Front stage center sat—as they had many times before—the simple battered wooden chair and table from which Gray habitually delivered his autobiographical solo works. On the table were his ubiquitous water glass, microphone and open spiral notebook. Stage left was filled by a large urn filled with flowers. Stage right a flutist and cellist played a prelude of somber selections. Gray's body was found in the East River on March 7 after having gone missing for two months. It is thought he jumped from the deck of the Staten Island ferry one cold night in January after having suffered two years of physical pain and psyche-rending depression. That somber realization overshadowed the recollections speakers brought to the proceedings.
"I don't blame him for what he did," said friend John Perry Barlow, standing below a large image of a contented, smiling Gray. "I've never been in the presence of a depression so leaden or a monomania so circular as that which enveloped Spalding Gray in December 2001. He hung in with it longer than I could have."
The time frame Barlow mentioned referred to Gray's now infamous and fateful trip to Ireland. He went vacationing there in 2001 to celebrate his 60th birthday. But the trip was marred by a car accident in which he suffered injuries. He fractured his skull and hip. According to his wife, the accident caused him to have a metal plate implanted in his head, and a torn sciatic nerve impaired his ability to walk. Barlow dates Gray's consuming depression not to the accident's immediate aftermath, but to the days following treatment at a Manhattan hospital.
Several speakers implored the gathered to remember the pre-accident Gray (or "the old Dad," as his son Forrest reportedly called him) as the true Spalding. Of this contented family man, friend Robert Stein remembered, "He was seemingly in touch with himself when he was in touch with his children. He gave up his own need to be the child. He grew up."
The memorial began with a rendition of "Amazing Grace" by silver-maned singer Judy Collins. Lincoln Center executive Bernard Gersten then took the podium, saying, "This theatre remembers Spalding." Gray performed seven of his monologues at the nonprofit. Gersten recalled that when Gray discovered he could reach as many people in two shows at the Beaumont as he did in six shows at the smaller Mitzi E. Newhouse, "the lure of less work quickly overcame his fear of playing in a larger space." Several participants read poems. Robert Holman, the poet, spoke a beat cadenced creation of his own. Performance artist Laurie Anderson read from Allen Ginsberg. And actress Lee Grant quoted Walt Whitman, another writer who, like Gray, celebrated himself.
Also participating in the memorial were Mark Russell, artistic director of P.S. 122, where many Gray monologues were workshopped; composer Philip Glass; actor Eric Stoltz, who acted with Gray in Our Town; Eric Bogosian, whose career as a solo performer paralleled Gray's; and Gray's widow Kathleen Russo.
Several speakers noted Gray's surprising capacity for absorbing other people's stories, as opposed to simply telling his own. "Nobody seemed to like listening to stories more than Spalding," said literary agent Suzanne Gluck.
Gray himself came to his own defense in a short film by Barbara Kopple. In the clip, apparently shot at Gray's Sag Harbor home soon after he returned from Ireland, the author said, "My fear is that when I die, my epitaph will read, 'Spalding Gray, Who Talked About Himself.' I'm not a minimalist, like Beckett. Though Beckett is a great writer. I'm not just writing about myself. I'm writing about my impressions of the world around me, the world as I see it. I hope people would see that."
His filmed commentary was interrupted by the unscripted baying of a nearby dog. It was one of those surreal moments, common in the actors' life, which seemed to naturally feed into his monologues. Gray at first joked about the portentous sound. "See, the dog is already crying for the dead Spalding Gray." Then he stopped and listened with an appreciative half-smile.
"That's wild," he said. "It's like Chekhov." The hound continued howling and the camera kept rolling. Gray's listening become more thoughtful and pensive.
"It's like a lamentation," he ended.