Larry Kramer: Writer and activist who sounded alarm on Aids

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter was a firebrand whose autobiographical plays were among the first artistic productions to focus directly on the crisis 

Matt Schudel
Thursday 28 May 2020 18:04
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Kramer’s barbed language and prickly personality helped put the disease on the national agenda
Kramer’s barbed language and prickly personality helped put the disease on the national agenda

Larry Kramer was a writer and activist who used relentless, often antagonising tactics to goad public officials, scientists and fellow gay rights proponents to quell the Aids epidemic in the 1980s, in the process becoming one of the most significant and divisive figures in the gay rights movement.

He died on 27 May at his home in New York City, aged 84. The cause was pneumonia, says an official of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which Kramer founded.

Kramer, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, was a firebrand and a versatile writer whose autobiographical plays The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me were among the first artistic productions to focus directly on the Aids crisis and put it in the public eye.

In 1982, when Aids was beginning to devastate gay communities from New York to San Francisco, Kramer founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first organisation to offer support and advocacy for Aids patients. The goal of his New York-based group was to raise public awareness of a medical scourge that, at the time, seemed to attack gay men in disproportionate numbers.

From the beginning, Kramer’s brand of advocacy was neither muted nor polite. He was full of rage and wanted people to know it. “Sure, I have a temper, who doesn’t?” he told Newsday in 1992. “It happens when you’ve seen so many friends die.”

In 1987, he helped launch ACT UP (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power), which performed guerrilla acts of disruption against public officials, scientists and religious leaders. True to Kramer’s calling as a playwright, his tactics were often theatrical.

ACT UP demonstrators shut down the New York Stock Exchange, picketed the headquarters of the Food and Drug Administration, surrounded St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and shouted down speakers at Aids conferences.

In 1991, protesters charged into the studio of CBS Evening News, interrupting a broadcast by anchor Dan Rather; they also interrupted a MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour programme. That same year, demonstrators covered the Arlington, Virginia, house of ultraconservative senator Jesse Helms, in a giant yellow condom. During a 1990 speech, protesters threw condoms at health and human services secretary Louis Sullivan, and they once attempted to pour the ashes of an Aids victim on the White House lawn.

“We’re not here to make friends, we’re here to raise the issues,” Kramer told Time magazine in 1990. “We are an activist organisation, and activism is fuelled by anger, so people should not be surprised when that anger erupts in ways that not everyone approves of.”

He held particular scorn for closeted gay men who worked against gay interests. At a Washington fundraiser in 1985, he reportedly tossed a glass of water in the face of Terry Dolan, a founder of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, which actively opposed gay rights. Dolan, who was known to frequent gay bars, died of Aids in 1986.

Kramer never lasted long in leadership roles with any of the groups he founded and, at one time or another, managed to alienate just about everyone, including many people who had been his allies. His autobiographical 1978 novel Faggots cast an unsparing eye at contemporary gay life.

Using graphic descriptions of sexual acts, he depicted a superficial subculture in which gay men were wasting their talents on promiscuity and drugs. Several years before the Aids crisis unfolded, Kramer suggested that the uninhibited pursuit of sex and hedonism could lead to widespread illness and a culture of self-indulgence.

In spite of harsh criticism – author Barbara Grizzuti Harrison called the novel “revolting” in her review for The Washington Post – the novel became a bestseller and is still in print.

But it was divisive in the gay community and led some to vilify Kramer for divulging unsavoury aspects of gay life and for criticising a newfound sense of sexual liberation.

“The straight world thought I was repulsive, and the gay world treated me like a traitor,” Kramer told the New Yorker magazine in 2002. “People would literally turn their back when I walked by. You know what my real crime was? I put the truth in writing.”

Kramer’s barbed language and prickly personality helped draw attention to what was called the “gay plague” before it became officially known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or Aids.

With his accusatory 1983 essay, 1,112 and Counting, Kramer railed against the apathy of gay men and society in general for not preventing the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes Aids.

“If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men have no future on this earth,” he wrote. “Unless we fight for our lives we shall die.”

“With that one piece, Larry changed my world,” Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of the Aids drama Angels in America later told the New Yorker. “He changed the world for all of us.”

Kramer (centre) accepts the Outstanding Television Movie award at the Emmys in 2014

In putting Aids on the national agenda, Kramer seemed to be out in front of everyone. Artistry and activism were one and the same. Eight years before Kushner’s Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993, Kramer’s autobiographical Aids drama, The Normal Heart, had been staged off-Broadway.

Without using the term Aids – Kramer called the disease at the centre of his play the “plague” – The Normal Heart captured the human toll of the Aids struggle. The central character, Ned Weeks, was modelled after Kramer, complete with his tenacity, arrogance and temper.

He “starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage,” theatre critic Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times, praising the play’s “unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency”.

The Normal Heart won many awards and has been presented in hundreds of productions throughout the world, with New York revivals in 2004 and 2011. It was made into an HBO film in 2014, starring Julia Roberts, Mark Ruffalo and Jim Parsons.

In 1988, Kramer learned that he was HIV-positive, which added a personal urgency to his activism. Along with his supporters in ACT UP, whose motto was “Silence = Death”, he adopted an increasingly hectoring tone towards public officials, religious leaders and the news media. He seemed to revel in personal feuds.

