Vice, The Fiction Issue, December/Jan 2011
INTERVIEW BY CLAUDINE KO
PORTRAITS BY ALIYA NAUMOFF
I arrived at Edward Albee’s Tribeca loft at 10 AM. The playwright’s last name is printed clearly next to his buzzer. His voice rumbled through the intercom: “Who is this?” I told him. Silence. I waited several minutes but resisted the urge to buzz again. Finally, I heard him yelling my name. He’d emerged outside from behind me, and when I turned, I saw a spry octogenarian wearing a hearing aid in one ear, white Reeboks, a gray button-up short-sleeve shirt, a Swiss Army watch, and shorts. He waved me over and asked me where my bike was. I was impressed he remembered that I was riding over to his house, and apologized for being sweaty as we entered his building’s elevator. I asked him what name he likes to go by. “Edward if it’s a friendly interview, Mr. Albee if it’s an unfriendly interview,” he said. “Edward it is,” I said.
Adopted by a theater-magnate heir and his wife two weeks after his birth, the eventual three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright grew up rich and rebellious in Larchmont, New York: servants, tutors, chauffeured Rolls-Royce, multiple expulsions from a variety of boarding and military schools. He ultimately dropped out of college, became estranged from his adoptive parents, and moved to Greenwich Village, where he took odd jobs and wrote his first play, The Zoo Story, in 1958. Its shocking ending still catches new audiences and readers off-guard today. Albee has since written 32 (and counting) plays, but is best known for good old Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), his work about a bitchy, drunk married couple, which was subsequently turned into a Mike Nichols-directed film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Albee’s most recent work, Me, Myself, and I, opened in New York City this fall.
The elevator doors opened up to his loft, which has 20-foot-high ceilings, walls neatly lined with art, and a cushy seating area guarded by several aboriginal wooden sculptures. There’s a Kandinsky on the wall, hanging next to a Jean Arp. His loft faces south, and in the back corner a large skylight lets in the sun, so the whole place has a soft, bright quality to it despite all the dark, warm woods. I could see a spiral staircase in front of a kitchen entry. I sat down on a worn yet elegant brown leather couch next to the puckering head of one of the aboriginal sculptures. Albee has a natural charisma—one that brings Paul Newman immediately to mind—along with that old chestnut, “a twinkle in his eye.” He offered me a beverage and, upon his return with our cups, asked the first question.
Edward Albee: Do you know Tribeca well? Do you know how the whole thing happened, how it became residential? It used to be the wholesale market district of New York, from 14th Street, where the meat markets are, all the way down to Canal Street. Coffee, food, cheese... And then they decided to move the markets up to the Bronx, of course. So this whole area became nothing but deserted warehouses. And a lot of us moved in and bought buildings. Then it became residential, and here we have this strange area called Tribeca.
Vice: How did you feel about the onslaught of upscale residences that started here in the 1980s?
I like places where you don’t have to be a millionaire to live, but all the poor artists were driven out of here by real estate speculators.
Are you a millionaire?
None of your business. I don’t think of myself in those terms. The point is that an area is better if it’s mixed income. It’s better for everybody. Wall Street types, that’s what’s happening down here now.
I’d like to get a better idea of what your life is like.
What time did you wake up this morning?
Do you have a routine?
I go out and get the New York Times. I have my first cup of coffee, and I do all the blood testing I have to do for my diabetes. I’ve had it for about four years. You have to prick your finger.
And every night.
What was the most interesting story in today’s paper?
These tests they had to determine if people had Alzheimer’s and whether or not it could be treated turned out to be failures. I’m getting to an age where Alzheimer’s is possible.
How old are you?
So, coffee, diabetes test, the New York Times…
A corn muffin or, usually, oatmeal with skim milk and salt. That’s very bland. Sugar is bad for me.
Do you think much about food?
Well, one dies without food. Right. You should eat something interesting. Last night, I went to my local Japanese restaurant, for the sushi I like so much.
Which Japanese restaurant?
It’s a little place called Tokyo Bay.
Did you go by yourself?
No, I went with a young painter friend of mine. So you’re fairly social? I see people occasionally. I would never call myself social. I don’t go out to restaurants with eight or ten people every night. I spend a fair amount of time by myself. I like thinking. And it’s difficult thinking when you’re surrounded by people. Alone is just as good.
What have you thought about today aside from Alzheimer’s, corn muffins, and coffee?
Whether this interview will be worthwhile or not. Whether you would you show up on time.
Yes, you did. Exactly. It’s not nice to be late. And I was thinking about rehearsals [for Me, Myself, and I], and the fact that after we’re done here, I have to call my director about some of my thoughts on yesterday’s rehearsals.
