13 Random Victims of an Indiscriminate Killer--AIDS : Some of the Stories Behind the Death Toll Include a Businessman, Wife and Mother, Former Priest, Child and Ballet Dancer
The statistics about acquired immune deficiency syndrome are easily available: 20,557 Americans have died, nearly 2,000 of those in Los Angeles County. By 1991, there will be 270,000 cases of AIDS. Nationally, health-care costs for AIDS patients have been estimated at $100 million so far; by 1991, they are expected to reach $8 billion.
But the names of its victims often are not so accessible, such is the stigma of the disease.
Almost from the time it was first detected in Los Angeles in 1981 in six gay men, AIDS became known as “the gay plague.” Though many still think of it as a disease that only affects homosexuals, AIDS knows no barriers. And there is no known cure.
“Because of AIDS, we have learned to read the obituaries for what they really don’t say,” a Los Angeles music critic said. “Twenty-eight- or 30-year-old so-and-so died of lymphoma, liver cancer, pneumonia. Everybody knows that means AIDS in most cases, but they don’t say it in print.”
When actor Rock Hudson collapsed on his way to France for treatment for AIDS, his publicists first denied the film star had the disease. Finally, they admitted that the AIDS reports were true.
In Palm Springs, Liberace’s death from AIDS became an even more bizarre cover-up. The cause of the entertainer’s death was only revealed after a coroner’s autopsy.
But it is not only the rich and famous who deny the disease.
A black mother in South-Central Los Angeles refused to say publicly that her son died of AIDS because “it could jeopardize my family. It can and has happened with other families.”
The ex-lover of a well-known local gay man who reportedly died of AIDS declined to be interviewed about the subject.
A Latina woman did not want to discuss her plight because she was afraid she would be evicted from her residence. She has contracted AIDS; her husband died of it.
But others are outspoken about the disease, willing to tell their personal tragedies. Their stories are filled with pain and courage, love and support of those they cared for who became PWAs, Persons With AIDS. And died.
On Jan. 6, Joy Wurl received a call from her son, Bruce, who was in Koblenz, West Germany, performing with a dance troupe. He said he had been diagnosed with walking pneumonia and had to go to the hospital.
Twelve days later, Bruce Wurl, 30, was dead.
“He had come home to visit in October,” said Joy Wurl, who lives in Garden Grove and works as a legal secretary in Long Beach. “He seemed fine. There was no indication he was sick. I knew he was gay, and that’s hard to understand when you’re not. But he was my son, and I loved him. He didn’t know he had AIDS.
“I can’t even read the death certificate, it’s in German,” she said. “But from what I’ve read about AIDS, it’s a blessing he did not have to suffer long, like some.”
The Los Angeles Chamber Ballet, of which Wurl had been a member, dedicated its performances of “Little Prince” this season to Wurl.
“Bruce’s death was a tremendous shock to all of us,” said the Chamber Ballet’s Raiford Rogers. “He was such a strong dancer in wonderful condition. But the dance community has been very hard hit by this disease. Everybody in dance knows somebody who has died of AIDS.”
Don Reynolds, who with his wife, Pat, operated two computer and word-processing stores, was diagnosed with AIDS in February, 1985. He died two months later, a few months before their 24th wedding anniversary.
“He had gotten pneumonia in November and was in the hospital a week,” Reynolds said in her Santa Monica home. “They didn’t do any further testing and we thought it was just regular pneumonia (not the serious form of pneumocystis that is the No. 1 killer of AIDS patients).
“What doctor would have thought to test a 42-year-old married man with three children?” said Reynolds. “Now it would be different. He got pneumonia again in two weeks. Then, when he found out he had AIDS, he just wasted away. He lost the will to live and he lost 100 pounds. He did get to see his son get married; Don and Kelly were married in his room. He also got to see his first grandchild.”
Pat Reynolds said she has no idea where her husband contracted AIDS, and neither did he. “We had a very active sex life,” she said. “And the only thing we could remember about a blood transfusion was that he had one in Arizona in 1977, when he had gotten hepatitis. Anything other than a blood transfusion doesn’t matter to me. He was a wonderful husband and a wonderful father. I am not saying he was a saint. But he was a basically good person. One of the best testaments to him are his good children.”
Pat Reynolds, now 46, spent the last months of her husband’s life caring for him in their bedroom. She tried to keep their businesses going, but eventually lost them both. She now works as a secretary/accountant at a legal firm.
