Remembering Harry

STEPHEN GRAHAM

Two images of Harry have been…I won’t say “haunting” me, but have been recurring to me ever since the funeral. I think what started it was that man who, as some of you may have remarked, was busily and noisily vacuuming the church as people were coming in and sitting down — I think it was that rather weird occurrence that brought these particular memories back to me so forcefully, because the vacuuming was the kind of surreal and inappropriate touch that would have…I wouldn’t say amused Harry, I think it would have annoyed him intensely, but it might have wound up as a funny moment in one of his plays.

            Anyway, the first memory is from the book party that Cathy and I gave for the publication of Diary of a Lost Boy. Harry, as many of you will remember, got up from his hospital bed and detached his IV unit in order to attend the event. He sat upstairs in our living room for an hour or so before dinner, signing books and talking to his friends, and then we all went downstairs for dinner. At that point there was a lot of whispered discussion about whether or not it was a good idea for Harry to stay longer, as the effort was obviously taxing what little strength he had. Meanwhile, Harry was in the bathroom, and Robyn, Dr. Tim, myself and a number of others constituted this cluster of concerned faces, standing around outside the bathroom door, waiting for him to come out. Finally, he did totter out, and Tim asked gently and tactfully whether Harry thought he might like to go back to the hospital now. Harry gave him a raised eyebrow and responded, “No, but you run along if you’re tired.” He then proceeded to eat dinner with us, conversing with considerable energy, after which he finally said good night and went back to the hospital.

            Why does this event stay with me? Just as a recent and vivid reminder of the — and I can’t think of a better word for it — heroism, always camouflaged somewhat by his own inimitable brand of wit, that Harry consistently manifested throughout the last five years of his illness. I think it was JFK who defined courage as “grace under pressure,” and although I would stop short of characterizing Harry as “Kennedy-like,” he will always be to me a textbook example of grace under pressure. Although the word “pressure” hardly does justice to what he went through, and what he overcame.

            Anyway, the second image that came back to me during the vacuuming was Harry as “Coco.” Harry became Coco at some costume event or other which I did not attend, but a year or two ago he proudly, and in fact somewhat insistently, showed me this incredible series of photographs taken of him as “Coco,” and he even briefly turned on his “Coco” personality for me. (Coco seemed to be a fading European beauty, once glamorous but now broken by life — a sort of French Blanche du Bois.) And why is Coco such a vivid memory to me? Well, for one thing Harry looked pretty good in drag:

Coco was quite attractive, and knew it. But if I had to seek a larger significance in Coco, it would be as an example of the artistry that Harry put into everything he did — not just into his writing and his painting, but into every aspect of the way he presented himself to the world. Choosing an outfit. Preparing a meal. Even just being in a room. Michel Foucault said in an interview that he conceived of his own existence as an ongoing aesthetic creation — that one’s life should be viewed as one’s own ultimate work of art. I don’t know if Harry was a disciple of Foucault — I’m sure he read him — but whether or no, Harry was someone who instinctively approached every aspect of daily life — no matter how seemingly banal — as an aesthetic challenge. He put tremendous care and thought into everything he did — including matters of dress. So out of the ephemeral occasion of whoever’s costume party it was, whereas most of us would have probably resorted to the nearest costume shop and become forgettable belly dancers or Roman senators in togas, Harry characteristically created something funny, weird, and enduring — he gave us Coco, whom I at least will not forget.

Thank you, Harry, for Coco, for The Vampires, and for having been Cathy’s and my friend.