COBAIN’S ORCHIDS

On April 5th in 1994 Kurt Cobain committed suicide. 

In my next book, I Left It On the Mountain - being published next spring by St. Martin’s Press - I mention Kurt when I write about visiting his widow, Courtney Love, at the house they shared in Seattle, Washington. 

The book opens with my lying in bed at the London Hotel in LA on my birthday, lolling around before I am to meet Hugh Jackman over at the Peninsula Hotel for lunch. I lie there thinking of other stories I’ve done over the years. The first one I remember is one about Madonna and how she became a heightened acquaintance as so many celebrities have become in my life where I reside just outside the frame of fame. The next person I recall is Courtney Love. Remembering Kurt on this sad anniversary of his death, here’s just a little sample of what I write in the book about Courtney. I feel it’s appropriate to post it this weekend in remembrance of Kurt.

The excerpt:

My mind - the only movement in the room - wandered to an earlier birthday. It was the night of the Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton’s - March 27, 1995. Courtney Love was at my table since she had also requested that I be her escort that night. We had already been spending a lot of time with each other leading up to a cover story for Vanity Fair that was scheduled to run in its upcoming May issue and were by then heightened acquaintances of our own.

A couple of months before the Vanity Fair party I had flown out to Seattle where she lived on the shores of Lake Washington. It was to be our first meeting and she had kept me waiting for well over an hour down in the living room of the house she had shared with her late husband, Kurt Cobain. I became bored going over my interview notes by the fourth or fifth time and began to inspect what appeared to be a kind of Buddhist altar set up on a side table. I opened a tiny box positioned there. What exactly could it contain? I picked up a bit of its contents with my fingers and felt the coarseness of the crinkled thread-like stuff I was holding. As I more closely inspected it - even giving it a whiff - Love entered the living room behind me and I heard, for the first time, a voice. Low. Hoarse. Hers. “What are you doing with Kurt’s pubic hair?” she asked.

I ended up conducting most of the interview with her that day as she lay naked in her tub and scrubbed her own pubic hair in my presence. I also spent many more hours with her on the road as she toured with her band Hole. I swigged vodka from the bottles she offered me both backstage in Salt Lake City and at New York’s Roseland. And I accompanied her to New Orleans to look at real estate. She wanted to own a haunted house as if the one back in Seattle wasn’t haunted enough.

Like Madonna all those years earlier, Love had graciously given me a tour of her home. She’d even unlocked a kind of inner sanctum where Cobain had committed suicide in the studio above the garage, which she’d had converted to a hothouse filled with row upon row of orchids. It was the last thing we did together at the end of a very long day there on the shores of Lake Washington. She walked me into it. Not the studio exactly. Not the hothouse. But the silence Cobain had left there. The light refracted from Lake Washington gilded it all with a silvery grayness. We talked about the orchids.

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CAPE COD STEERS ME TO NEW YORK MEMORIES

I have been acclimating to being back at the end of the world here at the tip of the Cape in Provincetown. This morning it has been a bit difficult to acclimate in the inclement weather we’re having today - gray, misty, cool, the water and sky combining in a palette of pewter. But I persist and pet the dogs rather incessantly and cuddle with them as we nod off together nudging each other toward dreams instead of staying awake for the drudgery of settling in - the stocking of shelves once again and, once again in the last nine months, the taking of stock. Hell, southerner that I am I’d even cure a Sunday ham today if I had it in an effort to cure the yankee homesickness I am feeling for New York City. Anything to take my mind off the solitude that came seeping up my steps from the harbor and under my door as I watched the sun attempt to peek through the clouds that clamored for even more attention this early foggy morning. 

Instead of curing a ham, I listened to some hammy Vivaldi and cracked open Gore Vidal’s memoir, Palimpsest. He takes his title from the term that means a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain. Figuratively, the term “palimpsest” can be used to describe something altered but still bearing visible shadows and shades of its earlier form. It’s the perfect title for a memoir - especially one, as in Vidal’s rather hammy Vivaldi-like hands, courses with the literary equivalent of a chiaroscuro artist who shades and shadows to get at a realistic truth.

