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Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Some of My Best Friends Died From AIDS"

"World AIDS Day is held on 1 December each year and is an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died. World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day and the first one was held in 1988."


Most people my age and older have lovers, friends and family members who have died from AIDS since it first made its grim appearance in this country in the early 1980's. There have been far too many.  I am going to tell you about my friend Raymond Bongiovanni.

In the autumn of 1990, as my father was dying from terminal lung cancer, a colleague suggested I apply for a position as a book scout with a film producer's office.  I landed 3 interviews.  The first didn't go well at all, and in the second they wanted someone more "seasoned."  The third...well, I really didn't know how it went.  The guy was a bit inscrutable.   He clearly was brilliant, well-read, but offered that he had been "forced" by well-intentioned friends to take the promotion to Vice President of the New York office.  He explained the perimeters of the job clearly.  I did my best to convince him that I was and always had been a very hard worker who produced results.  When I made a follow-up call to see if he had received a package of my writing samples, he seemed kind of pissed off that he had had to go to the mailroom himself to get it.  This was November, and I was losing hope.  Then he called me, and asked me if I wanted the job, second position in a two-person office.  Did I ever!  I was thrilled, partly because I would be working for a film producer's office which had a deal with Warner Bros..

My first day on the job was November 7, 1990.  Wearing my best business suit, I arrived at the office at 11:00 a.m. per my new boss's request.  (Having worked in book publishing since June 1984, I was amazed that I didn't have to be there at 9:00 on the dot!)  However, he wasn't there.  I sat at my new desk, and began arranging my office supplies.  I was happy, and excited, and my window had a perfect view of St. Patrick's Cathedral.  Near noon, as I was sorting through paper clips, an attractive but rather imperious woman dressed in a black Armani pants suit barged in and demanded to know--in rapid fire order--how I got the job, why had he hired me over 40 other candidates, what was my background....  Luckily my new boss walked in as her operatic diatribe was heading for the crescendo.  Raymond, who was about six feet tall,  was wearing black jeans, a black sweatshirt, and black sneakers.  He asked me to come into his office, introduced me to the woman--our intern--in passing, closed the door in her face, told me she asked a lot of questions but to ignore her, and sat down on his office sofa.  With a serious look on his face, Raymond said, "Okay, first order of business."  I felt nervous, and inept, because I should have brought in a pad and pen.  Raymond continued.  "Do you like Chinese food?  We need lunch!  And we have expense accounts!"  Then he smiled for the first time.  Raymond had a big, boyish smile, and his eyes shined with a glint of mischief.  Over the course of the next 17-months, I learned that he had a tremendous capacity to enjoy life.  He loved movies more than anyone I knew, and his knowledge of  film literature, and classical music was encyclopedic.  Raymond introduced me to his favorite composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.  (Raymond graduated from Harvard, and had majored in Russian and Russian literature.)  He managed stress and pressure on the job better than anyone I have ever met.  He took his work seriously because Raymond truly did want to find--and often did--the best book for screen adaptation.

It wasn't that he and I couldn't obtain good manuscripts at Warner Bros..  But our higher-ups in Burbank really didn't take our choices too seriously.  There would be loud and angry phone calls to Raymond.  "Why didn't we get BLAH?  Kopelson just bought it!"  Raymond, ever zen, would reply calmly that we had sent them BLAH, with several follow-up memos and phone calls months before.  He could never win those arguments.  The Burbank office was the ultimate history revisionist.  I would get stressed out, hearing these calls, and worrying that I could have done more, we could have done more.  Raymond, however, was nonplussed.  One day, over our lunch of Italian meatball heroes, I said, "How can you stay so calm, especially when they yell and have tantrums?"  Raymond finished chewing, took a sip of his ever-present can of Coca-Cola (original Coke, not Diet Coke, never Diet Coke).  He said, "My life view is that nothing matters."  Huh!?  I was stunned, and said, "But everything matters!"  He just laughed, and shook his head.  It's not as if he were years and years older than me.  Raymond was born in November 1954, me December 1962.  He was an excellent boss, a clear manager, but more so, being with Raymond every day was like having Yoda for an older brother.

Oh, and he really was like an older brother.  My father died on February 1, 1991, and, 3 months into the job, I had to take over a week off, leaving him to run the office solo.  Two months later, when I came back from taking an editor out to lunch, Raymond came out of his office and told me gently that my mother had phoned.  Her younger sister, my Aunt Elizabeth, my favorite aunt, had died.  He opened his arms, and held me while I cried.  Raymond was gentle and sweet.

