Vanishing Act — (New York Magazine)

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New York Magazine

By Alex Williams

*From the February 2, 2004 issue

We’re all familiar with Spalding Gray’s demons—venting his despair was his art and profession. But after a crippling car crash in 2001, his depression began to overwhelm him. So when he went missing earlier this month, after several previous suicide attempts, his wife, children, and friends were left to fear the worst.

Don’t mind the balloons,” Kathie Russo says, brushing a few helium-filled strays from the doorway as she swings open the door into the kitchen of the rambling Federal-style house in North Haven she shared—or perhaps shares—with her husband, Spalding Gray. “We’re having a party.

“I know, I know,” she says, aware of the painfully incongruent timing. It’s day six since Gray, the performance artist and actor, 62, disappeared into the dark, eleven-degree Manhattan night. “Today is my son Theo’s birthday,” she says with a shrug. “I’m just living very much in the present, and trying to keep things normal for the kids.”

If there’s anything abnormal about the mood at this two-story white clapboard home, it’s the normality. It’s not a funeral. It’s not even a wake. It’s just a void, and an eerie one. A rabbit named Thumper sits in a cage on the dining-room floor, ignored by the children since the family bought a miniature Australian Shepherd puppy, named Bowie, in a half-successful attempt at “pet therapy” for their dad, who had been seriously—even publicly—depressed since he was injured in an accident two and a half years ago. At a small breakfast nook off the kitchen, Kathie’s parents sit, her father stoically reading the Times.

“How’s this?” asks Forrest, 11, who strolls up wearing a White Stripes T-shirt, showing off a pink-and-green Easter basket filled with presents he’s wrapped in blue for his brother. “For his birthday, Theo wants anything British. He is completely into the Revolutionary War,” Russo explains. “Last night I made cupcakes with a British flag on each. He’s a total history buff at age 6.

“In fact, on Saturday, the day he vanished, Spalding bought him a book on the history of war. History was one way for Spalding to engage with him.” She points to the table ten yards away in the dining room, which is covered in tan toy-soldier figurines. “These toy soldiers here, they would set them up on the table and play for hours. Theo’s dyslexic, like his father, so we’ve had to tutor him, but he’s a high-IQ person, just like Spalding.”

Russo pauses for a moment to reflect. “That’s the thing that’s so strange. Spalding was doing so much better,” she says, uncertainly flip-flopping between the past and present tense. “For the first time since the accident, he really seemed to be making progress. He was really engaging with our children, on a much more familiar basis. As Forrest called it, it was the ‘old daddy,’ as opposed to the ‘new daddy.’ ”

Russo smiles, red-eyed from the tears she’s been struggling to hold back for nearly a week. “Forrest is the writer; he’s my quiet child. Very reflective. He has Spalding’s personality. Theo looks exactly like Spalding, even at 6. But Theo is very gregarious, lively. His personality is more like mine, always living in the present.” She smiles wryly. “That’s the only way I’m surviving right now.”

Still, the signs of doom are everywhere, if you’re looking for them, as Spalding surely would be. On the piano in the living room sits sheet music for Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony.” On the mantel in the dining room sits a small clock emblazoned with a nautical map. At twelve o’clock it reads high tide, at six o’clock, low tide, as if it were there to track Gray’s daily swings in mood. “Oh, where do you start?” cries Russo. “My mother just pointed out that we live on Ferry Road.”

This morning, the detectives from the city were out again to give her an update, such as there was. Since the news broke January 12, the police have received more than 200 tips. Spalding was spotted in Beverly Hills; someone else saw him in Macy’s. He left his wallet behind at the couple’s Soho loft, true, but he did have $120 cash on him. One tip, from an ex-detective and published in the Times, had Spalding haggling with a waitress over a window seat at an Orange County diner. Russo promptly dispatched her parents to the diner, whose owner ended up poring over recent tapes from his security cameras. No Spalding.

“I keep getting these phone calls from fans saying, ‘I’m sure he’s just gathering material.’ I wish that were true.”

Gray had spent the past 31 months laboring, only partly successfully, to recuperate from a devastating car accident in Ireland in June 2001. 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 gruesome, jagged scar on his forehead. Shattered both physically and emotionally, he had spent the ensuing months experimenting with every therapy imaginable. In just under two years, the celebrated monologuist underwent six operations and passed through twelve hospitals. There was virtually no psychoactive medication Gray had not tried—Prozac, Celexa, Paxil, Depakote—and usually, under doctors’ orders, in extravagant combinations. He tried aggressive acupuncture. Nothing worked.

In the past year, he’d attempted suicide several times. And now, only absence. “The children are dealing with the situation differently,” says Russo. Forrest has been quiet, but able to articulate his fears. “Theo, I think, is waiting for Daddy to come through the door.”