As I read the first two chapters of his memoir that told of his complicated family relations with Gores and Auchinclosses et al and, in the second chapter, of the one great love of his life as a young teenager, a beautiful boy named Jimmy Trimble, the gray solitary Sunday morning filled with Vivaldi’s music and Vidal’s musings turned elegiac as I recalled my dear friend Hugh Auchincloss Steers, a talented artist and sweet soul who died of AIDS in 1995 at the age of 32, almost 13 years older than Trimble was when he died by a tossed grenade in 1944 that hit him in his back where he was hunkered down in a foxhole in Iwo Jima during WW II. Hugh’s war was with a virus that, like a grenade itself, more slowly detonated inside his wasting body. Trimble’s death was instant. Hugh’s more tremulous, treacherous. Each was tragic.

Hugh was the grandson of Hugh D. Auchincloss and Nina Gore, who was Gore Vidal’s mother, which also made him the step-nephew (or is it half-nephew?) of both Vidal and Jackie Kennedy, whose mother also married Auchincloss the year after he divorced Vidal’s mother. I loved dear Hugh. And I sure loved - though he was influenced by Eakins and Hopper and Cadmus - his singular talent as an artist. No one since has captured the brutal beauty in quite the same way of what is was like to live - and die - during the height of the AIDS crisis. There was a scary sensuality to so much death after so much sex. It was a time we all were so aware of our bodies in so many ways even as we saw each other’s souls peering back at us through the dying eyes of dear friends, their souls firing their eyes with an unworldly light as we let them go and they let us go. It was a world of liminality - all that mutual letting-go - we all lived in back then, the dying and living alike. 

Hugh spoke of this brutal beauty in his work in an interview he gave in 1992, ““I think I’m in the tradition of a certain kind of American artist—artists whose work embodies a certain gorgeous bleakness. Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline—they all had this austere beauty to them. They found beauty in the most brutal forms. I think that’s what characterizes America, the atmosphere, its culture, its cities and landscape. They all have that soft glow of brutality.”

When I was Executive Editor of Andy Warhol’s Interview - Andy was an artist who eschewed all beauty and brutality in his work for the flat sadness of the pretty surface - I put Hugh in its pages and proclaimed his talent. He had a little dark basement studio at the time next door to my loft in Tribeca - it was beneath the first floor loft of Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, where Debbie Harry often visited Stein to check on his health. I’d walk down those flight of stairs myself beneath Chris’s place - often running into Debbie checking on Chris - to check on Hugh who continued to work on his art down in that studio even as he got sicker and sicker.

Hugh once gave me a study for a larger of his paintings and it is one of my most cherished possessions. It is of a teenage boy in his white briefs - their dingy almost gray color the exact hue of the Provincetown harbor sky I am looking out on as I type this sentence. The boy is lying on his stomach splayed out on a bed. When my Mississippi sister-in-law was visiting once with my brother and their four children during a spring pilgrimage to New York City, I found her standing and contemplating that image that Hugh had so profoundly captured.

"Do you like this?" I asked her, surprised that she had singled out this image of all the art I had displayed in my loft.

"I love this," she said, the mother of three sons and one daughter. "This is so real. When boys sleep or men sleep, there is a restlessness to them. But this is exactly how you always find a teenage boy on a bed: dead-to-the-world."

Gore Vidal has made sure that Jimmy Trimble is no longer dead-to-the-world in his memoir Palimpsest. I hope in my own way on this solitary Cape Cod day that is the purloined color that Hugh Steers could paint a pair of underwear to make it as real to me as it was to a Mississippi mother that he too is no longer dead-to-the-world. Let us all remember the Jimmy Trimbles and Hugh Steers’ in our lives in a world that will always remain liminal no matter how long we have to live before we too join them and jostle for attention from those we leave behind.

Click on the title above to link to images of Hugh Steers’ work at the Alexander Gray Gallery which handles his estate.

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A PREMIERE.

At 10 a.m. this morning the Icelandic band Sigur Ros premiered its new video online. My friend John Cameron Mitchell sent me the link a couple of days ago to alert me it would be happening this morning. I just signed on and

watched it. JCM and illustrator Dash Shaw wrote the story to go along with Sigur Ros’s ambient score of the video and Shaw directed it and did the truly haunting animation.

Take the time to watch it today. I just did and I am certain I will watch it again several times over the course of my own day. Beautiful. Troubling. Mysterious. It combines both the carnal and the spiritual in a way I have seldom seen. Seeing, is indeed, the metaphor that takes flight in this artful piece of work by all involved.

