Lost in New York: Fears grow for missing creator of 'Swimming to Cambodia'

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The Independent US

As a writer and performer of confessional monologues, Spalding Gray has never hidden his demons. His romantic challenges, his dabbling with alternative medicine and his trials as an actor have all been subjects of his work. So too, most recently, has been depression. But now he is guarding an ominous silence.

Mr Gray, whose fragile state of mind has been worrying friends and family ever since a near-fatal car accident in Ireland in 2001 that left him with serious head injuries, has been missing for a week. Fears are growing that Mr Gray, one of America's most respected and sophisticated theatrical artists, some of whose works were made into films, including Gray's Anatomy and Swimming to Cambodia, may have committed suicide, possibly by jumping from the Staten Island ferry into New York Harbour.

Detectives in New York said they still had no leads or confirmed sightings of Mr Gray since he disappeared last Saturday evening after going out from his home in Tribeca, Manhattan, to watch the latest Tim Burton film, Big Fish. His wife, Kathy Russo, reported him missing on Sunday evening.

Sergeant Kevin Hayes, a spokesman for the New York City Police Department, said: "The case is still actively being investigated, and he is still missing."

A mate aboard one of the Staten Island ferries has told police he believed he saw Mr Gray, 62, on deck the day before he vanished. A family spokeswoman said that the reported sighting of the actor aboard a Staten Island ferry just before his disappearance may signify he was scoping the boat for a suicide attempt. Mr Gray attempted to take his life by leaping from one of the ferries in September last year. He was talked out of it by a friend who was riding on the boat with him.

Sara Vass, speaking on behalf of Ms Russo, said: "This leads the family to believe Spalding may have been making some sort of dry run. The family is curious why the police are not looking in the river." Police said that, for now, they had no plans to do so.

The actor's depression similarly took hold of him in the autumn of 2002, when he climbed on to a bridge near a home he shares with his wife in Sag Harbour, close to the Hamptons on eastern Long Island. On that occasion, Ms Russo talked him down.

Mr Gray is known for dedicating himself primarily to theatre companies working in small spaces in lower Manhattan. His performances, which examined the vagaries of life and his personal troubles, received glowing reviews from critics, and in recent years he regularly gave additional renditions at the Lincoln Center at the weekend.

His most recent Broadway run was four years ago in a revival of Gore Vidal's piece The Best Man, about candidates in an American presidential election. In autumn last year, he was performing his latest work, Interrupting Life, a monologue about the accident in Ireland and his depression, at Performance Space 122 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Mark Russell, the artistic director at PS122, said: "He was a man in transition. I think he was rehabilitating himself on stage through the act of performing and working on this piece. He had a very, very dark time in the fall of 2002. We thought he might not come out of that. It was energising to see him pulling himself back up."

At the weekend, Mr Gray was due to leave New York for Colorado to join a ski clinic in the Rockies, a Christmas present from Ms Russo. He had been an avid skier before his car accident, when a van owned by a vet struck a rental car he was in with his wife. He was taken to a hospital in Dublin with head injuries and a fractured hip.

Scheduled to leave on Saturday morning, Mr Gray returned home from La Guardia airport after being told that flights were disrupted by weather. He was due to take the same flight on Sunday morning. Back in the city, Mr Gray decided to go to the cinema. He took his son by Ms Russo, Theo, five, and her daughter, Marissa, 17. Ms Russo and the children, who mostly live with a nanny at the Hamptons house, last saw him at 6pm that evening. He told them he was going out to see friends.

On Sunday Ms Russo found that the actor had never arrived at the home of the friends. Nor had he taken the flight to Colorado. And there was no sign of him at his Tribeca loft. He had, however, left his wallet and suitcase in the apartment. The loft is just a block away from the Performing Garage, home to the Wooster Group, an avant-garde theatrical group that Mr Gray co-founded and with which he often performed.

Friends had hoped that Mr Gray had emerged from the darkest period of his depression intact. In the autumn of 2002, he was meant to perform a new work, Black Spot, at PS122, but it was cancelled after the actor checked himself into a mental hospital. The work contained more material about his struggles with depression and with another quirk of his life that appeared to have affected him, the plans that he and his family had to move into a bigger home together on Long Island and the date set for the move ­ 11 September 2001.

A few days afterwards Mr Gray visited lower Manhattan. "The city was ­ at least downtown ­ very much slugged-out and grieving," he said in an interview. "With all the signs and candles up, you couldn't avoid looking around and seeing signs of lost ones. How has it affected me? It's hard to say this, but my disaster came when I was hit by ka van ­ that shook me up so badly."

The accident in Ireland happened on a narrow road north of Dublin in June 2001. The vet's van struck his car, being driven by Ms Russo. "Next thing I know I was in a puddle of blood on the road," he said. "It changed my life. Everything was fine and then five seconds later, I was lying in a puddle of blood." Among the lasting effects was partial paralysis in one leg, requiring him to wear a brace.

In another interview, he said: "After the accident I lost my timing. In everything: the sale of the house, not being there on 9/11 to witness the care and heroism and everything else that went on there. I'm missing that. My witness-self is out of sync with events, and I'm witnessing that out-of-syncness. Actually, I'm not witnessing it, I'm living it. And it's quite hellish."

Many of his works were humorous reflections on his inability to cope with life and with his profession. Swimming to Cambodia, which was made into a film by Jonathan Demme, was about his experiences travelling to South-east Asia to perform a supporting role in the hit film The Killing Fields. Another of his filmed works, Gray's Anatomy, was about his unsuccessful forays into alternative medicine to treat an eye condition.

Other works in the same vein included Monster in a Box, about his failed attempts to write a first novel, while It's a Slippery Slope dealt with his decision to leave his partner, Renée Shafransky, to marry Ms Russo, with whom he was expecting a child.

Mr Gray's brother, Rockwell Gray, confirmed that the actor had recently remained in a depressed mood, which was most obvious during the holiday season. He added that this was not unusual. "He's been in a fairly depressed condition for some time."

Kathy Russo said the whole family has been in limbo since her husband vanished. "We're just waiting for a phone call that they've found him."

Spalding Gray's traumas in his own words...

Car accident 22 June 2001 , North East of Dublin

"We were five adults in the car stopped to turn right on this very narrow road and this guy came around the corner in a van. He hit us. I was in the back seat and [my partner] Kathy was driving. I flew forward, impacting my head on hers. Her seat came back. The engine went right into the cabin ... the seat pushed my femur, dislocated my hip and fractured my [skull]. Next thing I know I was in a puddle of blood on the road. It was an hour before the ambulance came. It changed my life."

11 September 2001

"That's a lot of the depression that I'm going through: that I wasn't there for it. I was out here on crutches so I didn't go in to Ground Zero until quite late. Observations that I logged were, um, very similar to any latecomer ... The city was ... very much slugged-out and grieving. You couldn't avoid looking around and seeing signs of lost ones. How has it affected me? It's hard to say this, but my disaster came when I was hit by a van ... Then I went to perform at Wesleyan, so I never got [to Ground Zero] when I wanted to. When I went to Ground Zero and walked around later, a policeman took me around. ... I was there watching them spray down the endless fire.

I wasn't a quintessential New Yorker [on 9/11]. I'd been living [on Long Island] for five years ... I've barely taken it in because I'm so caught up with my own injury at this point."

On selling his house

Gray believed he betrayed his sons by selling the house. "They don't miss it, but I feel it's a betrayal because I betrayed something ... in my soul. Because it was a spiritual sanctuary for me. I've always seen myself as Ishmael, I've always seen that house as Ishmael's house. Now I'm afraid we've moved to Ahab's house."