Calvin Trillin and Larry Kramer: In Conversation

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Writer Larry Kramer, one of the founders of both Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP, is a pioneering hero of the gay rights movement. Now seventy-eight years old, he has lived long enough to reach the legendary arc of his writing and activist careers and has attained the appearance of the prophet he has always been. Nominated for an Academy Award in 1969 for his screenplay of Women in Love, he has most recently written the teleplay for his theatrical cri de coeur The Normal Heart, which has been directed by Ryan Murphy and stars, among others, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer, and Julia Roberts. It airs on HBO in TK. Kramer also wrote the notoriously prescient (and titled) 1978 novel Faggots and later collected his literate and angry essays in Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. A 1992 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his autobiographical play The Destiny of Me, which starred John Cameron Mitchell as a young version of the writer in his hometown of Washington, D.C., before he left home to attend Yale University, Kramer was the most recent recipient of the Isabelle Stevenson Award, given annually at the Tonys to honor someone’s humanitarian and charitable contributions. He is now at work finishing his life’s magnum opus, The American People: A History, which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kramer attended Yale with writer Calvin Trillin, who was chairman of the Yale Daily News and, later, a member of the Yale Corporation, the school’s governing body. They have been best friends for over forty years. A journalist, poet, and novelist, Trillin has written extensively for both the New Yorker and the Nation, among other publications. In 2012 he was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. He is the author of close to thirty books, including Remembering Denny, published in 1993, which was about another of their Yale classmates, the most golden of Yale’s jeunesse dorée of that era, the one everyone thought would be president of the United States one day but who, after living a deeply closeted life, died in 1991, having never achieved the heights others expected of him.

Larry Kramer is married to architect David Webster.

Calvin Trillin was married for thirty-six years to Alice Stewart Trillin, who died on the same day as the September 11 attacks on New York City in 2001. Her death was attributed to heart failure caused by her earlier radiation treatment for lung cancer. Alice was not only a writer in her own right but also an educator and an activist for other cancer patients. She was much loved in Manhattan for her own capacity for friendship of all stripes. Eulogizing Alice, Nora Ephron, who would later die of cancer herself, hailed Alice’s capacity for empathy and for caring about others, which included “anyone she loved, or liked, or knew, or didn’t quite know but knew someone who did, or didn’t know from a hole in a wall but had just gotten a telephone call from because they’d found the number in the telephone book.”

(Editor’s note: I have known Larry Kramer for almost as long as Calvin Trillin has. I first met him when I moved to New York City in the late 1970s. He requested that I sit in on the conversation the two of them were going to have for FourTwoNine. I have never said “no” to Larry. Such a response is not only impossible, but also futile. So I showed up with my tape recorder. What follows is an edited version of what I recorded—Kevin Sessums)
KEVIN SESSUMS: People wouldn’t think of you two as being best friends. That’s one of the reasons I wanted you in this “friendship” issue.

CALVIN TRILLIN: Oh, Larry has a lot of nice qualities.

KS: Really, Calvin? Name two.

CT: I’ll say what Eisenhower said when someone from Time magazine asked him if he could think of one idea of Nixon’s that he had adopted: “Give me a week, and I’ll think about it.”

LARRY KRAMER: (laughing) See? He gives me shit, and I let him. He makes me laugh. And not many people do. That counts for a lot.

KS: You guys were sophomores at Yale back in 1954. Just to put that in some context, 1954 was the same year that From Here to Eternity won an Oscar. Swanson’s manufactured its first TV dinner. The Army-McCarthy hearings were televised. The term “under God” was inserted into the “Pledge of Allegiance.” Steve Allen’s Tonight Show premiered. Ernest Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature. And Bob Dylan was bar mitzvahed.

CT: God. We’re old.

KS: But you guys really weren’t close friends while you were at Yale.

CT: We didn’t know each other, but we had a lot of mutual friends.

LK: He was very “shoe,” which means he was a big jock, a big deal.

CT: I was not “shoe.” That’s a misuse of the term “shoe,” which is derived from “white shoe.” There was a Yale even before Larry and I got there, and there were three designations of students: “white shoe,” “brown shoe,” and “black shoe.” “White shoe” people were kind of the ur-preppies from high-class backgrounds. “Brown shoe” people were kind of the high school student-council presidents who were snatched up and brushed up a little bit to be sent out into the world. “Black shoe” people were beyond the pale. They were chemistry majors and things like that.

LK: “Shoe” just meant you were a big jock on campus no matter what field you were in.

CT: No, it didn’t. It was a class thing.

LK: Calvin was much more of a mover and a shaker. That’s all I’m saying. I was a “weenie.” That was another term back then.

CT: “Weenie” was definitely a word we used at Yale back then. But I’m not sure you were one, Larry. Also, you were going by a different name.

