Dropping a Name
by Lester Strong
Relatively recently I had the good fortune to have a lost and unknown short play by American playwright Edward Albee fall into my lap. Titled Touch (An Improvisation), it seems to be Albee’s only written foray into the topic of AIDS. After researching the reason for him writing the piece and receiving permission by the Edward F. Albee Foundation for it to be published in A&U magazine, where I’m the Special Projects Editor, I wrote the Introduction to the play that accompanied its publication in the magazine’s January 2022 issue. In that Introduction I described the play’s background and how it came to me. What I failed to describe (because it had nothing to do with Touch or its history) was a backstory relating to my personal history with Albee. I relate that backstory here.
For five years in the 1990s I wrote a column I called “Gay Art Beat” that was syndicated in a number of GLBT newspapers and magazines around the country. One of those publications was Baltimore Gay Paper (BGP). One day I received a call from the editor of BGP. Albee’s play Three Tall Women was on its national tour, he told me, and would be coming to Baltimore. Would I interview Albee about the play, and write an article based on what he said for publication in BGP? He had Albee’s telephone number and permission from Albee to be interviewed over the phone. Of course I said yes. What cultural journalist wouldn’t? So I researched the play and Albee himself, and eventually called him for the interview.
Albee had a reputation for being cantankerous, but all I found him to be was a bit shy at the beginning of our conversation. My research must have paid off, because fairly early during the interview, he commented: “Well, you certainly seem to know something about me. I’ve run into many writers whose first question is ‘Well, Mr Albee, what is it you do?’” After that his shyness ended, and I found him friendly and forthcoming in his answers to my questions. I wrote the article for BGP, which also eventually appeared in the other publications where my “Gay Arts Beat” column was syndicated. Later I published the interview itself in an article titled “Aggressing Against the Status Quo,” the title taken from one of his comments in the course of the interview.
That first encounter with Albee occurred in the mid-late 1990s. Then in 2001, an artist friend of mine who lives in the Tribeca section of lower Manhattan phoned to ask if I’d like to interview a sculptor she knew. His name was Jonathan Thomas, he was Edward Albee’s partner, and he and Albee also lived in Tribeca not far from her own apartment. Of course I said yes, and so an appointment was arranged for me to meet with him for the interview in their apartment.
Jonathan and I, it turned out, were the same age—both born in 1946—and we got along quite well. Since A&U is an AIDS-related magazine, the story had to at least touch on the disease. Neither he nor Albee had AIDS, but it turned out that Jonathan had extensive experience helping out with friends who had the disease and so had a remarkable story to tell in an article I titled “Hands On: Jonathan Thomas Talks About Making Art and Helping Friends in the Age of AIDS,” published in the May 2001 issue of the magazine.
At the end of the interview, Jonathan said he’d like to take me on a tour of the apartment to show me the art they had collected over the years. About two paintings into the tour, he called out: “Edward, I think you should lead this tour. I can’t remember the stories about all these art pieces.” So I was given a private tour of Albee’s apartment by Albee himself.
The comment I remember best from this tour was when he pointed to a largish black wooden sculpture standing against one wall and said, “This was given to me by Louise Nevelson.” It should be noted that Albee and Nevelson were friends, and he later wrote a play examining her public artistic accomplishments and private emotional conflicts, which he titled Occupant.
Sometime after the story about Jonathan was published, I received an email from him that read:
Dear Lester: Just a note to thank you again for the article. A surprising number of people have seen it. I hope you are having a good summer. We are holed up in Montauk until October. We both have wonderful deadlines to keep us going. We are finally converting our elevator in NYC. You won’t see us in the city until we get the new one running. I don’t see myself carrying sculpture up and down five flights of stairs. Be well! best, Jonathan
I replied that I’d enjoyed interviewing him and writing the article, and if he felt like getting together when they returned to the city, I’d enjoy seeing him again. I never heard back, then many months later learned the sad news that he had passed away from cancer.
I debated with myself whether to publish this anecdote in print. It’s certainly dropping a big name, which is a form of gossip. It’s also a form of bragging. Then I remembered Albee’s comment: “This was given to me by Louise Nevelson.”
So even the famous drop names. Even the famous like bragging. Perhaps it’s a very human way of pushing ourselves to outdo ourselves when we feel we’ve touched greatness. After all, we’re only human.
Lester Strong is Special Projects Editor for A&U, with a twenty-year history of writing about HIV/AIDS among many other topics and issues.These short articles, mostly related to the disease, are reprinted from his blog blu sunne: Notes from a Pop-Up Life in the Arts. For more of his writing on a variety of topics, visit his blog at blusunne.com.