“We lost all our friends,” she said. “They dropped us like a hot potato. I guess they couldn’t deal with it. AIDS back then was so new. Only my sister-in-law and my girlfriend hung in with me. And the kids, they were very supportive and understanding. But there was nobody to help us. I had to go to the gay community for help, to Shanti and Aids Project Los Angeles, and neither turned me away.”
After Don Reynolds died, and his family publicly admitted he succumbed to AIDS, they found four separate notes in their mailbox saying things like “People like you shouldn’t live around normal people” and “Why don’t you move away from this neighborhood?”
A week later, son John, now 19, found the family dog poisoned and rushed him to the vet. “He was able to save him,” his mother said. “But we found a new home for him. Then I put a note on the mailbox that said, ‘We can handle prejudices against our family, but it is inhumane to take it out on our dog.’ Some neighbors came and said they hoped we didn’t think they were the ones who did that.”
Pat Reynolds said she suffered severe depression after her husband’s death, and eventually entered therapy. She still attends individual and group sessions weekly. But she credits much of her emotional recovery to her performance in the play “AIDS/US,” which was presented last year at the Skylight Theater in Hollywood. Her daughter, Vicky, 20, also appeared in the production.
A ‘Minor’ Mastectomy
“During the play run, I had to have a mastectomy,” said Pat Reynolds. “But I only missed one performance. The mastectomy seemed such a minor thing after all the things to deal with AIDS.”
The play featured 13 Los Angeles area residents--some with AIDS, others bereaved like Reynolds--telling their own stories.
Of those 13, five have died of the disease: Lyn Hilton, 41, a record industry executive; Steve Tracy, 33, an actor best known for his portrayal of Percival Dalton in “Little House on the Prairie”; Jerry Minor, a black female impersonator in his 30s; Andrew Hiatt, 35, an airline flight attendant; and Don Staiton, 50, a dancer and singer.
“We were all so close doing the play,” said Reynolds. “But when Lyn (Hilton) died, it seemed to be a break in the magic circle. It seemed to break the faith. An actress took her place, but it just wasn’t the same anymore.
“I’ll tell you what,” Reynolds said. “People better change their attitudes about AIDS. This disease is not going away, and people better start dealing with the reality of it. People don’t realize how many heterosexual families have had to deal with it already. . . .
“We were a normal family in all respects and, if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody. I ache for the pain they are going to have to go through because they won’t face facts and deal with this disease.”
Javier Vasquez and Arturo Olivas had been living together only eight months when Vasquez was diagnosed with AIDS. Not only was the news a terrible shock to the two men, but also to Vasquez’s former wife and children, and his friends in Belleville, Ill., where he served as a brother in a Franciscan order of the Catholic church for four years.
Vasquez left the priesthood in the late ‘70s to marry Sue, a former nun. The couple had three children.
Vasquez visited his wife and children in the Midwest twice during his illness. He died Sept. 7, 1986, shortly after his 37th birthday. His children were barred from their school until they and their mother took the HTLV-3 virus test.
“When Javier was diagnosed, that’s when AIDS became my life,” said Olivas who now works with AIDS patients at the Hollywood Sunset Community Clinic and recently received a state grant of $47,000 to start an AIDS project in the Latino community.
“Latinos are still not mobilized against AIDS. And the church isn’t doing much either,” said Olivas. “Before he died, Javier talked a lot about gay life inside the seminary. He was worried about AIDS there.
“And with Latinos, it’s also a cultural thing,” Olivas said. “There’s such a stigma about being gay. . . . It’s so taboo the Latinos say, ‘It’s our secret. And we’ll have to die with that secret.’ ”
Joan Gordon, who runs Newspace Gallery on Melrose Avenue, gave young artist/sculptor Jay Phillips his first showing in 1979.
“He was in graduate school at Claremont and working part time in a gallery around the corner,” Gordon said. “He comes in and sits here on his lunch hour every single day. One day he says, ‘I’m a painter, you know. Why don’t I just bring in my work?’
“The next day, he walks in, takes down everything I have and puts up his work. He was doing paper paintings then. And he was handsome as could be. Very elegant, beautiful bone structure. He had unusual confidence in himself and a presence about him.”
Gordon said she was so impressed with Phillips and his work, she scheduled a show.
“Jay was never lazy,” Gordon said. “He worked very hard, he was also a first-class print scholar, but he chose to be a working artist. He worked his way through school (undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, then at Claremont) and really struggled to make ends meet. He lived in an old California bungalow in Hollywood and had an old truck. He lived and painted in a one-room with a kitchen.”
