Larry Kramer, playwright and AIDS activist

Born: June 25, 1935;

Died: May 27, 2020.

LARRY Kramer, who has died aged 84, was a writer whose play The Normal Heart was one of the great documentary accounts of the early days of the AIDS crisis. Much of it was drawn directly from his frustrations at the response to his own activism, which was uncompromisingly abrasive and confrontational but which, though it brought him considerable unpopularity, gave him a strong claim to have done more than any other individual to bring the disease to public attention.

Kramer had early success as a screenwriter and film producer, having worked his way up through Columbia studios and contributing to Hunter Davies’s script for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush (1967). He then wrote, and was one of the producers of, Ken Russell’s successful adaptation of DH Lawrence’s Women in Love, for which he was nominated for an Oscar.

His next enterprise was the 1973 musical version of Lost Horizon, routinely cited as one of cinema’s lowest points, which lost $9 million at the box office. Despite its critical and commercial panning, and Kramer’s admission that it was “the only thing I’m truly ashamed of”, his fees from these films offered him financial security, and he was able to turn in the 1970s to writing for the stage.

He spent most of this period living in the gay community based at Fire Island, which he later examined in his controversial novel Faggots (1978), in which the central character bemoans his inability to find true love in a chaotic swirl of drugs, gay bathhouses, S&M and orgies. Though it proved influential, and subsequently seemed prescient, initial reactions to it were damning.

Straight readers, he claimed, simply thought it “repulsive”, while the gay community saw the book as a betrayal, either for reinforcing bigoted stereotypes or for criticising a hedonistic lifestyle that, before AIDS, some had adopted as a badge of identity. The book was banned by New York city’s only gay bookshop, and Kramer could not get served at the local shops on Fire Island. “People would literally turn their back when I walked by,” he said.

In 1980, he read an article about the unusual incidence of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer, among young gay men; the following year he set up Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), the first support organisation for those affected by what was later identified as HIV and AIDS. At the time, he later said, there had been 41 known cases.

Though he was one of the first directors, Kramer’s aggressive approach – he routinely accused politicians, public health officials and, above all, New York’s mayor, Ed Koch, of “bigotry”, “murder” and “genocide” – soon led him to fall out with other members of the organisation. His insistence that their own promiscuity was endangering gay men was an equally unpopular message to a generation that had fought for sexual freedom and expression.

The Normal Heart, his lightly fictionalised account of this period, was a huge success when it opened in 1985. It ran for almost a year with Brad Davis in the central part, and was staged in Los Angeles (with Richard Dreyfuss) in London (with Martin Sheen at the Royal Court and then Tom Hulce in the West End) and, in 2014, filmed with Mark Ruffalo, Matt Bomer and Alfred Molina, winning the Emmy for Outstanding Writing. In 1999 it was rated one of the century’s hundred best plays by the National Theatre.

Laurence David Kramer was born in Connecticut on June 25, 1935, the younger son of a lawyer who had fallen on hard times in the Depression. He adored his mother and detested his father; his strained but loving relationship with his older brother was to be a constant theme of his work. He went to Yale (a family tradition) where he was unhappy and isolated until he began an affair with a professor there. In later life, Kramer (and his older brother) endowed a department for Lesbian and Gay Studies at the university where he had felt “I was the only gay student on campus”.

After graduating in 1957, he served in the US Army Reserves and then joined Columbia, where he eventually moved to the writing department, and was sent to work in London during the height of the Swinging Sixties.

His furious 1983 article for the New York Native, entitled “1,112 and Counting” upbraided the gay community for “hoping [AIDS] would just go away if they ignore it” and slated government agencies for their inaction. It marked his final breach with GMHC. In 1987, after The Normal Heart, he founded the more aggressive campaign group Act Up (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which directed protests and civil disobedience at the Food and Drug Administration, politicians and the Catholic Church.

In 1989 he published the non-fiction Reports from the Holocaust and, in 1992, a sequel to The Normal Heart, called The Destiny of Me, which was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. His enormous two-volume novel The American People: A History (2015/2020), which identified dozens of prominent historical figures as gay, was not generally thought a success.

Kramer discovered he was HIV positive in 1988 and also had liver damage from Hepatitis B; by 2001, he needed a liver transplant, for which his status rendered him ineligible at his local hospital. He did, however, receive a transplant at the end of the year. He married, in 2013, David Webster, whom he had first gone out with in the 1970s, with whom he reunited in 1991, and who survives him.