I read an interview with you online where you, at the end, told the interviewer that you hadn’t talked about the three most important things playwrights like to talk about, which is sex, money, and food. And that’s why I asked if you’re a millionaire and what you eat. We haven’t talked about sex yet, but we’ll get to it.
Maybe. I enjoy it. I’m in favor of it, let’s put it that way.
Do you get much of it these days?
One never gets enough. [laughs]
Are you dating anybody?
Vaguely. I don’t know whether I’m dating anyone or not, and I don’t want to talk about it. If I am, it’s very foolish on my part. A lot of people in their 80s don’t have any interest in dating. They’ve shut down physically, psychologically, and emotionally.
But you haven’t.
Some of us haven’t. Since I lost my companion of 35 years five years ago, to cancer, I’ve been not involved, for a variety of reasons, grief being one of them. But I see a few people now and again. They’ll remain nameless to protect the guilty. [laughs]
What would you say if I asked you for some dating advice?
If you’re unwilling to make a fool of yourself, you’re never going to get anywhere. And if you have to worry about why people are seeing you, you probably shouldn’t be seeing them. That’s one of the few disadvantages of having a name that people recognize. You never quite know why some people are talking to you, but you can usually figure it out fairly quickly.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Classical, early jazz, gospel, and folk music from around the world. I listen to all kinds of music, but I’m most interested in starting with Bach and moving in both directions—earlier and later.
Do you have music playing when you’re writing?
Good God, no. That would get into the rhythms of what I’m writing. When I write my characters, I hear them talking. I have to hear the rhythms of their speech. I can’t have other music getting in the way of that. And also, I don’t think the serious stuff should be listened to as an accompaniment to something else, like, “Oh, I’ve got to eat now, so I better put on a string quartet.” Listening and eating are two separate matters. You should concentrate on one or the other.
What drew you to start the Edward F. Albee Foundation, the organization you have that helps young artists?
Two things. I’d been visiting friends at places like MacDowell Colony and Yaddo, which are foundations where creative people come to work and live. I thought they were interesting, but for the most part, they weren’t taking people at the beginning of their careers. Young talent. They were taking people with some reputation, who really didn’t need the space. And after I started making a bunch of money with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, I didn’t want to pay taxes. So I was told that if I could start a foundation and do something useful with it, I wouldn’t have to give that money to the government. So I bought the barns in Montauk where the foundation is, and set up a place where painters, sculptors, and writers could live and work. It’s been going for close to 40 years now. It was useful both for me and for young people.
How do you choose the artists?
I just think they’re talented people—fairly provocative and original, and they have a future. You never know. By the time they get to be 30 or 35, their talents evaporate or they become commercial hacks to survive. So I like to get people young and hope they develop as artists. It’s nice to be helpful. It’s a responsibility to help other people, isn’t it?
I think so. But not everybody thinks that way.
I know. They’re wrong.
It’s said that you were a miscreant as a child. You didn’t follow your parents’ rules and you got involved in bad behavior…
I was adopted. Those weren’t my parents. Those were some rich people who took me in. And if I had liked them, if we’d gotten along, I probably would’ve paid more attention to them. But they had their own lives. They were busy with all the junk they were doing, and I was allowed to develop my own interests and thoughts and become me without as much interruption from other people as most kids get. Then eventually, they said, “Well, my God, he might be turning into a writer or something. We’ve got to do something about that. Why doesn’t he want to be a lawyer or a CEO, a Wall Street crook? Why doesn’t he want to be something useful?” But I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t want to be interfered with. And so I got thrown out of that house, thrown out of college, and I moved to Greenwich Village and things started getting better. But you know all that. You’ve read the biography?
Yes, I did. Have you ever thought about adopting kids yourself?
No. Why would I do that?
Your residency program is like short-term adoption. You take people in, you give them housing.
Yeah, but people do that at drug clinics, too.
So you would never consider being a dad?
No. If I’m going to have somebody living with me, it’s going to be somebody who shares the bed. We creative people, we writers and all, we do have to spend a fair amount of time by ourselves. More than a lot of other people do. Being a writer is not an eight-hour-a-day job. You learn very quickly that it’s a 24-hour-a-day job. You don’t say, “Now I’m going to start thinking like a writer.” It’s more like, “Oops, I’ve been doing it for four hours, now I can stop.”
But you don’t write for 24 hours a day.
You’re behaving like a writer. You’re looking at things and looking at people and listening and observing like a writer all the time—with strangers and with friends, always.
I read your play The Sandbox this morning, before I biked over here.
I like that play. I didn’t make any mistakes in that.
Do you make mistakes?
I make a lot of mistakes. If you’re not willing to make a lot of mistakes, you’re not going to take any chances. If you don’t take any chances, you’re not going to do anything interesting. The Sandbox, being only 12 minutes long—that’s just about perfect. It’s absolutely right. Give it another two minutes, and I would have fucked it up.
