Brow Beat

Spalding Gray on Hollywood, Writing, and Willem Dafoe

The writer and actor Spalding Gray is best known for his trailblazing, autobiographical monologues, among them Swimming to Cambodia. Born in Providence in 1941 and educated at Emerson College, he moved first to San Francisco and then to New York in 1967. There he joined The Performance Group, which eventually became The Wooster Group; the latter was spearheaded by Gray and his long-time girlfriend Elizabeth LeCompte. The actor Willem Dafoe joined in 1978.

This week Knopf is publishing Gray’s journals; below is an excerpt. These entries are undated, but come from 1979 and 1980, just when Gray was beginning to develop his unique approach to the monologue (he mentions his first serious foray into the form, Sex and Death to the Age 14, in the first entry). At the same time, LeCompte (called Liz below) was becoming involved with Dafoe (they later had a son, and remained together until 2004), who was himself just breaking into Hollywood.

Gray died in New York of an apparent suicide in 2004.


Difficult adjustment to Willem and the movies [this is in reference to Dafoe’s small uncredited role in Michael Cimino’s film Heaven’s Gate]—some jealousy. I want them to want me … fear of getting lost in some intellectual ART world—associations of Hollywood as being a working-class world—theater for the people—fears of isolating myself in this little gay, fancy SoHo world—looking at Willem as a FRESH meat-and-potatoes man. Another time of confusion for me. Willem going away brings it all up again—not so much the glamour but a theater for the people—working on the BIG American myth—repulsed by my subjectivism. I am stuck in this constant doubt… always reflecting and always in doubt. This doubt does not have a crack to seep into when we all work together, but now Willy has made a crack in the boat. I made plans to go on with my solo piece, “Sex and Death Up Until Age 14.” I know I must keep working. When I don’t—when there is no action, I am swallowed up in fear and doubt.

Have Liz or I or both of us been working under the grand illusion that we were individually artistic in temperament and that would not dry up even if there was no group supporting us? Willy’s movie is now causing a fear and depression among us all. It makes it hard for me to work because I am constantly working under the knowledge of a sense of loss, also mad and sick fantasies that I could have been a “great actor” in the films.


Had a bad dream that it was the end of the world (a very real feeling so when I woke up I knew I had had a dream but I also knew it could be real). Children, who were plutonium polluted, were rushing at me everywhere and trying to touch me and I was dodging them and saying, or thinking, I was Christ and charmed with some power of destiny and that I would make it through. When I got to the place I was going I realized that we were all going to die.


[In New Jersey visiting LeCompte’s family]

A beautiful spring day. Liz and I got up early and had breakfast. I read some of my old College Philosophy text. Then went for a walk, not so relaxed, too much coffee. I came back and sat in the sun by the pool. I wrote a poem out of a coffee fit (who wants to hear it? I’m still the child. I can’t go unheard—unseen. I am no Emily Dickinson nor was I meant to be—my private history shut up in a room—but still, I want to write my own material. I want to speak my own words.)


Excerpted from The Journals of Spalding Gray by Spalding Gray; edited by Nell Casey. Copyright © 2011 by Spalding Gray. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

(Further reading: The great art magazine BOMB has, over the years, published long interviews with Spalding Gray, Willem Dafoe, and Elizabeth LeCompte.)