"Eight years ago I met Jonsi, the queer singer of Sigur Ros and took him to his first drag show. Suppositori Spelling was the star and it was in San Francisco," John told me the other day when he sent along the video link below. "Jonsi says it remains his ‘best drag show.’ This year he asked me and twelve other flmmakers to be part of their Valtari Mystery Film Project. We were allowed do whatever we wanted with the music from their new album. There were no parameters except the small budget. I chose to do a six minute narrative short focusing on a character from ‘Shell Game,’ an animated feature I’m producing with director Dash Shaw. Dash is an amazing graphic novelist who did comic book art for my film Rabbit Hole. ‘Seraph’ is the superqueer result using two songs from the new album." 

What else is John up to? “This weekend, on September 16 at the Afterglow Festival in Provincetown I’m performing a small excerpt of my ‘Hedwig’ sequel along with composer Stephen Trask. And this past summer I had a blast guest-starring on ‘Girls’ as a has-been magazine editor that tortures Lena Dunham’s character. My first professional acting gig in 12 years!.” 

In the meantime, see - even perhaps with a new pair of eyes - the soulful “Seraph” I linked on this post.

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Before this Saturday was over, I wanted to observe that it was on this date in 1991 that actor Brad Davis died of an assisted suicide after suffering from the ravages of AIDS. He was a remarkable actor who led a remarkable life that encompassed so much suffering - and healing. It was also a life - and ca

reer - that involved so many of the cultural issues with which we continue to grapple. 

He was a child of an alcoholic father and suffered physical and sexual abuse from both his parents. He too became an alcoholic - and an IV drug user and addict - before getting sober in 1981. 

He was in the cast of the groundbreaking television shows Sybil and Roots and played Robert Kennedy in a mini-series based on the senator’s life. Moreover, he created the role of Ned Weeks in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart at the Public Theatre in New York. I saw that performance three times and it still haunts me.

His breakout role was as Billy Hayes in Midnight Express, but he was also in Chariots of Fire and Fassbinder’s last film, his interpretation of Genet’s Querelle de Brest. The film was released posthumously after Fassbinder’s death from a drug overdose. Davis played the title character, a sailor who is also a thief and a murderer. Jean Moreau played Lysiane, the madam and owner of the brother and bar he frequents.

Davis and his wife, casting director Susan Davis, had one child who is now Alex, a transgendered man who was born Alexandra.

Below is a montage of images of Davis from Querelle. The song that accompanies them is sung by Zarah Leander, a Swedish actress and singer who gained great success in Germany and became controversial because she continued to work there even after the Nazis came to power. 

Davis’s ashes are interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery. His ashes are in the same row in the wall as anti-tax activist Howard Jarvis. I told you - his life and his death encompassed it all .

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Sometimes the universe aligns.

When Clint Eastwood pulled his chair stunt the other night at the GOP convention I immediately thought of this Burt Bacharach/Hal David song - especially the Hal David lyric with which Ella begins this sublim

e version. 

Yesterday the 91-year-old Hal David died. I hope he had a laugh thinking of this lyric the other night if he were watching Eastwood’s “a chair is still a chair even when there’s no one sitting there” stunt.

This is for you, Mr. David. Ella, in this clip, redeems the idea of empty chairs in the only way she can.

Chills. Sublimity. Beauty. Genius.

We could use some of each of those after the rancor and ridiculousness of this past week in Tampa.

Ladies and gentleman, let us cleanse our cultural palates with the divine Miss Ella Fitzgerald.

And R.I.P., Mr. Hal David.

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For those having a bit of withdrawal after watching the Republican convention.

I kept wondering why all those cut-away shots of all those white faces in the convention hall were making the theatre queen and cinephile part of me feel so que

asy. It had more to do than it just being bad theatre and imaging. Then this morning my subconscious kicked in and I woke up whistling this in the shower and I realized why. And, no, I am not EQUATING the convention with this scene. I’m just saying the cut-away shots of the same sort of white faces - angry, proud, determined, right-wing, roused - reminded me of Fosse’s finessing of white pride in this scene to transcend many kinds of borders. The GOP is NOT the same as the NSDAP. For one thing Israel is too strategically important to the radical evangelical base’s end-time scenario and philosophy for them to be outwardly anti-Semitic although their worldview is inherently so since they feel Jews must be “saved” from their being Jews. I’ve always wondered who is working the bigger con in that conclave within the Republican party - the neocons or the Christianists.