Phillips first show at Newspace sold out. Gordon said, “If you’ve got talent, it’s heard very quickly, like something in the wind. He took a lot of chances in his work. He had an extraordinary sense of color and pattern and the way he used metal and paint. Well, people sensed he was a winner.”
Phillips later exhibited successfully at Roy Boyd gallery in Los Angeles, then moved to New York. He died, at 32, on Feb. 17. His obituary listed congestive heart failure as the cause, but Gordon and others in the art world said they learned the cause of death was from complications of AIDS.
In reminiscing about Phillips, Gordon’s eyes filled with tears. “He was my friend and he never forgot. He’d come by when he was here and we’d have lunch or dinner or drinks. I didn’t know he was gay. I think he was bisexual in the beginning and then he made a choice. But what does that matter? At least he had a real taste of success. That didn’t elude him. I’m just glad to have played a part in his life.”
SAMUEL JARED KUSHNICK
On Oct. 13, 1983, Samuel Jared Kushnick became the fourth premature baby in Los Angeles to die of AIDS, contracted through a blood transfusion, in an eight-month period. He was 3. His mother and father, Helen and Jerry Kushnick, have been publicly fighting AIDS ever since in interviews and in testimony before government committees and the U.S. Senate.
Helen Kushnick speaks of the pain of her baby’s death, and of other problems. When officials at the mortuary learned her son had died of AIDS, they refused to dress the boy for burial, she said. Later, the Kushnick’s insurance company--claiming Sam had a “pre-existing” condition--declined to cover the $94,000 medical costs for his 19-day hospital stay. The Kushnicks fought and won that battle.
In Philadelphia last April, at the Surgeon General’s workshop on children with AIDS, Helen Kushnick told the group: “In 1983, my family’s decision to go public with our story seemed, to some, courageous because of the fear and suspicion surrounding AIDS. To us, it was simply a matter of not having a choice. It was clear to us then that AIDS was not a homosexual disease, but a virus. That mislabeling caused years of apathy on the part of the government and the public in the struggle against this deadly killer. We were killing in the name of morality.”
During the time Sam Kushnick was dying, his twin, Sara, was expelled from her nursery school, her mother said, for fear that she would “contaminate” other children. Sara was given immunology tests and deemed healthy, but the Kushnicks had to find another nursery school for her. In 1985, Sara began kindergarten at a public school, after being turned down by private schools.
“I’ve had a lot of calls from mothers around the country who have babies with AIDS,” said Helen Kushnick. “What I want is something positive to come out of Sam’s death. We have been fighting this longer than he lived.”
Lou and Nancy Sawaya had been married 1 1/2 years before Nancy was diagnosed with AIDS. Their adopted daughter, Morgan, was only 14 months old when her mother died in October at the age of 40.
Although his wife was heterosexual, Lou Sawaya said she had had a bisexual lover before they met. “He died almost a year to the day (before) Nancy did,” said Sawaya.
A costumer and makeup stylist, Nancy Sawaya had accumulated a considerable amount of property before her marriage, as had her husband, an ex-restaurateur. In late 1982, during a party at her home on Mulholland Drive, Nancy Sawaya and friend Max Drew founded AIDS Project Los Angeles to assist those with the newly discovered disease. Drew, an actor and model, died of the disease at age 37.
In her will, Nancy Sawaya left a large bequest to the AIDS Project, her husband said, “And they are dedicating an AIDS ward at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital in her name.”
Nancy’s father and stepmother, Lou Sawaya said, “have been very supportive, and I feel very close to them. They were very loving and supportive of Nancy when she told them. She was thankful for that. She was really frightened to talk to them.”
Looking at his daughter, Sawaya said: “I am very thankful that we have each other. The baby keeps me busy and forces me to pick myself up and go on. Her needs have not stopped. But she absolutely knows Nancy’s not going to be here anymore.
“We used to have this morning ritual where we’d get the baby and change her and bring her to bed with us to play. I remember right after Nancy died, the baby looked on the bed, then she looked in the dressing room and the bathroom and then gave me a puzzled look. It was horrible.”
Sawaya turned his head away for a moment, then continued: “Now she looks at the pictures in the house and points and says, ‘Momma and Daddy.’ I tell her, ‘Daddy loves you. Momma loves you. She’s gone, but she’s taking care of us someplace else.’ ”
On March 17, Antonio Lopez, 44, died of complications of AIDS at UCLA Medical Center. He had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer, in his lungs and externally. His business partner, Juan Ramos, took Lopez’s ashes home to Puerto Rico.
Antonio, as he was internationally known in the world of fashion, grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City when he was 8. After starting his illustration career, he was credited with launching the modeling careers of Jessica Lange, Tina Chow, Grace Jones and Jerry Hall.