What I have tried to put out of my mind about the special time I worked for and with Raymond is that some of our fellow book scouts were constantly speculating on his sexual orientation.  They would ask me, and I would say, "Why don't you ask him yourself?"  Burbank had decided that Raymond was gay, and they were homophobic.  I knew that but never acknowledged it.  When Raymond became ill--although he did not specify with what--and was out for all of August 1991, I managed to keep up the pretension that he was out of the office with meetings.  The three-hour time difference between New York and Burbank helped quite a lot.  I have integrity, but I'm fiercely protective of those I love.  Besides, August is a huge vacation month in New York and in Burbank.  However, the Producer did buy a book which I had obtained during that month, and the President of Production made sure to rub it in Raymond's face after Labor Day.  Then, a year after I began working for him, Raymond became extremely ill with Hepatitis C.  He told me that he thought he contracted it from eating bad seafood.  I knew that could happen with Hepatitis A (you can contract it by eating food prepared by infected food handlers), but I certainly didn't correct him.  Raymond had his right to privacy, and he maintained his privacy.  He was able to return to work in January 1992, and we carried on business as usual.

In early March 1992 I took my first trip to Los Angeles, on my own dime.  I had had a few job offers, and I wanted to meet the Producer in Burbank.  The Producer was very welcoming, a hearty older man who gave me a bear hug, and told me I was doing a great job.  The President of Production was a prick.  Always had been and always will be.  He yelled at me when I "took a meeting" with him.  He wanted to know exactly what was going on in the office in New York, what was HAPPENING with Raymond.  I said a lot of different things about Raymond, all of it positive, but told P-of-P nothing, which enraged him.  When I got back to New York, I warned Raymond that P-of-P  (Prick-of-Pricks) had it in for him.  Raymond remained unperturbed.  When the Producer phoned me directly a few weeks later, and asked me if I could do "at least 60% of Raymond's job," I managed to squeak out, "Yes!"  Then the Producer asked me to put Raymond on the phone.  I put the Producer on hold.  The doors between our offices were always open, and I told Raymond what had just transpired.  I listened while Raymond was fired.  He then patched the Producer back to me, and I was offered Raymond's job.  The P-of-P then called and congratulated me on my new title, but said I would remain at my current salary.  I told him I knew what VP's made, and that's what I would be getting paid.  P-of-P, apoplectic as ever, said, "Well, then we'll hire someone else."  I was no longer quivering.  I told P-of-P to run that by the Producer, and do so.  P-of-P called me back to say, "You are one tough little negotiator.  Title and salary increase are yours."  Fuck you, P-of-P.  This isn't how I wanted a promotion.  I walked into Raymond's office.  He was fine with it all, even relieved.  Within a short while, Raymond landed the VP job at mega-producer Scott Rudin's New York office, easily the best job for a high-caliber book scout.  Raymond just LOVED this, and he deserved it, and they were so lucky to have him.  He ensured that The Firm by John Grisham, Nobody's Fool by Richard Russo, and, later at Fox, Fight Club by Chuck Pahalniuk all were adapted it and made it to The Silver Screen.

Raymond died from AIDS June 5, 1996.  He was 41-years-old.  His obituary in The New York Times stated, "The cause was a blood infection."  I wept profusely loudly at his memorial service which was held at the Village East Cinema.  There were rows and rows of gay men in attendance, and some of them just looked at me, shocked that after all those years, all those deaths, someone would bawl at an AIDS memorial.  But, you see, it wasn't just another AIDS memorial to me.  I had lost my beloved friend Raymond.  He died from AIDS.


"In My Life" - Bette Midler official video



6 comments:

  1. what a touching memory, he sounds like he was a wonderful and talented person

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  2. Maura,

    Thank you for the kind words about Ray. His high school class lost touch with him. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    Ivan

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  3. I went to high school with Ray in Miami in the early 70s. Your tribute filled in a big blank for those of us who lost touch with him after we went our separate ways post graduation. I can attest he was the same person in many ways back then as you described him later; brilliant, warm, funny, very well liked, and with the longest hair of any guy I had ever known till then. Tho very saddened by the belated news of his passing, I so appreciated your telling his story and un-whitewashing the manner of his death. I think Ray would have appreciated it as well. Thank you.
    - Harvey Weiss

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  4. I am the producer of FIGHT CLUB and fought the good fight with Raymond to get Fox to option the book. It was a honour to work with Raymond and the late Laura Ziskin in getting the film made. The film exists because of a lot of people but it was Raymond who got the ball rolling. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It brings him back to mind so vividly. Thank you.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Ross. He was such an important and beloved friend and mentor. (What would have been his sixtieth birthday passed last week.)

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    2. Ray, and his many siblings were a force to be recond with at our HS in Miami. Two of his sisters were good friends of mine. A smart and talented family. Unfortunately I have lost touch with all of them, so this was nice to read, brought back memories. Thank you.

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