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Vanishing Act


In the living room of the new house, Spalding would spend hours sitting alone, staring into the fireplace. According to Howell, “after that accident, Spalding just felt like an old man.”

“He was in a psychotic state,” adds Robby Stein.

“I was out at their house for a dinner party one Christmas, and it was just eerie,” says the writer Steven Gaines, a friend. “Most of the time, Spalding was catatonic. He was glowering. One of the few times he spoke, he just looked up at the ceiling and bellowed, ‘God save us. God save us all!’ And he meant it.”

At many dinner parties, Gray would pace—silent, agitated—as other guests tried to eat. “We’d be at the table, and Spalding would be up doing laps around the first floor of my house,” recalls Dale Scott.

The cosmic connections continued: He was spooked by the fact the driver of the minivan in Ireland had the same name as the real-estate broker who had sold them the North Haven house and he started wondering aloud if another broker, who had once approached Gray about selling the Sag Harbor house, had put an evil spell on him.

At first glance, Gray’s assertions seemed alarming. “The problem was, it was a little hard to tell what was ‘delusional’ with Spalding,” says Stein, “because those were also the elements upon which he always built his monologues in the past. I mean, talking onstage about going to the Philippines and having a psychic surgeon pull porcupine needles out of your eyes? It’s not that far-fetched from saying a real-estate agent cast a spell.”

“This rut he was in was so many levels,” Russo says wearily. “The house was one of them. Another one was the medication. This was a man who had never taken antidepressants in his life, and he was now taking a cocktail of five different pills every morning. He was doing all this physical therapy after the accident and not seeing anything come of it. He gave up. He just said, ‘Nothing is working.’ ” “They put a metal plate in his head after the accident for the fracture in his forehead,” she adds. “In the August after the accident, the plate shifted. His whole face was caving in, and this is a man who makes his living from the stage.”

The middle of three boys, “Spuddy” Gray was born into an almost quintessential tableau of northeastern Protestantism in Barrington, Rhode Island. The eldest boy, Rockwell Jr., is now a literature professor at Washington University in St. Louis; the youngest, Channing, is a journalist in Rhode Island. Spalding’s father, Rockwell Sr., worked as a credit manager for a local corporation. His mother, Margaret, was a woman of contradictions. A devout Christian Scientist, she prided herself on being the life of any party, who boasted that she could get “more high on cranberry juice than other people could on booze.”

A cerebral, restless youth, Gray aspired to become a novelist. After graduating from Emerson College, however, he shifted his focus to theater and decided to lay the groundwork for a career as an actor at a regional theater in Houston. “It was horrible,” he later recalled. “People would call up the theater and say things like, ‘We want seats tonight, but not next to no Negroes.’ ” Desperate, he decided to confront New York, the town that had both beguiled and terrified him.

New York in the late sixties was a uniquely auspicious setting for a young man of Gray’s edgy instincts. Experimental theater was exploding downtown, with avant-garde luminaries like Robert Wilson and Andre Gregory granted the freedom to do anything. Not long after he arrived, his talent earned him entrée to some select groups. In 1968, he won a sizable role, playing a Puritan governor in Robert Lowell’s The Old Glory: Endecott and the Red Cross, produced by Wynn Handman’s American Place Theatre. It was a rather conventional role, Handman recalls, but even then he sensed a braver artistic spirit inside Gray. “Spalding wasn’t just an average actor,” Handman says. “He is an artist who goes deep within himself.” In 1970, Gray appeared in a group piece called Commune, about Charles Manson and Vietnam, and produced by Richard Schechner’s groundbreaking Performance Group. Elizabeth LeCompte, whom Spalding lived with before Shafransky, was the assistant director. In this highly experimental piece, each actor was asked to create his or her own character. “Spalding named his character ‘Spalding,’ ” Schechner recalls. “He was the only actor to choose his own name.”

In the mid-seventies, Gray banded together with a small team of fellow avant-garde types, including LeCompte and her future husband, Willem Dafoe, to found the envelope-pushing Wooster Group. In 1977, the company mounted a daring multimedia group piece called Rumstick Road, built largely around Gray’s experiences after his mother’s suicide. Gray addressed the audience directly for the first time, discussing his mother’s wild mood swings. “When mom had her first nervous breakdown,” he says, “she said she had a vision of Christ coming to her in the living room.”

