You would think that by age twenty-three, I would have known it was not the greatest idea to worship a celebrity. You see, I had grown up in Pacific Palisades, California, a beautiful suburb of Los Angeles where spotting celebs at Gelson’s Market (i.e. Toni Tennille, Pam Dawber, Michael Keaton, Valerie Harper) was an everyday occurrence. I had witnessed some of these actors behave like regular human beings firsthand. While I was a shy as a teenager, my mother was an extrovert. She had been a talented actress and she had no reservations striding up to any movie star to say hello; she enjoyed getting close to fame. I would watch their interactions from afar but I was able to notice that the famous folk did not hover three feet in the air or burst into song – they were human beings first, film stars second.
I knew logically that movie stars were real people with real faults, and they weren’t always charming to their public. If a famous actor was someone I didn’t idolize, I could actually approach her and not feel petrified. Case in point: Natalie Cole. I was at the Los Angeles Airport with one of my best friends and we spotted Ms. Cole a few hundred yards away. My friend thought she was out of this world, but while I admired Natalie Cole’s voice and I was impressed with her father, Nat King Cole, Ms. Cole did not frighten me. She was walking in the opposite direction from us, so on impulse I ran down the hall yelling “Natalie Cole!” at the top of my lungs. (Obviously this all happened before the heightened airport security following 9/11.) She stopped. My winsome friend sheepishly joined us, and she was utterly charming to us both, especially after I told her how highly my friend thought of her. I even felt comfortable enough to look her directly in the eye.
When it came to the celebrities I revered, it was a whole different story. I would absolutely freak out when given the chance to interact with a star I adored. I know that my reaction was driven in part by a combination of low self-esteem, good ‘ol shyness, and a worry that I was imposing upon these personages’ precious time.
When I moved to Santa Cruz, California, after I graduated from college I soon landed my first “real” job: an office manager for a special event production company. Although our office was in Santa Cruz, the small, family-owned company produced large-scale events in Silicon Valley. Many of these events attracted hundreds of thousands of people, and included the San Jose America Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival, and Music in the Park. We also were involved with smaller productions such as concerts at the gorgeous, high-end Villa Montalvo mansion in Saratoga.
Although my job started out as office manager, with being part of this small crew I had the opportunity to do logistical tasks connected with talent and performances. One day I found out that one of my absolute favorite actors/writers Spalding Gray would be performing at Villa Montalvo. Spalding Gray was known for his monologues in which he would sit behind a simple desk on a sparse stage. His most famous shows included “Swimming to Cambodia”, “Monster In A Box” and “Gray’s Anatomy”. In his movie roles, apart from playing a small part in Roland Jaffe’s highly lauded “The Killing Fields”, Gray often played doctors as he had a somber, “doctorly” air about him. He even played Fran Dresher’s psychiatrist in “The Nanny”.
Another role he played to perfection was the Stage Manager in a revival of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”. This man was brilliant, he really was. Somehow I was able to arrange that I would be Mr. Gray’s attendant before his evening show at Villa Montalvo. Now that I think of it, I cannot believe I had the chutzpah to offer myself up for this kind of job, but my admiration of Spalding Gray overruled everything else. I helped with his production rider, which contained a couple of unusual requirements such as hiring a shiatsu masseuse. I found a pricey shiatsu therapist for him with the intriguing name of Yoko. Then I went above and beyond what I had ever done with any other talent that my boss hired. I decided to rent a nice car (a gold Nissan Pathfinder) and I took Mr. Gray out to lunch in Los Gatos at a Good Earth Restaurant. This meal did not go well, even though I generously treated Mr. Gray to his lunch. As we sat across from one another at our small table, I was failing fast in terms of my self-deportment. I was in such a dither that Mr. Gray was getting annoyed with me, and he told me straight out, “You’re jagged!” It was obvious from his tone that being jagged was most definitely not a good thing.
“I’m what?” I thought in horror. I apologized in a mumble.
At that point I was heavily bummed out. I don’t recall what he ate, or if he even said “Thank you.” to me for shelling out my hard-earned dough on his behalf. (I doubt it.) He probably had no idea I used my own money. After lunch I dropped him off at his hotel so he could have his massage with Yoko and prepare for his sold-out performance. That evening, I went backstage and met his partner, Kathie, who was totally lovely, gracious, and made me feel at ease.
If I could go back in time, I would have stayed far, far away from my idol. It wasn’t fair for me to put him on a pedestal, just like it wasn’t fair for him to be rather impolite to me. Ever since that fateful day I met him, I kept up with his new books and films. I read more about his early years, in which his poor mother committed suicide. I also learned that Gray suffered from recurring depression and had bipolar (!) tendencies. Then I read about his car accident in 2001.
Gray was traveling with his family in Ireland and he was in an accident in which he had terrible injuries, including a skull fracture. He fell into depression following this incident, and he even consulted with the famous neurologist Oliver Sacks. Gray’s general outlook grew worse and finally in 2004, he went missing. Tragically he had jumped off the Staten Island Ferry to his death, leaving behind Kathie, his two sons and his stepdaughter. I remember hearing about that incident in the news and it completely chilled me. “What a horrible way to die.” was my first thought. Even though I had not yet been diagnosed with bipolar in 2004, I had numerous bouts of clinical depression and I could relate to his agony. I felt so sorry for his family, as it took days for them to learn what had happened to him. No wife or child should ever have to go through that.
Hopefully he is at peace wherever he is now.