By high-school graduation, Clayton had left The Odd Couple and Chicago. Now back at his nominal home in New York, he invited me for an overnight visit on my way to meet up with a school friend for the weekend. After a dinner at his favorite Italian joint, by the 59th Street Bridge, we went back to his apartment. At bedtime, Clayton made what even I could identify as a pass. I deflected it easily enough, and neither he nor I ever mentioned it again. It upset me, but not because I feared I was in any danger. What bothered me more was the realization that Clayton did have another life that he had never so much as alluded to in all our correspondence and conversations. My feelings were hurt more than anything else. I had told him all my humble secrets, but he had not reciprocated.
We stayed in touch as if nothing had happened, but less and less so. I was now at long last about to escape Washington for college, and it was perhaps inevitable that we’d drift apart. I had outgrown my combination Auntie Mame and Peter Pan. The last letters I received from Clayton were brief and uncharacteristically angry. He was furious at Marlene Dietrich, whose one-woman show he was managing on Broadway during my freshman year. She is “truly horrible,” he wrote, and treated him “as a dog.”
A decade or so passed. When, in 1980, a notice appeared in the Times that I had been appointed the paper’s drama critic, he wrote me a sweet note, saying with typical cheek that he knew I’d amount to something. I was overjoyed that he was back in touch at this of all moments. He’d been present at my baptism in the theater. I wrote back at once proposing that we get together and catch up. I never heard from him again.
By the early nineties, I had married for a second time, and as a surprise for my birthday, my wife, Alex, set out to find this Clayton I had talked about with such affection and who had been a solace to me at a low time in my life. Alex had once worked as a Broadway house manager, so she turned to her old union, which would have been his, to see what might be in the files. The answer was more of a surprise than she had bargained for: Clayton was dead. He had died almost a decade earlier, in 1984, when he was in his late forties. The loss felt like a body blow. I went to the Times morgue to find his obituary. There was none.
By then I was starting to think about writing a memoir about my youthful obsession with the theater and how it rescued my childhood. I knew Clayton would be a significant figure. But what did I really know about him? It would be impossible to write the book if I couldn’t locate his old correspondence. I anxiously retrieved the boxes of youthful detritus my mother had packed off into storage before her death, hoping that she hadn’t thrown out his letters along with my baseball cards. When I found the stash, I picked one at random and read it aloud to Alex. She at once recognized the voice, witty and sardonic and yet kind, that I had described to her.
But rereading the letters nearly three decades after they’d been written, I noticed much that had passed me by in high school. Though the invocations of romances with women were as plentiful as I remembered, they coexisted with a steady barrage of camp references and jokes that had flown right above my head. In one letter, he had sent a parody “review” he’d written of a fictional cabaret act starring Pat, his most persistent girlfriend. He’d named her backup group the Gayboys. “Gay” was not then in common usage as a synonym for homosexual. (“Fag” was, and Clayton used it once, repeating someone else’s wisecrack.) But while it’s conceivable Clayton’s use of “gay” was old-school, I now had to wonder. “The stunning outfits of the Gayboys,” he wrote, consisted of “skintight lavender pants, fuchsia boots and lime green tops.” Here was a code that I and much of America could crack by the late nineties but that was still impenetrable to the uninitiated in 1966.
What also struck me for the first time all these years later was just how unhappy Clayton was. Even as he constantly bucked me up, he confessed to blues of his own. “Oh how bad can Saturday nights be when you are alone on the road,” he wrote in one typical soliloquy during the dog days of August in Chicago. “Happily, I am well adjusted to life enough to keep cheerful and ‘up’ but there are times I’m not and I get terribly lonely as I am today. The theatre is dark, it’s cold and empty and I come here for there is no where else to go. You know what I mean. That hotel is great if there’s someone around, but that room can be depressing alone. What a strange business—so many people every day, so much to do, and so many lonely moments. Please don’t get mad because I’m writing of trouble to you, but these are things you don’t tell just anyone. Also, I’m sort of a legend around here and I’m always Happy and with it and this is a side you don’t show to just anyone. When you are a manager, your troubles come last and it’s the company that needs you and you owe them that. Anyway, these moments don’t last and there is no truth to the rumor that I intend to leap from the balcony some night.”