It was an otherwise unremarkable afternoon at the late and much-missed Los Angeles Herald-Examiner when I met Richard for the first time. I was rattling away at the computer posting some schlock patrol movie review or other when he came up to me about something (can’t recall exactly what) and we began to talk. Right away, it seemed less the start of a conversation than the continuation of one that was already in progress. For we didn’t merely share the same frame of political/cultural reference, or laugh at the same jokes or. It was in the timing and inflections that were discovered that we were, as the “Trekkies” would say, “in a Vulcan mind-meld.” It’s why not long after our first mini-confab Richard could come up to me and say “Oh I really have something for you!” – an interview with Christine Keeler. That was the kind of editor Richard was; looking towards the future but always with one eye cocked to the past, especially in regards to sex. The central figures in what came to be known as “The Profumo Affair,” Keeler was a “party girl” whose simultaneous dalliances with the British Secretary of War (John Profumo) and Soviet Naval attaché Yevgeny Ivanov led to the collapse of Harold MacMillan’s government in 1963, while ringing up the curtain on the “Swinging Sixties” from whose frivolity the Gay Rights Movement would erupt as a dead serious socio-political counterweight.
So we laughed a lot then, and laughed even more when we found ourselves over at “The Avocado” (Richard’s name for The Advocate ) where he worked long and hard at reshaping a “boutique” publication (as all gay mags were back then) into a biweekly of “National Interest.” The plan was to capture the “Mainstream’s” eye with stories they couldn’t dismiss as being of interest only to them (ie. us) The most spectacular was Michelangelo Signorile’s “outing” of Pete Williams – now a reporter on legal matters for NBC, then chief assistant to Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. As the piece pointed out, his job was protected (thanks to the insistence of the gay Rights movement). But those of gay and lesbian soldiers who had just served in “Operation Desert Storm” were not. And thus “Gays in the Military” was rocked-launched into the national consciousness. This was serious stuff. But Richard didn’t seem serious at all. Part J.J. Hunsecker (Sweet Smell of Success), part Walter Burns (His Girl Friday) and a whole lot of Kay Thompson (Funny Face) there were precious few things he couldn’t find a humorous side to – even AIDS, which took him from us at 43 years of age. L.A. Times journalist Mary McNamarra describes a typical scene from his last days thusly
“The nurse was still there when I arrived unhooking the IV from the hunt that protruded from Richard’s chest. From his heart. Richard had been diagnosed with HIV long before I met him, had suffered from a seemingly endless variety of AIDs-related illnesses for as long as I had known him, but because of who he was, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that he would die. Until I saw that shunt. It stopped me in the doorway. It took my breath away. It still does. ‘Free at last, thank the Lord, I am free at last,’ he said pulling on his shirt. The nurse made noises about taking it easy, which he waved awy like the smoke from his cigarette. In minutes it seemed we were getting into the car. There were no seat belts. ‘Seat belts?’ he said.’ Honey this car ain’t built for seat belts.’ And with an almost redundant squeal of rubber we were off. By the time we hit Wilshire, I swear we were doing 60. I had braced myself, feet planted, arms locked, for the crash I knew was inevitable. But Richard was sailing along, one hand on the wheel, the other waving off anyone – pedestrians other drivers – who seemed even close to getting in his way. One light after another flashed amber, and he floored it, his head thrown back, his mouth wide open in a great roar, like a lion, like a warrior. He turned to me and the roar became laughter, huge laughter, unassailable, unstoppable, unquenchable laughter.”
As is plain from McNamarra’s words that laughter was infectious (to mix a metaphor), especially when it reached the roar stage. We roared a lot in Richard’s last year. He and his lover Bob had rented a house right on the beach in Venice (ca.) where on Sundays we’d have Gaywatch. Margueritas would be served as Judy Garland Live at Carneige Hall and Maria Calls intoning “Ebben? Ne andro lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally blasted from the stereo while we rated Les Boys as they sauntered by in lovingly muscled near-naked splendor. Fun in the sun.
But then there was the non-fun. For the 1990’s was nothing less than an enormous parade of funerals. Most of it’s a blur now. But I remember the memorial service for Paul Monette; a writer whose voice was so resolute and clear we all expected him to walk right in at the close just to be sure to have the last word. Most heartbreaking was the one held at the restaurant/ night spot Atlas, for it’s marvelous owner Mario Tamaya. He was one of Richard’s oldest friends and I keenly recall at the service’s end Richard clutching someone (can’t recall who) and sobbing as I’d never seen him sobbed before. Clearly he knew he was next. But his tears were over Mario and all the others, the impact of whose loss can’t truly be calculated. And the loss of Richard is the most difficult to calculate of all.
The L.A. Times obit noted of Richard and The Avocado: “Rouillard, who increased circulation of the nation’s oldest major homosexual magazine from 60,000 to 150,000 during his two-year tenure from 1990 to 1992, died at the West Hollywood home that he shared with his companion of 20 years, Fox attorney Robert Cohen.” Quite a record I daresay. The obit went to: “Born to a French flight attendant who abandoned him, Rouillard was reared by adoptive parents in New Jersey who were horrified by the effeminate boy’s emerging homosexuality. Certain that he was “this horrible thing,” he attempted suicide at age 13 and again at 14. He went through six years of psychotherapy to learn to accept his homosexuality. When his parents spurned him, he returned to using his birth mother’s surname.”
What is it with flight attendants ways (especially French-speaking ones)? Yes it’s a Classical Gay Male Profession, as Randy Shilts reminds us via his most famous invention “Patient Zero.” But for Little Dickie Katz, taking his birth-mother’s name meant much more. Rouillard sounded absolutely fabulous. For the name alone he could forgive a mother who put him up for adoption (she doubtless had her reasons) far more than the family that took him in, and threw him out. But then all LGBTs are orphans at heart. We are born into alienation and spend the better part of our lives inventing families of our own; sometimes reconciling with blood relations, sometimes not. Richard’s family was Bob, and everyone who roared along with him
Yet for all of his levity, Richard could be down to earth in many ways; especially when it came to his own funeral. He decided to be cremated. His ashes would be spread at sea by Bob, with a number of friends as witnesses. “Just drop me off in the Bu between David Geffen’s and Sandy Gallin’s he said. And so we did. “The Boat Ride”(as we came to call it) was a lovely occasion. Gorgeous weather, good company, lots of champagne and a tape deck featuring Judy – and of course Callas