But I have one question to my Jewish neocon friends, who do tend to be more sophisticated and socially liberal and accepting than the radical right-wing Christianists with whom they’ve made a pact, and it is the one that Michael York’s character asks at the end of this scene: “Do you still think you can control them?”

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Earlier today I attended Gore Vidal’s memorial service at the Schoenfeld Theatre where a revival of his play The Best Man is playing. 

When I arrived Elaine May was just arriving as well. As she was escorted backstage - she was the day’s first

 speaker - her consort and long-time romantic partner director Stanley Donen was escorted along with me into the theatre where we took our seats. I was on the fourth row aisle across from him where he was seated on the second row. We were both a bit early and as the theatre began to fill I looked over at where he was sitting and no one seemed to be taking any of the seats around him or, indeed, any notice of him. He looked a bit lonely and forlorn and forgotten. Somewhat feeble, he also seemed to be shrinking further and further down into his seat. He is now 88 and, as I studied him, I wondered if he were thinking about his own memorial service and perhaps planning it out. Was he thinking about what Elaine would say at that one when she’d perhaps, tearfully, be the first one to speak that day also? Or was he thinking of his collaborator, Gene Kelly, gone now too, who co-directed both Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town with him and whose 100th birthday it is this very day.

I stood and knelt by his side. “Is your last name Donen?” I asked him to give him the pleasure of being recognized.

"Why, yes, it is," he said, stunned a bit by the brazen bald man now kneeling by his side.

"I just wanted to tell you how grateful I am for all the pleasure and joy you have brought to me throughout my life," I told him shaking his hand. "That is a remarkable achievement - to put so much joy into the world. I adore your movies." His hand was thin. Boney. But it still gripped mine firmly with the force of gratitude returned. He rose a bit in his chair and, still grabbing my hand, straightened his gibbous shoulders, this man who directed, along with Singin’ in the Rain and On the Town, Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, Indiscreet, Damn Yankees!, Charade, and Two for the Road, films that will never age. The film of age now in his eyes, however, flickered to life and lit up for a few moments.

He asked me my name and we exchanged a few more pleasantries. Chatted a bit. I sat back down and thought of Gene Kelley and this scene. Thank you again, Mr. Donen. And happy 100, Mr. Kelly.

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For the second time this week I saw an off-Broadway hit that originated at London’s Royal Court Theatre. Earlier in the week I saw Tribes and raved about it. Last night I caught up with Cock. And again, the ensemble of actors is extraordinary. Jason Butler Harner. Amanda Quaid. Cory Michael Smith. And Cotter Smith. 

Set in a roughhewn theatre in the round much like the stadium-like venues for illegal cockfights it also reminded me of a bullfight arena or what a junior high vo-tech carpentry class would come up with if they were given lots of plywood and the assignment to build a miniature of the Roman Coliseum. Indeed, the British characters go at each other as if entering to do battle. There is no set except the fevered emotional landscape they conjure so close there in the midst of us. There are no props. One actor even takes off his watch and places it on the Stage Manager’s desk, which also is there for everyone to see, as if he is about to get into a bar fight and is handing off his watch to a bartender or a friend before the fisticuffs begin. The fists that are formed, however, are all in the clenched feelings that by the end of the evening have been violently and freely unfurled for the spectators - we aren’t really an audience - to see for this is an unconventional love triangle performed as spectator sport.

The plot concerns two male lovers who are having their issues which become even more complicated when one (John played by Cory Michael Smith in a breakout star-making performance) begins to have a physical affair with a woman. The sex he has with her may not only be more wounding to his lover than that he could have with another man because it is so alien to the sexual boundaries of their own love but also the furthest distance he can get from him once he feels so fenced in. Is conventional heterosexual sex and all the conventions it can promise him the most unconventional way he can escape his gay relationship? 

His male lover (M played by Harnett) and new female one (W played by Quaid) vie for him. There are undercurrents of violence - especially of the emotional sort - throughout the searing comedy and careens toward its ending that is heartbreaking because of its lack of catharsis. The playwright seems to be saying that that of all the choices we have in our love life our sexuality is finally not one of them and so we stay yoked to the person at times with whom we are less happy. Also, love finally is not just about sex. Being gay is about whom we love not whom we fuck. It is about the families we form in every room of a house, not just the bedroom. This is pointed out when the cuckolded lover’s father (F played by Cotter Smith) arrives to help his son fight to save his relationship.

