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Oral Philosophers Part III:
Spalding Gray


Ross M. Miller
Miller Risk Advisors
August 14, 2006

Spalding Gray was a performance artist who had a great gimmick. Starting at a time when his fellow Soho denizens would hang naked, upside-down and read recipes from The Joy of Cooking, Spalding, an actor who had graduated from bit roles in adult films to bit roles in more serious cinema, would sit behind a simple wooden desk with some water and a notebook, dressed like an L.L. Bean male model gone to seed, and tell his version of his life story. Spalding started as a cult attraction, but his audience exploded from Soho to the national scene with the 1987 release of Swimming to Cambodia, director Jonathan Demme's filmic version of Spalding's breakthrough monologue.

Spalding is a fitting conclusion to this three-part summer series because his act is the natural evolution (or de-evolution) of what Jean Shepherd and Alan Watts were doing thirty years earlier. The two themes that dominated his work, sex and death, went a lot further than Shepherd, even in live performance, would ever go. His brand of humor started out considerably grayer than Shepherd's and turned black in his latter years as his physical ailments, most notably macular degeneration, brought the specter of death closer. Spalding Gray is sometimes referred to as the WASP version of Woody Allen, another humorist whose obsessions are more weighted toward sex than death, but this characterization does justice to neither man's particular genius. Ironically, because he resembled Ralph Lauren, most of the characters Spalding played on film (and on the TV series The Nanny) were, like Allen, from Jewish backgrounds.

Spalding Gray is most closely linked to Alan Watts through the "new age" movement. Spalding somehow managed to outlive Watts, a man who found his personal oblivion in a bottle. Spalding chose the more direct route of jumping from the Staten Island ferry into the East River in the dead of winter, and his disappearance was a mystery until his body surfaced nearly two months later.

I discovered Spalding Gray in the now-defunct Reading International bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In periods of procrastination during my writing of Computer-Aided Financial Analysis, I would waste hours wandering through the shops in Harvard Square. I had no idea who Spalding Gray was, but the title Sex and Death to the Age 14 on an audio book that lay on the remainder table resonated with me, so I bought the cassette tape and played it as another form of procrastination. It was the perfect introduction to Spalding's monologues, read by Spalding himself. Even though his material is designed for the stage, he comes across best as a purely auditory experience. I played that tape until it finally died, taking my Camry's cassette player with it.

Spalding and I would cross paths repeatedly in the nineties. Once I had moved to my present location outside of Albany, I would see Spalding every few years at "The Egg," one of the first places that he would go to try out new material. (Just before his death, these visits became more frequent because his second wife's family lived in nearby Scotia.) Spalding created his monologues through an iterative process of telling his stories, reviewing each performance, and then revising it. Because he worked this way, Spalding left a smaller, but more professionally crafted, body of work than either Shepherd or Watts. Many parts of his monologues, including most of his one-liners, were obviously recited word-for-word from memory, but Spalding was also an accomplished ad-libber. Because I used to spend large chunks of time in Manhattan, I would either see Spalding live in Lincoln Center or not-so-live in the film versions of his monologues that played in the art houses. After each performance, it was always fun to listen to the random conversation of the audience members on their way out. The people who were dragged there by their significant others would say things like: "He gets paid to do that?" while his established fan base might express outrage at his shabby treatment of the women in his life, particularly his first wife and one-time director, Ren้e Sharfransky.

Like Shepherd and Watts, Gray lived in exile, "on a small island off the coast of America," as he was fond of saying. But while Shepherd, the tough Chicago boy transplanted to Greenwich Village, and Watts, the patrician Brit who lived in a Sausalito houseboat, always maintained a healthy skepticism of their new surrounding, Spalding Gray bought fully into the prosperous Soho/Tribeca scene—complete with vacation homes—first near Woodstock and many dollars later on the outskirts of the Hamptons. It was a long way from Barrington, Rhode Island and after the Swimming to Cambodia come out, Spalding rarely looked back.

Spalding's life and his performances converged to the point that each new monologue became a soap opera account of the things that had happened since the last monologue. Increasingly, it seemed, the people he met in his travels would try to do or say things in Spalding's presence simply to make it into one of his monologues. Although this weaving together of life and art may be a very post-modern thing to do, it was probably unhealthy for both Spalding and those around him.

Spalding Gray's monologues point to his mother as having been the most influential person in his life. In particular, her practice of Christian Science and her lingering madness that led to her suicide at the age of 52, both influenced him and his art greatly. Perhaps the best insight into Spalding Gray's being is not to be found in any of his own words, but rather in four words that looked down over Fox Mulder's desk—I Want to Believe. Spalding would ultimately reject his mother's belief in Christian Science and his monologues catalog his search for something to take its place. Unfortunately for Spalding, that something turned out to be the rampant nihilism of the radical left that was more prevalent in the circles that Spalding traveled than any retrovirus could ever be. Shepherd and Watts hung out with the same kind of crowd thirty years earlier, but had the necessary inner resources that kept them for being sucked into the madness.

Even before the automobile accident that preceded his suicide, Spalding was showing signs of decline. For one thing, he was seemingly running out of material. His performances increasingly were encore performance of old monologues or a night of "interviewing the audience," which may work just fine in places with scads of alien abductions, but around Albany. While Spalding's sex-and-death cocktail fit right in with AIDS, Spalding repeatedly feared catching it from a "stage-door Judy," it was less suitable for a post-9/11 world.

After the automobile accident, Spalding began work on a new monologue that centered on—you guessed it—life after the accident. After seeing Tim Burton's masterpiece, Big Fish, Spalding, without warning and possibly taking a cue from the film, took his own dive.

For now, it is impossible to read, hear, or view Spalding's material without it being colored by the knowledge of his tragic end. Hopefully, with the healing powers of time, the brilliance of his work will shine through to some future audience.

Copyright 2006 by Miller Risk Advisors. Permission granted to forward by electronic means and to excerpt or broadcast 250 words or less provided a citation is made to