Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A Friend on Broadway: The Normal Heart

HALLIE: I know this is a detour for Jungle Red, but I hope you will indulge me...

Tomorrow night is the Broadway opening for Larry Kramer's searing drama, "The Normal Heart." It's about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, and I only wish that my friend Dr. Linda Laubenstein (in the picture at the left) could be there to see it.

One of the play's main character, Dr. Emma Brookner, is a smart, caring, take-no-prisoners physician who has been confined to a wheel chair since she contracted childhood polio. Emma Brookner is based on Linda. Linda was also my roommate at Barnard College and a dear friend.

"The Normal Heart" ran for years off-Broadway in the '80s and since in various productions. Dr. Emma Brookner has been played by, among others, actresses Julie Harris, Barbara Bel Geddes, Joanna Gleason, and Judith Lightfoot. Barbara Streisand optioned the play for years, planning to play the role herself in a film version.

Now, on Broadway at last, Ellen Barkin steps into the role; Joe Mantello plays Ned Weeks, the character based on Larry Kramer; Joel Grey directs.

I met Linda the day I arrived from California as a freshman at Barnard College in 1965. She was attractive and slim with straight brown hair cut in bangs, and big features--large, expressive brown eyes and a toothy smile that took over her face. From years of physical therapy, her shoulders were muscular; from a summer spent on Cape Cod her skin was the color of coffee with cream in it. Despite multiple operations, her back was twisted. Her legs, encased in steel braces, were delicate and child-like. Among other things, we shared a subscription to the New York City Ballet.

I never intended to become friends with Linda. I have no patience with people who can't keep up. It turned out, neither did Linda.

She went on to complete her MD at NYU in 1973, became a hematologist, and in 1979 she was at the heart of the early discovery of AIDS. She was the first among her profession to hear the name Gaetan Dugas, the flight attendant who would become known as "Patient Zero," the friend and common denominator to both of the first gay men patients whom she saw with unusual cancerous lesions. She organized the first medical conference on AIDS, and developed a groundbreaking chemotherapy regimen, a so-called AIDS cocktail, that prolonged lives.

In the 1980s, Linda got to know Larry Kramer, the outspoken writer and activist who organized the Gay Men's Health Cooperative and the more radical ACT UP. She treated his partner and many of his friends, making house calls via New York City transit busses. When they died, as they all did, she went to their funerals.

Over the decade of their friendship, Kramer told me that he became Linda's voice, and she became his conscience. She didn't mind that he wrote a play about her, but he once told me she was furious that he'd put her character in a wheelchair. She refused to attend even a single performance.

Linda died suddenly in 1992. I wish she'd seen "The Normal Heart" because her friend Larry really did justice to her and all of her anger, despair, and passion. I wish I could be there Wednesday with Linda's mother Priscillla and her brother Peter, and to congratulate Larry Kramer, still alive against all odds, when the play opens at the John Golden Theatre on West 45th Street.

The Broadway cast of The Normal Heart with Ellen Barkin playing Dr. Emma Brookner and Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks.


  1. Wow, Hallie, that's an amazing story! Those were terrible times and this sounds like a must-see. And what a powerful group of women have played that part--I would love to see Ellen Barkin in this role.

    Thanks for the detour!

  2. What a terrific story, Hallie. Depart more often, there is nothing more inspiring than a story about a real, life hero - heroine.

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  5. Wow, thank you Hallie..talk about a powerful woman..

  6. I have a feeling she knows all about it.

  7. She really was pretty amazing. Tough, funny. At the hospital she was known somewhat uncharitably as "hell on wheels" because she demanded what she needed for her patients.

  8. Many thanks, Hallie, for diverting from the usual today. This has special significance for me, as a dear friend was the first AIDS victim to die here in Cincinnati. None of us had even heard of the disease at that time, and he and his partner had never actually said they were gay (but we who loved them knew). We still miss him terribly, too.

    Thank goodness for courageous doctors like Linda, for her tireless dedication to curing this awful affliction.

  9. Wow, Hallie, I'd love to see this, especially with Ellen Barkin. Thanks for sharing Linda's story.

  10. Hallie, a good rememberance and forward look. I remember those early days and they were frightening...Linda did a ton of good. I didn't know your connection but that is huge. Barkin's interview in last week's NYT shows she brings the right stuff to the role. The play is a reason to get to NY. Thanks for this.

  11. This is not a diversion, Hallie. Our blog is about all the elements of our lives, our histories, things that move us, things that matter to us. That's why people come back to read Jungle Red, I believe because we just don't plug our books but make good thoughtful reading.
    I love that the cast picture has everyone wearing identical black.
    Thank you for sharing this.

  12. Hallie, thanks so much for sharing this story about your friendship with Linda, and her tireless efforts to study AIDS and increase the public's awareness of the disease. I was in elementary school when AIDS really hit the public imagination, and there was a lot of initial bias against homosexual men and drug addicts as somehow being responsible for it.

    I only remember that attitude sharply changing, at least among my peers, when Pedro on the Real World died from AIDS in the mid-90s, and he was nothing like the stereotypes people believed that AIDS sufferers were. From about middle school onwards, AIDS was part of health class education, and I recall hearing, quite scarily, that during a campus blood drive in my senior year of high school, three anonymous students tested positive for AIDS. Imagine finding out that way.

    In any case, thanks again for posting the link to this play. I wish I could see it, but it's the opposite side of the country for me. I'm sure it's going to be fantastic.

  13. "I never intended to become friends with Linda. I have no patience with people who can't keep up. It turned out, neither did Linda."
    These three sentences say it all. What a woman!

  14. I saw The Normal Heart last week and it was unforgettable. I don't think any other work of theatre has affected me so deeply. I was in tears. What a wonderful tribute to Dr. Laubenstein. Thank-you for a chance to learn about the real-life Dr. Emma Brookner.