On Leonard Melfi

Edward Porter

Nov 17, 2010

Inevitably over the holidays, someone asks you what you're doing in a graduate program. My standard answer is, "I'm a writer who doesn't want to die in a ditch." That probably sounds like a joke, but it's not: it happens. For reasons too obscure to go into here, this year I find myself thinking about Leonard Melfi again. A friend talking about the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death said, "I was always afraid that I would end up like one of the characters in his plays if I stayed in New York too long." It's a fear underscored by the sort of poetic injustice that the writer fell victim to. Just as Stephen King was almost killed by someone straight out of one of his novels, Leonard Melfi's death seemed like something stolen from one of his plays: the story told in a closing monologue by one of his unhinged beautiful losers.

According to newspaper accounts, in October of 2001 he was taken by ambulance from his hotel on the Upper West Side to Mount Sinai Hospital, where he died of heart failure, alone. No one contacted his family or friends, and amazingly, his death went unnoticed and unreported well into February. When his brother finally learned what had happened, the hospital had lost track of his body, which stayed lost until early March. The Medical Examiner's office eventually found his remains in a potter's field on Hart Island, under the tender care of the Department of Correction. I knew him only slightly, but his memory triggers a wave of feelings best understood by anyone who has moved to New York to be an artist and at some point lifted his or her head to look down the road at what might be in store.

Early on in his career, Leonard Melfi was a member of the American Theater's starting infield, along with Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, and Lanford Wilson. For a while his plays were being done all over New York and every college in America saw at least one production of Birdbath, during the '70s. The rise or fall of an artist is always slightly mysterious, but in Leonard's case there was an obvious explanation for the fall: he drank. For about six months in the '80s, I was a reader in his playwriting class, where the best theater was always Leonard himself. He walked and spoke with an odd vibrating jitter, the result, we thought, of all the alcohol and God knows what else he had taken over the years, making him seem a little like a TV picture on the verge of losing its signal. It was as if it took a serious effort for him just to keep his molecules in place, as he stood there in his cowboy boots. He was sober while he was teaching. The informal word was that the class would last until Leonard started to drink again, and might pick up later when he got out of rehab. Like a lot of theater teachers he was a chronic storyteller, and his favorite subject was Tennessee Williams, whom he loved to mimic. A typical yarn was the one about a drunken Tennessee--armed with an apartment full of stage effects from a closed play--getting rid of an unwelcome guest by serving him a smoking cocktail filled with dry ice, saying, (in Leonard's gleeful drawl) "Would you like a very DRY martini?"

After class, we, in turn, would walk down 10th Avenue vying with each other to imitate him, sometimes doing his walk, but more often trying to recreate his comments on the class work, which usually went something like this: "Wow. Wow. Janet, that was... MAN! Okay, okay, first, there's... Well, you really, really got the thing there with that guy, right from the... without any kind of... and then I'm sittin' here thinking that there's gonna be some kind of... you know, I'm WAITING for it, because I can SEE.... I mean I can't see, I'm not saying it was obvious.... but something's gonna HAPPEN, you know what I mean? UNLESS.... you go the other WAY....Right? And I'm sittin' there going UHUH . . . So then later on when you have, the, the, the, with the MELON.... oh wait, I'm forgetting something. What? Oh right, THE PRIEST! THE PRIEST! YEAH! YEAH! YEAH! That's the whole idea.... I mean, when the priest came in, I'm going okay, I see NOW . . . she's got this THING.... Not the kind of thing where it's all, you know . . . not CHARACTER . . . but the OTHER thing . . . yeah... You see what I mean?.... Which makes me think that what you're really getting at here... is that it's just love, baby. Just love. Who's next?"

He was not incoherent; he was actually making good points if you could fill in the blanks, if you could make the intuitive leaps with him. It was as if his central ideas were too heavy to be articulated, they could only be referred to. The writers who had been with him longest were able to decipher his verbal hieroglyphs: the others bunched their faces in desperation as they tried to crack the code.

As warned, the class ended suddenly with Leonard going into rehab: I don't know if it ever started up again. It is inadequate to say that his death was sad, although it saddened me to no end. It was the classic death of a theater lifer, the exact fate that actors conjure up to scare each other with in the dank dressing rooms of Off-Off Broadway. There are no gold watches in the theater, but I wish he'd at least gotten a serious retrospective, if only from Pointed Stick Theater on Avenue D during the Fringe Festival. I don't know what the moral is. There isn't any moral. Just love, baby. Just love.