Last night was the opening of the new show at the American Visionary Art Museum, in which my friend from Woodstock, Steve Heller, has five pieces. I was extra excited about this because I introduced Steve to Rebecca Hoffberger, the director of the Visionary, whom I met at a dinner at Dudley Clendinen’s house five years ago.
Dudley! The thought of him gave me such a pang. One of the hard parts of losing someone is the way things just keep happening that you so wish the person could know about. At the time of Dudley’s death in May 2012, his niece Lucy Alibar had just released her movie, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which ended up with four Oscar nominations. I could only hope they get Entertainment Weekly in heaven.
I pulled out a copy of Dudley’s book, A Place Called Canterbury, to show Steve and his wife Martha. Canterbury is the Tampa retirement home where Dudley’s mother spent the last part of her life. Dudley clocked 400 days and nights there with her, documenting how the first generation of super-old people was dealing with life in their 90s and beyond. His author photo is nothing but hot: classic features, tanned skin, a shock of gorgeous white hair, rock-star sunglasses.
He died without ever getting very old at all.
I met Dudley in 2008, about twenty-five years after he changed his whole life by quitting drinking, coming out, and leaving his wife all at once. I instantly loved him; he had a deep, luscious Southern accent, a courtly manner, and a wicked sense of humor. His apartment was like an outpost of the Visionary, the walls covered ceiling to floor with paintings, some by his partner, Josh Batten. You could generally find Dudley in the kitchen, scrambling eggs for a lunch party or baking cheese grits and a pork loin for dinner.
That these meals were often served so long after they were scheduled did not detract from their air of effortlessness and grace. Our mutual friend Jim Magruder, who does a hilarious impression of Dudley, tells the story of the time he and his partner Steve Bolton were greeted grandly at the door with the announcement, “Dinnah will be ready in one ow-ah and forty-fahv minutes.” The unflappable but hungry Mr. Bolton visibly blanched.
It was lucky I got on the guest list so quickly since our time was short. In the fall of 2010, Dudley learned that he had Lou Gehrig’s disease (which he talked about in a beautiful series of radio interviews with Tom Hall on WYPR). At the time, I was about to start the year-long treatment that cured me of hepatitis C. At first, it was a little bit fun to be sick and complain together, but that wore off.
want to see the rocky horror show friday night, dinner after? said the email. This was November 2011, the first time I saw him in a neck brace to support the weight of his head, the last time we went out together. His voice was deeper and thicker than ever; his enunciation was gone. I was glad his daughter Whitney had come along as she could usually decipher him. It seemed like telepathy.
This was a particularly raunchy production of Rocky Horror, and the enthusiastic audience joined in not just on the famous lines, but just about the whole script. Dudley was in the front row, directly in the line of fire for the rice, toast, playing cards, dildoes and jockstraps that soared through the air. He sat stoically as half-naked cast members, many of whom were sort of pasty and overweight, shimmied and shook inches from his face.
“Some people really should keep their clothes on in public,” he growled on our way out, outrage somehow improving his consonants.
By then it was 11, which Dudley thought was the perfect time for dinner. I was surprised when the neighboring Mexican restaurant, nearly empty of customers, let us in. You might think we’d have had a quick bite, but even in Dudley’s most halcyon days of health this would not have been the case. He ordered soup, a main course, a cup of hot tea, and a couple of side-dishes, telling the bemused waiter he’d hold off on selecting dessert till later.
Dudley had always had many special requests in restaurants. “Ah’d like it molten,” he’d tell the waiter, sending a slice of chocolate cake back to be microwaved. At his regular spots, Donna’s or The Diz, his ice water would arrive at the table with eight slices of lemon. “They know me heah,” he’d explain.
By the time of the Rocky Horror outing, Magruder’s imitation sounded more like Dudley than Dudley did, but the fact that his restaurant requests were now unintelligible did not stop him from making them. Even Whitney could no longer decipher him. The news is bad? The soonest we’ve got… ? Miss Sue is so …? Oh. The soup is not hot! Dudley remained in good spirits as we drooped over our margaritas and the situation devolved into a Beckett play.
Sixty-seven seems young to me now — in fact, I wondered this week what could have struck down that whippersnapper, Tom Clancy. My daughter Jane says I have promised to live till her fiftieth birthday, at which I would be 92. I don’t remember saying this (of course) but as long as I can still recognize my family members and go to the bathroom by myself, I’m game. God knows I have never wanted to miss a thing.
In the book Dudley signed for me, the one I got down to show Steve Heller, he wrote about our new friendship in a Sharpie scrawl. I want more, it says. More. MORE.