Newsweek Covers AIDS
By David Ansen
[Editors Note: This is an excerpt from an article commissioned by Tina Brown for the December 31st edition of Newsweek, the last print issue in the U.S. For the full article by Ansen, click on the link at the end of this excerpt.]
On Wednesday Jan. 6, 1993, the great dancer Rudolf Nureyev died in Paris. The initial, official cause of death was said to be “cardiac complication” that followed a long illness. But it wasn’t hard to read between the lines: everybody knew he was the latest victim in an agonizingly long line of people in the arts who had died of AIDS.
While 9/11 cast a shadow we have all been living under since 2001, the specter of AIDS was, for many of us, the indelible nightmare that haunted the end of the 20th century. In April 1983, Newsweek ran its first cover story on the emerging storm. In May 2006 it ran its 20th cover on the subject, "AIDS at 25.” By then the world wide death toll from the disease had reached 25 million. But unlike the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers, AIDS was, particularly in its first decade of devastation, a subject from which many people chose to avert their eyes. President Ronald Reagan was infamous for never mentioning the problem in public. For some, it was a blight that happened only to those people. Newsweek, to its credit, stepped up to the plate.
Torn Fabric: When Nureyev died, it was immediately clear to the arts editor, Sarah
Crichton that a story about the devastation AIDS had wreaked on the artistic community needed to be written. It wouldn’t be a story about the great Russian ballet star, but about a cultural fabric that had been ripped apart and couldn’t be replaced. It was about books and plays that would not be written, choreography that could never be passed on, artists who would never get the chance to grow, music silenced. It would also be about the art that arose in response to the crisis, from Tony Kushner’s epochal play, Angels in America, to the ballets of Bill T. Jones, and the silence emanating from Hollywood, which at the time was afraid to tackle the subject at all….
I was used to deadline pressure: knocking out covers on actors and films and cultural trends, being called in the middle of an un-sober Saturday night to write a super-rushed obituary of Cary Grant (why do stars always die on the weekend when we had to be on the stands on Monday?) But this story was different. It was raw, immense and too close to home. I had lost friends and lovers, and knew too many people who were living with the virus and counting out their days. I knew that amongst the list of the fallen I would be writing about people I knew, such as my friend Steven Harvey, a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art and the author of a wonderful book on Vincente Minnelli. He had died only a week earlier, and I wanted to acknowledge him in the piece, alongside the roll call of famous names: Keith Haring, Freddie Mercury, Halston, Anthony Perkins, Michael Bennett, Robert Mapplethorpe, Rock Hudson, Charles Ludlam, Liberace … the list went on and on. How could I do justice to the story? How could I find the right tone?
What if the words wouldn’t come? I kept thinking of the legendary Newsweek tale of the writer who had cracked under cover-story-deadline pressure and had to be carted out of the office on a stretcher.
Denial: Then, at 11 p.m., I got the first paragraph down, and the shakes subsided. With the aid of all the great reporting, the story started to write itself. By 3 p.m. the next day, I’d finished the piece, and the fact-checkers were busy at work. Sarah remembers the problems that often arose for the checkers of Newsweek’s AIDS stories. Particularly in the first decade of the scourge, many obituaries would “tactfully” omit the cause of death: there was a stigma, a shame, surrounding HIV infection. One of the people we interviewed for our cover story was another friend of mine, the novelist Paul Monette, who wrote eloquently about the AIDS holocaust in his memoir, Borrowed Time. His was the angriest voice in the piece, his fury directed at Nureyev’s refusal to acknowledge the nature of his illness. To hide it, he felt, was to be a collaborationist in shame. Two years later, Paul himself would be dead.
To read Ansen’s full article, click on: http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/23/david-ansen-recalls-when-aids-silenced-the-arts.html.
David Ansen was movie critic and writer for Newsweek from 1977 to 2008