An Encounter with Edward Albee

Edward Albee, photographed by Michelle Memran in Montauk, N.Y.

Several years ago I was in line to sign in at a radiology center (I’d injured my foot) behind a frail-looking old man wearing a navy-blue Adidas sweatshirt and leaning on a cane. I couldn’t see his face very well, but when he finished at the sign-in sheet and it was my turn, I saw his printed name: E. Albee. He then settled into a chair in the waiting area next to the young man who was with him. Having admired Edward Albee for many years—for a time I studied playwriting, which I found very difficult—I took a seat nearby. Glancing at him in a way that I hoped wasn’t obvious, I noticed that his eye seemed bruised—had he fallen? Suddenly, the woman at the desk called out to him, “Mr. Albee?” He rose and walked to the desk. “Do you still have the AARP supplement for Medicare?” “I assume so,” he answered slowly. She asked if he had his card, and a little later he inquired as to whether he was going to have to take out his hearing aid (“Oh, no,” she answered).

Even this creator of the sublime had to deal with the mundane. I wrote in my notebook, “Something about being in the presence of a great man makes other things seem strange,” mentioning a woman outside the window flicking away a cigarette, and the song “(I've Had) The Time of My Life” wafting through our area. After about an hour, Albee, myself, and another woman were moved into a small room for another wait. I finally spoke to him—after a little hesitancy because I’d met him once before, at an event, and he’d seemed kind of cranky—saying I didn’t want to bother him but had so loved his work…  “Thank you,” he said, giving me a very nice smile (while our fellow patient looked back and forth at us, possibly trying to figure out who he was) and adding, “Aren’t you kind.” Then we fell silent, though a half-hour or so passed before he left the room for his test, after which I didn’t see him again.

Feeling unsettled by the experience, I wrote to my brother, another longtime Albee admirer (of course, we are legion), who wrote back, “That must have been a strange moment: to get to be in the same room with Edward Albee... yet while he was visibly sick…. I was struck that all of us do ultimately get sick and that death awaits everybody equally.” A hard truth that, as with many other hard truths, Albee did not shrink from—though I read it many years ago, I still recall the powerful bleakness of his one-act play The Death of Bessie Smith—yet his caustic, challenging, sometimes perplexing works have been served up with such artistry that they are also inspiring and even uplifting.

I was relieved in the next weeks and months to see no news of Albee’s health; maybe he too had just had a minor injury. And now, thinking about the jolt of seeing his signature and realizing who the elderly man with the matted grey hair and the cane was, I remember another association, one enveloped in an airier beauty than that of his plays. Back in the 90s, when my husband and I were driving to Montauk somewhat regularly, we would pass, on the gently undulating and curving Old Montauk Highway, a lovely oceanfront house that had a little mailbox clearly marked with a red (if memory serves) printed name: Albee. We watched for it every time.

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