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Vanishing Act

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From this point on, friends were uncertain if Spalding’s erratic behavior was a cry for help or a sincere wish to extinguish himself. Even Russo didn’t always know. Last April, Gray wandered into the surf at the beach in Bridgehampton wearing his street clothes. He reemerged disoriented and dripping. “When I saw him, I just said to him, ‘Spalding, what are you doing?’ ” says Russo.

Perhaps the most serious attempt came just this past fall, on October 15. Gray returned to the Sag Harbor bridge and, this time, jumped in. It was a 25-foot plunge into an easy current. A local policeman fished him out. “People often make trials for themselves,” says Stein. “In these cases, Spalding wasn’t just ‘being dramatic.’ With depression, and suicide in his family, there’s a sense of a moth to the flame.”

The timing of that attempt was curious because, for the first time in two years, there was reason for hope. The first glimmer came last June, when the couple flew to California to undergo a battery of tests at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. At last, Russo says, Gray was being treated for a brain injury, not just depression. “The fracture was so severe that he had right-frontal-lobe damage,” Russo says bitterly. “Some doctors said, ‘It’s depression.’ Others said, ‘No, it’s brain damage.’ It’s really a combination of both.” There was even some progress on his right leg. In September, Gray underwent an operation to remove the scar tissue from a damaged sciatic nerve. The prognosis, while cautious—eighteen months to regain mobility—was at least positive.

When he returned home from L.A., Gray went to see famed neurologist Oliver Sacks at NYU Medical Center, who told him his injury was so severe, he was looking at five years’ recovery. Sacks’s associate doctors put Gray on Lamictal, an antiseizure medication now popular for bipolar disorder. Unlike the antidepressants, which Russo says would give him a brief boost, then stop working, Lamictal calmed Gray, paving over psychic potholes just enough for him to start working again.

This past October, Gray took the stage at P.S. 122, a step many of his friends thought he’d never take again. It was the first performance in a three-month, twice-weekly run of a monologue he dubbed Life Interrupted, in which he attempted to reconcile his travails since Ireland. In tone, it was drastically darker than his last work, Morning, Noon and Night.

It was also more labor than labor of love. Gray couldn’t concentrate. Groggy from medication, he couldn’t access his old flights of fancy. Russo called in Stokes Howell, who spent several days each week in North Haven, hunkering down with Gray over a fledgling outline.

At least Gray, for a change, didn’t have to worry about his appearance. He had finally undergone cosmetic surgery to fix the awkward dent in his forehead. His weight rebounded, back to 185 from a low of 145 the previous year. While the first performances were dicey, he picked up momentum as the weeks wore on. Recognizing his courage in returning, audiences lauded him with standing ovations. “People who saw it at the beginning and then at the end couldn’t believe how far he had come,” Russo says. “I remember when it finally kicked in, the free association that’s not in the outline, Stokes and I were sitting together, thinking, Oh, my God, he’s coming back!”

Inevitably, the progress also came with a downside. “Doctors will tell you that the problem with the recovery of a person in his depressed state is that you have to be very careful,” Russo says. “Because that can also mean that they’re finally organized enough to carry something out.”

Still, friends stuck to the script. At long last, the Spalding Gray they knew was back.

“Just last week, we all had dinner together over at their house. Kathie cooked. We all had a couple of helpings,” says artist Dan Rizzie, a close friend in North Haven. “The whole evening was just incredibly, generically normal. It was just, ‘Hey, I made some stew, come over’—not ‘It would be good for Spalding if you came over.’ When I saw his face on the news the other day, I felt like somebody hit me in the face with a hammer. I thought that stuff was over with.”

Life Interrupted ended its run on December 15. Over Christmas, Gray seemed to keep the momentum, even traveling into the city alone to pick out an antique garnet ring for Russo. And Russo in turn gave Gray—once an avid skier—a trip to a ski clinic in Aspen.

Dale Scott celebrated New Year’s Eve with Gray and Russo, and says she saw striking improvement in Spalding. “For the first time in so long, he was engaging in conversation,” she recalls. “We were all so hopeful.”

Robby Stein last saw Gray on Monday, January 5, five days before Gray vanished. The two met for lunch at Estia’s Little Kitchen just outside Sag Harbor. “There was a woman sitting at the counter who had some sort of physical condition, probably ALS,” Stein says. “Spalding said that he found it very disturbing to see somebody shake like that. He said he was always concerned that that is how he looked to people now.” He spent lunch kvetching. He was worried about going alone to the ski school. He worried that it was too expensive. “But that in itself wasn’t unusual,” Stein says with a laugh. “Even in his best state, he would have given you 40 different reasons why he couldn’t have gone.”

On Friday, January 9, Gray made it to his psychiatrist’s appointment at 2 p.m. About four hours later, he was seen riding the Staten Island Ferry and wandering near the railing by a mate on the boat named Billy Doyle who claimed to have seen Gray on the same ferry a few weeks before. The next morning, Saturday, Gray was scheduled to fly to Aspen. He hoisted his skis into a cab to La Guardia, only to get out there and find the flight was canceled because of bad weather. It was a bitingly cold day, with gray, spitting sleet. He returned to the couple’s Soho loft, and at midday, he took the boys to the East Village to see Big Fish, and then for a late Indian lunch at Haveli on Second Avenue. After dropping them back home, he set out again around 6:30 p.m., leaving the boys with Marissa—Russo’s 17-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, who was babysitting the boys—and saying he was meeting a friend for a drink. Around 10:30 p.m., Gray called home and told Theo, who answered, that he was “just checking in” and that he would be there soon. “Love you,” he said quietly.

‘We talked to him 24/7 about how it was important to the boys that he find a way to fight this depression in a different way,” says Stein. “And he was tormented by that thought. But he was always caught up in the idea of ‘I have to end this all because it’s killing everyone around me and myself and it’s the only answer to this thing going on inside my head.’ I’d say, ‘Spalding, do you know how painful this is to everyone?’ He’d just say, ‘I know, I know, I can’t do it, I’m sorry.’ ”

Gray’s choice of Big Fish is crushing in its poignance. Throughout most of Tim Burton’s film, the character of the son is trying to cut through the haze of his father’s tall tales, dissecting the brilliant myths his father has spun to find the real man within. In the end, however, the son is won over by his father’s imagination. As the old man lies dying in the hospital, he challenges the son to summon his own fantasy of his father’s death—one in which the ailing man strolls down to a riverbank in his native Alabama and, before a gathering of a lifetime of friends, throws himself into the roiling water. Miraculously, the dying man then morphs into a giant fish and swims away and out of sight.

“Some friends said I shouldn’t see it, but I had to, I went last night,” says Russo. Holding back the tears again, she adds softly, “You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”


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