Spalding Gray’s North Haven Home — and a New Generation of Performance Artists — Receive Recognition

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Kathy Russo and Kevin Fitzpatrick with a plaque designating the Spalding Gray House as a literary landmark. Hugh Patrick Brown photos

On a cold winter’s night in January 2004, the writer, performer and Sag Harbor resident Spalding Gray took his own life, presumably by leaping from the Staten Island Ferry into the frigid waters of New York Harbor.

At the time of his death, he was 62 years old and his suicide came in the wake of a horrific 2001 car accident in Ireland that left him broken, both physically and mentally. His body was found two months later along the shoreline in Brooklyn.

Mr. Gray’s most famous monologue was “Swimming to Cambodia” which became a 1987 feature film directed by Jonathan Demme. Among the themes he explored in the piece was the notion of death by drowning. That wasn’t unusual for Mr. Gray, who was never shy about sharing intimate details of his personal life as well as his deepest thoughts and fears. In fact, it was that candid, frank manner which endeared him to legions of fans.

Last Saturday, when friends, family and many of those fans gathered at Mr. Gray’s home in North Haven, they were there not to mourn, but to celebrate him with two events.

The first was the unveiling of a new plaque designating the Spalding Gray House as a literary landmark through a joint effort with the Empire State Center for the Book, Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library, and the Sherwin-Williams Company.

The second was the presentation of the 2018 Spalding Gray Award to an up and coming performance artist by Performance Space New York (formerly known as PS 122), where Gray routinely spent months perfecting his monologues prior to premiering them at Lincoln Center.

On Saturday Gray’s widow, Kathleen Russo, and their grown sons, Theo and Forrest, welcomed guests to the home. Standing on the porch was a black and white cardboard cut-out of a smiling and waving Mr. Gray. It was a prop from Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man,” in which Mr. Gray starred alongside Charles Durning during a 2000 run on Broadway. Inside the historic home (which once belonged to a whaling captain), a simple desk and chair, glass of water, notebook, microphone and yellow boom box — the iconic features of any Spalding Gray performance — occupied a corner of the living room.

Ms. Russo started the evening by explaining that the exterior of her home had recently been painted by the Sherman-Williams Company in a hue known as “Spalding Gray.”

“My house was looking drab and I couldn’t afford a paint job, so I contacted Sherwin-Williams and said, ‘You need to paint my house ‘Spalding Gray’ since you named it after my husband,” Ms. Russo told the group on Saturday evening. “They said, ‘We named it after a dog that was named Spalding Gray.’

“But I said the owner of the dog was a huge Spalding fan.”

It’s true. The color was created in 2001 after Clevelanders John Williams and Marcie Goodmanapproached Sherwin-Williams about naming it for their dog — a Weimaraner named Spalding Gray who was something of a celebrity in their city. The color was designed to match that of the dog’s fur and in the end, Ms. Russo convinced Sherwin-Williams to pay for the paint job.

Along the way they also agreed to donate the money for the literary landmark plaque honoring Mr. Gray. The plaque was presented by Toby Spitz, president of the Friends of the John Jermain Memorial Library, with library director Catherine Creedon in attendance, and Kevin C. Fitzpatrick of Empire State Center of the Book, which created the plaque and is the New York chapter of the American Library Association’s United for Libraries division.

“This is the 28thliterary landmark in New York State and the third on Long Island,” explained Ms. Spitz. “The other two are the Walt Whitman birthplace in Huntington Station and the windmill at the Stony Brook Southampton campus.”

That’s where Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams lived and wrote in the summer of 1957.

“So, Spalding’s in good company,” said Ms. Russo.

“In 1987 when ‘Swimming to Cambodia’ came out, I was in school and I drove 100 miles to see it. It was a double feature with ‘Stop Making Sense,’” Mr. Fitpatrick recalled in his remarks. “Spalding spoke to me as a future New Yorker as the kind of New York I wanted to experience.”

Eisa Davis, a playwright, actor and singer-songwriter. Hugh Patrick Brown photo

Fitpatrick explained that the process for creating a literary landmark begins with a member of the community nominating an author to a local library. An application to Empire State Center for the Book, documentation and permission of the building’s owner is required and fundraising for the plaque follows.

“I’m really impressed the widow of a writer went to the lengths to do this. Usually the family is really private,” said Mr. Fitpatrick in an interview after the presentation, adding that there are many plaques that could be installed in places like Manhattan, but co-op boards and building owners often don’t want the attention.

But it’s fitting that Ms. Russo has no such reservations about placing a plaque on her home. During her time with Mr. Gray, very little of their personal life was off-limits in his writing, and it was his candor that continues to inspire the new generation of performance artists and storytellers, most of whom were still children when he died and have come to know him only through his films.

Among them is performance artist Annie Dorsen who was named the recipient of the 2018 Spalding Gray Award by Jenny Schlenzka, executive director of Performance Space New York. Established at Mr. Gray’s memorial service in New York City in 2004, the award goes to artists who represent the kind of work that Performance Space New York seeks to foster and is sponsored by a consortium that also includes Ms. Russo, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and On the Boards in Seattle.

Jenny Schlenzka, executive director of Performance Space New York, was on hand Saturday to explain that the Spalding Gray Award comes with $20,000 commission for the artist to create and produce a new piece of theater. She described Dorsen’s performance art as “algorithmic theater” which uses computer generated information in order to communicate with her audiences.

“Her work is a meditation on where we are in technology and what means to be a human,” said Ms. Schlenzka, adding that the award will allow Dorsen to bring her newest piece to Performance Space New York this fall.

“It means so much to have this recognition,” said Ms. Dorsen in accepting the award. “The work I’m planning is bigger than what I’ve done lately. There are 30 performers in it, so self-producing is on an impossible scale.”

“I’m very moved to be linked in this way with the legacy of Spalding Gray,” she added. “When I was told about this award, I had a flash of when I saw ‘Swimming to Cambodia’ when I was 14. I had never seen work like that before and never knew you could make theater that powerful just with language.”

Following the award presentation, actress and playwright Eisa Davis took a seat at the desk to read a passage from Mr. Gray’s book and monologue “Morning, Noon and Night,” about a day in his life in Sag Harbor in 1999.

The passage was about Mr. Gray’s bonding with a young Forrest at the funeral of Ms. Russo’s grandmother. He talks about having a love so deep for his son that it’s painful and the passage ends with an epitaph from a gravestone in Sag Harbor’s Old Burying Ground.

“’It’s a fearful thing to love what death can touch,’” quotes Mr. Gray in the passage.

The celebration for Mr. Gray concluded with writer and storyteller Tara Clancy, a regular on The Moth Radio Hour, reading from Mr. Gray’s final monologue about the accident and his subsequent stay in an Irish hospital.

It’s title — “Life Interrupted.”

Following the reading, Ms. Russo implored guests to donate to the Spalding Gray commission to support more artists down the road. Then the guests moved to the front porch where they could enjoy a drink and admire the new paint job on Sag Harbor’s first official literary landmark.

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Annette Hinkle, former associate editor of the Sag Harbor Express, writes extensively about the East End of Long Island for a number of regional publications. In 2017, her first book was published. "Sag Harbor: 100 Years of Film in the Village."