LK: I was so unhappy as a child in Washington I figured if I’m going to Yale, I am going to start a new life. I’ll change my name to my middle name. So I was known for my four years at Yale as David Kramer. When I graduated, I went back to Larry. But when I go to Yale reunions, there are still people who call me David.

KS: So when did this friendship begin to take shape? I assume it didn’t happen at Yale because one of you was a “shoe” and one of you was a “weenie.”

LK: The first time I remember our being socially in the same place was after we graduated and [author, investment counselor, philanthropist, and fellow 1950s Yalie] Peter Wolf had a party at his house in the Hamptons. He had invited you and Alice and me. Alice and I really hit it off because of a shared passion for chocolate.

CT: I remember that. But I believe we really became friends when we bonded at our fifteenth class reunion in 1972.

LK: No. It was at Peter Wolf’s.

CT: Okay. It might have been at Peter Wolf’s. He’s not always wrong.

LK: See? I have to put up with this stuff from him all the time.

KS: You two are like an old married couple. Do you often bicker like this? Tony Kushner has said that Larry thinks everyone always has to agree with him. Have you learned just to acquiesce to him, Calvin, because it’s not worth the trouble?

CT: Larry and I often disagree. There was the whole meshuggaas we went through about his donating his papers to Yale, and I disagreed with him on a number of things about that. You wanted a gay center…

LK: Still do.

CT: He said, when it was all about to fall through, “You betrayed me, Calvin.” And I said, “I resent that. I was against you from the beginning.”

LK: Another example of what I have to put up with from him. But there was a time I was mad at all my straight friends when AIDS was at its worst. I particularly hated the New Yorker, where Calvin has published so much of his work. The New Yorker was the worst because they barely ever wrote about AIDS. I used to take out on Calvin my real hatred for the New Yorker.

CT: Which really didn’t have anything to do with me. I had no administrative function at the New Yorker. I am what we used to call in construction back in Kansas City where I grew up “a dog-ass subcontractor.”

LK: David Remnick [the New Yorker’s editor in chief]is about as interested in anything gay as I am interested in anything to do with baseball. It drives me nuts. And there Calvin is, writing something for them all the time—at one point it seemed as if he had a piece in there every week —and everything I submit to them gets rejected. And then you read the shit that’s in there.

CT: I get rejections from the New Yorker. When I had to give a little talk to the people graduating from the MBA program at Columbia who were going into writing and filmmaking and everything, I said, “When I tried to think of what to say, the only subject I thought was appropriate for people doing what you’re going to do is rejection.” That’s what it’s all about.

KS: Is it easier for you to have straight friends, Larry, since you seem so often disappointed in your gay friends who can’t live up to what you expect of them as gay people? Is there a kind of built-in disappointment you expect to have in straight people that makes it easier to be friends with them?

CT: No, everyone disappoints him. So it’s not a problem for him either way.

LK: He’s right!

KS: Some of your other writer friends who happen to be gay—Kushner, Michael Cunningham, Edmund White—have suffered your wrath. You’ve had rather public contretemps with them and sent them into exile for a time. Calvin is a writer friend who happens to be straight. Have you ever sent him into exile? Or do you cut him some slack because he’s straight?

LK: He’s not writing about things that I can criticize. I can call these other people out for what I think they are not doing. There’s a big difference.

CT: Those people are seen, I assume, by Larry as writing partly about gay issues and problems, whether it’s on the surface or not, and I am not. But another thing is when we met, there still wasn’t exactly a gay/straight divide in the minds of a lot of straight people. There weren’t any gay people, as far as we knew, at Yale.

LK: That’s why I tried to kill myself when I was a student there. I thought I was the only one there.

CT: There was a lot really awful about that time if you were gay. But one of the few nice things about it was you got to know people before there were labels on them, so you got to know them as people, not as either gay or straight. Because as far as we knew, we thought everyone was straight.

LK: It might have been nice for you, but it wasn’t nice for us.

CT: But if someone had come up to me at Yale and asked me how many homosexuals there were in my class, I would have said I don’t think there are any. There may have been a few who were shy with girls. You have to understand, this was the 1950s.

KS: We were around in the 1950s, Calvin.

LK: How many did you find out later were in our class?

CT: Well, there were lots.

LK: Give us some names.

CT: Wait just a minute. Let me finish. I guess the interviewer would have said to me back then, “Well, the Kinsey Report says this and that, and there must be a thousand males here, so there must be a certain percentage that is gay.” And I would have still said, “No.” But if he had been insistent and pushed me to the wall, I would have said, “Okay. Maybe at Harvard.” And the reason I would have said maybe Harvard had nothing to do with animus between Harvard and Yale, but back in Kansas City, I associated Harvard with sort of gnarly guys who wore capes for effect in a kind of Oscar Wilde scene. Even though I also knew there was such a thing as the Harvard-Yale game, I was still a little surprised that Harvard had a football team. I just assumed if there were such a thing as gay people, that they were nothing like us. Little did I know that probably half the swim team at Yale was gay.

