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Larry Kramer, ‘Normal Heart’ playwright and AIDS activist, dies at 84

David Colker
Los Angeles Times

A frail man stood outside the Golden Theatre in New York in 2011 when Larry Kramer’s scorchingly angry 1985 play about AIDS, “The Normal Heart,” finally received its Broadway debut.

As theatergoers emerged from the theater, the man handed them leaflets.

“Please know that this is a plague that need not have happened,” it cried out. “Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen.”

The man was Kramer, still angry.

Larry Kramer, a playwright, screenwriter, essayist and AIDS activist whose raging protests against the government, medical establishment and even the gay community helped bring attention to the health crisis, died Wednesday in Manhattan, his publisher Sarita Varma said. He was 84.

Kramer’s career as a writer, which began in the 1970s, received more attention in recent years due to the successful stage revival of “The Normal Heart” and its highly touted 2015 HBO film version.

But he will likely be remembered just as much, if not more, for his key role in AIDS and LGBTQ activism.

Organizations: In 1981 Kramer co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, which grew to become the largest AIDS service organization in the country. Six years later he founded the far more militant ACT UP, which staged sit-ins and heckled officials it felt were not paying enough attention to the disease at a time when it primarily struck gay men.

But he was too much of a loose canon even for ACT UP — both organizations he helped found eventually kicked him out.

Kramer couldn’t understand, as he said in a 2011 Toronto Star interview, why “every gay person doesn’t agree with everything I say.” And lest anyone think that was hyperbole, he added, “and I’m serious.”

Yet there is no doubt his angry voice helped bring attention to the ravages of AIDS, even before the disease was named.

Writing: In 1980, he was at the gay resort community on New York’s Fire Island when he saw a man carrying his dying lover, pleading, “Does anyone know what’s wrong with Nick?” Kramer said in a People magazine interview.

At that point in Kramer’s life, he was known for writing and producing the 1969 film adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, “Women in Love.” And he wrote a 1979 novel, “Faggots,” that portrayed the New York gay community as obsessed with sex.

When his attention turned to AIDS, his writing was the weapon. In 1983, furious about the lack of progress against the disease, he wrote “1,112 and Counting,” a landmark diatribe that first appeared in the New York Native gay newspaper.

“If this article doesn’t rouse you to anger, fury, rage and action, gay men may have no future on this earth,” he wrote.

He blasted government and healthcare officials, insurance companies and others. But much of his rage was aimed at gay people who wanted to keep a low profile on the disease because of a feared backlash.

“Nasty words make poor little sissy pansy wilt and die?” he wrote.

Though his taunting approach predictably alienated some, to others it was a turning point. “We realized that AIDS was going to be the major event of our time,” said prominent book publisher Michael Denneny in a 2014 Lambda Literary Review interview.

‘The Normal Heart’: Kramer’s most enduring artistic work, “The Normal Heart,” about a group of gay men struggling to bring attention to the crisis, was as much a tactic as an artistic endeavor.

“I wrote this as a play because I thought I could get the message out faster — and I’m not ashamed to call it a message play — about why it took so long for anything to happen when we had a chance to save a lot of lives and money,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1985.

When the semiautobiographical play opened that year off-Broadway, the New York Times said, “The playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage.”

“The Normal Heart” was a hit, running nearly 300 performances in its initial run and spawning other stagings, including a Los Angeles production in late 1985 that starred Richard Dreyfuss. Reviewer Dan Sullivan criticized the play in the Los Angeles Times but was moved by a scene at the end when walls of the set became illuminated with the names of hundreds of men who died of AIDS.

“If ‘The Normal Heart’ keeps one name off that list,” Sullivan wrote, “it was worth doing.”

Early life: Kramer was born June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He had a volatile relationship with his father, an attorney, whom Kramer said called him “sissy” from a young age.

“He always picked on me and yelled at me and occasionally hit me,” Kramer said in a 1990 L.A. Times interview. “I was a creative person whose creativity was always looked on as suspect by my parents.”

But gaining the confidence to talk back to his father set him on a path of defiance. “I am not frightened of authority,” Kramer said, “and I find so many people are.”

He went to Yale, where he tried to kill himself in his freshman year over feelings that he didn’t fit in. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1957, he took a job as a messenger at the William Morris Agency in New York and began climbing his way up the film career ladder, landing jobs in the 1960s with Columbia Pictures and United Artists in London.

Although he got an Oscar nomination for “Women in Love,” Kramer had only one more film credit that decade — the screenplay for the musical version of “Lost Horizon,” which flopped.

Health crises: Back living in New York, he was faced with the growing health crises. “If you know Larry at all, you know that there’s been this anger inside him for years,” Randy Shilts, author of the AIDS history “And the Band Played On,” told The Times in 1990. “With AIDS, he’s finally found an issue that’s worthy of his anger.”

Kramer’s scorched-earth rages might have helped spark activism, but they were also seen as a detriment to winning over key officials.

“He’s a bully,” Richard Dunne, a former GMAC director, said in a 1990 L.A. Times interview. “But on the plus side, he was there from the beginning. In the early 1980s, his rage and anger were appropriate.”

In 1988, Kramer was diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Causing him even more serious health problems, however, was liver disease from a hepatitis B infection. He was near death in 2001 when he received a transplanted liver that extended his life, allowing him to live long enough to see his reputation greatly enhanced, both as an activist and writer.

One of his frequent targets over the years was Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and now a face of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Fauci ended up admiring Kramer’s activism and the jolt it gave to the sometimes insular research establishment.

“There is no question in my mind that Larry helped change medicine in this country,” Fauci told the New Yorker in 2002. “In American medicine there are two eras, Before Larry and After Larry.”

In 2013, Kramer, who had been in and out of hospitals, was married to his long-time partner, David Webster.

Recent book: Illness slowed Kramer, but he had one final activist/artistic card to play.

For decades, he worked on a massive history of homosexuality in the U.S., “The American People.” Volume 1, running to nearly 800 pages, was published in April to mixed reviews.

Labeled a novel because of its speculations, “The American People” asserts that Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Mark Twain were gay or at least had homosexual affairs. Kramer said he wrote the book because he felt gay people’s history had not been adequately told.

And that made him angry.

“I happen to think anger is a wonderfully healthy emotion,” he told the gay Washington, D.C., newspaper Metro Weekly in 2011. “Until you have anger and fear, you don’t have any kind of an activist movement.”