On ABC’s Nightline in 1991, host Ted Koppel turned off Kramer’s microphone when he wouldn’t stop ranting against the Centres for Disease Control.

When Edward Koch was mayor of New York, Kramer often accused him of neglecting the concerns of Aids patients. After leaving office, Koch moved into the same apartment house in Greenwich Village in which Kramer lived. After a series of heated confrontations, the building’s management ordered Kramer not to speak to the former mayor.

During a later encounter in the lobby, Koch reached down to pet Kramer’s pet terrier, Molly.

“I yanked her away so hard she yelped,” Kramer told the New Yorker, “and I said, ‘Molly, you can’t talk to him. That is the man who killed all of Daddy’s friends’.”

Kramer was especially antagonistic towards Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. Fauci coordinated much of the nation’s research on HIV/Aids, but in Kramer’s view, he wasn’t moving fast enough.

He taunted Fauci at every turn, calling him incompetent, a murderer and the public face of a callous federal government. Yet, in spite of Kramer’s inflammatory rhetoric, the two became friends and forged an unlikely social and medical alliance.

At Kramer’s urging, Fauci and other NIH officials began to consult with the people afflicted by a disease during the development of new drugs. The approval process for new treatments was speeded up, and patients were given a greater voice in clinical trials. The practise has become standard for other diseases, not only HIV/Aids.

According to the World Health Organisation, HIV/Aids continues to be the world’s most deadly infectious disease and is not limited to gay men. More than 36 million people have died of Aids since 1981, including 1.6 million in 2012. The vast majority of victims are in Africa and other regions where condom use is not commonplace. The Centres for Disease Control have estimated the US death toll from HIV/Aids at 636,000 through 2010.

In the United States and the west, various combinations of “drug cocktails” and therapies have enabled Aids to be treated more like chronic illness, rather than an automatic death sentence. The advances would not have happened, experts say, if Kramer hadn’t made himself such a nuisance.

“In American medicine, there are two eras. Before Larry and after Larry,” Fauci told the New Yorker in 2002. “There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country. And he helped change it for the better. When all the screaming and the histrionics are forgotten, that will remain.”

Laurence David Kramer was born 25 June 935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was six when he moved with his family to Mount Rainier, Maryland, after his father found a job as a lawyer with the Treasury Department. His mother was director of the Prince George’s County chapter of the American Red Cross.

In later years, Kramer said he knew he was gay by the time he was in junior high school. He was a good student and enjoyed the theatre, but he said his parents offered little emotional support. When he showed no interest in sports, he said his father called him a “sissy”.

His family moved to the District of Columbia in 1950, and Mr Kramer graduated three years later from Wilson High School. At Yale University, he had an affair with a male professor and, according to widely published reports, survived a suicide attempt. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from Yale in 1957.

He worked for the William Morris talent agency in New York, then took a low-level job at Columbia Pictures and studied acting. In the early 1960s, Kramer moved to London to do production work for Columbia Pictures on such films as Dr Strangelove, Lawrence of Arabia and Georgy Girl.

He reworked the screenplay of Here We Go ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, a 1968 British hit, then bought the rights to DH Lawrence’s Women in Love with the idea of producing it as a film.

When he didn’t like another writer’s screenplay about the tangled love lives of two sisters and their male lovers, Kramer wrote it himself, then hired Ken Russell as director.

The film, which featured a homoerotic nude-wrestling scene with two men (actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed), was considered an artistic success when it was released in 1969. It received four Academy Award nominations, including one for Kramer’s screenplay. Glenda Jackson won the Oscar for best actress.

After returning to New York, Kramer wrote the screenplay for a 1973 musical remake of director Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, based on the James Hilton novel. It was a critical flop but a financial windfall for Kramer, enabling him to focus on writing.

Besides The Normal Heart, his other plays included Just Say No (1988), which attacked the public response to the Aids crisis, and The Destiny of Me (1992), a sequel to The Normal Heart that won awards for off-Broadway plays and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

In 2001, Kramer was near death from hepatitis B. Some news outlets erroneously reported that he had died before he received a lifesaving liver transplant. By the time he married his longtime partner, designer David Webster, in 2013, he had largely retreated from the world of activism.

Kramer published the first of two volumes of a novel called The American People in 2015, followed by a second volume five years. Totalling 1,600 pages, the two autobiographical books gave Kramer a chance to settle old scores and to portray American history from a gay perspective, describing in sometimes graphic detail the imagined sexual encounters of major historical figures.

“This novel, like its predecessor, is overstuffed, packed with incident and narrators and digressions within digressions,” New York Times book critic Dwight Garner wrote of Volume 2: The Brutality of Fact in January 2020. “It’s a mess, a folly covered in mirrored tiles, but somehow it’s a beautiful and humane one.”

As medical care for HIV/Aids improved, younger generations were no longer aware of the life-or-death struggles that had made Kramer so angry and, in the end, so effective. The longer he lived, the more he was half-lionised and half-forgotten as the grand old man of gay rights and Aids awareness, a title he wasn’t sure he wanted.

“I’ve gone from pariah to acceptance in the course of a decade,” he once told The Post. “I don’t know which I like better.”

Larry Kramer​, writer and activist, born 25 June 1935​, died 27 May 2020​

© The Washington Post

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