The Man Nothing Happened To
By Patrick Hurley
“Hello Patrick,” his voice thin and slightly frail, “This is Andrew Ronson,” a hint of his native British present in his formality if not his dialect, “and I understand you are interested in becoming a friendly visitor. Give me a call and we can arrange a time that suits you.”
I met Andrew one sunny April Morning at his apartment in West Hollywood. Andrew had been seeing a therapist at the Los Angeles LGBT center, and through the Center he was assigned different volunteers who would make visits to his house. My friend Scott was one such volunteer. Scott, who I went to Grad school with, lived a couple of buildings away from Andrew at the time. Scott was getting ready to move out of the city to take a job in Orange County, but was so taken with Andrew, he asked if I would be interested in meeting him and possibly making regular visits with him. Scott told me of Andrew’s love of movies and fascination with Hollywood. A man after my own heart. I was in. When I met Andrew, he was eighty-five years old, skinny as a twig, with a nervous air about him, as if he were always walking a tightrope. He seemed always a little off-balance. But he was sharp as a tack, and had a memory and knowledge of movie trivia unlike any I’d seen before.
On our first visit, we spent most of the time talking about his favorite movie star, a woman whose giant photo adorned his bedroom wall, Marlene Dietrich. His eyes lit up when he spoke of seeing her movies when he was younger at the small movie theater in Cardiff, which was the closest town to his childhood home in England. Before our first visit ended, he said something that has stuck with me, as he walked me to the door, he apologized for “monopolizing” the conversation. I reassured him that he hadn’t, and that I was very interested in more stories of his life. He smiled and without any sarcasm he said, “I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed there. Nothing much has happened to me.”
For three years, I visited Andrew at least once a week. Sometimes we would watch movies, sometimes we would go to lunch. I would bring him cookies and chocolates- he had a crazy sweet tooth. Watching him eat a cookie was pure joy. His eyes would light up, he would smile and make a yum sound that was somewhere between a low hum and a grunt of satisfaction. I spent his last Thanksgiving with him, he came to my house with my family. And on his last Christmas we went to the movies. Andrew passed away on June 10th 2020. He had been in a nursing facility in Santa Monica amid the worldwide shutdown. The Covid crisis made visiting him in a nursing home impossible. So from March to June, I didn’t get to see him at all.
Andrew was born in 1932 in Great Britain in Newport, a small town near the Wales border. He described his Father as a functioning alcoholic who was cold and distant. He didn’t speak a lot about his mother, but I got the feeling that she was subservient to his father and equally distant and cold. His childhood home had a wood-burning stove and a boiler that had to be lit every morning, as early as the dawn, and his mother was always up and working in the kitchen by the time Andrew and his siblings would get up for school. He had two brothers and two sisters. He would occasionally speak of them, but he mostly said he wasn’t particularly close to them either. His father owned a petrol station near the border of their small town, and spent most of his days there. He would then spend most of his evenings at the local pub, and when he was home he could be seen at the dining room table reading the newspaper and demanding peace and quiet. Andrew’s life was mostly about trying not to disturb the stasis of his house, and Andrew was nothing if not accommodating.
In 1940, as the war across Europe began to rage, Andrew recalled nights when air raid sirens would wake him and his family, and they would seek shelter in the basement of whichever family’s turn it was in the neighborhood to act as host- it was apparently a rotating responsibility. London was far enough away from them that the raids were more a precaution than anything else, and Andrew recalled the nights spent in his neighbor’s cellars as a chance to socialize, drink tea and play with other children. His experience of the war was that it was close, but not imminently a threat to him. Thus, perpetuating a lifetime of being just on the outskirts of the rest of the world, the world where things happened to other people. There were days he and his fellow classmates would be made to walk to school with their gas masks in hand, just in case. But he always said he never believed he was in any real danger. Andrew is the definition of cool-headed, even-tempered, very pragmatic and he longed so much to find a place he fit in. He discovered the cinema as a young boy, and whenever he could he would make his way to the local movie theater, or on special occasions to the larger movie palace in Cardiff, and he would watch everything he could. Weekends were the best, because they ran movies all day, and it was often double or triple features of the latest and most glamorous Hollywood offerings. It was in his teenage years, as the war was ending, that he discovered the films of Marlene Dietrich, who he would adore until the end of his life. He was also a huge fan of Bette Davis, and to hear him describe the disgrace of the Academy Awards when she lost for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, was the most eloquent shade you’ve ever heard.
