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Vanishing Act


Gray had openly talked before about killing himself by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, which he rode often just to relax. On the day before he went missing, he had been observed by ferry staff placing his wallet on a bench and wandering ominously over to the railing. He was later escorted off the ferry by security guards.

There had been other ostensible attempts at suicide, too, other notes. Since September 2002, there were three official attempts—such as the time he paced the bridge connecting Sag Harbor to North Haven, hyperventilating and balling his fists until he was talked down—and numerous other moments when Gray apparently flirted with his own death. But Gray always left word of his intentions and he didn’t seem to care who received it. At one point last fall, he left a message on the home answering machine, telling his family he intended to jump from the Staten Island Ferry. More than once he left notes on the kitchen table, one of which was discovered by Forrest.

But this time, nothing. “It’s so unlike Spalding not to leave something,” says Russo. True, there was an eerily arbitrary trip into the drizzly chill to “buy stationery.” When Gray failed to show up by Sunday morning, Russo fully expected to receive a note on that same stationery. Rushing out to North Haven on Monday, she began to dread the mail’s arrival. Two days passed. Four. Still nothing.

“Now it’s been six days,” she reasons. “If something were going to arrive, it would be here already. But then he lied about where he was going that night,” she adds bitterly. “He said he was going to meet a friend.” It turned out the friend hadn’t even heard from Spalding that weekend. “And Spalding knew I was going to be out at a conference at the Hilton until midnight . . . ” A telephone chirps and she grabs the receiver. “Uh-huh, yes,” she says in a clipped tone. She listens a moment more, nods, and hangs up. It was the detectives again. “Nothing new,” she says with resignation. “At this point, I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad news.”

That was Friday. By Tuesday, the detectives were back on the phone. No less than four credible witnesses reported seeing Gray riding the ferry on Saturday, around the time he vanished. Equally depressing, police had traced the last phone call Spalding made to the boys to a pay phone at the ferry terminal.

Russo, recounting these latest developments, was clearly holding back tears.

“I feel, in my heart, that he has died. I’m trying to accept it now,” she says, trailing off.

‘I’m basically a fearful person. I’m a phobic person,” Spalding Gray says near the end of Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 movie monologue that was to make him famous. Inspired by his small part in Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields and directed by Jonathan Demme, it was recorded at the Performing Garage in Soho. He’s talking about swimming off the beach at Phuket, in Thailand. In search of “the perfect moment,” he overcomes paralyzing fear of the waves, and the currents, and the sharks, and plunges in, farther and farther—so far, finally, that others are alarmed. Then, almost magically, the fears cease. “Suddenly, there is no fear, because there is no body for sharks to bite, there are no more outlines, there’s no ‘me.’ It’s just the great, body-temperature-warm Indian Ocean, and I’m sleeping like a kid again, back in Jerusalem, Rhode Island, the entire bed rocking, sand in the bottom of the bed, wrapped in the arms of the sea—fantastic sleep.”

“Spalding had to see the water every day,” says Russo. “It just cleared his head. We had toyed with the idea of moving to Aspen because he loves skiing so much, but he couldn’t stand the idea of not being near water. You know, you go down to the ocean, and whoosh, everything just leaves you, all your troubles.”

This was of particular concern to Gray. He had never been precisely “normal,” and that was a source of his genius. So too was the furious mental energy that motored him through his unshakable neuroses, which earned him the sobriquet “the Wasp Woody Allen.” He made no secret of the obsessive-compulsive thoughts that both inspired his art and plagued him. “Threes became very important,” he says in Swimming, recounting the superstitions that consumed him as he waited to hear if he had gotten the role of the American foreign-service officer he coveted in The Killing Fields. “As I went out, I would turn the doorknob three times. I started up the street, snapping my fingers three times, then in sets of three, then three fingers in sets of six . . .”

The problem was, that same manic energy that propelled his monologues didn’t dissipate once the lights went up. Even at the sunniest moments, Gray was liable to see the worst in things. “I don’t want to call him a baby,” Russo says affectionately, “but everything that ever went wrong with him, you know he’d just overdramatize it. It was hard for him to deal. He always wanted to run away. When I got pregnant, he said at first, ‘Get rid of it. I can’t see you anymore.’ He ended up turning the whole thing into material for his monologue It’s a Slippery Slope.”

Writer Stokes Howell, a longtime friend, says that even in the best of times, Gray “always had this tape loop running in his head”—what Spalding called “the ticker tape going across my forehead.”

The playback of that tape started droning in a distinctly minor key from the very outset of the calamitous Ireland trip. The vacation started well enough. Gray was friendly with John Scanlon, the Falstaffian public-relations legend, who summered in Sag Harbor but also owned a glorious house in Ireland that he routinely lent out to his writer friends. Gray and Russo had an open invitation to take the house, and for Spalding’s 60th-birthday party on June 5, 2001, Russo surprised him with airline tickets.