“He knew (he had AIDS) for a long time,” said Susan Baraz, who was graduated in 1962 with Lopez from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and became his first model. “But he wasn’t really sick until this last year. I went back just to cook and give him hugs and watch old movies together. He finally came out and was staying with me.
“He was hiding (that he had AIDS) for a long time from everybody. But in the end he was very open about it. Juan and I talked about what to say and decided officially to tell people Antonio died of AIDS because so many people cover it up.”
His memorial service in New York drew about 1,200 people, and a fashion illustration scholarship has been set up in his name by the Fashion Institute of Technology Alumni Assn.
“Antonio was a complex person,” Baraz said at her home in Santa Monica. “He wasn’t very comfortable in this world. He was humble and shy, a really giving soul.”
Baraz said that Lopez has a daughter who lives in New York.
Baraz and a few other close friends were with Lopez when he died, she said. “We didn’t leave. About 4 a.m. I was putting cold compresses on his head and he opened his eyes for a minute, put his lips together and gave me a kiss. I said, ‘I’ve waited 27 years for that kiss.’ ”
When television producer Philip Mandelker, 45, died on March 26, 1984, his mother, Doris, and sister, Jane Makowka, wanted it known publicly that he died of AIDS.
“The day Philip died, I cried,” said Makowka from her Fairfax, Va., home. “But I had cried my tears for months before. I knew a long time before anybody ever said it was AIDS that it was. . . .
“My mother knew my brother was gay. I knew and we all loved him anyway. Whenever I talked with Philip (when he was ill), I talked about some of the things he had done for me and tried to let him know how much I loved him.
“For a person his age, he had a lot of wonderful experiences,” she said. “Lots of people live their lives and never accomplish so much. He was very well loved. And most important was his love of people and love of nature. He tried to bring that, something of quality to television, something people would remember. That’s a great loss to the world. He was very fortunate to have been as successful as he was in that short of a lifetime. You wonder what he might have done if it hadn’t been cut short.”
“His family was very dedicated to him and they insisted on people knowing Philip died of AIDS,” said Rob Eichberg, a Los Angeles clinical psychologist who was the first person Mandelker called after learning that he had AIDS in June 1983.
Eichberg, active in the gay community since the mid-1970s, conducts AIDS workshops across the United States and in several foreign countries.
“In 1984, when I did a workshop I would ask how many knew someone who had AIDS, and only a few raised their hands,” he said. “In 1985, a third knew someone; in ’86, half of the group did. Now, almost everyone knows someone.”
Barry Lowen, 50, a television executive widely known for his private collection of contemporary art, died Sept. 24, 1985, from complications of AIDS. “He was a guru of contemporary art,” said Eichberg. “I have a couple of hundred letters that were sent to Barry. He wasn’t seeing too many people then. Those letters are so wonderful and beautiful that they bring tears to your eyes.
"(There are letters from) people expressing what significant impact he had on people’s lives. From TV executives to people who cut his hair. I especially remember one from the shoeshine man at Fox (Lowen was an executive at 20th Century Fox before joining Aaron Spelling Productions where he worked until he became ill). He signed the letter ‘Shoeshine’ and said in it that very few people treated him with dignity and respect and Barry was one of them.”
MARTIN JOSEPH GONZALES
Like Jane Makowka, Annette Gray of Huntington Beach lost her brother to AIDS. Martin Joseph Gonzales, a paperhanger, died Sept. 15, 1986, at 36.
At first, Gray was reluctant to speak publicly about Gonzalez’s death, fearing that the rest of her family, 13 other brothers and sisters, would object. Finally, she agreed.
“We are all still hurting very very much for him. But I owe it to him to speak out,” Gray said quietly. “He told me about the symptoms two years before, but I couldn’t really tell anybody else. When he was diagnosed, I couldn’t help him through the fear and the agony. I could only tell him how much I loved him. He had a way about him that made people feel welcome. He just knew you and loved you no matter who you were. That was a special quality. The hardest thing about my brother’s death is that he was so young. He was the baby of the family. Mother nicknamed him Little Man because he was always so grown up, even as a little boy.”
In November, two months after her brother died, Annette Gray buried her 84-year-old mother, who died of cystic fibrosis. She buried her father, 88, two weeks ago.
The morning Gonzales died in the hospital, his sister was there, holding his hand. “He was telling me how beautiful I was,” said Gray. “And then he said, ‘I know the truth.’ And I said, ‘Is it anything you can share with me?’