One Sunday afternoon, just as he was enjoying a lemon square, he got lost in a thought, and cocked his head slightly before speaking. “I regret not being an actor,” he said. And the weight of sadness in his voice made the words heavy, as if they had been coated in molasses. Andrew often spoke of regrets. So many regrets. His parents disparaged his love of movies, as so many of their generation had. Andrew wasn’t the personality to defy his duty to his family’s expectations. He wasn’t the guy that would run away to Hollywood to become famous. He was the guy nothing happened to. In his mind, he had failed at life. He said as much on more than one occasion. I wanted to tell him he was wrong. I never did.
He loved performing, and discovered, as a septuagenarian, his voice. He took singing lessons from Los Angeles Community College and a senior learning center in Santa Monica. He spoke of the Irving Berlin classics he got to sing in front of the class, and once a semester to a larger audience. In 2008, he flew to Germany for a friend’s wedding and in front of the entire wedding party on a stage with a band, got to sing Yes, Yes- with some updated lyrics appropriate to the happy couple. The performance was caught on someone’s phone and posted to YouTube*. I watch it and I see the joy in him. The pure joy of a true performer. *The link is at the end of this story.
After spending his required two years of British service, which he served in the Royal Air Force in post-war Germany, Andrew decided to go to college across the pond. His sister had moved to Toronto and talked him into attending the University of Toronto. He graduated with a degree in Psychology, and decided to pursue his masters in the subject at the University of Chicago. “Why psychology?” I asked him. His answer, “I wanted to find a way to fix myself.”I don’t think he understood the impact of telling a queer man in 2017, so matter-of-factly that he spent seven years in college pursuing a degree that would serve to change him from a homosexual to a heterosexual man. Yes, Andrew was gay. He came out in his seventies. And he told me another of his deepest regrets was that he waited so long. And that he wasted years of education in what he called a “deplorable attempt,” to fix what he considered to be the broken parts of himself. He spent years writing a book to heal homosexuals. He was convinced if he could cure himself, he could cure others. He abandoned the book before he finished, when he realized that he wasn’t able to fix himself. He still waited to come out for decades, but lived with the shame of being “incurable.”
When he was nearly eighty years old, he wrote a letter to each of his siblings detailing his “coming out.” And while, one of his sisters told him she assumed as much, his older brother told him he didn’t want anything more to do with Andrew because of it. They weren’t close, and Andrew said it didn’t affect him much. However, when his brother reached out to him a few years later to apologize, he had saved the letter. I saw it. I told him what a tremendous thing it was that Andrew had changed the mind of a man in his nineties. He shrugged it off. Unaware of the activism he had created.
In the early 70s, he moved to Los Angeles, and with a friend, decided to move into an apartment in West Hollywood. The irony being that Andrew claims he had no idea, at all, that West Hollywood was a gay area. When his friend backed out of moving in after they signed the lease, because of financial reasons, Andrew moved into his final apartment alone. When I met him over forty years later, he was still in the same place. And had lived alone the entire time. Incredibly without much contact with the gay community around him. He spent the entire AIDS epidemic in one of the hardest hit areas in the country, and he said he only knew one person who died. A man he barely knew. Again, he existed on the outskirts of a world where things were happening to everyone but him. He never had a boyfriend. And when he came out, he told me he realized it was too late. He didn’t like to talk about his sexual past, but he did tell me that he never had a “real” experience with another man.
Shortly after moving into his West Hollywood apartment, he became a massage therapist. He’d abandoned his psychology path, and so for the rest of his life worked different jobs, in an attempt to find what he was “supposed” to do. He was enterprising as a massage therapist. He would write to certain celebrities and offer them free massages for an endorsement. He was taken up by several. The most significant being Rock Hudson. I was so fascinated that Rock Hudson had been in the very apartment that I visited Andrew in, that I brought it up a lot. “You got Rock Hudson naked in this apartment!” I would tease him. He still had the massage table. I remember when he showed it to me, he said he was disappointed that he couldn’t “remember what Rock Hudson’s cock looked like.” That’s a direct quote. He remembered that he reeked of alcohol, it was early afternoon and Andrew found that very unpleasant. He also vaguely remembers a sexual proposition, as if it were expected. “Wait, wait, wait,” I remember our conversation exactly, “Are you telling me,” I started, “you had the chance to give Rock Hudson a happy ending, on this very table anand you didn’t do it?” Andrew laughed at this, and threw his hands in the air, dramatically, “I was never okay with that, but looking back now, I think he thought it was expected because of the neighborhood.” His face changed a little and with a tinge of remorse he said, “I never did that.” And that was that. This sparked a long talk about his “type,” a conversation he must have wanted to have for a long time. He had photos, cut from magazines, he kept in his photo albums, photos of shirtless men, actors he had been into, and even a gay porn star. There was no shame in his voice, and he in no way hesitated. In that moment, he was like a young man that had finally been given permission to finally reveal a long-hidden desire. A light was shining on something he had only ever allowed to exist in the shadows. He had very specific details. He liked broad shoulders, he liked tall men. He liked biceps more than triceps. He wasn’t apologetic. It was fabulous.
