The HIV/AIDS and queer worlds are still reeling from the May 27 death (at age 84) of Larry Kramer, the playwright and novelist (Faggots, The Normal Heart, The American People) who not only cofounded GMHC and ACT UP but whose name became shorthand for the militant fury of both the HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ rights movements. Since 1993, however, at least some of that Kramer fury had been offset by the calming and stabilizing presence of architect David Webster, Kramer’s 1970s object of worship (and sometimes lover) who ended up becoming his steadfast domestic partner (and, in 2013, legal husband). Only a few days after Kramer’s passing, Webster was generous enough to have a long conversation about life with Larry, from their first meeting in the hedonistic 1970s and their 1990s reunion to their quiet(ish) life in Connecticut and then return to New York City for Kramer’s final decade. What follows is a rare look inside daily life with perhaps the most influential and controversial gay figure of the past 50 years.
Tim Murphy: David, thank you so much for talking just a few days after Larry’s passing. Can I ask, first of all, how are you doing?
David Webster: Not well. I miss that he’s not here and that I can’t have access to him and talk to him anymore, which I really hadn’t thought about before. In 1993, before I was with Larry, my partner of 13 years, Michael Eriksson, died of AIDS. I’d expected I’d be with him my whole life, so I do know what loss is. But this time, my whole life for 25 years is now over. And I’m old. I’m 73. Where does a 73-year-old gay man go? Do I just spend the next 20 years with my friends? it’s all just stuff I haven’t thought about.
TM: I hear you. And where are you right now, in the city?
DW: Yes, I’m in NYC at my co-op in Chelsea that I’ve always owned and used as an office for my architecture business. Larry and I had actually been living apart since late March. I got a sinus infection, which I’ve had on and off all my life, so I felt it was better for me to be away from Larry, whom [Anthony] Fauci [M.D., at the National Institutes of Health, Kramer’s nemesis-turned-lifelong-buddy] had told to just stay inside during COVID-19. Larry’s care aid would come in with a mask and gloves. So I was living in my own apartment, and we were FaceTime-ing. But after my third day on antibiotics, I got the worst headache I’ve ever had, like a truck ran into my head. I didn’t eat for 10 days. Finally, I was told that I probably had coronavirus. I got better. But after Easter, I got the sinus infection again, and my doctor said I should stay apart from Larry.
So, apart from briefly at the end of March, I did not see him again until last Friday [May 22]. He’d been in the hospital starting May 1, but he was finally out. But he complained of a stomachache. Yet he still wanted baked beans. I said, “You have a stomachache, you can’t have baked beans! Let’s start with some tea and chicken.” So I made dinner. But because he broke his leg a year ago, which was very compromising for him, it was hard for him to get up in the middle of the night, so I had someone who was coming in at 7 p.m., making him dinner, and looking after him overnight until 7 a.m.
So that Sunday, the woman who cared for him over the weekend texted me to say that Larry had vomited, but I didn’t think anything of it. But on Monday, John, his caretaker, said that Larry seemed spacey, not connected. So I called Larry’s main doctor, who said to bring him to the nearest ER, which was New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell. He was tested at the door. They said his oxygen level was 80—not good—so they put a tank on him and wheeled him away. Through that week, tests showed that he didn’t have COVID-19 but that he must have gotten something stuck in his throat, because he had aspirational pneumonia as well as intestinal blockage. They thought they could fix the pneumonia with antibiotics and he’d be out in a week.
But that didn’t seem to happen. They put him on a ventilator, and hence in a medical coma. That lasted three to four days, then all his vitals checked out, indicating that he would be fine. But no. So another ventilator routine.
I don’t know how well you know Larry, but he’s lived in his head since he was a little kid, because his father was so tough with him. And I knew that if he was going to come out of his head, he needed me there, something familiar, what he knew. Finally, I texted his doctor and said, “I need to see him.” So I came into the hospital, gowned up, went into the ICU, and sat with him for three hours. I said, “If you know I’m here, squeeze my hand twice.” And he did. He wasn’t able to talk.
I was going to come back in a few days but was then told that I couldn’t come back. They moved him to normal care. Hospital people are very polite, but they’re all about medicine. They were not making him get up and do things, which was what he needed, to be pushed, because even at nearly 85, Larry was still a little boy.
On Wednesday, May 27, the hospital called to say that he seemed OK. I was supposed to see him today (Friday, May 29), in fact. But then on Wednesday, the doctor called and told me he’d died.
