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Ancient Gay History

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Mining the archives at Lincoln Center’s performance-arts library for any additional evidence of Clayton, I found one incident that supported Evans’s theory in a letter deep in the files of the Broadway producer Leland Hayward. In 1963, Clayton had written to his immediate superior in New York about the abusive lead actor in a road company he was managing of the comedy A Shot in the Dark. In Clayton’s telling, the star had accused him of “hand holding with a theatre manager and peregrinations in lobby of a theatre in San Francisco” and had addressed the show’s cast to deride him as an “eight-year-old little girl in boys pants from finishing school” who hated any “married man.” The actor threatened to “beat the shit” out of Clayton if he came backstage. Though Clayton toured for months with this show, neither it nor the offending actor ever turned up in the many behind-the-scenes tales he told me once our friendship began three years later.

The final glimpses I have of Clayton, near the end of his life, were courtesy of a reader who wrote me almost a decade after Ghost Light was published. He and Clayton had worked together in the late seventies at M. Rohrs’, a small coffee-and-tea shop that survived until recently in the East Eighties. Clayton, now out of the ­theater, was at this point “cobbling together a living,” the reader wrote, working part time at Rohrs’ and at a bakery run by a friend. He was also “hustling bridge at the Cavendish Club.” Talking with Clayton was “a tutorial in graciousness, treating people well, and always presenting an enthusiastic front,” he recalled, adding that “an entourage began to appear” on the days Clayton worked. Clayton was still working at Rohrs’ when he took ill in 1983 or 1984. “He said it was lung cancer,” the letter went on, “but I was never sure if it was that or AIDS. I visited him a couple of times at his apartment, but it was clear that he was failing. The last time I saw him he was just hoping to hang on to get back to the beach on Fire Island with his friend (who I didn’t know) one more time.” Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a photo of the two of them outside the shop, with Clayton wearing the very un-Clayton accessory of a coffee vendor’s apron. “I have met a lot of exceptional people, but Clayton was truly special,” my correspondent concluded. “With the picture on our wall, hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him.”

Who was that unseen “friend” Clayton was trying to get back to on Fire Island? Did he exist? As I embarked on this article, I decided to do one more round of sleuthing. When I wrote Ghost Light, the Internet was not nearly as comprehensive a tool as it is today. Why not try to go way back once more? I searched for the girlfriend whom Clayton had partnered with those “Gayboys” back in Chicago; her last credit, in stock, was in 1967, and I could find nothing else. But I did locate another woman Clayton rhapsodized about In his letters, Diana Eden, who played one of the Pigeon sisters in his company of The Odd Couple before migrating to Hollywood, where she built a career as a television costume designer. I reached her by phone at her current home in Las Vegas. Like me, Eden had lost touch with Clayton after those Chicago days, but when I asked her about their tearful parting when her Odd Couple run ended, she described the 1 a.m. farewell scene at O’Hare much as Clayton had in a letter. She had adored him and, like others, had held on to old photos of him. “Clayton was very funny,” she recalled, “but that’s not the thing I most remember. There was an element of wistfulness and loneliness about him that I sensed strongly … I assumed from the beginning he was gay, but he never mentioned any love affair at all. He came to all the parties, but I never saw him with a date or touch anyone. But I felt immensely loved by him and taken care of.”

My final search was for a name I had been told when I was researching Ghost Light—that of a man who might have been that “friend.” The name had been given to me by a woman who had known Clayton in his Hair period. She was the only Clayton acquaintance I ever found who cited any specific lover. The man she named lived not on Fire Island but in Hawaii. I couldn’t find him in the late nineties. But this time he did turn up via Google: as the namesake of the Clint Spencer Clinic at the Hawaii Center for AIDS at the University of Hawaii. I sent an e-mail to the Center asking for any biographical information that might be available.


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