And then he told me about the first man he allowed himself to fall in love with. And in true Andrew fashion, it was something just outside of possibility. Right after he came out of the closet, he started seeing a therapist at the LGBT center in Hollywood. He saw the man for quite a few months, and it didn’t take long before he developed feelings for him. When he spoke about it, I swear, he had a tinge of teenage angst. “I don’t understand why he wouldn’t see me outside of the office.” He would say, as if his critical-thinking ability, like all of us with our first serious crush, had abandoned him. He had a hard time telling the story. He had connected, in a very real way, with another man for the first time in his life, in a manner that made reciprocity impossible. The man was “handsome, warm and just perfect.” I don’t even think Andrew was aware of his own idealization, but it made me immediately grateful for him. As awful as unrequited love is, it is a sign that we think we’re worthy. Andrew thought he was worthy of this thing he ran from his whole life. The cruelness of life made his obtaining it not possible in this scenario, and he never tried with anyone else, but he felt it, however briefly.
In February 2020, Andrew was admitted to Cedars Sanai Hospital. His gallbladder was seriously inflamed and he was septic. He had to have his gallbladder removed. I saw him a few days before he went to the hospital. He was struggling a bit more with his memory. He complained of being confused, and he said loneliness was surrounding him. It was a strange way to express it. “It’s like I’m surrounded by things that aren’t there.” He was also forgetting things unless they were in front of him. So I wrote my phone number next to both of his phones and I told him to call me whenever he felt lonely. He never did. I feel bad for leaving that day. But I couldn’t stay. Had I known it was going to be our last visit in his home I would have taken it in for a last time. I didn’t.
Andrew and I shared a love of Shakespeare. A love of words. He wanted to be a writer. After he abandoned writing his book, it took him years and years before he would pick up writing again. Apart from Journals, which he had kept regularly for fifty years, he worked on a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He still had the original copy he had typed on an old typewriter. His idea was pretty clever, Romeo and Juliet were both men, Juliet was Julio, and instead of just changing pronouns, he pulled lines from other Shakespeare plays, lines that would be appropriate to the moment. So instead of Romeo saying “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” he would use a line from Richard II, “He does hold such fire in his hand,” and then “O, that I were a glove upon that hand,” still works. So rather than change the words of the great Bard, he borrowed them from other plays to change the gender. He was very proud of the piece, and it must have been a lot of work to find so many different quotes apropos to the story. When he was finished, he sent the play, along with a fan letter to Kenneth Branagh, who took the time to respond to him. Andrew kept the note he got from him. He showed me once, and while I don’t remember the exact words, Mr. Branagh told him that he liked the idea, that it was truly clever, and that he would love to work on something like it someday. It was polite, if not a little dismissive, and Andrew never pursued it any further.
He wrote a lot of fan letters. He had a few framed photos of celebrities with autographs- though no big movie stars, they were character or television actors who had long since been removed from pop culture. I didn’t recognize any of them, and I pride myself on knowing a lot about early Hollywood. I did recognize his nearly life-size portrait of Marlene Dietrich that decked the wall next to his bed. It was a black and white movie still, and though I forget the movie it comes from, I’ll always remember her expression, that no-nonsense diva that clashed entirely with who Andrew was and so was a perfect snapshot of what I knew he secretly always wanted to be. One of Andrew’s favorite movies was Witness for the Prosecution, the Billy Wilder courtroom drama that showcased one of Marlene Dietrich’s best performances. We watched it on Thanksgiving last year with my dad, my brother and my best friend. All in my living room, on my large sectional. Andrew, curled up in the corner of the sofa, knees to chest like a little kid, it was his way of sharing a piece of himself through a movie he loved so dearly. He also loved Morocco, which garnered Marlene Dietrich the only Oscar nomination she ever received. A fact he always found staggeringly difficult to comprehend. There was a local movie theater in Santa Monica showing a Marlene Dietrich double-feature, Morocco and Blonde Venus, two of his favorites. I bought tickets for us and planned to take him, but he was hospitalized three days before, and the tickets were never used. Someday I will watch Morocco.
