. And before we were just skiing around at the top.
And we're starting down, and there's all this new terrain. And then as we get
closer to Spa Gulch, I can see what they mean. The conversion--it's like an
LA freeway. All the trails are going into that one place. And behind me I
can hear the snowboarders shredding: sha, sha, sha! And all of a sudden
Martha goes straight up the edge of the gulch and hops around and comes down,
and I'm behind her.

I don't know who's doing this. `Are the skis skiing me?' And I go up, and all
of a sudden I see a cobalt blue sky, a new moon and--Foop--I'm around. I see
amber-bright sun on snow and dark shadow. And down and up and around, and
down and up and around, and up and down and up, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug,
chug. Bow! Born out of the thighs of Ajax.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GRAY: And Jake comes over and gives me a big high-five...

(Soundbite of slapping)

Mr. GRAY: first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Spalding Gray performing in 1996 at the Goodman Theater in Chicago,
where he was recorded by "This American Life."

You can see photos and videos from his career and hear interviews about him on
the Web site

Spalding Gray's body was found in New York's East River earlier this month, an
apparent suicide. His mind and body never healed from a car accident that
shattered his hip, fractured his skull and injured his brain in 2001. Before
he died, he was working on a monologue called "Life Interrupted" about life
after the accident. I've been thinking about something he said in his
monologue "Monster in a Box" commenting on how he often complicated or screwed
up experiences that were supposed to be simple and pleasurable. He said, `I
like to create my own hells before the real ones get to me.' Apparently the
accident created a real hell from which there was no relief, not even in the
act of creating theater about it. I am one of his many fans who miss him and
miss the privilege of listening in on the continuing story of his life.


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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