LK: We should talk about Remembering Denny.

CT: Yeah. We should talk about that. Some gay people didn’t like it.

LK: Were you surprised when you started writing about Denny to find out he was gay, or did you know?

CT: I knew it when he died.

LK: If there was criticism about it, it was because it was written by a straight man who wasn’t very educated about the gay world.

CT: Even though I asked my gay friends to educate me.

LK: That I don’t recall.

CT: That might have been some of the criticism, but it wasn’t just that. Denny was a guy in our class at Yale.

KS: Was it a book or an article for the New Yorker?

LK: The New Yorker would have never published it.

CT: Robert Gottlieb was the editor then, not David Remnick.

LK: Still wouldn’t have published it.

CT: He wouldn’t have published it. You’re right again. Denny was a Rhodes Scholar. He was on the swimming team. Had this great California crew cut and this great smile. Life magazine covered his graduation, and Alfred Eisenstaedt photographed it. We all expected him to be president some day. But he committed suicide when he was in his 50s. He certainly was no bum. He was a professor at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Most of the mail I got from gay males was supportive, but some of it was angry. The angry letters basically said that all the stuff I wrote about unmet expectations was a lot of crap. If he were gay in the 1950s, then the rest of what I wrote was commentary because life was so miserable for gay men back then. And that’s why he committed suicide.

LK: Well, in the end, that’s why he did because he realized he couldn’t get any fulfillment of his dreams.

CT: Well, I don’t know. I still don’t know why he committed suicide. He had a lot of problems. He had a terrible back problem. His mother was a depressive, so he might have inherited some of that from her. Who knows? I talked to Kramer a little bit about it while I was writing it. Denny was one of those people who took a long time to come out.

LK: He never really did.

CT: He never came out to his colleagues, but he did come out to the subculture of gay men that are in the foreign service and state department.

LK: It’s always been hard to be gay in Washington.

KS: Is it harder to be a gay writer than a straight writer, or is it just hard being a writer?

LK: I think I just felt a sadness at some points in my career that what is available to a straight writer is not available to a gay writer. I’m sorry to keep focusing on the New Yorker, but everybody who was growing up when Calvin and I were growing up wanted to be published in the New Yorker. I just so desperately wanted to be published in there, and I’d so desperately try to get something in it. But I’d always get nice letters back telling me that Mr. Shawn [William Shawn, the New Yorker’s editor from 1952 to 1987] just didn’t like this or didn’t like that about what I submitted.

KS: The little old lady from Dubuque for whom the New Yorker is not edited, according to its founding editor, Harold Ross, might as well have been a little old lesbian. Is that what you’re saying, Larry?

CT: Who says she wasn’t a lesbian? That’s what she says.

KS: Were your fathers proud that you were writers or disappointed that you were writers?

CT: My father always wanted me to be president of the United States, and his fallback position was that I not become a ward of the county. I think my father was okay about my going into journalism, though.

LK: You did your father proud, Calvin.

KS: So did you, Larry.

LK: Fuck my father. I didn’t give a shit what my father thought of me. My father was dead by the time I became a writer, and he would have had a heart attack if he had read the first thing I wrote when it came out. My mother still keeps her copy of Faggots hidden away in a bottom drawer.

KS: Did you ever try to fix Larry up with anybody, Calvin, when he was still single?

CT: Well, you’re talking about the 1970s now and not the 1950s. We were all more sophisticated by that time, and I just assumed he was gay. But I do remember when we were all sitting around on a roof one night and Larry turned to me and said, “You do know I’m gay, don’t you?” There was a statement made. A declaration. We just never had really talked about it.

KS: I can’t believe there was a time when Larry wasn’t out and in one’s face about it.

LK: I wasn’t an activist, really…

CT: Until AIDS.

LK: That’s right. Until AIDS.

CT: He wasn’t a gay activist. He was an AIDS activist.

LK: I don’t see myself as being so “in your face” before then.

CT: Aaaah! But after!

KS: Since Alice’s death, has Larry ever tried to fix you up with anybody?

CT: No. No.

KS: Well, that’s what friends do for one another. I was just curious.

LK: Yeah, that’s what friends do. Why didn’t you ever try to fix me up, Calvin?

CT: I didn’t know any guys who’d be right.

KS: Have you ever written a poem about Larry? He seems he’d be perfect fodder for your kind of poetry.

LK: He’d never get them published. I’m persona non grata at the New Yorker.

CT: I don’t write poetry for the New Yorker. My poems appear in the Nation, mostly.

KS: That’s going to be on your tombstone, Larry. “I was never published in the New Yorker.”

LK: Now I don’t want to be. It’s become boring.

