A Good, Short Life: Baltimore Remembers Writer Dudley Clendinen

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Writer and journalist Dudley Clendinen, 67, died on Wednesday – he had suffered from ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, since 2010. Clendinen remained in his Baltimore home until Wednesday when he was relocated to the Joseph Richey House for hospice care. A reporter and editorial writer for The New York Times, Clendinen carved his name covering hot-potato topics about which he felt fiercely passionate or hugely curious — gay rights, crowded prisons, abortion, homelessness, elder care — challenging readers to think and to dialogue. A deep-voiced Southern storyteller never at a loss for words, he chronicled his own alcoholism, his difficult coming out and divorce, his friends lost to AIDS, as well as his degenerative illness, which he’d nicknamed “Lou,” all with strength and style.

Clendinen and reporter Adam Nagourney’s landmark book, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America, was published in 1987, A Place Called Canterbury: Tales of the New Old Age in America in 2008. For Canterbury, Dudley took up residence for 400 days in his mother’s retirement home in Tampa.

He also served stints as senior editor at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Baltimore Sun. In 2009 and 2010, he taught writing at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Baltimore. Recently, Clendinen conducted a series of radio interviews on “Maryland Morning” with Tom Hall called “Living with Lou: Dudley Clendinen on a Good, Short Life.” The man was also known as a world-class dinner party host.

I asked several Baltimore creatives who knew and loved Clendinen’s voice – and his spirit – to describe his presence in their lives.

Tom Hall met Clendinen 21 years ago when the journalist moved to Baltimore to take a job at The Sun.

“Linell, my wife, worked there at the time, and although Dudley’s tenure at The Sun was short, our friendship lasted until he passed away,” Hall said. “I’ll miss being at dinner parties with Dudley, who was one of the great raconteurs of all time. We always met wonderful people at his house, and the people we introduced Dudley to at our house were always charmed and engaged by [him]. We spent a lot of holidays together…and my daughter, who is now 23, grew up with Dudley’s fantastic presence, his support, and love. Our family will miss him dearly.”

You can listen to Hall’s remembrance of Clendinen at WYPR.org, and find related pieces.

Author and Baltimore Fishbowl columnist Marion Winik met Clendinen in 2008 at the University of Baltimore. She remembers his wit and great face, his scrambled eggs and salad.

“I instantly loved him; he was a great-looking man with classic features and a shock of gorgeous white hair,” Winik said. “He had a deep, luscious Southern accent and a wicked sense of humor.

“Our last outing was earlier this year to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Theater Project with his daughter Whitney. When we got there most of the seats were taken so Whitney and I sat together and Dudley, who was wearing a neck brace and dealing with other challenges of his illness, took the single seat left in the front row. Well, this was Rocky Horror, and it was a super trashed-out and wild production at that. Dudley was right in the line of fire for the flying dildos and lingerie and half-naked cast members, but behaved like a complete gentleman. By the time we got out, it was 10:45, which Dudley thought was the perfect time for dinner — so off we went to Mari Luna, where we dawdled for quite some time, though Dudley could eat little by this point.

“Dudley’s apartment was like an outpost of the Visionary Art Museum — the walls covered ceiling to floor with incredible folk art, much of it political and some by his companion, Joshua Batten,” Winik added. “He gave lovely lunches and dinner parties with an ease I’ve never seen, particularly in a man. His scrambled eggs, served with salad, were excellent. His dear friends included people like Taylor Branch and Rebecca Hoffberger and the painter Morgan Monceaux, but he treated everyone he cared about like a superstar.”

Baltimore-based artist Albert Schweitzer said, “Dudley was a great friend of mine and a great supporter of my artwork. He bought many pieces of mine and supported many painters. Mostly all self taught. He had a smile and charming Southern voice, and loved his mother and daughter very much.”

Fiction writer Jim Magruder met the journalist in 2004 when he and his partner Steve were summoned to Clendinen’s Bolton Street house for a dinner gathering of six.

“He had heard via another friend that we were ‘interesting,” Magruder said. “That was all the introduction one needed for Dudley. He gathered around his tables a human potpourri unparalleled in the state of Maryland. Writers, artists, rabbis, restaurateurs, cultural doyennes, movers and shakers, leather daddies, teachers, politicians, Baltimoreans from Ruxton and Sandtown and everywhere in between. He put everyone at his or her ease. So many of our dearest friends were initially met in his dining room.

“…His cheese grits and planked salmon were worth the wait. His prayer before the meal always ended with a blessing for The New York Times.

“Dudley delighted in everyone; although he could be as wicked as the next, he had little use for backbiting. Or small talk. He was a polymathic Epicurean. The two things he liked best, he once said to me, were sex and blackberry cobbler.

“His narrative style was Southern: meandering, capacious, colloquial, mesmerizing. One memorable night at Stoop Storytelling, Laura Wexler and Jessica Henkin put down their warning cowbells and let Dudley go on for 20 side-splitting minutes about the companionable collection of cremains on the mantel in his front parlor…

“Some people hoard their friends. Dudley Clendenin wanted everyone to know everybody and appreciate them as much as he did. He was an unparalleled people connector. …Those within his orbit, which was vast, learned how to be better listeners. His hair was always down. Life was too short not to get to the heart of someone ASAP. He held so many hearts.”

Author Laura Wexler, senior editor at Style and Stoop co-creator, first met Clendinen when she interviewed him about Canterbury.

“I had heard about him for months before: about his great, deep voice; about his outsider art collection; about his legendary storytelling, so I was glad to have an excuse to ask him all sorts of questions about his life,” Wexler said. “What I remember most was how rich his family life had been — all sorts of lovely, batty relatives who gave him terrific material. I was sort of jealous.”

Like Magruder, Wexler remembers fondly Clendinen’s 2009 Stoop monologue about Christmas with his family.

“I just went back and listened to it,” she said. “There is so much love and humor and tenderness in it.

“What I admire most is that he met his death with curiosity and grace. I loved the piece he wrote in The New York Times last year. It was an inspiration for not only how to die, but how to live.”

 

 

 



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  1. Marvelous piece, Betsy, for a terrific man. He would have loved reading it. I love blackberry cobbler too, wish I could serve him some right now.
    Linda

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