From the first time we spoke, I knew Larry Kramer had a big heart. His loud and angry demeanor — he was a scary dude in leather jacket and jeans — disguised a very human and extremely sensitive man.
We spoke many times. It was the early 1990s and I was writing Muses From Chaos and Ash: A.I.D.S., Artists and Art (Grove Press) about the impact of AIDS on the creative community in New York and Paris. For years Kramer, co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis during the height of the AIDS pandemic and later founder of Act UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), was among a handful of artists I interviewed for the book who were still alive. I used to joke and say anger seemed to be the best drug against AIDS. Kramer was known as the angriest man alive.
And now Larry Kramer is dead.
When we last spoke in 1993, AIDS was still raging and so was Kramer. Diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988, at the time, he never would have believed he would live this long.
“I don’t have hope that this is going to be ended. I don’t have hope that I’m going to live to be saved,” he told me. “I can no longer maintain the fiction that we’re going to save our own lives, that activism and anger are going to save our lives.”
Kramer is best know for his autobiographical 1985 play, The Normal Heart, which opened at The Public Theatre in New York in 1985. Its adaptation into an HBO film, starring Julia Robert and Mark Ruffalo, won the 2014 Emmy for best TV movie. Its revival in 2011, won the Tony for best revival of a play. Earlier, in 1969, Kramer was nominated for an Academy Award for his adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love. Glenda Jackson won an Oscar for her performance in the film, which also launched Alan Bates and Oliver Reed and Ken Russell’s career as a director.
Kramer was prodigiously creative. His prolific output included numerous plays, essays and books. Over the course of my interviews with him, he was furiously at work on a novel about the AIDS crisis, which would eventually become the two volume The American People.
“It’s not a traditional novel,” he told me at the time. “It’s an epic novel.” At the time he was writing about a period in American life 50 years prior to AIDS.
The first volume, The American People. Volume 1: Search for my Heart, was published in 2015 and was over 800 pages. The second volume, The American People. Volume 2: The Brutality of Fact, was published in 2020 and was even longer.
Kramer told me he was writing the novel to memorialize all his many friends who were lost to AIDS.
“I don’t know why I’m still alive, because all my friends are dead,” he told me. “But I am, so I feel even more obligated to honor their memories. I think that’s what I try to tell myself when I pull myself away from ACT UP and try not to feel guilty, because they need me, too.”
“I’m going to be dead by the time my book comes out,” he added. He wasn’t. He lived to see another pandemic and — committed artist that he was (though he hated calling himself an artist) — had started a new book about the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s remarkable that this angry man, who had so much to be angry about, found a way to survive, and, yes, thrive for 84 extraordinary years.