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Vanishing Act

We’re all familiar with Spalding Gray’s demons—venting his despair was his art and profession. But after a crippling car crash in 2001, his depression began to overwhelm him. So when he went missing earlier this month, after several previous suicide attempts, his wife, children, and friends were left to fear the worst.


*From the February 2, 2004 issue of New York Magazine.

Facing the Future: The accident left a dramatic scar on Spalding Gray's forehead.  

Don’t mind the balloons,” Kathie Russo says, brushing a few helium-filled strays from the doorway as she swings open the door into the kitchen of the rambling Federal-style house in North Haven she shared—or perhaps shares—with her husband, Spalding Gray. “We’re having a party.

“I know, I know,” she says, aware of the painfully incongruent timing. It’s day six since Gray, the performance artist and actor, 62, disappeared into the dark, eleven-degree Manhattan night. “Today is my son Theo’s birthday,” she says with a shrug. “I’m just living very much in the present, and trying to keep things normal for the kids.”

If there’s anything abnormal about the mood at this two-story white clapboard home, it’s the normality. It’s not a funeral. It’s not even a wake. It’s just a void, and an eerie one. A rabbit named Thumper sits in a cage on the dining-room floor, ignored by the children since the family bought a miniature Australian Shepherd puppy, named Bowie, in a half-successful attempt at “pet therapy” for their dad, who had been seriously—even publicly—depressed since he was injured in an accident two and a half years ago. At a small breakfast nook off the kitchen, Kathie’s parents sit, her father stoically reading the Times.

“How’s this?” asks Forrest, 11, who strolls up wearing a White Stripes T-shirt, showing off a pink-and-green Easter basket filled with presents he’s wrapped in blue for his brother. “For his birthday, Theo wants anything British. He is completely into the Revolutionary War,” Russo explains. “Last night I made cupcakes with a British flag on each. He’s a total history buff at age 6.

“In fact, on Saturday, the day he vanished, Spalding bought him a book on the history of war. History was one way for Spalding to engage with him.” She points to the table ten yards away in the dining room, which is covered in tan toy-soldier figurines. “These toy soldiers here, they would set them up on the table and play for hours. Theo’s dyslexic, like his father, so we’ve had to tutor him, but he’s a high-IQ person, just like Spalding.”

Russo pauses for a moment to reflect. “That’s the thing that’s so strange. Spalding was doing so much better,” she says, uncertainly flip-flopping between the past and present tense. “For the first time since the accident, he really seemed to be making progress. He was really engaging with our children, on a much more familiar basis. As Forrest called it, it was the ‘old daddy,’ as opposed to the ‘new daddy.’ ”

Russo smiles, red-eyed from the tears she’s been struggling to hold back for nearly a week. “Forrest is the writer; he’s my quiet child. Very reflective. He has Spalding’s personality. Theo looks exactly like Spalding, even at 6. But Theo is very gregarious, lively. His personality is more like mine, always living in the present.” She smiles wryly. “That’s the only way I’m surviving right now.”

Still, the signs of doom are everywhere, if you’re looking for them, as Spalding surely would be. On the piano in the living room sits sheet music for Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” On the mantel in the dining room sits a small clock emblazoned with a nautical map. At twelve o’clock it reads high tide, at six o’clock, low tide, as if it were there to track Gray’s daily swings in mood. “Oh, where do you start?” cries Russo. “My mother just pointed out that we live on Ferry Road.”

This morning, the detectives from the city were out again to give her an update, such as there was. Since the news broke January 12, the police have received more than 200 tips. Spalding was spotted in Beverly Hills; someone else saw him in Macy’s. He left his wallet behind at the couple’s Soho loft, true, but he did have $120 cash on him. One tip, from an ex-detective and published in the Times, had Spalding haggling with a waitress over a window seat at an Orange County diner. Russo promptly dispatched her parents to the diner, whose owner ended up poring over recent tapes from his security cameras. No Spalding.

“I keep getting these phone calls from fans saying, ‘I’m sure he’s just gathering material.’ I wish that were true.”

Gray had spent the past 31 months laboring, only partly successfully, to recuperate from a devastating car accident in Ireland in June 2001. In the crash, Gray, who had always battled his hereditary depression and bipolar tendencies, suffered a badly broken hip, leaving his right leg almost immobilized, and a fracture in his skull that left a gruesome, jagged scar on his forehead. Shattered both physically and emotionally, he had spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable. In just under two years, the celebrated monologuist underwent six operations and passed through twelve hospitals. There was virtually no psychoactive medication Gray had not tried—Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Depakote—and usually, under doctors’ orders, in extravagant combinations. He tried aggressive acupuncture. Nothing worked.

In the past year, he’d attempted suicide several times. And now, only absence. “The children are dealing with the situation differently,” says Russo. Forrest has been quiet, but able to articulate his fears. “Theo, I think, is waiting for Daddy to come through the door.”

And he might. Conceivably. The last his family saw of Spalding was Saturday, January 10, when he took the kids to see Big Fish, the story of a dying father’s relationship with his son, at the Loews Village on Third Avenue and 11th Street. After the movie, Gray wept.

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