“He said, ‘You will know. You will know.’ He never talked again. It was like he was totally relieved of everything.”
“In the minority community, there are many people who still believe AIDS is a white, gay disease,” said Robert Smith, a volunteer with the Minority AIDS Project, a Los Angeles organization that assists minority AIDS patients. Smith has cared for several black men with AIDS, sometimes taking them into his own home if they have nowhere else to go.
“Being a friend to a sick person, very often there are no answers. Sometimes it’s OK not to have the answers, just hold their hand and let them know they’re not alone,” he said.
“Some families are supportive, loving and caring, but others don’t want anything to do with people with AIDS. Some families just walk out. That’s regular. I knew one man whose son (suffering from AIDS) was home in his room and he threw a candy bar into the room for him once a day.”
Among those Smith has cared for was his friend John. “His sisters came (from out of state) and cared for him,” Smith said. “They stayed as long as they could. John was a friend of mine for 14 years, a platonic friend. But I loved him. I knew that if I were in that hospital bed, John would have been there every day like I was. That’s the truth of friendship.”
John, an assembly line worker in a bottling plant, died last year at 42. His family asked that neither his last name nor hometown be used.
Before he died Jan. 14, Jon-Noel Orestes, 31, told his friend and former roommate, Judy Zeitler, what to do at his funeral. “Cry a lot and say wonderful things about me.”
Orestes, an aspiring Latino writer and poet, and Zeitler roomed together for 1 1/2 years. After Orestes was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1984, he and Zeitler began to study AIDS, “because he knew (hepatitis) could lead to AIDS,” she said. “He would bring books home and we’d study them. We were researching hospitals and drugs and talking about death and life.”
By late 1985, Orestes, had been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma and was too weak to work. Zeitler, who was attending graduate school and teaching part-time, couldn’t afford to support him any longer so Orestes went to stay at the beach with a friend and writing colleague, John Wilson.
“What I remember most about Jon-Noel now was his final grace and courage,” Wilson said. “He was terrified of dying. But he also realized, I think, that he had lived his life fully and intensely, really emotionally involved with the people and things he cared about.”
Said Zeitler, now a training specialist in educational programs for AIDS Project Los Angeles: “We were just best friends. He was a father figure, a friend, confidant, brother, mentor. He changed my life. I am sure I would not be going in this direction (working) in the area of AIDS.”
“One feeling I have about AIDS is the more closeted the disease is in people like Liberace, the more people get to believe it isn’t going to affect them,” said Paul Monette, a Los Angeles poet, novelist and screenwriter. “But the tragedy has to see the light of day. It is a tragedy for all of us.”
When Monette’s lover, lawyer Roger Horwitz, was diagnosed with AIDS in March, 1985, Monette said their world blew apart. The two men had lived together for 12 years and had figured on growing old together.
“When we met, it was like we had been waiting for each other all our lives,” Monette said. “But then Roger was diagnosed, and your world ends when it happens. I kept saying, ‘You don’t have AIDS.’ They didn’t even have a test then to give Roger. But he had been feeling bad.”
Horwitz suffered a brief period of illness, then recovered and went back to work in April. “He was the third patient to go on Suramin (an early AIDS drug) at UCLA and he seemed to be getting along,” said Monette. “But I was falling apart. I couldn’t work. I was out of my mind. I was weeping. I wouldn’t write. I had an extended breakdown. But it started me writing poetry again.”
But by September, 1985, Monette said, the Suramin was making Horwitz sick. He developed pneumocystis and hepatitis and “was very close to death. His parents came from Chicago and they were extraordinary.
“I figured if Roger could hold on, we could get some Compound S, which was AZT (an anti-viral drug recently licensed for AIDS treatment) and we did. That gave him some of the next 10 months.”
Eventually, though, Horwitz was unable to fight the disease which rendered him blind, attacked his brain, and caused convulsions before his death on Oct. 22, 1986--one month before his 45th birthday.
“The last day when I got to the hospital, he had started to moan,” said Monette. “I couldn’t understand him. It wasn’t until January, seven weeks after he died, that I realized he was calling my name.”
These days, Monette, 41, is working furiously on a book of poems to be called “Love Alone.” “They are poems of grief,” he said. “They are tough and loving.”
He also is writing a book about Horwitz’s struggle against AIDS. “I want to tell it like it is, the story of the war, the heartbreaking story of one man’s life against this holocaust, this pandemic nightmare.
“I’m saying I need two years to tell this story. I may not have the next day. I had the test last June and I was positive. I’ve been on Ribovirin (an anti-viral drug) since September.”