Remembering Pioneering AIDS Activist Larry Kramer
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Larry Kramer, the influential writer and AIDS activist who co-founded both the Gay Men's Health Crisis and the protest group ACT UP, died of pneumonia Wednesday. He was 84 years old. As an activist, Kramer was on the frontlines early, fighting for the government to more aggressively research and combat the HIV virus. He wrote passionate articles about the rising death tolls as well as stage dramas about the AIDS epidemic. One of those was the autobiographical play "The Normal Heart," which was filmed as an HBO movie in 2014. Another was "The Destiny Of Me," which was running off-Broadway when Terry Gross interviewed Larry Kramer in 1992. One of the characters in that play was based on Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was the government's head researcher when AIDS first surfaced. He and Kramer clashed often at first but eventually came to respect each other. In Kramer's New York Times obituary yesterday, Dr. Fauci said, quote, "once you got past the rhetoric, you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense and that he had a heart of gold," unquote.
During their 1992 interview, Larry Kramer told Terry that he began to empathize with Fauci after the doctor invited him and other activists to participate in the process of developing medications and policies to fight AIDS.
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LARRY KRAMER: He invited us inside. And when you get to know a person, that makes hate harder. He's a genuinely likable person, and I think we grew genuinely fond of each other. So it's kind of hard to call a man that you feel that way about a murderer. I will say, I've learned a lesson. And I don't know that I ever want to go inside again, that I feel much more useful as a as a gadfly, as someone from - yelling from the outside. I wish I did not know Tony so well. I wish I did not know Dr. Gallo so well or the cast of characters that I've come to know and respect.
TERRY GROSS: Well, I wonder if knowing some of the doctors and researchers better than you used to and having them become more human, more likable to you, if that's given you any second thoughts about some of the tactics of ACT UP, the group that you co-founded.
KRAMER: I have to say no. I don't think that I - I will defend the tactics of ACT UP, and very strenuously. I think that without those tactics, we wouldn't have been invited inside in the first place. He would never have - we would never have had the opportunity to be listened to or to be taken seriously.
We would not have been able to - oh, the best instances that there's a drug out now called - from Bristol-Myers - called DDI, and they're about to release another one called D4T. And these are both valuable alternatives to AZT from Burroughs Wellcome. And those two good drugs from Bristol-Myers are out there because of us, literally. We asked to meet with Bristol-Myers. I wrote a letter to the president, Richard Gelb, the CEO, and I sent him our usual packet saying all are good things and also about our protests. And he was nervous. But he opened the door, and we sat down with the scientists. And - but again, we couldn't have gotten in the door if Gelb hadn't been frightened of us.
GROSS: You've been diagnosed with HIV. Well, you were first diagnosed with that in 1988. Have you had any symptoms, or is it just testing positive?
KRAMER: Well, I've not had any opportunistic infections. There have been, you know, certain things that have - that people with this condition habitually experience, but nothing of any earth-shattering import. I've been very lucky thus far. And I believe I have been infected since easily the late '70s. So I'm what's called a long-term survivor of one sort or another. And I don't know why I'm not dead. And, of course, this is one of the things we've been most anxious to force - to force - to ask the government to study.
GROSS: How has having HIV affected your sense of priorities as an activist and your sense of what you as an individual should be devoting your time to?
KRAMER: Well, I would rather answer that by saying it's made me very - life very precious, et cetera, et cetera. And I want to finish my life's work and - which is to write certain things about it. But it has taught me an enormous amount about life and humanity and human beings. And most of what I have learned has not been terribly pleasant. I just have seen humanity at its worst. I have seen bureaucracy at its worst. I've seen bigotry at its worst. And I've seen precious little countervailing charitable acts of love to balance any of that to the extent the awfulness has been allowed.
Yes, of course, there are wonderful people who have been working on the frontlines. But for 12 years, two wretched presidents refused in any way to help save lives and allowed other people to intentionally become sick so that they, too, might die. And that's a very strong indictment. And it's just - I did not start out to be an activist. I did not start out to be indeed political. I was a businessman. I was in the film industry. I was assistant to the presidents of both Colombian United Artists. I went to Yale. I was on my way to making a great deal of money. I was not a gay man first by any manner of means until I became involved in fighting AIDS and - because someone close to me died. And suddenly, I was none of these things. I was no longer the - you know, the white man from Yale. I was a f***** without a name.
GROSS: Larry, do you remember how you first heard about AIDS, the first signs of it that you saw or read about?
KRAMER: Oh, yes. There were, I guess, several incidents. The first official real quaking in my stomach was in July of 1981 when the first article appeared in the back pages of The New York Times announcing the discovery in gay men of a rare cancer. And it was announced by a doctor whom I knew at NYU. And it - I said - and I rushed up to see him. And he told me what was going on. And I just knew then that, boy, this was going to get - this was just going to be awful.
And then as he told me about it and what was happening, my mind went back to incidences over the preceding couple of years where I had had friends who were mysteriously ill - lovers carrying their lovers around literally in their arms from doctor to doctor, from hospital to hospital begging for - have you heard of anything this could remotely resemble? And it has been 12 years of horror - death after death after death. One does become inured to it in a strange sort of way. I don't feel near the appalling horrors on a basis as I did in those early days.
GROSS: You feel like you've adjusted to death, and that's probably not a good thing to adjust to.
KRAMER: It certainly isn't. It certainly isn't.
GROSS: Have you counted the number of friends that you've lost, or did you just stop counting?
KRAMER: I stopped counting. I used to keep a little book. And I forgot even what year it was when it reached 500. And I just stopped at 500. But you have to remember that having co-founded GMHC and having founded ACT UP and just being so well known in the community, I probably - you know, I knew more people than your average gay person. But I think by now there isn't anyone in New York who has not certainly had many dozens of people lost.
GROSS: Do you know what you'll be writing next? Is there a project you're working on now?
KRAMER: I have so many projects that I don't know that I have time for them all. But I've been working for - I guess for about 10 years on a very, very, very long novel called "The American People," which I will write till the day I die. And when I - it's, like, sort of Proustian. You know, when he finished it, he died. That's, I think, what's going to happen at this point.
KRAMER: I feel it's almost my responsibility to write about AIDS stuff and about what it's been like to be gay in this time in history. And fortunately I'm still healthy, and I feel like I've been given this opportunity to write this story because I was, for whatever reason, put him on the frontlines of the battlefield when it's - when the war started in 1981. And there are not many writers of us who are still - who are still alive. And I know where all the bodies are buried, both symbolically and literally, and that I have to somehow - and it's an enormous challenge and an enormous task. I must somehow find a way to make art out of all of this and to the best damn, biggest, greatest novel I have it in me to write. And I'm enjoying that challenge.
GROSS: Larry, I wish you good luck with your writing, and I wish you good health. And good luck with your new play.
KRAMER: Thank you very much, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Larry Kramer speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. The writer and longtime activist died Wednesday at age 84. And he ended up finishing that novel. The second volume of "The American People" came out earlier this year.
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BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, Terry speaks with actress Christine Baranski, who stars in "The Good Fight," playing a brilliant commanding partner in a progressive law firm. It's a spinoff of "The Good Wife." Baranski also is known for her comedic roles and for work in stage and screen musicals, including "Into The Woods," "Chicago" and "Mame." I hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer today is Charlie Kyer (ph). Our technical director is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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