Source: Master of Ceremonies, Joel Grey, Flatiron Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-250-05723-5. Pages 42/43.
So it became clear: The only truly safe place for me was the theater. Over the next two years the Play House provided a harbor from the chaos of my mother, a place where I never found myself knocked between being wonderful one minute and bad the next, as I did during the Epsteins’ Sunday brunches. In the acting company, I found a family of an entirely different sort. Here, you could say and feel whatever was inside you. Problems were solved and decisions were made by listening to different points of view. There was an exchange of ideas, because no one way would satisfy.
At twelve years old I already understood that Viktor and Bryan, two members of the Play House, were different. It was nothing I talked about with anybody, but still, I got it.
My relationship with Walter began when the two of us were cast in the same play. The theater is a very sexy place. It always has been and always will be. To inhabit another character, another presence, and another way of thinking, it is necessary to forget who you are. You strip yourself bare to give room to imagination. So you put whatever thoughts you have about yourself aside to become a killer, a philanderer, a genius—anything. The space to act out your dreams is arousing. That’s why a lot of people have affairs with other cast members. With the line between pretend and real blurred, permission is freely given.
Walter and I had both been cast in a production of, funnily enough, Kiss and Tell. In the family comedy by the popular playwright F. Hugh Herbert I was Raymond, the bratty younger brother, and Mr. Lowe was my father. (How nice was that?) Walter played Dexter, the boyfriend of my onstage sister. Because of our ages—I was twelve and he was sixteen—we bonded immediately.
Walter came from the poorer West Side, where my cousin Burton also lived. His family of Croatian immigrants, who spoke no English, spent night and day making ends meet at their butcher shop, where their sons were also expected to work. Often Walter arrived at rehearsal with his hair smelling of garlic from having stuffed sausages all night. On breaks, we played cards, raced each other to the corner deli, teased each other—little, quick Joel ducking around tall and gangly Walter. Our camaraderie didn’t arouse any suspicion because we were just the youngsters of the play. Why wouldn’t we hang out together? Why wouldn’t we be pals?
So when I asked my parents if I could sleep over at Walter’s house, they weren’t the least bit suspicious. By then, my family had moved to a house in University Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Although it meant leaving the Sovereign, and Jerry, whom I never saw again, it was yet another upwardly mobile step for our family. It was also kind of far for me to travel home after dinner at Walter’s house, which was the perfect reason for a sleepover. Not that I really needed an excuse with my folks. They trusted me to be on my own. (“You don’t need to worry about Joel. He knows how to take care of himself.") If Walter asked me to sleep over, and his parents said it was OK, it was OK.
In the small apartment above his parents’ butcher shop, our friendship went from playful and boyish to serious and grown-up. He locked the door to his room, and after that I didn’t remember any words – just being quiet. We had to be very, very quiet. We were both mature for our age and responsible enough to be trusted with challenging roles in serious, adult theater productions. That’s the only way this could happen. This was not being fooled around with by the bellhop or cuddling with my cousin but rather a full sexual expression of real feelings. With Walter, an intelligent, thoughtful, fellow actor, I learned that sex could be connected to love.
My friendship with Walter, which deepened over the course of the show and beyond, was of pure trust and affection; I loved him, and I knew he loved me. But I also knew that to others our love would be a disgrace.
The contradiction between those two realities didn’t make sense, but it was my life, so I made it make sense by keeping my love for Walter a secret isolated in his bedroom and other private places. When I left to go home, the experience disappeared (or at least receded) so I could freely return to being Mother’s pet, performing for friends who had come over to the house for mah-jongg.
Transcribed by JUMIMA
Interviewer: You do talk about when you where 10 years old your first affair, in a way. You were 10. I mean it was an affair and that’s, I mean that’s the way it comes across in the book. You were 10 with a …
Joel: Well that’s a dream.
Interviewer: Well that’s how you described it. With a 16 year old…
Joel: The mind of a 10 year old is dreamy.
Interviewer: Oh, I thought that was real. It seemed real to me. He was dreaming of that?
Joel: No, but when a 10 year old is experiencing something, it’s quite different from a mature person.
Interviewer: Right, okay. But there was a real experience?
Joel: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But so many guys do that at a very, very young age. But that wasn’t my circumstance. I did it because there was something there [puts his finger to his heart], in me. And I found out very early on that that was a bad, bad thing to do. And a bad thing to be. I kept hearing…
Interviewer: This is like 1943, 1942?
Joel: Yeah. I kept hearing that men were taken into… the police picked them up… You know there was a tremendous amount of vehemence and anti-homosexuality. And you could die, and you could certainly not have any respect and nobody would think much of you, because of these terrible ideas about sexuality at that moment. And that’s what I was hearing.
Interviewer: And yet, you still acted upon it because it was innately part of you. There wasn’t… I mean you write about it in the book very openly and matter-of-factly and sort of beautifully, when you’re a young person. You had this experience when you were ten, then at the Cleveland Playhouse, when you were twelve, I guess… There’s an older guy there, he was about seventeen, eighteen, maybe? And you seemed to be in love with him.
Joel: You know, I think I was. I may still be!
Joel: But during that time I was also very interested in girls and women. And I was just very very busy.
Interviewer: You are busy! You were a cocksman! Just to be honest, I mean you were very very busy. You were like that. You were good at it.