The Tragic AIDS Death Behind Your Favourite Disney Love Songs
Mar 28 2013
Howard Ashman in 1977. Archival photos courtesy of Kyle Rennick.
The first week of November 1989, filmmakers and executives from the Walt Disney Company gathered in a crowded room in Disney World in Orlando, Florida, to promote their latest cartoon to a group of pessimistic reporters. The press had reason to be sceptical: after two decades of critical and commercial flops following the death of its founder, Disney was bordering on bankruptcy, and the company's new CEO, Michael Eisner, had threatened to shut down the animation unit unless The Little Mermaid, its fall 1989 release, turned a profit.
As you probably know, they didn’t need to worry. The film was a huge hit, at least partly on the strength of its soundtrack. The New York Times praised the film’s music, and the movie won Oscars and Golden Globes for Best Song (“Under the Sea”) and Best Score. Two decades after its release, Disney World remodelled Fantasyland to create an entire section devoted to Mermaid. But back then, in the crowded conference room, nobody knew this. The room was grim, and for good reason – if the filmed flopped, their careers might follow.
The panel that sat in front of the press that day included Ron Clements and John Musker, the geeky animation-directing team whose last film, The Great Mouse Detective, had performed reasonably well, but not well enough for Eisner’s taste. There was also Jodi Benson, the Broadway veteran who voiced Ariel, and Alan Menken, a composer from Westchester, New York. The last member of the panel – Alan’s collaborator, lyricist Howard Ashman – stood out like a sore, sickly thumb.
Skeletally thin and speaking in a soft but firm voice, Howard looked worn-out and effeminate, more like one of the gay men you’d see drifting around New York’s Lower East Side than someone who made family movies. He spoke with passion about Disney’s rich musical history, but after the panel, it was clear something was wrong. After the press conference, when the attendees adjourned to try out some of the park's attractions, Howard limped up the Dumbo ride’s ramp and had to call for his boyfriend, Bill Klaus, to assist him. Once Howard reached his Disney associates, he rode Dumbo, smiling like he was just another Hollywood native touring Disney World. As usual, he was doing the best he could to ignore that he was dying of AIDS.
“He was completely focused and energy driven,” Jodi recalled to me 23 years later. She didn’t realise the extent of his illness until 1991. “I got the call to fly to New York City from Los Angeles. When I arrived, I was able to visit him in his room as he was listening to auditions for the voice of Aladdin. Then it really hit me: this was very serious.”
After the events at the park, Bill rushed Howard to their hotel. Howard was gasping for breath; he struggled to walk. Inside their room, Bill took out medicine and an IV catheter and stuck the catheter into Howard’s chest. He considered advising Howard to retire or at least work less, but Howard had told Bill he was determined to focus on the film’s premiere, and on his next two movies, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. By then, Howard, like many gay men, had been dealing with AIDS and death for years.
From left: Howard in 1975; Stuart White (left) and Howard on a beach in Rhode Island in the summer of 1976; Stuart in 1975.
Fourteen years before that press conference, in 1975, Howard moved to the West Village to try to make it on Broadway, like so many others. He arrived with Stuart White, who had been his lover since they met at a summer theatre programme at Tufts University in 1969. Despite the widespread prejudice against gays that existed back then, they didn’t try too hard to conceal their relationship. “As much as two men in 1970 could be together as a couple, they were, without ever saying they’re a couple,” Howard’s younger sister, Sarah, said.
While looking for an entry-level theatre position in New York, Howard bumped into Kyle Rennick, an old acquaintance who had also moved to the city, and soon Kyle had become Howard and Stuart’s best friend. “We became New York gay boys, who went to see shows and stayed up to the wee hours,” Kyle told me. “I had a crush on their relationship.”
One night over drinks, Kyle told Howard, “I can’t tell you how much I admire your relationship. I hope I’ll be lucky enough to have that one day.”
“I hope it doesn’t deflate you that there are problems,” Howard replied.
The main problem was that Stuart – who was so charismatic, he was practically irresistible – slept with other men. When he was out and about in the Village without Howard or Kyle, he accepted sexual advances from strangers and took advantage of all the free gay love that post-Stonewall, pre-AIDS-crisis New York had to offer.
Howard agreed to group sex and collaborated on plays with Stuart to salvage the relationship, but neither play nor work prevented Stuart from cruising. In 1980, Howard moved out of the apartment they had shared for five years and began dating a man named David Evans.
Howard and David would later part ways, but neither Howard’s sister nor Kyle remembers when or why they broke up. By then, the early 80s, Howard had begun to collaborate with Alan Menken; their second musical, Little Shop of Horrors, an adaptation of a 1960 movie of the same name, beat out Cats for the Drama Desk Award for Best Musical and sold out night after night. After years spent struggling to launch a theatre career, Howard had a hit, but he never had the chance to celebrate his success. Shortly into the run, Stuart called Howard and asked him if he had heard about the “gay cancer” that the New York Times had written about. Stuart had it.
Over the next few weeks Howard visited Stuart at St. Vincent’s hospital. He forgave Stuart for his unfaithfulness and watched his first love age before his eyes, losing pound after pound, growing weaker and weaker, until he died in July of 1983.