It shouldn’t have happened. I think it happened because he was alone and living in his head. It’s hard for people to understand, but this obstreperous, difficult, screaming angry man could be scared. When I was sick with COVID-19, he’d call and say, “I’m so scared—if you die, what’s going to happen to me?” I’d say, “Larry, stop calling me, I can’t take this.”
TM: Was that your fundamental take on Larry—that underneath all the fury, he was just a 6 year old?
DW: Not intellectually, but emotionally. I came to understand that about him. We talked a lot. Even in the Faggots days [the late 1970s, when Larry’s novel Faggots came out, thinly veiling his unrequited love for Webster], our conversations were always great. But he had that deep fear, and he liked to be taken care of.
TM: So, you know, the fairy tale version of your relationship is that in the 1970s, he pined for you as this sort of handsome Fire Island gay ideal, and then in the 1990s, Larry finally gets you, the prince. True?
DW: That’s pretty good, actually. But fairy tales have two sides. In 1993, when I was living in Switzerland with Michael, my partner of 13 years who was dying from AIDS, Larry and I hadn’t seen each other in 17 years. All through the ’80s, we did not communicate. I followed his plays and his actions, of course. But in late 1992, he called me. He said he wanted to offer me the chance to help him find and renovate his dream home, because his [attorney] brother had invested Larry’s TV and film money well enough for him to be able to have a house.
So, after my partner died, I get back to New York from Switzerland in the spring of 1993. There was a house in Sagaponack [in the Hamptons] that he was obsessed with, and he said, “I want you to make me a house like that.” So during this time we’re looking for property, and I’m staying with him in a house he’d rented in East Hampton, and he said to me, “I have a king-size bed. You don’t have to sleep in the guest room.” So it was nice, because we’d dated and had sex back in the ’70s, so I knew his body and how it worked.
TM: Why do you think the relationship happened then and not back in the ’70s?
DW: Because Larry was crazy! You have to read Faggots. I mean, we were both looking for love as well as sex. But Larry wasn’t pushing all the sexual buttons for me. I was curious about sex. I wasn’t going to just sit home and have it one way for the rest of my life. I guess I was promiscuous.
TM: And Larry did not enjoy casual sex for its own sake?
DW: It goes back to that little boy. He didn’t trust people. Even when we met in 1968 and fucked in my loft bed, he was furtive. He wasn’t open and warm. He didn’t want to lose control. But come the ’90s, I was 50 and he was 60. We were changed. And I loved him. Loved that he was crazy. And he gave me the space to mourn the loss of Michael. I wasn’t dating or going out. Larry and I were building this life together at the same time I was letting go of someone.
TM: And you mentioned a moment ago that you did couples therapy together.
DW: We never discussed monogamy. We had adequate sex. It was not skyrockets-going-off, acid-trip sex. But it was comfortable sex. We slept in the same bed through our whole relationship.
TM: So even in the 1970s, there were aspects to him that you were drawn to?
DW: Yes. But think of yourself at 35. What comes your way isn’t necessarily what you’re prepared for. I wasn’t prepared for him at 35. Larry wasn’t prepared for Larry at that age! He went through shrinks all his life, and he was still the same crazy person at 85.
TM: So when you reconnected in 1993, had the 1980s, AIDS, GMHC, ACT UP, The Normal Heart, all of it ... had it changed him?
DW: In the 1980s, he learned that he was truly free to be gay, something he was only beginning in the 1970s. He became proud to be gay, and despite the plague and homophobia, he’d had success as an openly gay playwright.
TM: So he was somewhat happier and calmer?
DW: Yes. He didn’t have to hide. He was on every talk show, waving the gay banner, and that’s what he wanted other prominent gays, like David Geffen and Barry Diller, to do as well, instead of living an open secret. Stephen Sondheim always kept Larry at a distance because Larry was too gay for him. Once, when Sondheim was writing Assassins, Larry said to him, “You know, [President] McKinley was gay,” and Sondheim screamed at him, “Everything with you is gay gay gay! You’re a one-track mental nut! Get away from me!” And after that, Sondheim would cross the room to avoid Larry.
TM: And so the two of you ended up being together 27 years. Did those 27 years have particular chapters?
DW: The first phase would be the ’90s, building a house together in Litchfield County, Connecticut. The house was like our child. Larry left the city and moved into the house, met the community up there, and started being an activist for protecting the lake [Waramaug]. We started entertaining up there a lot. Larry actually was quite shy and socially awkward. He only invited you over if he wanted something. Otherwise, he didn’t know how to socialize. So I produced people, everyone from Mia Farrow to Patti LuPone. But then Larry said, “Where are all the gay people?” So we started having a gay Fourth of July party that became a thing.
