​What I Learned About Love and Death From Martha Stewart's Gay Neighbor
Illustration by Maritza Lugo


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​What I Learned About Love and Death From Martha Stewart's Gay Neighbor

It's amazing what you can learn on the 320-acre estate of the senile heir to a legendary American fortune. I learned I wanted to dump my sugar daddy.

It was a blow job I'd never forget. It actually started as fairly subpar fellatio—Richard* huffed dutifully above me, as my knees chafed the expensive shag below. But just as my mind began to relegate this experience to the Cave of Forgotten BJs, something remarkable happened: Richard barked. Like a dog. His baying was quickly followed by ejaculation, and quite suddenly I found myself in the middle of a National Geographic mating special. Richard's howl was the kind normally issued by a coyote in heat, not a 55-year-old CEO of a prominent Manhattan PR firm.


We settled into a cuddle, and Richard smiled innocently as if he had not just Scooby Screamed mid pole-smoke. So delusionally angelic was his expression, that I seriously wondered if he had been conscious during the whole barking episode, or if I had somehow tapped into a subconscious sexual fantasy connected to his childhood Basset Hound. To mention it now, in the sober light of the floor-to-ceiling windows in his Hell's Kitchen penthouse, seemed insane. I was no longer looking at the animal who barked during sex, I was looking at Richard—my muscular, much-older, brand new boyfriend.

"Should we get ready?"

Richard slapped my ass, and headed for the shower. I stayed in bed dumbfounded, wondering what I had gotten myself into.

This much I knew for certain: Richard was a 55-year-old PR guru, a sort of muscle daddy version of Samantha Jones. His body was built like a gay brick house, and his face had the age-free plastic sheen of the very rich. But no surgeon or trainer could ever reclaim the stunning beauty that had blessed Richard during the late 70s. Similarly, his PR firm had seen better days, namely days in which Richard had represented one of the 20th century's most influential artists. Studio 54 had been the garden of Richard's success, seeded by cocaine and watered with drops of Liza Minnelli's champagne. To view photos from this era, one could deduce that Richard's success had been, in part, founded upon his appearance and charm. In this way, I suppose that Richard saw something of himself in me. I was 22 at the time, new to New York, and still a zygote of a human being. Armed with intelligence, the naive courage of youth, and a six-pack I have since surrendered to more important goals, I was determined to make my mark in New York Society. Richard was my portal, my Studio 54. I, like most 22 year olds in New York, wanted it-—but had yet to truly figure out what "it" was.


Now before you accuse me of possessing Anna Nicole levels of bimbo pragmatism, let it be known that I had genuine affection for Richard. His stories were a primer on New York life, and there was incredible history to this human. His identity was inextricably linked to the city, and in turn the city's identity had been shaped by his actions. It's very easy to be seduced by money and power, especially when you have neither. In the swirling uncertainty of newfound adulthood, I felt safe with Richard. Proximity to wealth gives the illusion of security: if you're rich enough, you're also invincible. But no one, not even the wealthiest, can resist death.

And it was this wealth/sex/death pile-up that I would confront that very afternoon, in what was supposed to be a lovely trip to visit his friend's country estate, but instead became the end of our relationship.

"Let's go!" Richard said later that morning, once we were showered and dressed.

I collected my things, pausing briefly at the original Warhol in his foyer. The memory is distant enough, that the actual image itself fades and all that's left is a vague impression of its Technicolor Importance. Richard pushed me out the door, as I remained in awe not of the painting itself, but what it represented.

It was time to visit Walter.

Walter was a man who had married well: his wife was an heir to one of America's largest fortunes. When she passed at the early age of 49, Walter inherited everything and became inextricably linked to his legendary in-laws where it counted most: money. This was all well and good until Walter revealed, a few years later, that he was a homosexual. The family viewed this admission as an unforgivable betrayal to The Name, as they had lost millions on a sham marriage. Walter was disowned by the Entire Family, and quickly became New York Society's gay black sheep.


This is where Richard came in. Walter met Richard at a benefit, shortly after his ill-received coming out. The two quickly bonded, and Richard became Walter's gay culture tour guide. Needless to say The Family was Not Amused, and upon learning of this relationship did what any normal family would do: made Richard sign a friendship pre-nup. Richard signed, disproving the family's theory that he was interested in living out a fags-to-riches lifestyle. With the awkward question of cash out of the scenario, Walter and Richard were free to pursue companionship without the issue of inheritance hanging over them. The two even entertained the possibility of romance during a drunken, drug fueled summer on Fire Island. But after a few underwhelming romps in Cherry Grove, it was mutually decided that sex was not a great addition to their relationship. And so, Walter and Richard embarked on a decades-long friendship. Years passed, and the gay mecca pilgrimages were increasingly traded for more subdued visits at his country home. Now, at the age of 81, as Walter began the agonizing descent into senility, Richard's role in his life shifted toward caretaker. My boyfriend was Walter's only friend, if you don't count his staff of 15, the man who tended his llama enclosure, and the occasional pity casserole from his neighbor, Martha Stewart.

Walter's estate was like nothing I'd ever seen, partially because I'd never seen anything that qualified as an "estate." The house was a sprawling colonial mansion, straight out of Ina Garten's wet dreams. Upon arrival, the butler informed us that neither lunch nor Walter were quite ready, and we were free to tour The Grounds. Richard had been to this estate many times, and knew the layout like the back of his artificially bronzed hand. We started with the sculpture park, weaving in and out of modernist behemoths that belonged in LACMA, not someone's backyard. The llama enclosure was exotic yet sad; the poor animals had traded the Andes for a distant view of Martha's adjacent estate. The stables were similarly melancholy, and home to Walter's horse Afterglow. Walter had long abandoned riding, and one got the sense that Afterglow didn't get many visitors these days. This much Walter and his horse had in common.


