Harry of heels. Koutoukas of words.

March 14, 2010

I am in London today, and it is in London, not New York, nor in the United States, that I find myself ready to write about Harry Koutoukas – and his death.

Perhaps it’s because Harry was here recently and was said to have had a great time in this glamorous place – a place of great theater and most importantly, writing.

In the end, that is how I remember him. Harry was a writer.

Yet, it’s grand to know that he was called the, “Godfather of Off-Off Broadway”.  Though, for me he was my “Fairy Godfather”.

This means that when I was ready to learn to wear heels, my father said that we must, post haste, “Go ask Harry”. In a sense, Harry was one of the many, yet most important people in my life kind enough to teach me to walk.

I can’t possibly cover Harry’s extraordinary impact on the theater, art world, and underground fashion – but I do recommend a remarkable book by Steven Bottoms, “Playing Underground: A critical history of the 1960’s off off broadway movement”  http://bit.ly/c84NOb I leave it to Steve to guide you through an amazing adventure found in the Cafe Cino, and all the theaters within blocks of each other in The Village.

Even with his amazing career as a seminal person in the arts, people tend to talk about how wild he looked.

Yes, I love the picture here. Adorned in blue hair, Harry is, even aging, found in his colorful, exuberant, celebration of all things Camp and absurd. And, below it, you can see him in the soft feeling of Cafe Cino covered in Dionysian glitter  and glam.

But, Harry was at his core, serious.

As a young girl growing up in my father’s theater (Judson Poets Theater) Harry was a writer for some of the stages around The Village, and, he was sometimes on the stage, but mainly, he was a stage of himself. I always felt that I was in his private audience: I felt he performed his affection and loyalty only for me.

It is my sense that most people felt this way about Harry – he was yours, and we were his.

And, this seriousness of love and purpose, with gold lame and Gargoyle rings and strange hair and endless cigarettes and hacking coughs and witty comments and all the plumes of difference he wore about him was the remarkable production of his own being: his own relentless truth.

At this core of truth, embedded in a deep faith in spirit and madness, was a mind that was fierce with purpose. Harry was a writer. He wrote all the time. He wrote on paper. He wrote when he spoke. He wrote in his mind. he wrote when he walked. He was never without words, and he was always working over his words and stories (often repeating them with a new ending, or a new phrase or punchline from someone else, and often the hook was not as funny as it was kind of sick). None the less, he was singularly proud of his words. He was also proud of other people’s words – Maria Irene Fornes – he was proud of her words and would speak of them with admiration.  So, not everything was a joke with Harry: words were never a joke.

When I last saw Harry I had my baby on my lap. We were sitting at a cafe with my father in The Village. I knew that it might be the last time I would see Harry alive. I had heard he was ill. When I saw him I thought he looked like life was becoming slow and painful. Harry knew the right time to leave a party – always early, and with a big exit. So, I took the visit seriously.

The time he spent with us had been a true labor of love.  It must have been excruciating to walk down all the steps from his apartment or take all those steps to the cafe. Though, he knew each person he passed on Christopher Street. And, he wheezed. And, he commented on how I looked. Then, he kissed my father hello. We sat.

It was a quiet lunch. Not like the ones of my childhood where there was kidding and blue comments and talk of clothes. This was a conversation about writing. I had come to ask him about this. I wanted wisdom: a lesson on walking on the high heels of words.

I’d finished a book about growing up in The Village, and the impact AIDS had on our theater world: how I, as Miranda, had lost a world, much like in The Tempest. I had sent him the manuscript. I was eager to hear what he thought.  He said nothing.

We ate lunch.

He said nothing.

When I walked him back to his apartment I thought to bring it up. He said he had read it. He had only one suggestion: write five pages a day. Learn to do it. Learn to manifest it. Read a lot. Then write five pages a day – till you die.

That was it. I took the advice and assumed he did not like the book. That was ok, oddly, because the advice was given with total clarity, and in a way he had never spoken to me before: as an adult.

That week there was a celebration at Judson Memorial Church given in honor of my parents leaving and moving to California. Harry was asked to speak, as had I, and my parents as well. I sat next to Harry and wondered what he was going to say.  Before he stood up to speak he leaned over to me and said, “I love you”.

Then he spoke in prose; in Harry cadence, with Harry myth, all of it Harry syntax. At the very end of his poem, he used words from my manuscript. He used words of mine to tell his story. He did not mention the example was mine. He just tilted his head back towards me. I sat looking at the back of his lilting head and was never so proud. It was the response I yearned – that my words could be important to him. That I was to be  a part of his patois.

He remains a part of my language.

He is a part of my walk.

His memory is now the complete sentence of me.

5 Responses to “Harry of heels. Koutoukas of words.”

  1. Alice Garrard Says:

    What an intimate look into the innerworkings of a mind, a friendship, a legacy. I’m incredibly moved.

  2. Thank you Alice – I know Harry meant a lot to you as well. Thank you for your kind words.

  3. Franky Says:

    My tears are abundant Sarah… So abundant, and full and sad and moved.. I love you. Thank you for your writing. Like any great story, one is inspired to write, and those who read it are inspired by what was written. Yours is a great story. …And so was Harry’s…

  4. David Blythe Says:

    Sarah – thank you for a very nicely written tribute. I came to Judson after you graduated (your folks will know me). This is a great piece and I love the tribute Harry gave you. Yesterday at Judson one of the parents of a young child stood up and told how a few years ago Harry had handed their young daughter a dollar bill. Put this in the bank, he told her, and it will earn interest and when you are 15 you can run away from home. Who else could write such a line?

  5. Hi David!

    Thank you for your kind words. Sorry not to have gotten to know you – but, that’s the magic of blogging, eh?

    What a GREAT story about Harry – he was always aware that people were/should find their own freedom…it seemed campy, but I think it was genuine concern for children/people to be happy. Lovely.

    Do stay in touch! – sk

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