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.”
In a new memoir, The Scientists: A Family Romance, Roth takes up the gauntlet thrown down by his aunt. The result is a moving exercise in literary detective work, in which Roth immerses himself in his father’s favorite novels in a hunt for clues to his identity. “If I were to look for him, to salvage his reputation from my aunt’s portrait of the enfeebled, timid homosexual manqué, the kid brother, it would be among them, his true secret and unfulfilled loves,” he writes.
A reasonable friend might have reminded Roth of the old adage “Be careful what you wish for.” The Eugene Roth that emerges in The Scientists is strong and clear, but also unfulfilled, unhappy, unresolved, like the characters of the 19th-century novels he loved so much. Whether he could have lived his life differently is a question that hangs over the book, but Roth speculates that his father elected for pragmatism over gratification. “He chose, in a way, a life that was unhappy but at least allowed him to survive for a while, and that’s a tricky dynamic,” he says. “And that’s also what I feel I inherited -- this sense that life is primarily about survival rather than a search for happiness.”
We are in the lobby of the Ansonia, a Beaux-Arts-style cream puff of a building that once housed the entrance to the baths. Roth thinks we might get to see some remnants in the basement below, but a conversation with a doorman is not hopeful. The pool, he says, was covered over; the mirrored stairs have been blocked off. Most of it has been swallowed up by Loehmann’s basement, unwittingly signposted as the backroom in silver letters redolent of a ’70s nightclub. “Yet another instance of retail taking over from culture,” says Roth. The doorman nods. “Retail took over everything, exactly.”
Roth is not looking to find his father’s ghost in the remnants of New York’s legendary gay subculture, but he finds himself speculating on what kind of life he might have led freed of repression and guilt and shame. “I once asked him one of these annoying, teenaged, ‘What’s your favorite character?’ questions,” he recalls. In answer, his father offered Charlus, from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. “That’s where I feel like I might be right in assuming certain things about what kind of erotic encounters with men my father liked to have,” Roth says, describing a scene in which Charlus is tied up and beaten by soldier rent boys. “He’s a classic masochist.”
We have been walking from the Ansonia toward Central Park, and Roth now pauses to point out the apartment building that was the scene of so much subterfuge. Although he has come to accept his aunt’s claims, he thinks his father may have been fated by time and circumstance to live as he did. “I think he was attracted to men who might have been disastrous for him,” he says. “It would be very simple to say that he fled into the comfort of a performed heterosexuality and that he would have been happier had he been able to come out, but that still doesn’t solve this great problem of desire and choice. This feeling that he may have been doomed either way was what made me want to write a book that dealt with this possibility of a real tragic fate.”