Hooray for Captain Spalding!

Spalding Gray was my hero too.  I first encountered him when I was a college student and he was doing his “Interviewing the Audience” series. He came to Boston Film & Video Foundation and while pre-screening the audience for his onstage subjects, passed me and my friend Sasha by, because he didn’t want to interview artists.  Later on I saw some of his other monologues and was drawn into his quiet, intensely self-aware manner.  But it was an HBO special “The Terrors of Pleasure” that really connected us to his work.  “The Terrors” was a lesser known monologue that took place in Woodland Valley, NY, where we had been summering since 1985.  (He called it “Shady Valley” in the monologue, and Phoenicia was called “Krumville”)  That Spalding had purchased a home on the same road where we rented and later owned was a cool coincidence.  That he saw the irony and comedy in specific details about the area and the characters who peopled it, in precisely the same ways that Todd, Marian, Amee and I had been joking about for years, was wonderful.   Spalding gave voice to our urbane New Yorker desires for the wild-life of the northern Catskills.  ‘So wild a place, so close to New York City’ as he said, worrying about who would be responsible for picking up the extra twigs that fell from the trees on his property, “would I have to pick those up?”

We had lived this dream, rented homes on Panther Kill and Woodland Valley roads, invited friends from the city up, imagined living there full time, dealt with the oddball handymen and Ricky Riccardella, the unofficial mayor of Phoenicia, all many years before Uma & Ethan had discovered the place and turned it as trendy as Tribeca for a few minutes.  Spalding’s residency was the closest thing to celebrity that Phoenicia had seen since Babe Ruth fished the Esopus Creek in the ’30s and ’40s.  And then we ran into him.

It wasn’t even in the Catskills, strangely enough. We were on the other side of the Hudson out for a weekend stroll in Phillips Manor when, on a lonely path in a high well-lit wood, we saw another hiker approaching us in a red flannel shirt.  Amee saw him first and opened with “You’re Mister Gray!”, a slight English accent for some reason.  He smiled and said, ‘Yes,’ and that was mostly that, though I believe we told him about our Woodland Valley connection and love of ‘The Terrors’.   As in my entry “Stalking Celebrity” there was a magic to this chance encounter, the close contact with someone who had become part of our lives by voicing thoughts and humor on subjects dear to us — it was special.

There is a new documentary about his life directed by Steven Soderbergh but actually consisting mostly of extant footage from little known monologues and occasionally rare glimpses of his family, ‘And Everything is Going Fine’. Worth a look for serious ‘Spuddi-philes’.   There are also some odd similarities between Spalding’s story and my brother Todd’s, a car accident, bipolar disorder and some other parallels.  The following is from Wikipedia:

In June 2001, he suffered severe injuries in a car crash while on vacation in Ireland. “In the crash, Gray, who had always battled his hereditary depression and bipolar tendencies, suffered a badly broken hip, leaving his right leg almost immobilized, and a fracture in his skull that left a jagged scar on his forehead. He now suffered not only from depression but also from a brain injury. During surgery in which a titanium plate was placed over the break in his skull, surgeons removed dozens of bone fragments from his frontal cortex. Shattered both physically and emotionally, he spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable.[6]

Among those from whom Gray sought treatment was Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist. Sacks began seeing Gray as a patient in August 2003 and continued to do so until almost the time of his death. In an article by Gaby Wood published on the first anniversary of Gray’s disappearance, Sacks proposed that Gray perceived the taking of his own life as part of what he had to say: “On several occasions he talked about what he called ‘a creative suicide.’ On one occasion, when he was being interviewed, he thought that the interview might be culminated with a ‘dramatic and creative suicide.'” Sacks added: “I was at pains to say that he would be much more creative alive than dead.” [7]

On January 10, 2004, Gray, suffering from increasingly deep episodes of clinical depression in part as a result of his injuries, was declared missing. The night before his disappearance he had seen Tim Burton‘s film Big Fish, which ends with the line “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal”. Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, has said “You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”[6]

When Gray was first declared missing, his profile was featured on the Fox Network show America’s Most Wanted.[9]


4 thoughts on “Hooray for Captain Spalding!

  1. Hi –

    Could you narrow down the location of Gray’s home in Woodland Valley? I’ve always wanted to see it on Google Maps. Thanks!

    • I’d understood that it was in Grandview Acres, which can be found along Woodland Valley Road near intersection of Grandview Road. I’d been told that it was one of the simple red shack type houses that are on the hill just above Woodland Valley Road and there are two of these that fit the description best. How did you turn up this blog entry anyway?

      • Thanks! I was Googling away on terms like Phoenicia and Krumville, after reading up on Gray’s 1988 HBO special.

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