Last post I recounted the good fortune I had to meet Spalding Gray in 1989. Our paths crossed again in the summer of 1994. By then I was fresh out of film school and hustling around NYC as a location scout, editor, AP, you name it. A new hobby of mine was giving away VHS copies of In Person, my short documentary about fans of Frank Sinatra; I’d mail it to anyone who’d ever accomplished anything and who might then say something nice (and quotable) about my film. I began with some filmmakers I’d had direct contact with via film school, such as documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, and soon learned that I was ensconced in the World of Blurbing. I was unaware of all the permutations of the word “blurb” beyond a noun, but my shucking-and-jiving was apparently a common practice.
I’m loathe to do the whole “Y’know, kids, before there was the internet…” rap, but there was something incredibly homespun about self-promotion in the last century that’s different nowadays. I think this story has an old-timey blend of happenstance, legwork and luck.
Understandably, Spalding was high on my list of craftsmen/celebrities that I hoped would blurb my film. (In Person is composed entirely of people telling stories.) After some research, I sent him a tape, through his agent, a package which also included my standard cover letter (equal parts fawning and begging, as humbly as possible). Months passed, until one night, in the midst of a terrible date, I checked my answering machine…
I’d call that a keeper.
A couple of months of phone tag ensued. I’d call him, apologize, reintroduce myself, remind him of my film—and all the while, on the other end, he’d be apologizing back, explaining his delays in writing the blurb, and encouraging me to keep calling him. When Kathie Russo, his wife, would answer the phone, she’d promise to hound him on my behalf. Eventually, during one of these calls, she invited me to a benefit performance of Gray’s Anatomy, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Wooster Group.
The event was in late November, at Washington Irving High School in the city, in their auditorium. I was always thrilled to get free tickets and/or food (I still get that way). Just before Spalding took the stage, looked across the aisle to see John Waters sitting a few feet from me! (On the way out, I timed it so we’d be side-by-side. I introduced myself and handed him the VHS of my film [naturally I had a copy with me]. He gushed over the cover photo and said he couldn’t wait to see the film—but then quickly added, “But I won’t blurb it!” Damn!)
At the reception afterwards, I gingerly approached Spalding, who was standing with three other people. He remembered me and introduced me to Kathie. (Even though she wasn’t new in his life, she was unknown to the general public. She told me that she’d be arriving “in a few monologues.”) She teased him about dragging his heels on writing something for me (it had been almost five months since his phone call). The other couple standing there asked, “What film?” Before I could speak up, Spalding and Kathie spoke at length about my short documentary. I didn’t have to do anything. They did all the hyping for me! I felt like the belle of the ball. A dream. I love this town! During my giddiness, I looked over my shoulder and there was Steve Buscemi, standing solo, nursing a cocktail! Holy smokes! (And I had just given out my last VHS! Double damn!)
The night ended with Spalding reiterating that I should keep nagging him. A week or so later, I called. Once more, Spalding offered sincere apologies. “Call me back in 10 minutes, with a pen and paper ready.”
I did and he told me to write down everything he said. He spoke slowly and specifically about my film: “A delightful implosion. What a nice surprise to see not-so-ordinary people become the stars simply by talking about THE STAR.” He clarified every period and hyphen and stressed that the last two words “should be all capital letters.”
And that’s the story. Hardly Swimming to Cambodia, but memorable nevertheless (especially for a 25-year-old kid). Based on Spalding’s generosity every time I had contact with him, I’m inclined to believe others had similar experiences: friendly, a tad neurotic, and definitely “New York.” If you have any of your own, I encourage you to visit SpaldingGray.com and share them on the Brushes with Spalding page. There’s a lot of great stories already there.