Gray had always loved Ireland, but at first, uncharacteristically, he refused to go. He was still exhausted from his leading role on Broadway in Gore Vidal’s The Best Man. Finally, when Russo offered to go alone with the kids, Gray agreed to go. He was never one who liked being alone. But from the outset, omens began to overwhelm him and the small band of Sag Harbor friends who accompanied the family. A month before their scheduled departure on June 20, Scanlon died of a heart attack. Then, once they arrived, Gray remarked that the house, located in a decidedly untouristy farm region of County Westmeath, “looked like the place in The Shining.” To make matters worse, the entire countryside was gripped by fears of mad-cow disease, and travelers had to scour the soles of their shoes on special mats lest they track traces of cattle excrement into any dwelling. Soon after they arrived, Gray was horrified to see, in a neighboring field, a trembling young calf, its knees buckling from disease. “It just kept trying to get up, over and over again. It was a horrible sight,” Russo says. “Spalding actually went over to the farmer and said, ‘You really have to help that calf. He’s in pain!’ ”

The gloom wouldn’t lift. The first afternoon, the group toured an ancient monastery, discussing death, and while driving to dinner at the late Scanlon’s favorite local restaurant, the Wine Port Lodge, that night listened as a doleful announcer read obituaries of local citizens over the radio. “We must have spent half the dinner that night talking about Robert Hughes’s motorcycle accident and how terrible it would be to get into an accident in a foreign country,” Tara Newman, a Sag Harbor broker and one of the party, recalls. For the trip home that night, Russo, who had drunk only one glass of wine, took the wheel of the car, which had been rented by Timothy Leary’s widow, Barbara Leary, and her South American boyfriend, Kim Esteve. No one in the backseat used a seat belt.

Minutes later, Russo was headed down a country lane so narrow that two cars could barely pass each other when she saw a pair of headlights rounding the bend toward them, at first obscured by a tall hedgerow. She pulled to a stop at a bend she later learned the locals call “The Black Spot” owing to the number of serious accidents that have occurred there. She prayed that the minivan, coming straight at them, would see them and stop. It didn’t. The impact was explosive, thrusting the engine of the rental car into the passenger compartment, where it burned Russo’s arm. All five people in Gray’s car were knocked unconscious, except for Tara Newman.

Moments after the accident, Newman, covered in white dust from the car’s inflated airbags, recalls looking over at Gray, whom she was seated next to in the backseat. “I thought he was dead,” she recalls. “He was covered in blood. His glasses were pushed up into his face.”

The van, it turns out, was driven by a local veterinarian who had been carrying a tank of mad-cow medicine, which was oozing all over the road.

Gray spent the next week in a local hospital, where care was less than cutting-edge, to say the least. To treat his crushed hip, Gray was issued a brace that dated to the Eisenhower era. He would spend another three weeks at a larger hospital in Tullamore before coming back to the States.

“Spalding was never the same after the accident,” says Robby Stein, a Manhattan psychotherapist and Theo’s godfather, with whom Gray stayed for several weeks after Ireland. He was in intense physical pain. Mentally, he was worse. He could barely talk except for strange obsessive ruminations on the same few topics. Why had they gone to Ireland? Why had they moved from Sag Harbor to North Haven? Several doctors at different hospitals all diagnosed his problem as depression—not physical trauma. “They hadn’t recognized that he had a skull fracture!” fumes Stein. “It was complete mistreatment.”

In place of the amusing old neurotic tangents, an alarming bitterness crept in. “He was always saying to me, ‘Why was I the only one hurt? Why weren’t you hurt, too?’ ” Tara Newman says.

“He never stopped talking about the ‘Green House,’ as he called the Sag Harbor house,” says Dale Scott, an ex-performance artist and close friend of Gray’s since the mid-seventies. The Green House—later repainted white—was the two-story Victorian in Sag Harbor that Gray had left begrudgingly. It was here, the backdrop for his hymn to domestic bliss, Morning, Noon and Night, that parenthood had so transformed him. Gray made no secret he had never wanted kids and had assumed himself too “urban” for a domestic idyll. Indeed, his life as a family man had begun under quintessentially Spaldian terms. Married to longtime collaborator Renée Shafransky, now a psychotherapist with practices in Manhattan and Sag Harbor, he had started an affair with Russo, a talent agent who represented Eric Bogosian and David Sedaris, and happened to be a neighbor. Russo became pregnant and wanted to have the baby. After prolonged agonizing, Gray left Shafransky and moved in with Russo in 1993. “At the end of our relationship was probably the worst I ever saw him,” recalls Shafransky, who says their fourteen years together involved no shortage of drama (including Spalding’s bipolar diagnosis), but “in my estimation he was never anywhere near suicide. There was tremendous life force still operating within him.”

Everyone, including Gray, was shocked by the transformation that overcame the self-absorbed artist the first time he and Russo held Forrest in their arms. Fatherhood sparked a reevaluation of who he was. He was even—gasp—content. “The Green House, that’s where he spent the happiest five years of his life,” says Dale Scott.

But after the accident, Gray’s ruminations on the Green House were “definitely obsessive-compulsive,” says Robby Stein. This struck friends as odd, since the new North Haven house was only a mile away and larger with a big yard for the kids. But the old house was a symbol. Gray was now too infirm to walk even that distance. “He had to learn to walk again,” says Russo. He never did lose the brace on his right leg, or his limp.

In terms of cosmic connections, fate provided Gray with one so obvious it didn’t take a monologue to deconstruct it: The day the family was scheduled to move into the North Haven house was September 11, 2001. “That morning, I dropped Theo off at preschool and someone mentioned the planes,” says Russo. “By the time I got back to the Sag Harbor house, Spalding was just sitting at the kitchen table. I said, ‘Spalding, there’s this report. Let’s turn on NPR.’ He said, ‘You’re just trying to make me feel better because I feel so bad about moving.' He was lost in his own World Trade Center at the time. This was way too much for him to take in.”

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