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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Swimming to collision

Every so often you come across an article or blog or book or other work that makes you go, hey, that’s exactly what I wanted to do!

Actually, this happens to me quite a bit. It is surely a testament to how much others are doing and to how, uh, little I am doing. But that’s beside the point.

Anyway, I had one of those moments on Sunday when I happened to be perusing the paper edition of Ireland’s Sunday Independent. There was an article by David Paul Fitzgerald, chronicling how he went about getting all the information he could about—and finally visiting the scene of—an auto accident that occurred in County Westmeath nine years ago.

Previously, my only experience with seeking out the scene of a long-ago traffic accident was a fairly easy one. Throughout my childhood, my family’s one certain summer vacation was a few days in or near Pismo Beach, California. During the various journeys back and forth on Highway 46, between Wasco and Paso Robles, I didn’t realize that we were driving over the death scene of one of Hollywood’s most legendary stars. At the junction of highways 46 (then 466) and 41 on September 30, 1955, James Dean was at the wheel of his Porsche Spyder, traveling west en route to Salinas, when he ran into a Cal Poly student heading east and making left turn to proceed to Tulare. While I was well aware of how Dean, just 24 years old, had died, it wasn’t until I had moved away from California that I realized that the spot where the famous accident happened was very familiar to me. In 1977 a monument to Dean, paid for by a Japanese benefactor, was erected near the Jack Ranch Cafe, down the road from the accident scene—causing the location to become well publicized. I have subsequently made a point to stop there whenever I had someone along whom I wanted to impress.

The only other time I remember going out of my way to find an old accident site was during a cross-country drive from Boston to Seattle. I stopped to visit my old college roommate Leigh in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and, pressed for ideas for stops on my way back to the interstate, he suggested a visit to Clear Lake, near the scene of the crash of the small plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) on February 3, 1959. (It was either that or go to Riverside, future birthplace of Capt. James T. Kirk. The city council there actually got permission to so bill itself from Gene Roddenberry himself, after Iowa was mentioned as Kirk’s home state in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.) So I went to Clear Lake, spent an afternoon wandering its streets and looking at the Surf Ballroom (venue of the trio’s last performance) and finally finding someone to give me directions to the crash site and walking out in the middle of a soy bean field to find the marker.

There is nothing particularly morbid about these visits. I’m just curious to see these places. That same curiosity arose again about five years ago. In January 2004 the writer/monologist/actor Spalding Gray went missing. He had last been seen on New York’s Staten Island ferry, and there were fears that he might have fallen or jumped off the boat. His family and friends were quoted as saying that he had been depressed for some time. Sadly, a couple of months later his body was finally pulled from the water.

I paid my own little tribute to Gray shortly thereafter, telling how I had seen him at Seattle University, performing a monolog that eventually wound up being part of the film Monster in a Box. Whenever a new film of Spalding Gray turned up, I always trundled down the street to Seattle’s Harvard Exit Theatre to see it. It was always good way to spend an hour and a half. I also praised him for his acting work in Peter Cohn’s 1995 film version of Gary Lennon’s play Drunks. Somehow he managed to leave an impression that eclipsed that of a large and high-powered cast that included the likes of Richard Lewis, Sam Rockwell, Amanda Plummer, Parker Posey and Faye Dunaway, among many others. It was sad to lose such a talent at only 62.

Then, sometime later, I happened to catch an interview on National Public Radio with his widow Kathie. She explained that Gray’s death could be traced to an accident that had occurred a couple of years earlier, from which he had never recovered medically or emotionally. That accident occurred, she said, in County Westmeath, Ireland. This got my attention because this is a place I know. Everyone who lives in Ireland knows it if they have any occasion to drive between Dublin and the general Galway area. Westmeath lies in the very center of the country, so most people, who do any traveling, would pass through it at one time or another. In fact, as it turns out, Spalding’s accident happened near Moate, a town on the main Dublin-Galway road and a major traffic bottleneck for cross-country traffic, at least until a motorway was completed that bypasses it and many other little towns and villages that were the bane of long-distance commuters.

I was curious as to where exactly this unfortunate accident had taken place, but details were not readily available—at least to my own poor tentative attempts to find them. So it was bittersweet surprise to come across Fitzgerald’s article, entitled “Man interrupted: tracing Spalding Gray’s black spot.” He recounts how Gray, as he invariably did, had tried to engage in a bit of self-therapy by turning his experiences into a monolog. The story of the accident and his subsequent experiences with Irish hospitals became the first chapter of the book Life Interrupted: The Unfinished Monologue. As Fitzgerald puts it, “The Ireland he describes … is one of superstition and bad roads.” Fitzgerald recounts how, upon being asked by the website for a photo of the accident site, he began tracking down where the exact location was. The Grays and friends had been out to dinner and were returning to an estate called Coolatore House, where they were staying. Kathie, the driver, had stopped at a crossroads in the village of Rosemount before turning right when a van came out of nowhere and struck them. Gray, who was not wearing a seatbelt, sustained brain injuries. In a morbid coincidence, the owner of Coolatore House, who had invited the Grays to celebrate Spalding’s 60th birthday there, had died two weeks before their arrival. He was John Scanlon, an American publicist who had worked for Bill Clinton. His widow insisted that they come have their celebration anyway.

Gray’s own account of the accident and its aftermath makes fascinating reading. His customary wry take on things is only more sardonic as he gives his impressions of the Irish and Ireland. Some of it seems juiced by his natural tendency to embellish for effect. Some of it seems typical of how Ireland seems to Americans. And some of it seems perhaps a bit hallucinatory, since it is after all recounted by someone remembering a traumatic experience that included a lot of medication. I think my favorite passage from the chapter is this one: “But after the morphine, depression set in, and I didn’t know whether to discuss it with the Irish. I didn’t know if they’d acknowledge the condition, or recognize it. I mean, does a fish know it’s swimming in water?”

Spalding Gray’s presence in the movies continues to outlive him. He was the subject of a documentary this year by Steven Soderbergh, called And Everything Is Going Fine. And there is talk about a Hollywood feature film dealing with the accident and the events that followed, with John C. Reilly being mentioned as playing Gray.

And thanks to David Paul Fitzgerald, it looks as though I will have to make a side trip one of these days on my way to Dublin. If, that is, I can get myself to pull off that nice, new modern motorway.

-S.L., 5 August 2010

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