You wrote it for your grandmother, right?
No, I didn’t write if for her, because she was dead. I based the character of Grandma to a certain extent on my maternal grandmother, only I’m almost embarrassed to say the character I created is more interesting than my real grandmother.
You had a good relationship with your grandmother?
Yeah, my adopted mother’s mother. She and I were the enemies of the family. They didn’t like her either. She was a pest, she was old and cantankerous. She wanted her own way. She kept three Pekingese upstairs. She was also fairly intelligent and sprightly and ornery and I liked her. She was interesting. She also taught me how to play bridge.
Did you ever try to find your birth parents?
Back when I was adopted, it was impossible. So you don’t attempt the impossible. And ultimately, when I figured out who I was, I didn’t need to know where I came from anymore.
Who are some other people you’ve liked, some mentors?
I don’t like to be specific with names, but people who interested me, people who could teach me something, people who involved me. You make choices of who you want to be with. Everybody has to spend a lot of time with people who are a total waste of time. When I was growing up, of course, I ran away a few times—didn’t do any good.
Where would you run away to, and what was your plan?
Oh, I was going to go to Europe. I had no money, but I figured out if I could find some way to get on an ocean liner, that might be a nice way to get to Europe. How old were you the first time you ran away? Twelve. Wow. And you were in Larchmont, New York? Yeah, and I went to New York City. I think I had $50 or something. I didn’t get very far. Someone called my parents, and they sent the chauffeur to come and get me. They didn’t come themselves. [laughs]
Who do you consider your family?
I have a lot of friends. Most of them have died. I just lost a very wonderful friend named Joanna Steichen, who was [photographer] Edward Steichen’s widow. She was a good friend of mine for about 40 years. She died a couple of weeks ago. She had Parkinson’s. I was sort of taking care of her. I realized I was going to have to put her in a home somewhere because she couldn’t live by herself—she was falling all the time and she wasn’t making much sense anymore. She was going to have to go into a home and that would’ve killed her, so I’m glad she drowned in her swimming pool.
She drowned in her swimming pool?
That was good, I’m glad she did that. I’m glad that happened to her. She didn’t kill herself.
Did this happen under your watch?
I wasn’t there. I was a few miles away. Anyway, the older you get, if you’re wise, most of your good friends are older than you are so you can learn something from them, and that’s why they tend to die before you do. The number of close friends I have gets fewer and fewer each year.
Do you want to be the last one standing?
Well, I want to be standing, let’s put it that way. I don’t have any eagerness to be the last one, but if I do have to be the last one, I want to be standing. I want to be the last one if I have to be the last one. Life is really short. I mean, God, 100 years? That’s not a very long time. So you should always participate in it fully. That’s why I wrote somewhere that kids should learn—as quickly as they learn anything else—that they’re dying.
How old were you when you knew that you were going to die?
I was pretty young when I became aware of the fact that life was finite, and the result of understanding that was: Don’t waste your time. Live it fully. Don’t spend it watching television or voting Republican. I don’t believe in turning off. One of my favorite things is my house out on Montauk. I love walking along the beach. I just love being at the ocean.
Would you ever consider a remake of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on film?
If they came up with a cast that I wanted. I’d have to approve the cast and the director, and I wouldn’t allow anyone to do any other writing in it. Then I might consider it. Sure. The play is better than the movie was, but it was a pretty good movie. [Director] Mike Nichols is not a fool.
When you were 30, you wrote your first play, The Zoo Story. What got you to that point? What was the epiphany?
Obviously, it was time for me to write a play. And to write something that was good.
You don’t remember a specific moment?
No, no. It doesn’t work that way. It works that way only in bad fiction.
Do you have a specific writing space?
I do my writing in my head. There are tables around for whenever I feel like writing something down. I don’t care where I do it. It’s called a manuscript, so I write by hand.
That’s pretty old school.
I don’t believe in all those machines.
And the internet?
I know it exists. I don’t use it.
Do you have a cell phone?
No. It’s a waste of time. I might as well watch television. I walk along the streets of New York and I find people bumping into each other, bumping into things, and they have these things in their ears or in their face. They’re not seeing anything of the real world.
But it could be Bach on their headphones.
It never is. It never is. If I heard someone listening to Bach on a machine, I would congratulate them. I would ask them what recording it was and I would tell them there’s a better recording.
Do you ride a bicycle?
No, I used to. I take the subway, always. You can stare at people on the subway. You can listen to and look at people.
So you’re constantly eavesdropping.
Yes, yes. And eyedropping. Eavesdropping is listening. I look at people too.
Is there a particular kind of person you like to look at?
Interesting ones. The boring ones I don’t look at.