June is Pride Month; it’s usually a time for celebration and righteous defiance, but this year it arrives just as I am learning about the passing away of the most significant gay person in my life. I know I’ll have many teachers, editors, producers, directors, and fellow actors who’ll assume it’s them, and some of them, a couple in particular, will be nearly correct. But Paul Gunther was my mentor over a period of nearly 20 years. His influence is baked right into me, and I’m certain I’m just one of many who can say that.
Paul hired me to be a grant writer at the New-York Historical Society in 1998. I’m pretty sure he knew he was taking a chance on me. At that stage, my previous development experience was limited to one institution, the Big Apple Circus, but I’d learned tons there (and I also owe THAT mentor some kind of tribute soon, as she recently retired). When Paul hired me I had no history or museum or library credentials, nor had I even heard of the New-York Historical Society. Its profile is higher now. At the time, the few who knew of its existence registered it primarily as a “well kept secret”, not even as well known as its rival across Central Park, the Museum of the City of New York.
At any rate, Paul was used to people staring blankly when he mentioned the Historical Society, and he dealt with it in my case as he dealt with everything: graciously. I’m literally thinking of my job interview at the moment, because that’s what you do when a friend dies, remember meeting them. Paul made a huge impression. One’s initial takeaway was an unfortunate one. He had a severe stuttering problem, accompanied by tics and twitches that must have plagued him all his life. It was a startling thing, but you quickly got used to it because he somehow managed to project confidence and self-assurance in spite of it.
In fact, the uniqueness of Paul’s real personality rapidly swallowed up that first impression. I’m certain that his self-cultivation, how he came across in all his interactions, was the hard work of a lifetime. For he would pre-emptively disarm you, no matter who you were, in a way that would save face for everybody. He would say something like, “Well, of course, as you know, the New-York Historical Society is New York’s oldest museum“, which would be flattering and wouldn’t give you much opportunity to interject that on the contrary you hadn’t heard of it, which would just be embarrassing for all concerned. THAT was how he operated. Paul’s sense of form and politesse was like that of an 18th century diplomat. His dress was impeccable. He was handsome, a little on the small side. Bow ties, which he often wore, seemed natural on him, which isn’t true of everybody. On days when he wore a conventional necktie, when working in shirtsleeves it was his habit to drape it over one shoulder so that it was out of his way. That’s not so unique, I imagine. What was interesting to me was that he invariably did it. It was as though he had been taught to do so; it was what was done. And that sense of propriety governed everything he did.
Paul was unapologetically and matter-of-factly Old School. This quality was most splendidly expressed through his writing and conversation. And here is where I soaked up his influence like a sponge. His writing style was peculiar to him, and yet, because I was under his wing, churning out copy that he would gently nudge into his voice, I inevitably began to write like him and sound like him. It wasn’t just his influence, it was his example. Americans are terrified of being thought “affected”. It’s our national disease, really, a race to the bottom. Descent into ignorance sometimes seems to be our national mission. I’ve always believed in not giving in to that, not settling for that. Paul showed how that can be done. He was himself. While he would work with extreme, almost compulsive, diligence to tailor some piece of copy for maximum persuasiveness, so that it would communicate precisely what would flip the switch of the reader, he would manage to do that as himself, in his own quirky, cultured, erudite voice. He wouldn’t — couldn’t — dumb down.
To be vocally, forthrightly yourself, to not hide the full extent of your personality in order to be accepted, that’s easier said than done. I remember being amused and startled once when he used the word “furthermore” in conversation. That’s a really tiny thing, it might not sound extraordinary, and yet I think it is. He spoke like he wrote. Having THAT kind of confidence is what I’m trying to convey. It’s not like Americans don’t know the word “furthermore”, but most are terrified of what you’ll think of them if you speak in that antique and formal way, of saying “furthermore” instead of “anyway” or whatever else goes with beer and baseball caps. So Paul had all these strange little turns of phrase that would make their way into grant proposals and correspondence, phrases that would be wonderfully vague and cryptic and diplomatic, such as “I will be at your call”, and “We are available to update you on our progress as you deem appropriate”, things that would leave all sorts of wiggle-room for interpretation, but would seem pliant rather than pushy. We kidded him for using words like “eponymous” and “eleemosynary” but quickly realized, goddamn it, sometimes, you HAVE to use those words. They have no synonyms! Haha, there’s the rub: “eponym” has no synonym!
So Paul was first and foremost my teacher. For three years I wrote grant proposals; then he got a promotion, and he took another risk and promoted me to p.r. director, which allowed me to stretch in new directions, as we wrote here. And I was in that job for another three years, through some very tumultuous times. We weren’t close friends away from work, although we did socialize a couple of times. And there were times when being co-workers crossed into friendship. I remember the moment when I told him my first book was being published, for example, as well as the time when I confided to him that my marriage had broken up. (Let’s remove the misleading passive voice: I confessed that I’d dynamited my marriage). He was kind and generous and open and hilarious and a compassionate listener, and he was there for you. He was there for me. How many people have been there for you?
After the Historical Society, Paul was still there for me. He helped me land two subsequent situations, one of which washed out immediately, the other of which lasted about seven years, longer even than the Historical Society. So this is why I say he was my mentor for almost 20 years, even though I only worked directly under him for six. The last time I saw him was at that latter job, a work function with a social element. On that occasion he introduced me to Christopher Mason, author and TV host of the ID Network’s true crime show Behind Mansion Walls, which both my wife and I were fans of. Paul had just taken a new post as executive director of Gracie Mansion, the New York City Mayor’s house, which is also a museum. This seemed a perfect job for him. It allowed him to step into the limelight a bit, though typically it wasn’t about him. The job allowed him to publicly express his enthusiasm for an important institution of which he was privileged to be the caretaker.
Paul had an ethic of service. He liked helping people. But apparently other people couldn’t help him. I knew that he had issues. He drank, he smoked, he took medication, he was depressed. I don’t know how it is elsewhere, but in New York it seems like 90% of one’s friends are on anti-depressants. So one gets blase about it, wrong as that is. Particularly if the person is successful, as Paul was, or seemed. This year was a time of transition for him. New York has a new mayor. I imagine there was a new appointee poised to take his position at Gracie Mansion (my use of “poised” in this sentence comes from Paul, by the way). In February it was announced that he was to take this new job at Oysterponds Historical Society, literally as far away from New York City as it is possible to get on Long Island. But something happened. He went away for a rest. Then he just…went away.
For completely selfish reasons, I wish he’d waited a couple of more months before leaving us. I just started a challenging new job, and I wanted to pick his brains for advice. And I started learning French during the lockdown. Paul was one of the people I wanted to try conversation on when I reached that level of proficiency. A Francophile, Paul used to be the development director and American liaison at the American Center in Paris. At this moment, I’m remembering him correcting me on the spelling of the word “Renaissance”, pointing out its French etymology, illustrating it by pronouncing it the French way. God, I wish I had 30 seconds to tell him what he meant to me, and to tell him in such a way that he’d hear it and believe it and that it would matter.
Sam Roberts, who knew Paul, penned this solid obit for the NY Times , with great appreciations from many of his colleagues, among them our former boss of bosses Betsy Gotbaum; former Warholite Randy Bourscheidt, another of my employers for a short time (courtesy Paul); Kent Barwick, with whom I once interviewed for a job (also courtesy Paul); and former NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray. Paul would be honored to know that Sam wrote it — and dismissive of everyone’s compliments. The piece is here.