The last time I saw Andrew was at the end of February. The Covid crisis hadn’t begun in America yet, but there were rumors that it was imminent, and in reality, it was about two weeks away from shutting us down completely. He was about to be transferred from the hospital to a rehabilitation facility because he was aspirating. When he swallowed food, small pieces of it were getting into his lungs, ensuring an infection which would most likely lead to pneumonia. They were feeding him intravenously. They wanted to put a feeding tube in, but he didn’t want it. And his caregiver said Andrew’s wishes should be honored. I walked into his room in the ICU and he made eye contact, and it was the first time that he didn’t respond to seeing me. His eyes were alert and he turned his head to me, but there was no recognition, and no emotion. I was worried that he didn’t know who I was, but he did. I got close to him, I said, “Hi Andrew,” and he asked me for food. And he asked me for water. And he said he was being held against his will. He tried to pull the tube from his nose. He tried to remove his catheter, and when the nurses came to subdue him, he was verbally combative and not at all the Andrew I had known. He was battling, not only being away from the home he had known for decades, but the autonomy that had kept him going. What as I saw as loneliness he must have seen as sovereignty. What I assumed was isolation, he knew as freedom. I didn’t know that his freedom would be gone for good, or that it would be the last time that I saw him, but I stayed with him that day for longer than usual. We watched The Lion King, occasionally he would ask me for something to eat. He would tell me they were starving him to death. I reassured him it was temporary because of his surgery. He would accept my answer and we would sit in silence, watching the movie. After the movie, we sat a little longer, not speaking, I would smile when he looked at me, and sometimes he would try to smile back. He said he was sorry for not saying more. He was tired. Before I left, he grabbed my hand and we just looked at each other. And I said, “I love you, Andrew.” He didn’t say it back. He didn’t nod or smile. After a moment he let go of my hand. I said I would see him soon. All he said was “please.”
I sat in my car in the parking garage of Cedars Sinai crying for close to an hour. How did this happen to Andrew? How can the world contain so many people and be a place of such loneliness? Here was a man who made it nearly ninety years, who lived on two different continents, in three different countries, had two degrees, found his way to West Hollywood at the birth of the gay rights liberation movement, and was dying with so little. I was crying partly because I felt Andrew’s burden. I am Andrew. All gay men run the risk of isolation and rejection. Some of us don’t find a spouse or a partner for life. Some of us don’t have children. And with the competitive nature of gay life in Hollywood, some of us don’t have the luxury of collecting a group of friends to substitute family because we get in our own way. We don’t come out until we’re too old. We don’t fall in love, because we can’t reconcile our own brokenness. Andrew tried. He tried so hard to find a community. Family. And he had some of us. But man did he regret his life.
He let the world define him. His gentleness, his kindness not shared by a multitude but only a select few of us graced with his presence. He jumped into the world in his seventies, but never let go of the line that held him back, that anchored him to the man he wasn’t, and never could be. The man that nothing happened to is the man Andrew thought he was, but of course it wasn’t at all who he was. His face told the story of regret in each line, every imperfection. His eyes shone more what if’s than triumphs. I don’t know that he ever knew how much he offered others. His soft voice, seemingly afraid to speak too loudly, always uttering words of wisdom, unheard by too many. His heart never broken, and yet never entirely whole. He kept himself where he thought he belonged, because he thought he started too late, but he persisted. He went to classes. He went to the Center. He went to movie nights with other queer seniors. He actually never gave up. This is the reminder. This is what Andrew gave me.
I hold his legacy, his unbroken heart, and for the rest of my days I’ll carry a piece of him. The piece that’s the same as me. A little Andrew when I watch a new movie that we would have analyzed together while we ate brownies. A little Andrew when I write about being queer and what it means to love one another. To let go of the outside and cultivate what’s deeper, what matters. A little Andrew when I’m afraid of trying something new. Or falling in love. Or using my voice. His regret is my fuel.
Andrew died on June 10, 2020. Alone in a nursing facility amid the global shutdown. I don’t know what his last words were. I don’t know what he looked like at the end. I don’t know if he knew he was loved. Andrew was a gay man who lived his life to accommodate the comfort of others. He never fell in love. He never dated a man. He came out when he was in his seventies. He wrote a gay version of Romeo and Juliet. He knew all the lyrics to the Irving Berlin songbook. He was a member of toastmasters. He loved Marlene Dietrich. He loved movies. He hated Donald Trump. He listened to NPR. He read self-help books. He exercised every morning. He loved desserts. He spoke with eloquence. He was always cold. He loved to sing. He loved to listen to other people’s stories. And though he thought he was a man that nothing ever happened to- he happened. And my life would be greatly diminished if he hadn’t.
R.I.P My Dear Friend…