My Pen Pal Lance Loud On Sex, Quaaludes and Judy

The monumental gnarliness of 2001 was brought to a hideous crescendo on Dec. 22 with the sad passing of that gayest of nelly icons, Lance Loud, lending new meaning to the phrase annus horribilis .

The most tragic aspect is that Lance died–according to his musings in the January Advocate –laboring under the misapprehension that he was going to eternity without “the fame and glory.”

No fame and glory? For TV watchers d’un certain age the name Lance Loud requires no qualification. Who could forget that irritatingly fabulous, middle-class, ultra-swish teenager who careened out of the closet and into the collective American psyche on the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family ? Maybe there wasn’t much glory flying around at the hospice where–some 30 years later–Lance had gone to do his final battle with hep-atitis C, but for a whole generation, Lance was more famous than the Lindbergh baby or Peaches & Herb, or even Joey Heatherton.

I would posit that most urbane sophisticates over the age of 40 have some Lance Loud connection. Mine is–luckily for me–a little more complex.

I was born in Reading, England, a grim manufacturing town located 30 minutes west of London. It’s one of those joke places, like Scranton, Penn., which are used to signify dreary naffness. Oscar Wilde called it “a cemetery with lights.” Sometime around 1970, a groovy and well-intentioned British TV crew arrived in Reading to film a gritty black-and-white fly-on-the-wall documentary about a local family: underclass, fag-smoking, inebriated, largely toothless and prone to physical violence.

The mesmerizing and appalling results did nothing for Reading’s P.R.–or that of working-class heteros–but the controversial show was a hit. Rumors abounded that an American copycat series was in the works. I couldn’t wait to compare and contrast.

Enter the Loud family.

Quel shock ! The Louds–Santa Barbarans Patricia and Bill and their five almost-grown kids–not only had all their teeth, they had a station wagon, a ranch home with a pool, and a contraption mounted on their fridge door which dispensed Coca-Cola. Coming upon this series after viewing the Brit version was like walking into Versailles after a week in a Rio favella … starring Lance Loud as Marie Antoinette. Part Mick Jagger, part Isadora Duncan and part Charles Nelson Reilly, Lance electrified the screen with his engagingly irritating, drug-fueled exhibitionism.

In one episode, when Pat visits tweaky Lance in his speed-addled Chelsea Hotel squalor, she asks, “Where does Jacqueline Onassis live?” “Under the water in a glass house,” replies the exotic Lance as he reknots his vintage blouse for the hundredth time. Touchingly, he is adored and accepted by his family: “Turquoise-blue eyes look like part of the kitchen has bitten you,” cautions Lance, dishing out makeup tips to his sister Delilah. By confirming the nation’s ideas about the horrors or the fabulousness of gayness (depending on your perspective) right when gayness was becoming more visible, Lance branded himself onto the national psyche. Hence the fame … and infamy.

“Television ate my family,” claimed Lance many years later. Indeed, by the time all 12 episodes had aired, the Louds found themselves in the middle of a critical backlash and the fame-scorched family retreated from the public eye–all except Lance.

Lance stayed in New York in a Lower East Side apartment and continued to pursue the spotlight. His band, the Mumps, was almost signed by Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records, recalled Delilah, “but he signed Kiss instead.” In the 1980’s, Lance’s writing career gathered momentum–he wrote for Interview , Details and The Advocate –but the stress of deadlines escalated his crystal-meth intake. And he was now H.I.V.-positive.

In the fall of 2000–as Big Brother and Survivor had the nation in their thrall–the orgy of retarded reality-TV prompted me to dig out an old Loud tape. I exhorted you readers not just to ape Pat Loud’s taste in eyewear, but to petition Channel 13 to rerun the original series. Within a week, I received my first e-mails from Lance.

His engaging hilarity and penchant for outré self-disclosure was all intact, but his health (“HIV, Hep. C., TB, CMV–that’s all the alphabet letters for now”) and finances were not. “I’m sitting here in deepest obscurity on the side of a hill in Echo Park in a one-room depression-era migrant shack w/my 9 cats,” he wrote. He told me that he had bagged volunteering for Project Angel Food because “so many times I felt like I was the post-orgy caterer ushered in with lunch after some HIV posit-a-thon group vaseline thing–the cats and dogs I cater to today seem much more thrilled to see me. I haven’t had sex in four years, do I sound like it?”

He openly and hilariously panhandled me, but for press and fashion accessories rather than money. “I was once a hustler–did you know that? YES I am hustling you,” admitted my fallen hero with unflagging insouciance.

E-mails were exchanged in which Lance brought me up to date on the family: Delilah, “our family’s biggest success story,” has become “a VP for TV syndicate King World” ( Oprah , Jeopardy ); mother Pat, still gorgeous, works as an office manager for an L.A. advertising agency; Kevin is a dot-com dude living in Arizona; Grant is a talent coordinator for Jeopardy ; Michelle is “working for Donna Karan but moving to L.A.”; and father Bill is remarried and divorced, still working and selling real estate in Houston.

Lance’s communications were filled with hilarious stories and scary, outlandish, unverifiable dish: e.g., according to Lance, actress Susan ( Fat City ) Tyrrell once did it with John Huston while his “emphysema prescribed oxygen tanks were clanking together at the foot of the bed.” He told me about unused Loud footage in which Pat accuses Lance of delivering the coup de grace to Edie Sedgwick. (“I didn’t do it but on his death bed, a friend I was with ten years ago admitted he did slip her a few Quaaludes–ah impetuous youth!”) He had a friend called Matty “who used to be Judy Garland’s publicist and pal and was the second person to find her with the bottle of Blue Nun at the death scene.” He invited me to dine with Matty and Pat when I was next in L.A., but I never followed through–Lance’s celebrity and the thought of more panhandling genuinely intimidated me. Then he got sicker and the e-mails went quiet.

I asked Delilah about his time in the hospice. “Lance was so passionate and demanding. He kept you at the top of your game. A few days before he died, he was begging me to take him to a screening of Gosford Park . Oh, and he was a total gourmet right up to the end.”

When asked by a well-meaning hospice operative whether he had “any religious beliefs which could be helpful at this difficult time,” Lance replied, “I believe in baked goods.”

The memorial service will take place on Jan. 26 at the Chateau Marmont, and the family requests that donations be made in Lance’s name to the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, 6255 West Sunset Boulevard, 21st floor, Los Angeles, California 90028.

P.S.: Delilah told me that Bill is moving to L.A. to be closer to his family, and that he and Pat are good friends again.

My Pen Pal Lance Loud On Sex, Quaaludes and Judy