Clayton Coots’ letters to Frank Rich | Bobby Doherty/New York Magazine | 14253
Frank Rich writes in New York magazine about Clayton Coots, a well known figure in 1960s and 1970s theatre in America. Clayton was Frank’s mentor and adviser while he was growing up and a student. They corresponded by letter several times a week, but Rich did not realise that Clayton was gay until years later. Re-reading Clayton’s letters, he discovered many gay references which had missed him at the time.
Clayton Coots in front of the Blackstone Theatre | 1966 | File photo/Photographer unknown | 14254
“I grew up in the Washington, D.C., of the sixties, where the impact of racism was visible everywhere, front and center in my political education. But gays—what gays? No one I knew ever saw them or mentioned them. Not until the eighties—when, like many Americans of that time, I was finally forced by the rampaging AIDS crisis to think seriously about gay people—did I fully recognize that a gay man had been my surrogate parent in high school, when I needed one most. Not that I ever thought to thank him for it.”
Mr Rich found Clayton generous and kind.
“When I met Clayton, he was a company manager for touring Broadway shows and I was a stagestruck high-school junior just turning 17. We crossed paths at the National Theatre, a busy Broadway touring house in downtown Washington in the pre–Kennedy Center era. I had landed a part-time job there as a ticket taker. Most of the visiting show people I met were characters out of Broadway Danny Rose. But not Clayton, who hit town as the manager of the tour of Neil Simon’s first big hit, Barefoot in the Park. Then about 30, he was younger than his peers, as handsome as a model, and came to work each day as if he were attending a glamorous opening night in Times Square rather than cooling his heels in the provinces. He always wore a Pierre Cardin tux to the theater, with accessories to match—a Patek Philippe watch, glittering cuff links, and a long black-and-gold cigarette holder that matched his Dunhill lighter. (He would soon instruct me in these brands.) He took an interest in me from the start, chatting me up about school, my family, and the only subject I really cared about, Broadway. It was the first time any adult in the theater had taken me seriously, and I was flattered and dazzled and entertained. He was a perpetual wisecrack machine, wry but not bitchy—“the closest I ever got to Noël Coward,” as one theatrical colleague of that time would later recall.”
They drifted apart – occasionally writing to each other – then Clayton seemed to disappear. His career in theatre had come to an end.
“The final glimpses I have of Clayton, near the end of his life, were courtesy of a reader who wrote me almost a decade after Ghost Light was published. He and Clayton had worked together in the late seventies at M. Rohrs’, a small coffee-and-tea shop that survived until recently in the East Eighties. Clayton, now out of the theater, was at this point “cobbling together a living,” the reader wrote, working part time at Rohrs’ and at a bakery run by a friend. He was also “hustling bridge at the Cavendish Club.” Talking with Clayton was “a tutorial in graciousness, treating people well, and always presenting an enthusiastic front,” he recalled, adding that “an entourage began to appear” on the days Clayton worked. Clayton was still working at Rohrs’ when he took ill in 1983 or 1984. “He said it was lung cancer,” the letter went on, “but I was never sure if it was that or AIDS. I visited him a couple of times at his apartment, but it was clear that he was failing. The last time I saw him he was just hoping to hang on to get back to the beach on Fire Island with his friend (who I didn’t know) one more time.”
Enclosed with the letter was a copy of a photo of the two of them outside the shop, with Clayton wearing the very un-Clayton accessory of a coffee vendor’s apron.
“I have met a lot of exceptional people, but Clayton was truly special,” my correspondent concluded. “With the picture on our wall, hardly a day goes by when I don’t think of him.”