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Ancient Gay History

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He made a point of saying he didn’t confide in anyone else: “Frank, it’s funny, I tell you things that I’ve told no one, but maybe you understand.” I didn’t quite understand—he was a great man of the theater, how could there be any trouble?—but his feeling of being “alone and unnecessary and unloved” resonated in my teenage heart. I longed to emulate him, and sit at the piano and play Chopin nocturnes before I went to sleep, as he did, “to try to forget where, who, and what I am.”

Rereading Clayton’s letters, I realized he was the only adult I knew who freely admitted to feelings like this and would indulge me in conversation about them. And unlike anyone else, he was available whenever I needed him. “If you feel low on anything,” he wrote, “call me collect cause I’ll cheat the show out of the cost.” The source of his loneliness was unknown to me, though. It would be a cliché to say Clayton’s melancholy had to do with his sexuality, and it’s entirely possible it did not. But what was clear three decades later was that he was rootless, that he kept his deepest feelings under wraps, and that he was running away from something, most likely himself. Not for nothing did he keep moving from town to town on the road like Harold Hill, the irresistible hero of one of my favorite shows from childhood, The Music Man. It was also obvious that I had had little to offer Clayton in return for all the empathy he had bestowed upon me. Much as he tried to teach me how to be a man—“Stand on your own two feet and don’t blame someone else; it does you no credit”—I was a long way from becoming one.

Once I started in on my memoir in earnest, it was not easy to find anyone who knew him more than in passing. The only family member he ever spoke of fondly—his mother, whom I had met with him briefly in New York—had just died, in 1997. I placed an ad in the managers’ union newsletter seeking anyone in the theater who had memories of Clayton. There were only a few responses, all from people who’d known him in the early seventies, after I had. I learned he had been a road manager for Hair, surely the ultimate indignity for a man whose default wardrobe was black tie and whose one minor dispute with me was to question my opposition to the Vietnam War. One acquaintance of Clayton’s had attended his small funeral at a church on the Upper East Side and reported that the few family members in attendance had been “ice cold.” Over martinis one night at an old Clayton haunt, the Pump Room in Chicago, a director friend told Alex and me that he had had a one-night stand with Clayton just after graduating from Juilliard. Our friend promised he had more to tell but died before we could reconvene the conversation. Another reminiscence came from a colleague of Clayton’s in the mid-seventies, when he was in what was apparently his last theater job—as manager at the Martin Beck (now the Al Hirschfeld) on 45th Street. That was when New York City was in drop-dead mode and Broadway was all but abandoned, with more houses dark than not. Clayton had fallen into the habit of riding his bike from the East Side to the Beck in the dead of night to sit alone and play its old grand piano for hours with only the stage night-light for illumination. I seized on the theatrical slang for that lamp—“ghost light”—for the title of my memoir, taking it as Clayton’s last, posthumous gift.

Once my book was published in 2000, I heard occasionally from others who knew Clayton. Their overall impression confirmed mine—he was magnetic, generous, and hilarious. Beyond that, there were more enigmas than explanations. One day I received a lengthy phone message from the actor Elliott Gould, who had roomed with Clayton for a few weeks on the road during the 1957 pre-Broadway tryout of an unsuccessful musical in which he was a young chorus dancer and Clayton an assistant stage manager. He had not seen Clayton in the nearly half-century since then but had found him so captivating that he asked to meet so I could tell him more stories about him. He had had no idea Clayton was gay. Neither had Clayton’s roommate during a two-year apartment share in the late sixties. Recently I asked a friend of Clayton’s from his Chicago days, the veteran Broadway dancer Harvey Evans, why Clayton remained closeted, at a time when gay performers like Evans were out to each other, at least within the confines of the theater. Evans speculated that it was because Clayton was a manager who had to deal with a company’s entire staff, the back office in New York, and the public, and didn’t want to take any risks, especially in a day when homosexuality invited police harassment and worse.


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