Remembering Harry

WENDY WASSERSTEIN

I met Harry during the production of his play Christmas on Mars, which I saw three or four times, at Playwrights Horizons. I was riveted by that play. Maybe it was because towards the end of the second act a mother says to her pregnant daughter, “Walk on me if you think it would help,” and the daughter replies, “It would I think.” The stage directions read, “Audrey steps up on her mother and walks back and forth all over her with her pink slippers.”

And every time I saw that play I thought, “How did Harry know how much I want to walk on my mother?” How did Harry have the kindness and the sharpness to know that during that walk the mother and daughter would reconcile?

But that was what was so extraordinary about Harry. His ability to be so sharp, so critical, so impossible, and simultaneously be so kind, and so loving, and so deeply, deeply funny.

After the third time Harry saw me loitering the halls after Christmas on Mars, he invited me to his home in the East Village for lunch. I walked to his house, and I looked at the Turkish Russian bath across the street and wondered, “Good God, does Harry live there?” I rang the bell and after three endless flights of stairs there was Harry elegantly dressed and serving chicken curry and poached pears on perfect blue and white china.

We often had those poached pear lunches and talked about our plays, our mutual love lives, the lack of our mutual love lives. Harry had a great gift for friendship. He considered his friends family, as if we all were part of a larger family of Harry’s. I remember when I began writing The Heidi Chronicles about a female art historian, Harry began telling me about his sister Christine. It became clear to me that Harry cherished being a brother and took the time to really know a woman friend as a sister. I always felt safe with Harry. I always felt that he knew me very well.

Last year he asked me to his loft to give me a drawing of his. We looked at a few of them and I asked him which one I should take and he took out one that was called “Born Nasty!!!” I asked him how he knew that was my secret self and he said, “You wish it was your secret self and that’s why you should have it.” I have many favorite moments of Harry. I will never forget the time Harry and I and Bill Finn drove up to Williams College to be on a theatre panel. Harry was talking about Cliff and Tina, and I was talking about Maurice and Lola, and Billy was talking about Barbara Finn. And suddenly Harry insisted that we turn down the radio while he recited all of Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy.” There we were cruising down the Taconic listening to Harry say “Daddy.” Or the first time I saw him at St. Vincent’s Hospital when I found out he was ill, and he said, “What do you think of the gown? It’s Yves Saint Vincent.” This year when Cindy Tolan looked at apartments for him and he would call to say, “Am I too picky? Cindy saw 40 apartments, none of them to my liking.” And when Harry called to thank me for the Christmas dinner I gave with Harry, Bill Finn, Christopher Durang, Paul Rudnick, and Peter Parnell, Harry advised me that I wasn’t going to meet a husband this way.

The memory I was thinking of today when I thought of speaking here at the Public was Zero Positive playing upstairs and David Pierce running around in that wonderful toga and sandals and how much I loved that play. Like Bob Brustein, I too thought it was a masterpiece. And I remember a conversation we had last summer at Cathy and Stephen Graham’s house. Everyone else had gone to the pool to swim and we sat it out. Harry told me he was looking forward to his book being published and he knew Cathy would throw him a simply splendid party. Of course he had specific recommendations to make that party great. Then he began talking about my play and Angels in America, and the play that he had just written, and his hope that the theatre would become more important to our culture.

Harry was an extraordinary artist who was constantly producing, throughout his illness he gathered his energies to work.

At Harry’s service the other week at the Greek Orthodox Church in Queens I walked in with Cathy and Stephen Graham and Bill Finn and there was Harry’s family and friends all seated waiting for the service to begin and there was indeed someone vacuuming. All the Harry fan club, Robyn Goodman, Stephen Soba, Don Shewey, were there and we were all rolling our eyes until Vincent went up and said, “Stop!” What seemed most extraordinary to me, as it did to Stephen, was it was as if it was all written by Harry Kondoleon. I wish he was here to use it and I hope he is somewhere thrilling where he can use it, and after dine on perfectly poached pears.

I will cherish him, his plays, and what he taught me about friendship.