CT: Yeah. Now, he’s “Fuck them.”

LK: I never appear in any of your work, come to think of it, Calvin. And I look. I look.

KS: Does Calvin appear in your work, Larry?

LK: That’s a good point.

CT: Yeah. I could appear in this million-word book you’re working on. Nobody would even notice me.

KS: But if you were in it, he’d have to out you as really being gay.

LK: He’s not in it because Calvin has never done anything majorly objectionable.

CT: Well, there’s time.

KS: Have you read any of this opus of Larry’s, The American People, Calvin?

CT: I’m waiting for the whole book to come out.

LK: Alice read a part of it.

CT: She did?

LK: Yeah. She read a section about a madam talking about the difference between different men from different countries. She liked it.

CT: She read his original manuscript for Faggots when it was 1,600 pages long.

LK: It wasn’t that long.

CT: So it was 1,500 pages. Back then, I’d point over at her at a party or something and whisper, “See that sweet-looking girl over there? She knows more dirty stuff than anybody ever thought of. She’s read the manuscript of Faggots.”

KS: Some people are worried that you’re going to out everyone from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln in The American People. You’ve been accused at times of thinking everyone was secretly gay.

CT: He thinks Charles de Gaulle was gay. He thinks Max Schmeling was gay.

LK: I don’t think everybody’s gay. But I think a lot more people are than the world knows about. I think basically what The American People is about is that we’ve been here from the very beginning, and that has never ever been acknowledged in the history books. John Winthrop wasn’t off the boat ten seconds before he passes a law that homosexuals should be hanged. And then he hung ’em, including an attempt to hang his own son when he found out he was gay. Winthrop was the man who first said America was “a city upon a hill,” which Reagan then appropriated. There are incidents like that all through history. We have been here.

KS: Have you guys ever had a real falling out as friends?

CT: He got really mad at me once. The precipitating incident was a speech at Yale by the first President Bush’s Secretary of Heath and Human Services, Louis Sullivan, against which Larry led a demonstration. He got the demonstrators to drown out Sullivan’s speech, which wasn’t allowed. I was on the Yale Corporation and…

LK: See? He’s still “shoe.”

CT: He even wrote this angry letter to the president of Yale, and in it he said what he said to us, that he was so disappointed in his straight friends because of AIDS and everything. He wrote the letter around March. And in it he wrote, “I usually go to the Trillins for Christmas, but I just couldn’t do it this year.” I read the letter out loud, and Alice said, “That’s an odd sort of RSVP.” And then he called to berate me. Alice got on the phone and said, “Come on! We’re friends. Let’s have dinner and talk about this.” So we had dinner at a kind of Spanish place on 15th and Fifth Avenues. It was one of the noisiest restaurants I had ever been to. It made Balthazar look like a church. I never ever went back there because you couldn’t hear a thing. We dropped Larry off, and on our walk home Alice said, “Now wasn’t that nice to get all that solved?” And I said, “I couldn’t hear a thing. He might have been calling me a homophobic son of a bitch the whole evening.” That might have been their plan. She probably chose the restaurant.

KS: Alice was so much a part of your friendship. When she died, did the nature of your friendship change because she was no longer a part of it?

CT: No. Also, by then, my girls were grown, and the girls were close to Larry too.

LT: Sarah, one of his daughters, wrote an essay about me that is in Larry Mass’s book [We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacies of Larry Kramer]. She called it “Christmas Dinner with Uncle Larry.”

CT: Well, I wrote an essay too, and mine started something like, “When I was asked to contribute to this book, I said, ‘I could do a piece on Kramer as a pain in the ass, but I suppose you have too many of those, as it is.’” And Sarah’s began something like, “When I read about America’s angriest AIDS activist, I can’t believe they are talking about my sweet Uncle Larry.”

KS: All this talk of Christmas. Is that how Jewish men from Yale spend their Decembers? They celebrate Christmas?

CT: Absolutely. Yes.

LK: I have never heard that referred to before, that term: Jewish men from Yale.

CT: I think it’s a Jewish Yale custom. I wasn’t aware that other people celebrated Christmas. My wife was very big on Christmas, and I was very big on my wife.

LK: Alice was only half Jewish.

CT: Well, we don’t like to say that because her mother was Jewish, which means she was Jewish. So don’t imply that my wife was a shikse.

LK: You thought she was when you courted her. She was very beautiful. And Calvin was so smitten.

KS: You both have experienced loss during your long friendship. Is this something that has cemented your bond with each other—this sense of loss—or is that just part of any two old friends getting older together?

CT: Yes. I guess it is just part of getting older. Alice died when she was sixty-three. That certainly didn’t seem old. Larry had already experienced so much loss by then from the AIDS epidemic. But I don’t think it changed anything between us.

LK: We still had lunch.

CT: We still had lunch.

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