Larry Kramer, the playwright whose righteous fury over a lackluster governmental — and societal — response to the early AIDS crisis fueled his groundbreaking 1985 play The Normal Heart and an activism that led in the 1980s to both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Act Up, died Wednesday of pneumonia in Manhattan. He was 84.
His death was announced to The New York Times by his husband, architect David Webster. Kramer had lived for decades with HIV and underwent a liver transplant due to liver disease.
In a statement today, GLAAD President & CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said: “Larry Kramer’s contributions to the LGBTQ movement and the fight against HIV/AIDS are incalculable. GLAAD and so many LGBTQ people and allies recognize Larry as an undeniable accelerant who not only fearlessly demanded change, but made it come to pass. We send all of our love to Larry’s loved ones during this time, and though we are saddened by his passing, we are forever grateful for his leadership and heroism.”
Kramer’s groundbreaking The Normal Heart — a barely veiled account of his own co-founding of, and expulsion from, GMHC — most recently was mounted on Broadway in a 2011 production starring Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Ellen Barkin, Jim Parsons and Lee Pace. Set during the early years of the crisis from 1981-84, The Normal Heart features the Kramer-based character Ned Weeks, who cares for his ailing, closeted lover Felix and, enraged by the apathy of society at large, turns to activism to raise the alarm.
The 2011 production won three Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Play.
A 2014 HBO adaptation of the play, directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Bomer and Julia Roberts, won multiple Emmys including Outstanding Television Movie.
Prior to his breakthrough as a playwright, Kramer enjoyed brief Hollywood success with his Oscar-nominated screenplay for 1969’s Women in Love, based on the novel by D.H. Lawrence, directed by Ken Russell and starring Alan Bates, Oliver Reed and Oscar-winning Glenda Jackson.
His next Hollywood project, a screenplay for 1973’s Lost Horizon starring Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann was less favorably received, and Kramer soon turned to writing novels. That allowed Kramer greater freedom to explore his own homosexuality and New York’s gay community in all its pre-AIDS freedoms and, in Kramer’s view, libertinism. The result was Faggots, a 1978 novel that both made Kramer’s name in literary circles and earned him the ire of many in the Manhattan-Fire Island circuit he so unforgivingly chronicled.
But history soon stepped in, and Kramer watched in horror and increasing rage as a new “gay cancer” took hold in 1980 and quickly devastated the very communities that had inspired his novel. In 1983, Kramer wrote the cri de coeur essay “1,112 and Counting” for the New York Native, chastising all — gay and straight — whom he felt failed to recognize AIDS for the killer it already was.
His anger intimidated even those who were on his side, as can be seen in film footage of the writer shouting “Plague!’ to quiet the bickering Act Up attendees at a 1991 meeting (the footage is included in David France’s documentary How to Survive a Plague).
As depicted in The Normal Heart, his confrontational approach — with cohorts as well as political enemies including New York Mayor Ed Koch and Dr. Anthony Fauci (with whom he eventually reached a detente) — quickly alienated the other early members of GMHC, an organization started in Kramer’s Greenwich village apartment, and he was soon kicked out of the group. He slammed GMHC as “a sad organization of sissies.”
More to his liking was Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a collection of young activists who combined militant protest; street theater; medical self-education; and clever, memorable Silence=Death messaging.
Following the Off Broadway success of the 1985 Public Theater staging of The Normal Heart, Kramer wrote Just Say No, a poorly received 1988 satire that slammed Ronald and Nancy Reagan. The play closed Off Broadway after just a month. Much more successful was 1992’s The Destiny of Me, an Off Broadway sequel to The Normal Heart that starred John Cameron Mitchell. Viewed as a comeback for the playwright, Destiny was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In more recent years, Kramer returned to book writing, in particular a massive, audacious two-part novel (2016 and 2020) titled The American People that depicted historical figures as gay and included, as a character, the virus that Kramer said had been around for millennia before finally savaging the gay community. Reviews were, for the most part, negative, though even naysayers often marveled at the sweep of Kramer’s vision.
Kramer suffered a nearly fatal case of liver disease in 2001, receiving a transplant. A dozen years later, back for another surgery, Kramer married Webster in his hospital room.