Ken Gross
July 09, 1990 12:00 PM

It is a typical day for Larry Kramer. After a long lunch, the 55-year-old author and gay activist has returned to his Greenwich Village apartment to find three messages on his telephone answering machine. There is the crank, who wishes him ill. There is the fan, who wishes him well. And there is an acquaintance, looking for comments for Matthew Ward’s obituary. Ward was a talented 39-year-old New York City-based translator who has become the latest of Kramer’s friends to succumb to AIDS. “What can I say?” says the dry-eyed Kramer to the phone that he has slammed back in its cradle. “That he was brave and a fighter and that he kept himself alive for six years with black-market drugs?”

Kramer’s wild and flickering rage is unsuitable for print. It was the government, he insists, which killed Ward with a bureaucracy that will neither speed up testing of new drugs nor unleash a scientific onslaught against the plague that has left a butcher’s list of 83,000 dead. The call prompts Kramer, who three years ago founded the militant AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), to call once again for riots in the streets to arouse what he regards as an indifferent and often hostile public. “We have nothing to lose; we’ve already lost the war,” he says. “Soon we’ll all be gone.”

If Kramer fairly seethes with unruly bitterness, there are plenty of other, only slightly less jarring voices crying out for the beleaguered gay community. At last month’s Sixth International Conference on AIDS in San Francisco, more than 600 members of ACT UP chapters across the country put on a militant show of protest—taunting police, storming barricades, heckling government speakers and staging traffic-stopping “die-ins” by lying in the street to symbolize AIDS deaths. Such behavior has become part and parcel of ACT UP’s angry campaign, and its members acknowledge Kramer—if only grudgingly—as a key force behind these incendiary tactics. “[Kramer] stood up when no one else would,” says Waiyde Palmer, 29, a vocal member of San Francisco’s ACT UP chapter. “But he’s not our leader. The man called for a riot and didn’t come to the conference. That’s childish.”

Kramer disagrees. He boycotted the conference to underscore his disgust with the medical and government agencies which, he says, are simply not doing enough. “Last year I was inside and saw how badly it worked,” he says. “This year I decided to stay out.” Instead Kramer was in his usual reviewing stand—his apartment balcony—for New York City’s annual Gay and Lesbian Pride March. There he looked on with his supporters, sick and dying friends. As the marchers approached and proudly saluted him. Kramer raised his clenched fists in response. On his left wrist is a silver bracelet made of metallic plus signs, signifying a bleak solidarity—that he too has tested positive for the HIV virus. When the marchers held a moment of silence for the dead, all the purple and pink balloons on the avenue couldn’t lift the spirits of the doomed spectators. First one, then another man on Kramer’s balcony bent his head and broke down in tears. “I have no more tears,” says Kramer. “I know 500 people who have died in the past 10 years. Five hundred. I counted. I wrote them down, and I counted the names.”

Earlier in the week, when Kramer, fellow gay playwright Harvey (Torch Song Trilogy) Fierstein and Tony award-winning actor Michael (Grand Hotel) Jeter had been in the lobby of Manhattan’s Public Theater signing postcards to send to President Bush, no one had run out of names. On the front of each postcard was a picture of a coffin. On the back, the three wrote the names of some of the 24,000 AIDS victims who have died since Bush took office. Overcome by an uncharacteristic melancholy, Fierstein paused for a moment and looked forlornly out onto the street. “Keep writing,” said Kramer. “We’re all tired and angry, but keep writing.”

Across the country, at the conference in San Francisco, some of that anger was making itself heard. Inside the Moscone Convention Center, ACT UP members stood on chairs, blew whistles and howled through air horns, drowning out the closing speech by Louis Sullivan, the President’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Outside they took control of the streets. On the eve of the conference, some 1,000 activists marched on the Immigration and Naturalization Service office downtown to protest the government’s power to exclude foreign visitors with AIDS—a major obstacle to holding another such conference in the United Slates.