And he might. Conceivably. The last his family saw of Spalding was Saturday, January 10, when he took the kids to see Big Fish, the story of a dying father’s relationship with his son, at the Loews Village on Third Avenue and 11th Street. After the movie, Gray wept.

Gray had openly talked before about killing himself by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, which he rode often just to relax. On the day before he went missing, he had been observed by ferry staff placing his wallet on a bench and wandering ominously over to the railing. He was later escorted off the ferry by security guards.

There had been other ostensible attempts at suicide, too, other notes. Since September 2002, there were three official attempts—such as the time he paced the bridge connecting Sag Harbor to North Haven, hyperventilating and balling his fists until he was talked down—and numerous other moments when Gray apparently flirted with his own death. But Gray always left word of his intentions and he didn’t seem to care who received it. At one point last fall, he left a message on the home answering machine, telling his family he intended to jump from the Staten Island Ferry. More than once he left notes on the kitchen table, one of which was discovered by Forrest.

But this time, nothing. “It’s so unlike Spalding not to leave something,” says Russo. True, there was an eerily arbitrary trip into the drizzly chill to “buy stationery.” When Gray failed to show up by Sunday morning, Russo fully expected to receive a note on that same stationery. Rushing out to North Haven on Monday, she began to dread the mail’s arrival. Two days passed. Four. Still nothing.

“Now it’s been six days,” she reasons. “If something were going to arrive, it would be here already. But then he lied about where he was going that night,” she adds bitterly. “He said he was going to meet a friend.” It turned out the friend hadn’t even heard from Spalding that weekend. “And Spalding knew I was going to be out at a conference at the Hilton until midnight . . . ” A telephone chirps and she grabs the receiver. “Uh-huh, yes,” she says in a clipped tone. She listens a moment more, nods, and hangs up. It was the detectives again. “Nothing new,” she says with resignation. “At this point, I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad news.”

That was Friday. By Tuesday, the detectives were back on the phone. No less than four credible witnesses reported seeing Gray riding the ferry on Saturday, around the time he vanished. Equally depressing, police had traced the last phone call Spalding made to the boys to a pay phone at the ferry terminal.

Russo, recounting these latest developments, was clearly holding back tears.

“I feel, in my heart, that he has died. I’m trying to accept it now,” she says, trailing off.

In June 2002, succumbing to an ever-worsening despair, Gray checked himself into Silver Hill, a psychiatric hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut. Two months after his release, while riding on a ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, he confessed to a friend that he was tempted to throw himself overboard. In September of that year, he was talked down from the bridge connecting Sag Harbor and North Haven. He was then committed to hospital. Though the couple’s insurance covered only six weeks, he stayed for four months. The treatment was to no avail, and Russo continued to seek out experts throughout New York City. “They all would basically spend ten minutes and send him on his way,” she says.

As new medications and new therapies failed, the downward spiral continued. “You name it, he’s been on it. Antidepressants. Antipsychotics. He was on Depakote the first time he tried the bridge. He was on such a high dosage. He was really out of it,” Russo says. “He would see little improvements on every single one, then he would crash.” But she doesn’t believe they were a significant factor in Gray’s suicide attempts. One afternoon, Gray took a sail alone on Sag Harbor Bay. He jumped overboard, but grabbed onto the rudder. He was resigned—he later told a friend—to letting the current decide his fate. It spared him that time.

A year later, Russo was expected at a dinner party at Tara Newman’s former home, an old whaling captain’s house in Sag Harbor. Through cocktails, she hadn’t shown up. Finally, the 25 or so assembled guests sat down for dinner. “Suddenly, Kathie burst in and just said, ‘He’s done it,’ and basically threw herself into Tara’s arms,” recalls writer Michael Shnayerson, a guest that night. “It was like a scene from a Chekhov play, where this woman bursts in stage right with this horrible news. She had planned to meet Spalding at the Jitney stop. When he didn’t show, she checked the messages on her home machine. Spalding had left a rambling message saying he intended to kill himself and ending with something like ‘Please, take care of the children.’ The kids were actually upstairs playing. They didn’t know anything about this.

“A few of us gathered with her in the living room and played back the message, trying to come up with some course of action,” Shnayerson adds. “Then, about fifteen minutes later, the police called. He had been riding the ferry and they had found him wandering around Staten Island. After two years of this, my sense was that Kathy was just wrung out.”

From this point on, friends were uncertain if Spalding’s erratic behavior was a cry for help or a sincere wish to extinguish himself. Even Russo didn’t always know. Last April, Gray wandered into the surf at the beach in Bridgehampton wearing his street clothes. He reemerged disoriented and dripping. “When I saw him, I just said to him, ‘Spalding, what are you doing?’ ” says Russo…