Private: “Is Spalding Gray Finally Swimming to Cambodia?”

John Perry Barlow remembers his friendship with Spalding Gray and reflects on Gray’s depression and disappearance:

Once I idiotically agreed to appear on a daytime talk show defending LSD. Spalding planted himself in the audience, which was not exactly on my side. At the right moment, he rose looking professorial and Protestant – the sort of WASP he usually played on screen – and astonished the audience by giving a recondite, if slightly mad, homily on the connection between the psychedelic experience and enlightenment. We barely escaped un-tarred.

Another time, we were together at a rave in San Francisco and when one of the kids there asked me who he was, I told her that he was Timothy Leary. Word spread fast. Spalding came over looking alarmed and said, “They think I’m Timothy Leary for some reason. What should I do?” “Don’t disappoint them,” I advised. And he didn’t. He spent the rest of the night answering their questions with marvelously oblique answers that Tim would have loved.

We made together a great store of stories that he never included in his monologues, largely, I think, because we had too much fun. Our tales generally lacked that morbidity that was the well-spring of his humor. Now they feel like both a blessing and a curse. These memories are a warm part of this cold day, made colder by the near certainty that we will make no more of them. I feel like making a monologue about our adventures right here and now, but I know this medium doesn’t permit such length as that would require.

Spalding spent years fearing death so much that he made a living of it, and a friend. And yet, during the last ten years, he came to embrace a wholesome form of life. He became a devoted family man who, up until Saturday night, loved his children and his wife Kathie even more than he loved death. He tamed himself to an astonishing degree. He took up skiing and a quiet place in the country. Indeed, he seemed like such a reliable father that, two years ago, when my youngest daughter Amelia wanted to attend a day school in East Hampton, Long Island, I sent her to live with Spalding and Kathie.

Tragedy struck right before she moved in. Spalding was in an auto accident while touring Ireland (with Timothy Leary’s widow, oddly enough). His hip and face were shattered. The hospital where he spent weeks focused primarily on healing his hip and, when he returned to New York, a CAT scan revealed that maxillary fractures had left an open passage between his nasal pharynx and his cranial cavity. In a bit of excessively heroic medicine, they peeled his face right off his head, and re-broke it. When he awoke from the surgery, he was a changed man. It was as if they had surgically removed all the joy from his world. He entered the most leaden depression I have ever seen.

Instead of trying to correct whatever neurological pressures had so altered his world-view the doctors responded with drugs that only seemed to make it worse. All the horrors of physical and emotional frailty that had been so hilariously contemplated in his monologues were suddenly far too real to be funny….

(Via Travelers Diagram.)