“He was the first person I knew who died of AIDS,” Kyle said. “Something bad was happening, and there was absolutely no help.” Within 15 years, Kyle would slowly lose all his gay friends, including David, Howard’s second boyfriend. Because David’s old-money parents disowned him due to his illness, it fell to Howard to look after David till he died. Afterwards, he inscribed David’s tombstone with his real, seldom-used first name, Chester, in case his mother decided one day to search for his grave.
After all that tragedy, Howard found love again in the Boy Bar, a gay club in the Village, on Valentine’s Day weekend 1983 when he hit on a young Midwestern architect new to Manhattan.
“He courted me,” Bill Klaus recalled. Over the next few weeks, Howard invited Bill to dinner and to socialise with his collaborators on Little Shop. “He came on strong,” Bill said. “He was ready for someone to settle down with. I was reluctant, but I saw that it was working.”
That summer, Bill spent several nights a week eating and sleeping at Howard’s converted firehouse apartment on Hudson Street, 12 blocks away from Bill’s glorified closet in the East Village.
But the city triggered Howard’s memories of Stuart and David. One night, Howard took Bill to see The Fly, David Cronenberg’s sci-fi film that features Jeff Goldblum’s graphic transformation into a bug. Howard fled the theatre in tears. “He has seen so many healthy young men around him deteriorate. It was something he recognised,” Bill said.
Howard needed to leave New York, he needed a new life away from AIDS, and it was just at that moment that Walt Disney Studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg called him up.
Howard coaching Jodi Benson in the studio during a recording session.
After Katzenberg took over Disney’s motion-picture division in 1984 at Michael Eisner’s request, music producer David Geffen advised him to hire “the genius” Howard Ashman and his songwriting partner Alan Menken to compose songs for Disney’s animated movies. Geffen, who was one of the original producers of the Little Shop of Horrors play and was working on a feature-film adaption, predicted Ashman would become a legend.
In 1987, Howard began visiting Los Angeles for two weeks at a time to write the songs for The Little Mermaid with Alan Menken and improve the script. With a new career in front of him, Howard decided to use his new Disney money to build his dream home with Bill. As it happened, Bill’s gay Uncle Sid owned a plot of land next to his home in Cold Springs, New York, in the Hudson Valley. Sid told Bill and Howard, “If you want, we’d be happy to give the other half of the land to Howard, and you could build your house there.”
After years of anxiety, Howard finally had the career and home he always wanted. By the spring of 1987, Bill had hired contractors and had blueprints drawn up.
Then, in March, he woke up with white patches on his mouth.
Howard visited a gay-friendly doctor in Manhattan, who diagnosed the patches as oral thrush, a symptom of AIDS. He then checked Howard’s T cells. They were dramatically low, another sign that Howard had the "gay cancer" that had killed two of his boyfriends.
Howard stayed away from Manhattan, where his friends would recognise his symptoms for what they were, and decided to postpone telling his friends and Disney associates about the illness till he had entered the final stages of the disease. He did tell Bill the news, which prompted Bill to wonder out loud whether they should make plans for the future. “Do we really want to start building this house?” he asked Howard. “We’re taking on a lot.”
But Howard didn’t want to give in to the disease that had already taken away so much from him – he insisted they build the house and keep his disease a secret. His partner agreed. “How do you take another dream away from somebody who has this condition?” Bill wondered retrospectively when I spoke with him.
But after The Little Mermaid’s release and success, Howard’s health deteriorated, leaving him unable to take care of himself or travel. Before production started on Beauty and the Beast, he called Jeffrey Katzenberg and finally told him he had AIDS. “I don’t know if you know what’s going on, but I’m not well,” he said. “If you want me to work on this project, I have to work in New York.”
Katzenberg hired Howard a private nurse and ensured that he received the most advanced medications available. Every few weeks, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin’s production crew flew to New York to collaborate with Howard. From his deathbed, Howard wrote the lyrics for Beauty and the Beast’s songs – three of them would be nominated for Best Song at the Academy Awards, and the movie’s title song would win the Oscar. The film was the first-ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture, but Howard wouldn’t live to see its release.
In Cold Springs, Bill oversaw construction on Howard’s dream home. “We lived with optimism,” he told me, but Sarah, Howard’s sister, recalls it differently. “As a lot of people discover, the construction and building process takes longer than you’d expect. [The disease and the house-building] were going against each other."
On March 14, 1991, Howard succumbed to his illness. Beauty and the Beast, which he never got a chance to see, is dedicated to his memory. A month later, Bill finished construction on Howard’s house, where he lives alone today.
“If I had to do it over again, I never would have built the house,” Bill said. “We would have bought a house or something in the city. I fell into the house after his death. I did my grieving and mourning here. It’s an odd fit: it’s a house I like very much, but it was custom tailored for a life with Howard.”
Kyle has dealt with a different set of problems, including an intense case of survivor’s guilt. “Everyone I knew died,” he said. “I survived. I couldn’t understand that at all. Because I had done the same kind of behaviour, I deserved to die.”
In recent years, preserving Howard’s legacy and managing his complicated estate has become Sarah’s full-time job. When I met her last summer near her home in Tarrytown, New York, she discussed organising Howard’s papers for the Library of Congress and managing howardashman.com, a website dedicated to reminding fans of Howard’s life outside of Disney.
“I don’t want him to be romanticised as this Disney hero,” Sarah said. “I want people to remember that he was a person.”
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