Father Land

9.24.2012

By Aaron Hicklin

Seven years after his scientist dad died of AIDS, Marco Roth decided it was time he got to know him.

Photo: Aaron Hicklin

Marco Roth stands in the sprawling basement of Loehmann’s, a popular discount clothing store, and gestures at the racks of designer labels. “In its heyday, it was a bastion of gay culture,” he says. It’s a mild Saturday afternoon in July, and Roth, who now lives in Philadelphia, has come back to New York to show me the site of the famed Continental Baths on Broadway and 74th Street, a few blocks from the apartment he grew up in, at 88 Central Park West, with Paul Simon and Lorne Michaels as neighbors.

The building, he explained, had become increasingly “celebrified,” and was too expensive now for people like his mother, who’d sold their apartment to Harvey Weinstein and moved to a smaller place on West End Avenue. He says, “I have a lot of happy memories about that apartment,” recalling the light above Central Park, the languid afternoons lying under the piano and reading as his mother played Mozart. But it was also the apartment in which his father slowly wasted away from AIDS before taking cyanide in 1993.

Roth remembers blown-up photographs of lesions on the dining table -- “a few places down from where we ate spaghetti Bolognese” -- and being sworn to a secrecy that baffled him at the time. It didn’t match his father’s stand on human rights, his scientific devotion to truth and honesty. “I think it was the first moment when one is disappointed in one’s parents, because he had been very much a hero to me, and that was a hint,” says Roth. “I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone at school or any of my friends, and we really lived under this regime of silence that made no sense with his principles.”

Roth’s parents moved to Central Park West from Christopher Street in 1969, shortly after the Stonewall riots -- a subtle irony that Roth can’t resist. “Retrospectively, everything becomes a tell, but of course at the time it was just arbitrary that their first apartment was on Christopher Street, around the corner from the Stonewall.” Although it’s unlikely that his father ever visited the Stonewall Inn, let alone the Continental Baths that once reverberated to the sounds of Bette Midler (with Barry Manilow on piano!), the proximity of those raucous pleasure palaces to his home, where his concert pianist mother would host genteel concerts for neighbors and friends, is a potent metaphor for his father’s conflicted identity.

As a child, Roth grew up believing his father, a scientist specializing in malaria, had contracted HIV after accidentally pricking himself with a contaminated syringe. But in 2000, long after his father’s death in 1993, his aunt, the prolific writer Anne Roiphe, published a memoir, 1185 Park Avenue, outing her brother and suggesting that he contracted HIV “in the more usual way.” The claim outraged Roth, who demanded she reveal the sources for her claims. “He’s your father as well as my brother,” she replied. “One day you’ll tell the story in your own way, if you want to.”

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