After this performance, he was no longer just a repertory player. He was “Spalding Gray.”

“He was the first actor I knew who was working with his persona as a meta-persona,” says Kate Valk, a Wooster Group member. “He was so interested in his own persona and exploring that.” By 1979, Gray had essentially minted a new medium to fit his talents—the autobiographical monologue.

“The monologues were Spalding’s very creative way of processing a very messy, distressing, chaotic life,” explains Shafransky, who met Spalding in 1979 when she was a film critic for the Village Voice. “He used to say that making monologues was like the fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin,” that he was spinning garbage into gold. I’d say it was more like he was spinning sadness.

“But he really came alive in front of an audience,” she stresses. “He could have the flu, but the second he walked from the wings onto the stage, it was as if a bicycle pump had pumped him up. He got taller. His color improved. He literally, physically transformed.”

Unlike when he was acting other people’s lines, Russo says, Gray never felt stage fright when doing his monologues. He didn’t even spend much time writing. “Spalding never worked more than an hour a day. He’s the first one to tell you he’s very lazy,” she says, laughing. “It all came so natural for him.”

From any performer, the intimacy of the confessions during his pieces—masturbation, infidelity—would seem unsettling. From a man who looked like a headmaster at Andover, they were extraordinary, and Gray loved the disconnect. “I may look like an American Waspy doctor or lawyer,” he told an interviewer in 1999, “but I feel just like Woody Allen. Don’t cast me for my looks—I have a very ironic, existential, crazy Jew in me.”

To most ironic, existential New Yorkers, this in itself seemed like Gray’s ultimate insulation from mental collapse. He was in touch with his feelings. He wasn’t just another time bomb of New England Protestant repression, ready to blow. That had been his mother, Margaret Gray, who was 52 in 1967 when she closed the garage door and turned on her car engine. But Spalding was surely protected from that by living a life of public self-analysis.

In June 2002, succumbing to an ever-worsening despair, Gray checked himself into Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. Two months after his release, while riding on a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, he confessed to a friend that he was tempted to throw himself overboard. In September of that year, he was talked down from the bridge connecting Sag Harbor and North Haven. He was then committed to hospital. Though the couple’s insurance covered only six weeks, he stayed for four months. The treatment was to no avail, and Russo continued to seek out experts throughout New York City. “They all would basically spend ten minutes and send him on his way,” she says.

As new medications and new therapies failed, the downward spiral continued. “You name it, he’s been on it. Antidepressants. Antipsychotics. He was on Depakote the first time he tried the bridge. He was on such a high dosage. He was really out of it,” Russo says. “He would see little improvements on every single one, then he would crash.” But she doesn’t believe they were a significant factor in Gray’s suicide attempts. One afternoon, Gray took a sail alone on Sag Harbor Bay. He jumped overboard, but grabbed onto the rudder. He was resigned—he later told a friend—to letting the current decide his fate. It spared him that time.

A year later, Russo was expected at a dinner party at Tara Newman’s former home, an old whaling captain’s house in Sag Harbor. Through cocktails, she hadn’t shown up. Finally, the 25 or so assembled guests sat down for dinner. “Suddenly, Kathie burst in and just said, ‘He’s done it,’ and basically threw herself into Tara’s arms,” recalls writer Michael Shnayerson, a guest that night. “It was like a scene from a Chekhov play, where this woman bursts in stage right with this horrible news. She had planned to meet Spalding at the Jitney stop. When he didn’t show, she checked the messages on her home machine. Spalding had left a rambling message saying he intended to kill himself and ending with something like ‘Please, take care of the children.’ The kids were actually upstairs playing. They didn’t know anything about this.

“A few of us gathered with her in the living room and played back the message, trying to come up with some course of action,” Shnayerson adds. “Then, about fifteen minutes later, the police called. He had been riding the ferry and they had found him wandering around Staten Island. After two years of this, my sense was that Kathy was just wrung out.”

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