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Conspiracy of Two

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The rectory of St. Mark's Church.   

As always, the details were important. They could not live in an ordinary apartment. In December 2006, Duncan had read an article in the Times about the New York apartment of Steven Sater, lyricist for the Broadway musical Spring Awakening: one of a handful of small, eccentric spaces carved out of former maids’ quarters on the top floor of the Dakota. “You feel like you’re in another world,” he said of living there, “a world where your imagination just feels free.” Duncan decided that she and Blake had to live in a similar space in the building upon their return. She hounded real-estate agents but was told there were no openings in the Dakota. There was, however, another apartment she might be interested in: the two-bedroom apartment on the top floor of the St. Mark’s rectory. It was a space unlike any other in the city, connected to a 200-year-old building with a history bound to bohemian New York. Perfect.

If the move was an effort to right whatever had gone wrong in Los Angeles, it seemed to be working. On Mondays you could find them at the Beatrice Inn, in the West Village, nursing drinks with old friends. Or maybe you ran into them at the Waverly Inn or Freemans, cozy, exclusive restaurants that appealed to their sensibility. When it got late, the chances were high that you could catch them having a nightcap at Bungalow 8. (The Chelsea lounge is named after an early work of Blake’s owned by the bar’s owner, Amy Sacco, a longtime friend of the couple.) At St. Mark’s, they became close with Frank Morales, one of the church’s pastors and a liberal activist who has been a fixture in downtown circles for decades. Duncan was devoting most of her energy to her blog, while Blake was working at a frenzied pace, consulting at Rockstar and preparing for his upcoming solo shows—one at his New York gallery, Kinz, Tillou, and Feigen, the other at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C.

They accused close friends of being involved in the plot. Some were asked to sign “loyalty oaths.”

In January, Blake was a featured guest at a screening of Factory Girl at the headquarters of William Morris—a small, informal event organized by the Whitney to cultivate younger patrons. Blake was always skilled in these environments, understanding of his role, adept at charming potential donors, and in most respects tonight was no different. Except that when he ran into Christine Nichols—his former dealer and close friend of nearly a decade—he acted as if he had never met her before in his life. It was a reminder that something remained off-balance, that perhaps the paranoia hadn’t been left behind in California. Friends in New York had a dim understanding of what had been going on in Los Angeles—they had experienced the casual phone calls from Duncan and Blake that turned into two-hour digressions about spies and Scientologists and government operatives—but at the same time the couple were often in high spirits, still warm and generous with many. They had spent that Thanksgiving at the Napa home of their old friend Blake Robin, and nothing seemed particularly worrisome. They had gone to Miami that December to attend Art Basel, the international art show, where they were outgoing and social. And you could, in a sense, rationalize their occasional erratic behavior. They were artists, after all, and artists are allowed a degree of lunacy.

But soon friends in New York started receiving the same accusatory e-mails that the couple had sent to so many in Los Angeles—and the behavior no longer seemed like mere eccentricity. When it came time to plan the July 3 benefit at St. Mark’s, for instance, Duncan banned an old college friend of Blake’s from attending the party—no reason was given. Days later, when another friend ran into her at Liquiteria, an East Village juice stand, she accused him of eavesdropping on her telephone conversations; then Blake showed up and nearly got into a fight. The two started speaking compulsively of a massive lawsuit against the Church of Scientology, of a document they were putting together that would make clear that they were by no means being hijacked by their imaginations. Many friends had hoped this document was a fiction, a hope that faded after the couple’s deaths, when the Los Angeles Times published portions of the 27-page document. Here Beck was formally singled out as starting the couple’s conflict with the church, and Tom Cruise is ultimately blamed for killing Alice Underground at Paramount because the script clashed with “his profound loyalty to Scientology,” an accusation the actor denied. Nearly everyone they had a working relationship with—agents, producers, studio executives—is mentioned as being part of the conspiracy.


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