back to the Black Table

Spalding Gray has been missing since Sunday, January 11, or, more accurately, since the previous night's dramatic phone call to his 6-year-old son Theo, which, according to a family friend, ended with Gray saying that he "just wanted to say he loved him."

Since then, the sickening news has been spread through reports marked by flat, pragmatic dread featuring photos of the gray-headed actor, writer, etc. that seem increasingly necrotic and pregnant. In the end, a rough image, of an extraordinary man's last desperate years on Earth has resolved in that stuttering night vision lens flare of "serious" journalism. If Spalding Gray, as we all suspect, has committed suicide, it won't be his first attempt.

But we do know that Gray's mother committed suicide at the age of 52. And that he said this, in an interview for Steven Soderbergh's film, King of the Hill, in reference to a scene where his wrists are slit:

"I realized the old cliché of what a mess [suicide] is to leave for someone else to find -- what a stupid, passive-aggressive, piggish thing to do to someone."

This is Spalding Gray's life as marked by his attempts to leave it for good.

June 2001.

Gray is in Ireland, celebrating his 60th birthday with his wife, daughter, and son. He is an accomplished monologist, a stupid term for performer known for one-man shows. Swimming to Cambodia, a Jonathan Demme film of one such autobiographical show, made Gray's career in 1987.

Other films and shows followed, and Gray became a household name in households where the New Yorker is definitely going down the drain, where the purchase price of a ticket to a bare-bones production featuring a nebbish, WASP-y Woody Allen at a spare table, under a glaring interrogation light, with one glass of water, is of no consequence.

By now, Gray's been spoofed by the high and low, from the Simpsons to MADtv. He owns a Tribeca loft and a Southampton estate. And now he's in Ireland, when his car is struck head-on by a van, abruptly snapping his hip, fracturing his skull, crushing his foot and nearly severing his sciatic nerve. Gray is rushed to a Dublin hospital and operated on. A bout of depression, reasonable enough, proves resistant to antidepressants. Three months later, September 11 comes and never goes. In 2002 Gray tells the Sunday Times of London, "I don't feel whole anymore. I've been maimed and there's been no acknowledgment of it." This must be why he dove from that boat.

September 2002.

While at his home in North Haven, L.I., Gray takes his sailboat out to sea and dives into the water. He waits for a big wave. He wants to

  go, but what sort of idiot has the courage to annihilate himself? Gray wants something gigantic and natural, the crest from that Japanese print, or Melville's bottomless, cannibal ocean. Still waters lap at his chest. Self-preservation takes over, and Gray climbs back onto the boat, heads for shore…  


A Week Later.

…and finds himself pacing the Sag Harbor bridge near his Northhaven, Long Island home, before leaning over the railing, staring at the lurking, willful waters below, the same ones, more or less, that failed him just a week earlier. It's clichéd, obviously, but there's a solution in that place under there. The shattered body and the onset of manic depression and the sense that the van of Damocles is literally careening around every bend in the otherwise lush, Celtic green of his celebrated life, this is a real problem. It's why he sobs and can't stop.

And the show he's putting together, entitled Black Spot, meant to expose and sublimate this rolling misery, that isn't working. That might be the worst of it. Gray's life is his art, and vice-versa. And he's bombing. Okay, let's stop being clever. He wants to die because then he'll stop wanting to. Gray was never afraid to face himself. So why is he so afraid of the rushing drop to those waters, and whatever's next, or isn't? He paces, he leans, but a concerned woman tips off the local police, who escort Gray from the scene, and later that year he agrees to undergo electroconvulsive therapy. It doesn't work. Or maybe the distraction gives him another year.

October 15, 2003.

An officer leaps into the water, and so does a civilian, because Spalding Gray has plunged off the Sag Harbor bridge. It's almost precisely one year since the last time he was rescued from this bridge. The two men pull Gray to land. It turns out he had been walking along the bridge, then stopped to talk to a driver, before leaping over the railing.

We'll probably never know what Gray said to that driver. Normally, that wouldn't matter. But this is Spalding Gray, a man who's become a living legend by eviscerating himself in public. What were his famous last words? And did that Northhaven bumpkin have the slightest idea how telling a moment it was that he or she had blundered into, when a smooth pate and shock of gray hair stooped toward a closed window, eyes wide and bursting with something significant enough to be said to a stranger, who never bothered to tell the rest of us. Gray survives this third suicide attempt.

January 10-11, 2004.

It's 6:30 p.m. on Saturday night, and Gray leaves his family and his SoHo apartment after they've all gone to see Big Fish, to visit some friends.

For the next few hours we don't know where he walks to or what he's doing. He's wearing a gray jacket with a blue scarf, a brown sweater, black corduroy pants and brown shoes. But he doesn't have his wallet, credit cards, or driver's license. That night in Manhattan the temperature hits a record low of one degree. Wherever he is, his forensic scent hitting a wide, driving gulf, he is probably cold.

Gray doesn't arrive at his friends' apartment. He's scheduled to fly out of LaGuardia the next morning for Aspen. He's now falling into the strong likelihood of his fourth suicide attempt. At 1:00 a.m. Spalding speaks to his 6-year-old son Theo on the phone, saying that he wants the boy to know he loves him, then hangs up. Now he's really fading. He never makes that morning flight. Gray's wife reports him missing on Sunday night. As a family friend puts it, "This is a huge and terrifying mystery."

As the workweek begins and ends, Gray remains lost.

A Day, Or So, Later.

Investigators discover a single lead. They speak to a mate on the Staten Island Ferry, who claims he saw a man matching Gray's


description on that vessel on Friday night, January 9, just two days before he was reported missing.

It's well documented that Gray doesn't rush into suicide. He makes dry runs. Not to be coy, but he also makes wet runs. He is an astonishingly intelligent man, and


he fears death approximately as much as he yearns for it. He does not want to leave a wretched mess of himself. He abhors the inherent, adolescent scandal of it. He just wants to be swallowed by the Great Flood, the one that's never fully receded. And now we know he's done it.

Maybe this was the fourth attempt, on Friday night, and the fifth happened later that weekend, and it was a success. A successful suicide. It's exactly the kind of oxymoron Gray would have loved. For now, he exists in the tragic intersection of a ferryman's unconfirmed claim and the record of Gray's desiccated mental health. He's a smudge on the negative, a garbled detail that's indelible, and pointless. And this weekend's record-breaking Northeast chill would make a search of New York Harbor impossible. So that's it. We can't know.

Maybe we never will.