It felt like a moral duty to rescue Jeff Schmalz from near obscurity…
Jeff Schmalz on The Charlie Rose Show, 1992
Jeff died on November 6, 1993, at the age of 39. On a strangely glistening night several weeks later, I went to his favorite restaurant, Chanterelle, for a private memorial service that somehow, in an unforced way, became a festive celebration of his life. I knew from Jeff that his sister Wendy, his only sibling, was a literary agent, and so I introduced myself to her that night. I told her how honored I was to have been invited and asked her how she had chosen the guests. “This was supposed to be Jeff’s 40th birthday party,” she explained. “He’d made up the list.”
Death was Jeff’s final lesson to me. Just as he was the first openly gay man I knew, he was the first person I knew to die of AIDS. In the years since then, his absence has harrowed me. I could not separate the upward arc of my writing career from the ways Jeff had elevated my abilities and negotiated my way through the labyrinth of Times newsroom politics, which had ruined people far more talented than me. For lack of a better term, I felt survivor guilt. And beyond it, I grieved that as the years passed, fewer people would remember who Jeff Schmalz was and what tremendous work he had done.
Indeed, one evening nearly 20 years after Jeff’s death, my fiancé and I were having dinner with another couple—she a screenwriter, he a former magazine journalist now working on a cable series about journalism. The conversation turned to New York State’s recent legalization of same-sex marriage, a stance vociferously endorsed by The New York Times. I mentioned how remarkable it was to me, having lived through such a homophobic period at the paper, to see it become the champion of gay rights. Then I found myself talking about Jeff and his AIDS articles, fully expecting that my friends would be familiar with him and them. But they drew a blank.
That blank, of course, made sad sense. Jeff had been dead for a generation by now. Newspaper writing is evanescent, as perishable as the paper it is printed upon. Still, I could not believe that people who would know the names and work of Randy Shilts, Larry Kramer, Tony Kushner, Terrence McNally, Michelangelo Signorile, Andrew Sullivan—those artists and journalists who bore witness to the AIDS plague —could not know of Jeff Schmalz. It felt like a moral duty for me to do something to rescue Jeff from obscurity.