I submitted this as an OpEd to the NY Times last week, but it wasn't accepted. I thought it would be worth sharing on Independence Day. As always, I wish everyone, everywhere, the fulfillment of civil liberties and the inner freedom to enjoy them.
Here's what I wrote.
June 28th marks two significant anniversaries in New York City – the 45th Anniversary of Stonewall and the seven year anniversary of the death of preeminent party designer, Philip Baloun. While Philip was never a gay activist per se, he lived his life in a way that was a testament to gay pride and, perhaps more importantly, to a complete lack of shame around his sexuality.
I worked for Philip his last two years of life, and knew him socially for over a decade before that. Last month, there was a reunion of sorts of those of us who had worked for Philip at the launch of my novel. While the book is fiction, the main character was inspired by Philip Baloun, and reflects my best attempt to convey the utter freedom from convention that defined Philip, who made sure to die the same way he lived - on his own terms with a level of fearlessness and determination that continues to shape my own concepts of living and dying. After the reading, we went out for a drink and reminisced about Philip’s amazing ability to bend reality to his will – whether having a member of his staff, under the dark of night, secretly construct an unpermitted skylight in a penthouse apartment , locking an entire crew of electricians, florists, and carpenters in the Bank of China to make sure no one was able to wander off for cigarette breaks in order to meet an impossible deadline, or never, ever being fired after keeping some of New York’s most elite 1 percenters – his clients - waiting for hours in his home while he casually browsed lighting stores in the Bowery looking for a new fixture for himself.
During his time living in NYC, Philip wasn’t the least bit closeted. He was as unapologetic about being gay as he was about his tendency to show up late. He knew he was worth waiting for and never gave a damn what anyone thought about either his homosexuality or tardiness.
In his own complicated way, Philip was a generous caretaker to the gay and straight alike. When he had to downsize after 9/11, he kept a gay florist who he knew to be HIV positive on his insurance policy even though he was no longer a full time employee. He hired a straight female technician, in spite of her consistent failure to be competent, because he knew she needed the work. Unbeknownst to her, he also hired someone to check her plans around rigging and electricity to “avoid fatal accidents”. We would often find completely untrained persons from all fields hired in all capacities – as florists, carpenters, techies – even production managers, like myself. Philip hired me after I had lost my job as a social worker and entrusted me to oversee, along with a myriad of other events, his triumph at the Park Avenue Armory, Steve Schwarzman’s 60th Birthday. Come to think of it, many of Philip’s core crew was straight out of the Island of Misfit Toys, the few exceptions including his head floral designer, Jameel Gilbert and lighting designer Guy Smith.
This weekend, Smith will be lighting the Gay Pride WE Party at the Hammerstein ballroom on June 28th, the aforementioned anniversary of Stonewall, and the anniversary of Philip Baloun’s departure. On the 29th, he will be lighting the Pier Dance and coordinating its culminating fireworks display. Guy and his husband, Robert Montenegro (who will be providing video elements throughout both the parties) tirelessly cared for Philip while he was dying, staying overnight at his home as most of Philip’s staff did during his final weeks. It is a testament to our love for Philip that not one of us who helped care for him during this time asked for overtime pay, which Philip would have gladly provided. Many celebrating Pride this weekend will have no idea who Philip was, or the ways his life may have impacted their own. Outside of Philip’s many donations to gay causes, his most effective advocacy of gay rights was through the way he lived his life. Without shame, without remorse, without need of approval. Philip knew his own worth, valued himself and his talents, and never felt a need to hide who he was. And, he knew how to throw a fantastic party. Two weeks before he died, Philip’s crew was installing a wedding reception at the Pierre Hotel, for which Philip had designed a faux fabric ceiling and wall panels to cover the entire room. Philip, who was mostly bed-ridden at that point, unexpectedly showed up. Even on a crazy cocktail of pain killers, his attention to detail was extraordinary. He barked orders at his crew to adjust the pin spots, the flowers, the tablecloths, the candles. Worried about him, I asked if he needed a chair. Philip’s irritated response was “Will you leave me alone? I’m having a ball!” Speaking of balls, he left the next morning to oversee the Washington Opera Ball at the Peruvian Embassy in DC.
I know Philip would be delighted with the legalization of gay marriage in New York State, not only because of the many receptions he could design, but because he believed people, gay or straight, should be free to live their lives without restriction. And not only the restrictions imposed by legislatures and society, but the restrictions of our own minds and self-judgements. Philip was without shame, which is a rare and freeing condition. This brazenness allowed him to live a life of integrity, creativity, courage and purpose. So as thousands gather on this weekend to celebrate Pride, I invite them to remember a man who was absolutely unencumbered by shame, and loved a good party.