We concluded our tour, and wandered back to the main house, where lunch was laid out in the dining room. Walter sat waiting in professorial repose, hands resting on his tweed vest and sharp eyes trained on a distant llama. As we entered, he stood to welcome us with a spry enthusiasm that defied his considerable age.

"Walter, this is Jonathan," Richard said, as we found our seats.

"Lovely to see you again," Walter said confidently, although I had never met him.

I initially assumed this was simply a man who had met a great many people in his life, and defaulted to "lovely to see you again," for fear of faux pas. But as lunch progressed, I came to understand this feigned familiarity as the performance of a newly senile man. Walter was still lucid enough to understand that his memory was slipping – and charming enough to hide it.

As we finished lunch, Walter's granddaughter (the only relative that spoke to him), crashed our meal. She, like many a well-furred woman with too much time, was a philanthropist, and had an event which "desperately needed" Richard's help. The two retired to the patio for an emergency gala-summit, leaving Walter and I to ponder the possibilities of the afternoon.

"Would you like a tour of the house?" Walter asked.

His combination of wealth and fragility made me nervous. I was simultaneously intimidated by his power, and frightened by his physical weakness.

"I would love that," I replied.


A tour of the house translated to a tour of his considerable art collection. Each room was stuffed with Real Art, the collective value of which was probably enough to bail Detroit out of bankruptcy. I instantly became his closest friend, as he rattled off the stories behind his favorite pieces: how they came into the possession of The Family, their historic significance, and why these paintings were superior to the overpriced trash fished out of the nouveau riche shitstream that was Art Basel.

"Overpriced wallpaper," he spat dismissively in the Miami fair's imagined direction, "Art is not a place to hide your money."

Hiding money was not something Walter, with his many-acred estate, could ever be accused of doing. But for many contemporary collectors, art was merely an investment that matched the couch. For lonely Walter, art was love. These paintings were his most consistent companions, friends that enriched his spirit and never demanded to be remembered. In fact, senility was possibly a blessing in this case; each forgotten piece was a piece to discover anew—its beauty fresh and thrilling.

"I want to show you my favorite."

We came to his bedroom. I hesitated upon entering; something felt overly intimate about crossing this particular threshold. Detritus of health-in-decline littered the room: an unkempt bed, pill bottles on the dresser, medical apparatuses designed for the failing skeleton. But we didn't come to gawk at the mundane props of Walter's deterioration. We came for Walter's favorite painting.


"Here she is," he said warmly.

There on the wall, hung a portrait of a wealthy, elderly woman. She sat in a chair, with a sleeping cat in her lap. Her severe black dress possessed a sharp white collar, and a gold choker elegantly constricted her neck. An angled frown sent ripples across her weathered face. Her expression was one of terminal loneliness—of costly despair. This painting, Walter explained, was a major work of a leading German Expressionist from the Weimar era. The painting was worth millions, but that was not the point. The point was that Walter saw himself in her.

I stood, contemplating the canvas. After a few moments of silence, an odd feeling came over me. My host's steady narration had stalled for too long.

I turned to discover Walter, naked from the waist down. His face had a softer, confused expression—his eyes drained of the clarity and wit that had sparkled there just moments before. He held a syringe in his hand.

"Is it time for my shots?"

I had no idea. My failure to answer was taken as a sign of imminent threat. Walter barked angrily at me.

"Who are you?"

"I—I'm Jonathan…I came with Richard this afternoon?"

"What are you doing here?"

"You—we had lunch, remember?"

"When do I take my shots?" Walter said, panic rising.

"I'm not sure, let me get someone."

"Where you are GOING?"

I assured him I'd return shortly, and rushed to the patio to get Richard. Moments later, as I watched my boyfriend ascend the stairs to care for Walter, I decided it was time to start hanging with people my own age.

My motives for dating Richard had been simple and shallow: I wanted to access a world that was beyond my 22-year-old reach. Our courtship allowed me to affect a worldliness that I hadn't truly earned. I loved what Richard represented (wealth, wit, art), but Richard the human was a secondary consideration. The events of that afternoon revealed Richard's attitudes toward Walter were similar. Walter represented a bygone era of New York wealth and culture, and by claiming Walter as his friend, Richard could also claim ownership of a world beyond his experience.

That day, I managed to see Walter and Richard not for the privilege they symbolized—but as fellow humans determined to fight their way toward the end. For Walter, the end was close at hand. Seeing the nurse-like way Richard cared for Walter was moving, yet it was also a bizarre window into what my own future held, if I continued dating Richard. All the wealth in the world can't protect someone from their own mortality. And if we're all gonna die anyway, might as well spend some time with someone you truly love (not a titan you admire). I needed to find someone my own age, and Richard did too; there wasn't enough love to take us to the grisly finish. I wanted to be a caring partner to an equal, not a premature steward of expensive death. I had too much love within me, too much time ahead of me, to settle. Richard, though a beautiful human, was the wrong human for me.

As we drove off the estate that afternoon, Walter's dogs chased our car, barking. I looked to Richard, waiting for some recognition of our canine role play earlier that morning, but it never came. Maybe he had forgotten, or maybe he was in denial. Soon it wouldn't matter. A sense of relief flooded over me as we neared the property's iron gates—the end of the road was in sight.

*Names have been changed