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4,000 Pages and Counting

Larry Kramer’s boundless outrage changed the course of AIDS. Now, with his still-unfinished epic about America’s hidden gay past (George Washington, Alexander Hamilton …), he’s furiously rewriting history again.


Larry Kramer, December 17, 2009.  

The Associated Press was at least half-right when it ran a headline, in 2001, saying Larry Kramer was dead. He was awfully close. Because he’d been sick for several years, many people who didn’t know him thought he had died already, presumably from AIDS. But AIDS, for so long his cause, was not Kramer’s problem. His long-standing HIV infection had never progressed, the virus perhaps having found that rare human host more ornery than itself.

Rather, he had end-stage liver disease, the result of a hepatitis B infection contracted decades earlier. His partner, David Webster, an architect and designer, kept him as comfortable and hopeful as possible in their Greenwich Village apartment and Connecticut country house. Still, at only 66, Kramer knew it was time to close up shop. He appointed a literary executor: Will Schwalbe, a young family friend who was then the editor-in-chief at Hyperion. Among the properties that would eventually fall under Schwalbe’s purview were plays including The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, the novel Faggots, the screenplay (from his Hollywood days) of Women in Love, and a raft of journalism, blog posts, op-eds, and historically important letters and e-mails. These were works that marked the world: that prompted, in a way rarely accomplished by words on paper, social action. He might have died proud of that alone.

And yet to Kramer, everything he’d been known for was just a prelude to a massive unpublished work called The American People, at which he’d labored on and off since 1978. All the plays and speeches put together would not equal it in extending his argument about the centrality of gayness in human achievement. It would also, he believed, deliver the coup de grâce to those who had for years forbidden his work entry past the polished gates of art, consigning it instead to the slum of agitprop. The American People would prove him a citizen of both neighborhoods, which were actually not even separate.

The only problem was that it wasn’t nearly done, and time was running out. “He had thousands of pages of manuscript,” recalls Schwalbe, who started working with Kramer on the material that summer, using index cards to map out the plot. “It was his legacy—and it was a mess.”

But Kramer didn’t die. On December 21, 2001, in a thirteen-hour operation, he received the liver of a 45-year-old Pittsburgh-area man who had suffered a brain embolism.

The new organ seemed to set Kramer’s clock back a few decades. His chest hair, white before it was shaved for the transplant, grew back black. The liver also seemed to recalibrate his humors, pushing his reflexive biliousness and melancholy sweetness to greater extremes. Perhaps that’s why it was possible, earlier this fall, to find him waving shyly from a leather-upholstered, artificial-flower-bedecked, horse-drawn carriage as it clopped through the streets of Dallas. Dressed in white overalls (they don’t disturb the scars the way pants do) and encrusted with turquoise (as amulets against relapse or rejection), he looked more like a retired folk singer than the gay world’s leading apostle of unrest.

He was, strangely, the honorary grand marshal of Dallas’s 2009 pride parade. Never having been so honored in New York, he was flattered. Still, after a lifetime spent in opposition, at 74 he seemed to find the perquisites of tribute both awkward and insufficient. What happened to the convertible he was promised? Was the day too hot for the horse? Would anyone listen to his speech at the end?

For he was aware that few of the 35,000 revelers along the parade route seemed to know who he was, despite a sign hastily attached to the coach and despite a three-minute biographical video that for the previous few weeks had been looping in gay bars amid the regular fare of sports, music, and porn. The video, produced by the Dallas Tavern Guild, which also produces the parade, emphasized the AIDS work that made Kramer both a hero and a lightning rod for controversy, in particular his co-founding of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 and, when that ended badly for him, his creation of ACT UP in 1987. Arguably, these organizations were responsible, in their good-cop-bad-cop way, for bringing drugs to market that now make it possible for millions of HIV-positive people to live reasonably normal lives. As a side effect, they also instigated a fundamental shift in the way the public participates in decisions about health policy and pharmaceutical research. His former archenemy, now friend, Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, divides American medicine broadly into two eras: “Before Larry and after Larry.” So while it was nice that Dallas named him an honorary grand marshal, putting him in the company of such luminaries as Bruce Vilanch, why has this man not been awarded a Nobel Prize?


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