Our running conversation lasted for the first three weeks of Barefoot’s summer run in Washington, after which Clayton was heading to Chicago for an extended stay managing the road company of a newer Neil Simon hit, The Odd Couple. As it happened, I, too, was heading to Chicago for the summer, to attend a course for high-school journalists at Northwestern. Clayton told me to look him up if I wanted to bring any friends from Evanston to Chicago to see his show.
Some weeks later, just as my course was ending, I left him a message with the switchboard at the Blackstone Theatre in the Loop. I had decided to spend an extra weekend in Chicago to be with a girl I’d met at Northwestern. I hoped to take her to see Dan Dailey and Richard Benjamin in The Odd Couple. But by the time Clayton called me back, the girl’s mother had changed her mind about letting me stay with them. He immediately suggested that I bunk at his apartment instead, if it was okay with my folks.
That turned out to be the day I first heard the word homosexual—in my stepfather’s ensuing question on the phone: “Do you know if he’s homosexual?” I gathered this was not a compliment and said I was certain that Clayton was innocent of the charge. But my stepfather wanted to verify: He would call the manager of the National Theatre and ask. The verdict arrived a few hours later. My boss had vouched for Clayton, and so I could stay with him for the weekend. It never occurred to either of my parents (or to me) that the National’s manager, whose ticket-taking staff consisted entirely of young, single men, was also gay—in hindsight a larger-than-life queen worthy of The Nance. Such was the closeted world, even in the theater, as seen by those on the outside looking in, circa 1966.
What started that weekend in Chicago was the most intimate relationship I’d had with any nonparental adult. It was, in retrospect, a chaste and mostly epistolary love affair. In those days when people still wrote letters, Clayton and I often exchanged two or three a week, his densely typed on regal-blue stationery engraved with his name in large capital letters, or, even more romantically to my mind, on Odd Couple stationery festooned with the show’s logo. Since my stepfather was an airline lawyer, I could wrangle occasional free plane tickets back to Chicago. I’d travel there to visit my girlfriend on odd weekends, each time staying at Clayton’s apartment a few blocks north of hers on the Near North Side. Clayton would take the two of us out after his business was done at the Blackstone, and he schooled us in fine dining, in drinking brandy, and in overall bonhomie at watering holes like Punchinello’s on Rush Street, where the casts of every touring show in town gathered after their final curtains. It was preposterously glamorous. Clayton knew everyone in Chicago and everything about the Hollywood movies of the thirties and forties he watched nightly on the Late Show. He was an accomplished classical and saloon pianist; he spoke German and French, which he had picked up on a checkered path through European boarding schools before forsaking college to enter his father’s calling of show business. His dad was the songwriter J. Fred Coots, the author of Tin Pan Alley standards of the thirties like “You Go to My Head” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Clayton made a point of saying that he got no money from home. Making ends meet was a constant worry, particularly given his serious clotheshorse proclivities, his generosity about picking up checks, and his insistence on showering cast, crew, and friends alike with extravagant presents on birthdays and holidays.
In person and in his letters, Clayton talked about various girlfriends of his own, one of them a touring musical-comedy belter I’d seen in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the National. But these women never materialized in the flesh. Not that I minded. What mattered to my narcissistic teenage self was that Clayton was interested in me. I was an unhappy child of divorce. My mother was in her second stormy marriage. I was always one step away from running away from home. In his letters, written with the salutation “Dear Pal Frank,” out of John O’Hara’s Pal Joey, Clayton would try to steer me back on track with what he called “Big Brother Lectures” about minding my studies and my parents and not feeling sorry for myself. “Life is beginning, not ending!” he wrote in one pep talk. “You don’t help yourself by allowing the loneliness to take control and affect your life or your studies,” said another. When I fought with my mother, he defended her: “She may have problems you know nothing about.” He defended my girlfriend too: “Many times in the future Frank you are going to have to take loved ones only on faith and you may as well start learning now.” Then he would go back to telling me backstage stories about his cast, or reconstructing (dialogue included) a scene from the Mae West movie he’d seen on television the night before, or detailing his track-by-track reaction to the newly released original cast album of Cabaret.