It was a warm summer evening in 1975 and I was standing on the front lawn of East Hampton’s Guild Hall. It was intermission of the film “Women in Love,” and clusters of happy people were talking and drinking wine.
Me? I was alone. Why was I always alone? Probably because I was a college sophomore burdened with a profound sense of insecurity and self-doubt. Suddenly, a voice behind me asked, “Are you reading that?”
I turned to see a man pointing to the paperback sticking out of my back jeans pocket, “The Kingdom and the Power.”
“Gay Talese,” the man said, “is an excellent writer.”
“It’s assigned reading,” I said. It was 632 pages and I was proud to be reading such a long book.
“Which college do you attend?” he asked.
He asked me my major and what classes I was taking. We talked about Gay Talese, the Jesuits, and the Bronx. It was comforting to finally connect with someone.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“I’m Larry.” He modestly pointed to the large poster advertising the night’s film. “I’m Larry Kramer, the producer.”
As the crowd filed back into Guild Hall, Mr. Kramer asked, “Would you like to have a drink with me after the show?” He indicated the 1770 House across the street.
I returned to my seat and the lights dimmed. I tried concentrating on the film, but it was impossible. Why did Mr. Kramer want to have a drink with me? Just because I was reading “The Kingdom and the Power”?
I turned back to the film as the actors Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, both sweaty with exertion, wrestled in the nude.
Oh, no! Was Mr. Kramer hitting on me?
My anxiety escalated to panic.
After the film, Mr. Kramer and I met outside. “Well,” he asked, “did you like the film?”
“Yes.” I smiled. But the truth was I was too nervous to enjoy it.
Before entering the 1770 House, I stopped and turned. “Mr. Kramer, we can have a drink, but just so you know — I’m straight. You might be gay, and that’s okay with me, but I just want you to know I’m straight.”
He looked at me and smiled. “Peter, that was courageous. I thank you for your honesty. You saved me a lot of time figuring out if you were gay.”
“We still can have a drink,” I said.
“How about we just take a walk? And please call me Larry.”
We walked to Town Pond and sat down on the soft grass in the old graveyard.
“Tell me about yourself,” he said.
My confused feelings about myself were rich and complex and I felt totally inadequate to explain who I was, including to myself. Besides, I always wanted to keep my self-doubt and lack of confidence a secret.
There was a heavy silence as he patiently waited for me to unveil myself.
I was a stutterer, and I successfully controlled my stuttering by not opening my mouth too much. But, somehow, I felt comfortable with Larry. He seemed to have my best interests at heart. “I used to be a boxer,” I finally said.
His right eyebrow lifted. “Interesting. Tell me more.”
Sitting inches away from each other, in intimate darkness, I slowly unfolded myself. I told him my turbulent life had been devoted to punching people. But once I enrolled at Fordham, I switched directions and started hitting books instead of people. But as an ex-fighter, I felt a deep void where my athletic passion used to be. I was, at 23, scrambling, stumbling, to reinvent myself.
“Reinvent yourself?” he asked.
Another heavy silence.
“I’d like to write a book one day.” My father was a talented songwriter who plucked beautiful melodies from thin air — “Till Then,” “My One and Only Love,” and “Shoo Fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy.”
He smiled. “Well, by attending Fordham University, I’d say you’ve already begun your own literary journey,” then added, “You live in Montauk?”
“Oh!” He grinned. “A word of caution — stay away from Edward Albee. He also lives in Montauk.”
“Because you wouldn’t stand a chance. He’d eat you alive.”
The thought of Edward Albee eating me alive was a shock. Me, a tough middleweight who once boxed in Madison Square Garden? But, of course, I knew exactly what Larry meant.
Larry and I agreed to meet the next morning at the East Hampton Library.
That morning, he was in a philosophical mood. He gazed up at the many books lining the bookcases. “How twisted, but beautiful, we humans are,” he mused. “If God made us, I find it hard to conceive he would be anything but a simple, perfect equation, or as clear as pure air. Peter, your young life is a bit confused right now, but I know you’ll eventually figure it all out and one day write wonderful books, just like your father wrote beautiful songs.”
“Thank you.” But I wasn’t so sure.
“Just keep reading and writing — and keep pure of heart.”
I nodded. “My body is my temple,” I said.
“Ah, yes, the Jesuits!” He smiled. “Do you believe that?”
He then reached into a bookcase and handed me a paperback. “This is one of the best books ever written. Study it. It will teach you everything you need to know about writing.”
I took the book home and started reading it that afternoon — “The Power and the Glory” by Graham Greene. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it much.
But my literary journey had already begun, not with Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory,” but by sitting beside a young Larry Kramer on an intimate summer evening on the soft grass of an old East Hampton cemetery.
Peter Wood is the author of “Confessions of a Fighter” and “The Boy Who Hit Back,” a novel, among other books. Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist, playwright, and author, died on May 27 at the age of 84.