It was the most unlikely of friendships.
At first, AIDS activist and playwright Larry Kramer saw Dr. Anthony Fauci as the personification of bureaucratic neglect — a cold and remote presence who failed to fully acknowledge and respond to the tragic scope of a disease that was wiping out a generation of gay men. He didn’t mince words, labeling Fauci ” a murderer.”
And yet, over time, things softened as Fauci began to work more collaboratively with Kramer and the activist group he co-founded ACT UP to develop better treatments for AIDS and HIV. Over the course of more than three decades, a relationship that was initially adversarial blossomed into a deep friendship.
Kramer, whose body of work includes the pioneering look at the early days of the AIDS crisis, “The Normal Heart,” died Wednesday at the age of 84. Fauci, who as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has helped guide the country’s response to coronavirus, spoke with Variety about Kramer’s life, legacy, and the unusual bond they forged during an earlier public health crisis.
When did you first meet Larry Kramer?
In the mid to late 80’s. I was and am now a U.S. government official. Larry had a problem with how the Reagan and Bush administrations were handling the AIDS outbreak. He started to attack me as the face of the federal government and he did it in a rather iconoclastic, confrontative, theatrical way.
One of the first things he did was to write an article in the San Francisco Examiner in 1988 entitled “An Open Letter to Dr. Anthony Fauci.” He referred to me as an incompetent idiot and a murderer. He got my attention for sure.
Were you offended?
The answer is no. I was a little bit shocked when that article came out, because I didn’t expect that. No one had ever done that to me or any other scientist. It was just unheard of. He was breaking all the ground rules, but I never really took it personally. I used to joke with him that ‘I understand that it’s nothing personal. It’s strictly business.’ Just like ‘The Godfather.’
He turned a lot of people off. He scared the hell out of the scientists and the regulators. I took the time to kind of listen to the things he was trying to get across. He was the lightning rod. He was good at using outrageous tactics to get attention. What he did do was surround himself with a bunch of young, ACT UP kids, who really did a very intellectual and academic approach towards analyzing what the government effort was. It was like a one-two punch. Larry would be very outrageous to get attention, and then they would come in and do the things that would get them a seat at the table.
How did you become friends?
I started to develop first an acquaintanceship then a friendship and then a dear, deep friendship with Larry. It went from confrontation over the years to a place where I actually helped in his medical care. I was a consulting physician for him and helped connect him with the appropriate people to get the liver transplant that saved his life several years ago. We continued to the very end to be very dear friends.
The thing about Larry that’s very unusual is that even in the context of a very deep, dear affection for each other, he still wouldn’t hesitate to publicly start trashing me. He would do it almost tongue-in-cheek. One time we were both on Ted Koppel’s ‘Nightline.’ I was in Washington and he was in New York. We were very, very good friends at the time. We’d have dinner. I’d visit him in New York and he’d come down here. We were on the show together and much to my surprise he started talking about how the federal government is dropping the ball and how Tony Fauci is a disappointment. Just saying these terrible things. When the show was over and I got home, about 20 minutes later the phone rings. It’s Larry. He said, ‘That was really great. We did a great job, didn’t we?’ I said, ‘Larry you just trashed me in front of 10 million people!’ He said, ‘No, no, no don’t get upset about that.’
What was the last time you spoke?
About a week and a half ago. He’d gotten an award. I called to congratulate him and it was very poignant, because it was clear that he was very weak and he sounded very fragile on the phone. We chatted for a few minutes, but he was tired. The one thing I feel really good about now is that the last thing he said to me when he hung up the phone was ‘I love you Tony,’ and I said, ‘I love you too Larry.’
You’ve been busy assisting with the federal government’s response to coronavirus. Did Larry offer any criticism or advice?
Larry was totally devoted to the gay community. Those were his brothers and his sisters. He was concerned about what the impact of getting coronavirus infection would be on people who had HIV infections or were immunosuppressed. He called me a couple of times and wanted to make sure that we were paying attention to that.
Was his confrontational approach effective?
He would step over the line sometimes. He would alienate so many people. I’d joke to him, ‘Larry you have an ability at any given time to alienate everyone on both sides of the argument.’
What was he like as a dinner companion?
He’s a warm guy and he’s got a good sense of humor. He’s not a firebrand at dinner. He was just a regular warm human being, who’s very sensitive.
Did you see his plays and read his books?
He wrote a play about me, so I definitely took an interest in them. Well, it wasn’t just about me, but I was one of the leading figures in the play, ‘The Destiny of Me.’ When he gets infected and he comes to the N.I.H., he has a doctor named Anthony Della Vida, which is interesting. My name is Tony and Della Vida means ‘of life.’ In other words, I’m trying to bring life to people. I think ‘The Normal Heart’ was a classic. I read ‘Faggots,’ which was another classic.
What was it like to see yourself portrayed on stage?
He was very skilled. This was at a time when we were good friends, but he wasn’t going to paint me as the perfect person even though he liked me. So he made the character both sympathetic, in that you get the feeling that he’s fundamentally a good guy, but he’s very rigid. He didn’t like the rigidity of the federal government, so he put that into the character.
When the play showed Off-Broadway, he invited me and my wife to come. At the reception afterwards, he was sensitive because he didn’t want to hurt my feelings. He came by very sheepishly at the reception as we were drinking champagne and said, ‘Tony, I hope you’re not too pissed off at me.’
What was Larry’s legacy?
He really transformed the way activist communities interact with the scientific and regulatory communities in terms of medical research and healthcare. He’s the founding father of that.
What role did Larry play in the activist movement that emerged around AIDS?
He was a cage rattler. He wasn’t analytical, but he brought under his wing a bunch of young activists who were incredibly intelligent and committed — the Peter Staleys, the Mark Harringtons, the David Barrs, I could go on and on naming them. Those were the ones that did the analysis and probing into the critical trials and medical research. Larry’s job was to shake the cages. He was pure firebrand. It was a movement, but it was one that needed someone out there waving the torch. That was Larry.
Do you have a favorite memory of Larry?
After we had become good friends, I got an award from the New York Academy of Medicine. I came up and it was a snowy night. Under most circumstances, Larry would disrupt the event. But when I arrived at the door, there was Larry handing out a paper to the people coming in the door saying that the federal government still wasn’t doing enough. He didn’t want to disrupt my getting an honor, but he did not want to let the opportunity go by to protest. So he protested in a very un-Larry Kramer-like way. Normally he would have been out there with a bullhorn saying this guy sucks and get rid of him. He didn’t do that. He did it in a quiet way.