It is also more pointedly pointed out when in two opposing scenes the erotic circular dance is played out with each of John’s partners. In one, he longs for his male lover to kiss him. The kiss from him is what he longs for, goes back for, connects to. With the woman, the young man is alive with the undiscovered country of a truly new body and the images are indeed geographical. The heterosexual dance is more pornographic, erotic. The gay dance is more romantic, even lovely. 

The presence of the stage manager at the desk turning the pages of the script as she follows along line by line to what is being played out so beautifully by the actors points this fact up. There is a a finality to her presence. We are all scripted by our fate in life. By our genetics. There is some controlling presence that we only kid ourselves about when we think we can break free of it. The universe is our feudal lord. Sexually, romantically, we are its serfs. And that too is what the playing area reminded me of. The games we play with each other aren’t only futile; they are also in some overarching way feudal.

The final image of John - crouched in an exhausted, anguished ball on the floor - who has not so much made his choice but submitted to his life is not a fetal one. It is one of fatalism. None of us are ever free of each other until we surrender to ourselves.





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I went to a screening up at Viacom today for the new Diana Vreeland documentary, The Eye Has to Travel. It was directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, the wife of her grandson Alexander, who not only had access to the fashion world but also t

o DV’s two sons, Tim and Frecky. It is a fascinating portrait - how could it not be? - for Vreeland, born in 1903 in Paris, vroomed through most of the 20th Century until her death in 1989 and made it her own absurdly stylish thoroughfare.

DV spent much of the 1920s up in Harlem after her family moved to NYC where she danced the nights away. After marrying Thomas Reed Vreeland, she moved back across the Atlantic to London. “I loved living in London,” she once said. “The best thing about London is Paris.” She opened a lingerie business there near Berkeley Square and her clientele included Wallis Simpson, who came into her store one day and requested three very specially fitted pieces of lingerie for her first secret weekend spent with Edward. Vreeland always claimed the lingerie she suggested Wallis wear that weekend was the cause of Edward’s later abdication.

We live in a very different world now than the one she defined for us at Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. There is so little style any more. Everything is fashionable. What is so striking about all the pages she oversaw at those two magazines is the amount of negative space she loved in photos and in layouts. Her famous quote “Elegance is refusal,” came to mind while watching the film as all those pages kept being shown on the screen.

But she was no snob. “Blue jeans are the most beautiful things since the gondola,” she proclaimed. And singularity was more important than perfection. “The two greatest mannequins of the century were Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell,” she insisted, “Unquestionably. You just couldn’t take a bad picture of those two old girls.”

And this: “Never fear being vulgar, just boring …I’m a great believer in vulgarity - if it’s got vitality. A little bad taste is like a nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste - it’s hearty it’s healthy, it’s physical. I think we could use more of it. NO taste is what I’m against.”

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I went to see the new Meryl Streep/Tommy Lee Jones movie Hope Springs this weekend. I haven’t mentioned it because I love Meryl too much. Let’s just say the critics who liked this film vastly oversold it. Plodding middling Meryl. Too lo

ng and too predictable. 

I only laughed twice. Once was when she delivered a priceless line reading on a one-word piece of dialogue: “Huh?” Only Streep could find all the emotional strata in that one grunted word and make it both hilarious and sad at the same time.

The second laugh wasn’t even during the movie. There was a promotion going on at the Chelsea Clearview on Friday night and we all got gift bags targeted for the film’s demographic. When I got home I inspected the contents of the bag. There was an O magazine. There were some vitamins and some sort of plastic utensil that seemed to be concocted to measure out one’s medicine. Some GRAY AWAY root concealer. A bottle of Own Renewing nighttime face cream. And something called Neogyn, a bit of “Swiss technology” which was described on the package as being “for well-being and comfort.” It also informed me there on the package that it was a “VULVAR SOOTHING CREAM.” Yes, those letters were capitalized. That’s when I had my second laugh - when I realized I had, by attending this movie, been targeted as one whose vulva needed to be soothed. 

The best part of the whole awful movie was when Annie Lennox’s voice came onto the soundtrack and began to sing one of my favorite songs. Gay guys my age when we still had vulvas that soothed themselves tended to adore Madonna. The young ones now go Gaga for whatshername. But Annie Lennox has always been the pop diva I’ve turned to. 

Why?

This is why.

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