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