Still, the abrasive methods fostered by Kramer haven’t alienated everyone in the medical establishment. “ACT UP has sensitized our community,” says Dr. Jonathan Mann, former head of the World Health Organization’s AIDS program. “Even if we differ in strategy, we have a lot more in common than what divides us.” Kramer doesn’t buy it. A demon researcher, Kramer insists that from the beginning the establishment and the government have thrown up roadblocks to developing a cure and failed to hold down the cost of treatment for AIDS patients. In 1987, he says, he found that AZT—the only government-approved drug to fight the HIV virus—was egregiously overpriced. “There is also an aerosol treatment in London that costs $26,” he says. “Here it costs up to $200. Same stuff. Same amount. Somebody’s making big profits.”

Kramer is a man of harsh words, but sitting in his modern, impeccably decorated apartment, he is surprisingly soft-spoken. “They call me the angriest activist,” he says, shaking his head. “I’m a pussycat.” Yet when former New York City Mayor Ed Koch moved into Kramer’s building on lower Fifth Avenue, Kramer, still enraged by what he saw as Koch’s years of hostility towards AIDS sufferers, confronted his nemesis in the lobby and screamed, “Murderer! No one wants you here!” That afternoon, the landlord called Kramer and told him to tone it down. He was also warned to leave Koch and his three bodyguards alone. As intended, Kramer’s hostility is bound to draw comment. “I think everybody living with HIV can understand his anger and rage,” says Arawn Eibhlyn, 39, a member of ACT UP’s San Francisco chapter. “But he’s not our spokesperson.”

Kramer smiles at such mild rebukes. He is, after all, accustomed to middle-class mores. His late father, George, was a government lawyer who preached a kind of docile conformity. “He didn’t want me in the theater,” says Kramer, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and yearned to be a writer from the start. “He wanted me to go to Yale, as he did. He said, ‘You will always get a job. And no one will ever ask you how you did. All they will want to know is that you went to Yale.’ And he was right.” Kramer’s mother, Rea, now 91, was a teacher. But the biggest influence on his life was his older brother, Arthur, 63, a prominent Manhattan attorney. “He pulled me out of trouble all the time,” says Kramer. “When I went to Yale and tried to commit suicide by taking 200 aspirins, Arthur came and took care of me. At 30, when I came out of the closet, Arthur understood. And although he does not support gay causes openly, he supports me. He invested my money and made me rich.”

Kramer spent the ’60s in London, where he wrote the screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, earning an Oscar nomination and a glittering reputation. In 1971 he moved to New York City, where he wrote a novel, Faggots. For many years, Kramer was not an activist in the burgeoning gay movement. Then, one summer night in 1980 on Fire Island, he saw something that frightened him: A frail and dying gay man was being carried in the arms of his lover. “Does anyone know what’s wrong with Nick?” Kramer remembers the lover asking. “I’ve been to doctors and hospitals and no one knows.” Nick died of “cat scratch fever,” according to the death certificate. The following summer, on July 3, 1981, Kramer read a report buried deep inside the New York Times, stating that 41 homosexual men had died of an unusual cancer. “I called a doctor friend and he knew about it,” says Kramer. “The party was over. It was AIDS.”

Within days, Kramer and the doctor called a meeting in his apartment and told the 80 men present that there was something out there killing them and that they had to organize and fight it. “You should have seen their faces,” he says. “They knew. Many of us had friends who died mysteriously. We’d all been at the meat racks and done the poppers and known the life-style. If one of us had it, we would all have it.” Out of that meeting came the core of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an organization that is now the largest provider of services for AIDS patients in the nation. In the end the group proved too tame for Kramer, who wanted to take more drastic measures to curb the AIDS threat. Soon he became a lightning rod for straight and gay critics alike, accused of exaggerating the AIDS crisis and of being antierotic for advocating a nonpromiscuous life-style. To the latter, Kramer reacted impatiently. “The encounters?” he asks. “What was that? Not love.”

Now, it seems, his fears have all been borne out, and the virus lurks in his system too. “I knew I would be infected,” says Kramer, who wrote about the AIDS scourge in his moving 1985 play, The Normal Heart. “I knew that we all would come down with it.” Meanwhile, Kramer prepares for the worst. Now that he is HIV positive, he says, he won’t need money for his old age, so he has upgraded his computer, bought a new desk and streamlined the work area in his apartment. He is writing the novel that he believes will be his last. It is called Search for My Heart No Longer, and it is autobiographical. “I need five more years to finish it,” he says. “I don’t know if I have five more years. I’ll just keep working as long as I have the energy.”

—Additional reporting by Liz McNeil in San Francisco

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