Exclusive: My Dinner with Arthur Laurents
With his passing, I remember an amazing dinner I had with Arthur Laurents that changed the way he lived his life. Arthur, as everyone who knew him knew, didn't change anything easily.
I was collaborating on a musical with Armistead Maupin, a musical that made it as far as the Cleveland Playhouse. But before its untimely demise, the show was "heading for Broadway." Maupin had just published the first collected edition of eight groundbreaking novels under the title Tales of the City. As for Arthur, I had worked with him and considered him a professional collaborator while not a personal friend. He called, told me how much he liked Maupin's books and said that he would love to meet him. Maupin happened to be in town. He was just as eager, so we set up a dinner.
Maupin can be extremely charming. When I introduced him to the great legend, the man who wrote West Side Story, Gypsy, The Way We Were, The Turning Point, he adopted his innocent, country-boy (he's from North Carolina) hick demeanor. For a gay man from a small town in North Carolina, it doesn't get better than going out with the writer who had Gypsy say, "I'm a pretty girl, Mama," or Barbra beg Redford, "Stay till the baby is born, Hubbell."
We went to a little restaurant down the street from Arthur's house; the mood was congenial and festive. "I love your books." "I love your movies." "You really are terrific." "You really are amazing." The honeymoon.
Then, it got juicy. This was 1988 -- way before gays were allowed in the military, even before Don't Ask Don't Tell. Gay marriage didn't seem a remote possibility, wasn't even a pipe dream. Still, 1988 was certainly better than the 50's, but we had a long, long way to go.
Arthur talked about the most consequential time in his life, the McCarthy trials of the fifties. Armistead talked about the most important time of his life, when he came out.
Arthur said, quite proudly, with that Laurentian air of superiority, he has always been out. Even in Hollywood in the '50s, where he could easily have been blacklisted, he never hid his love life. Never. (Dramatic pause) "Except in print." Putting it in print was off limits, a Rubicon. That's where he drew the line, the line not to be crossed. He would never talk about it to a reporter. Period.
Armistead instantly dropped the North Carolina hick routine and turned into the political animal he had become. He looked directly at Laurents and said, forcefully, directly and loudly, "THEN YOU'RE NOT OUT!"
Arthur blanched! I'm not sure Arthur ever "blanched" in his life. He quickly started to defend his position.
I wish the iPhone had been invented for this conversation so I could have recorded it. Two brilliant minds but two completely different generations of homosexual men, one man who came of age in the 50's, the other, the 70's, rumbling like Tony and Bernardo, battling like Mary Ann and her Beau. Arthur valiantly defended his position about never talking to reporters, and Armistead, the younger generation, shot down every argument. Arthur wouldn't give in. Armistead wouldn't give up.
I couldn't possibly recreate that conversation. But this was real theater. Real political theater. Arthur tried to conjure up the McCarthy era and the nightmarish time it was, using it as a shield against having to go into battle again; Armistead told him times had changed and he had to grow and update his politics and positions. That might have been the worst blow to Arthur's mighty ego, to hear that his political ideas were out of date. And to hear it from one of the most important political writers in the country.
The conversation finished, the tempers cooled. Dessert was served. We got back on to safer topics: PBS was about to shoot Tales of the City. Bette was thinking about doing Gypsy.
But of course, an awkwardness hung over the apple crumble.
We walked Arthur back home, said our good-byes.
A few days later, in an interview given to a paper, I read Arthur Laurents, the man who vehemently said he would never talk about his homosexuality in print, quoted by the reporter, saying, "As a gay man...."
And I was there.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride/WM Photos