And that continued through the 2000s up until around 2010, when he got restless and wanted to be back in the city more. He was now about 70. He was more nervous about driving after having had a few small accidents. So in 2013 we sold the house, around the same time that he was hospitalized for an abscess behind his intestines, during which we got married. I also bought the [gay leather bar] Eagle in Dallas. I liked leather sex.
TM: How did Larry feel about that?
DW: Well ... Larry liked it when I restricted his hands and played with him.
TM: It’s funny to think about Larry submitting to someone.
DW: Yes. It made him have to trust me.
TM: What would you say a typical day with Larry was like?
DW: Pleasant. Fun. Interesting. We never woke up with the baggage of the day before.
TM: Larry would write, and you would take care of all the domestic stuff?
DW: Yes. Well, he cooked a little. The first meal we ever had together, a woman at the fish store on University Place told him how to broil a fish, and he made a fennel salad with it. If he wanted to master something, he always did.
TM: Did he ever blow up at you the way he blew up at so many people?
DW: Uhhhh ... well, yes. But differently. He’d get angry at me in marriage counseling. Actually, more at the therapist. Later in the car, he’d bark at me, “He always takes your side.” Which would make me laugh.
TM: Did you spend much time talking about gay rights and AIDS?
DW: A lot. The future of that was really frustrating for him. We were at a party in D.C. in around 2014. Larry buttonholed Tony [Fauci] and said, “What happened? Where’s the cure?” And Tony said, “Larry, I don’t run the show, it’s the president and Congress, and right now there’s not much money for AIDS because now there’s treatment and it’s no longer urgent.”
TM: Yes, and he was also very anti-PrEP [the HIV prevention pill] when it came out after 2012. How did you feel about that?
DW: It was consistent with what he wrote in Faggots.
TM: That gays shouldn’t just have sex for fun, for sex’s sake?
DW: Right. That we had to find more substance. Personally, I think we should be able to be promiscuous. I don’t think it’s bad. I fooled around in my relationship with Larry. But never on our shared time. It was, “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” He did say to me once, “We’re not having a lot of sex, and you probably need it. You’re younger and nice-looking.” And I said to him, “You don’t have to worry about that. Because I’m not leaving.”
But he was partly right about PrEP, because it’s basically chemo.
TM: Larry would constantly say that about HIV meds, but there’s actually no evidence that HIV meds, including for PrEP, harm the body the way chemo does.
DW: Yes, but you’re still putting chemicals in your body.
TM: Well ... anyway, did Larry take an interest in your career?
DW: Yes. He visited my projects and told my clients to stop bothering me, because they were cutting into his time with me. He was completely involved in my life, and I in his. I met his London friends from when he worked in the film business there.
TM: So you feel that he really saw you?
DW: Totally. But I wasn’t in competition with him. My own work and projects were very high-end. I made good money and didn’t need his support. We were in totally different fields. And he also finished his fucking [two-volume] book [The American People]. That kept him alive. It started in 1993. He had this mess of a book and I helped him edit it, made timelines, read it for him again and again. The book was our other child. I always asked him to write a [guide] to whom the characters in Faggots and The American People were based on, but he never did.
TM: In recent years, Larry had started saying often, when he still spoke publicly, that both the gay rights movement and the AIDS movement had “failed.” Did he say this often to you?
DW: What do you think? Are people more aware? Are things better?
TM: I actually think the answer is mixed. We’ve advanced in some ways and stayed in place or fallen behind in others. But I don’t think that both movements have categorically failed.
DW: Larry embraced being a gay man as Jews have embraced being Jewish and Blacks have to embrace being Black. In the Central Park speech last summer [during the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, in which Kramer told the crowd that the LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS movements had failed], he wanted gay people to embrace being gay that way, but it’s hard when the main connection is sexual.
TM: He could be very cruel, calling people who were actually working hard against the epidemic—perhaps in a less vocal way than he was—murderers or idiots or Nazis. Did you ever say to him, “Larry, don’t be cruel”?
DW: Occasionally—but that was his choice. That’s the anger part, the 6 year old who was called a sissy.
TM: Yes, but many of us were called sissies but still didn’t end up demonizing people.
DW: It’s from fighting his father all the time. That part of him popped out whenever he felt marginalized or pushed. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t control it, even as he got older. He also understood that it could be used for effect. He used to write movie scripts.
TM: So, David, I don’t know if it’s too early to ask this, but what’s next for you?
DW: I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s really weird. This wasn’t supposed to happen. In no way was this my plan. He shouldn’t have died. He got marginalized in the [hospital] system.