David Ansen Recalls When AIDS Silenced the Arts

A Lost Generation: The AIDS Crisis
Clockwise from top left: Liberace, Keith Haring, Rudolf Nureyev, Rock Hudson, Halston, and Freddie Mercury. Clockwise from top left: Superstock / Alamy, Alen Macweeney / Corbis, Bettmann / Corbis, AF Archive / Alamy, Bettmann / Corbis, Pictorial Press Ltd. / Alamy

On Wednesday Jan. 6, 1993, the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev died in Paris. The initial, official cause of death was said to be a “cardiac complication” that followed a long illness. But it wasn’t hard to read between the lines: everybody knew he was the latest in an agonizingly long line of people in the arts who had died of AIDS.

While 9/11 cast a shadow we have all been living under since 2001, the specter of AIDS was, for many of us, the indelible nightmare that haunted the end of the 20th century. In April 1983, Newsweek ran its first cover story on the emerging storm. In May 2006 it ran its 20th cover on the subject, “AIDS at 25.” By then the worldwide death toll from the disease had reached 25 million. But unlike the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, AIDS was, particularly in its first decade of devastation, a subject from which many people chose to avert their eyes. President Ronald Reagan was infamous for never mentioning the problem in public. For some, it was a blight that happened only to those people. Newsweek, to its credit, stepped up to the plate.

When Nureyev died, it was immediately clear to the arts editor, Sarah Crichton, that a story about the devastation AIDS had wreaked on the artistic community needed to be written. It wouldn’t be a story about the great Russian ballet star, but about a cultural fabric that had been ripped apart and couldn’t be replaced. It was about books and plays that would not be written, choreography that could never be passed on, artists who would never get the chance to grow, music silenced. It would also be about the art that arose in response to the crisis, from Tony Kushner’s epochal play Angels in America to the ballets of Bill T. Jones, and the silence emanating from Hollywood, which at the time was afraid to tackle the subject at all.

It was the hardest story I ever wrote. On Thursday Jan. 7, I was woken in Los Angeles by a call from Sarah telling me that the Wallendas (as we referred to our top editors) had decided to crash a cover story. They wanted me to write it, and it had to be written in New York. Our great team of arts writers and researchers—Jack Kroll, Peter Plagens, Cage Ames, Donna Foote, Abby Kuflik—had already started making calls to every corner of the arts. I got on the first plane I could catch, checked into the Berkshire Hotel two blocks from our Madison Avenue office, and stayed up till 3 a.m. in the office reading clips. On Friday more reporting came in, and I spent all day trying to digest the material. And as I did, my panic increased. The story had to be finished by Saturday afternoon, but by 10:30 Friday night I hadn’t written a word.

I was used to deadline pressure: knocking out covers on actors and films and cultural trends, being called in the middle of an unsober Saturday night to write a super-rushed obituary of Cary Grant (why did stars always die on the weekend when we had to be on the stands on Monday?) But this story was different. It was raw, immense, and too close to home. I had lost friends and lovers, and knew too many people who were living with the virus and counting out their days. I knew that amongst the list of the fallen I would be writing about people I knew, such as my friend Steven Harvey, a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art and the author of a wonderful book on Vincente Minnelli. He had died only a week earlier, and I wanted to acknowledge him in the piece, alongside the roll call of famous names: Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, Halston, Anthony Perkins, Michael Bennett, Robert Mapplethorpe, Rock Hudson, Charles Ludlam, Liberace ... the list went on and on. How could I do justice to the story? How could I find the right tone? What if the words wouldn’t come? I kept thinking of the legendary Newsweek tale of the writer who had cracked under cover-story-deadline pressure and had to be carted out of the office on a stretcher.

Then, at 11 p.m., I got the first paragraph down, and the shakes subsided. With the aid of all the great reporting, the story started to write itself. By 3 p.m. the next day I’d finished the piece, and the fact-checkers were busy at work. Sarah remembers the problems that often arose for the checkers of Newsweek’s AIDS stories. Particularly in the first decade of the scourge, many obituaries would “tactfully” omit the cause of death: there was a stigma, a shame, surrounding HIV infection. One of the people we interviewed for our cover story was another friend of mine, the novelist Paul Monette, who wrote eloquently about the AIDS holocaust in his memoir Borrowed Time. His was the angriest voice in the piece, his fury directed at Nureyev’s refusal to acknowledge the nature of his illness. To hide it, he felt, was to be a collaborationist in shame. Two years later, Paul himself would be dead.

A Lost Generation: The AIDS Crisis The Aug. 8, 1983, issue chronicled how the AIDS epidemic was transforming the gay community; The 1991 cover story chronicled how Magic Johnson was energizing the fight against AIDS.

“AIDS and the Arts: A Lost Generation” appeared on the newsstands that Monday, with a beautiful amber image of a bare-chested, dancing Nureyev on the cover. I was sorry about the 150 lines that had to be cut, the names that hadn’t been mentioned, the many ways in which it could have been better. But I was proud of it, and I like to think it shed some light on the crisis that had blasted the culture.

That was almost exactly 20 years ago. A lot of deaths followed, and then, at least in the First World, there was an easing, though not an end. AIDS ceased to be an automatic death sentence, though only the foolish called it cured. A whole new generation has come of age since then, some of these kids shockingly cavalier about the dangers of unprotected sex. That era, when funerals were more common than birthdays on one’s social calendar, has, mercifully, become history.

Just in the past two years, documentary filmmakers have begun to revisit the plague years. In David Weissman’s moving We Were Here, the focus is on the way the San Francisco community pulled together to deal with calamity: though filled with loss, it’s a celebration of solidarity. This year an HBO documentary saluted the pioneering film critic Vito Russo, author of The Celluloid Closet, who bravely fought against governmental indifference even as he was dying. And a former Newsweek writer, David France, artfully recounts the history of the activist group 
ACT UP—whose iconic logo was SILENCE = DEATH—in his masterly film How to Survive a Plague. The AIDS art in the ’90s was angry, political, urgent—composed, like weekly magazine journalism, in the present tense—but now it comes to us in the past tense, in the form of eloquent tributes to those who died, those who remain, those who screamed and protested and forced the medical establishment to rise to the occasion. The story isn’t by any means over, but a chapter has closed.

And now, 20 years later, Newsweek’s print edition is about to travel into the past tense too. For well over 30 years I got to write movie reviews for the magazine. I wrote a lot of obituaries too, from Jimmy Durante and Lillian Hellman to Alfred Hitchcock and Katharine Hepburn and Ingmar Bergman. Those were “timely” deaths, much easier to write about than the “AIDS and the Arts” piece, which had been a chronicle of untimely mortality, written in a time of despair. It’s mighty strange to be looking back at those days in what will be the final print issue of a great magazine. But this is not another obit: a new chapter is about to begin.

David Ansen, who was Newsweek’s movie critic from 1977 through 2008, is now the artistic director of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

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