Tommy La Sorda’ Son with Nonacceptance of His Sexuality, Early Death and AIDS
In the hallway between the lounge and the locker room hang photographs of Brooklyn Dodgers games. Lasorda has pored over them a thousand times, with a thousand writers, a thousand campers, a thousand Dodgers prospects—identifying each player, re-creating each smoky moment.
But on this day, a few minutes after he's been talking about Tommy, he walks this gauntlet differently.
"That's Pete Reiser," Tom Lasorda says. "He's dead." He points to another player. He says, "He's dead." He walks down the hallway, clicking them off, talking out loud but to himself.
"He's dead. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead. He's dead."
Back in his suite, in the residence area of Dodgertown, I ask him if it was difficult having a gay son.
"My son wasn't gay," he says evenly, no anger. "No way. No way. I read that in a paper. I also read in that paper that a lady gave birth to a fuckin' monkey, too. That's not the fuckin' truth. That's not the truth."
I ask him if he read in the same paper that his son had died of AIDS.
"That's not true," he says.
I say that I thought a step forward had been taken by Magic Johnson's disclosure of his own HIV infection, that that's why some people in Los Angeles expected him to...
"Hey," he says. "I don't care what people...I know what my son died of. I know what he died of. The doctor put out a report of how he died. He died of pneumonia."
He turns away and starts to brush his hair in the mirror of his dressing room. He is getting ready to go to the fantasy-camp barbecue. He starts to whistle. I ask him if he watched the ceremony on television when the Lakers retired Johnson's number.
'"I guarantee you one fuckin' thing," he says. "I'll lay you three to one Magic plays again. Three to one. That Magic plays again."
As long as he's healthy, I say. People have lived for ten years with the right medication and some luck. Your quality of life can be good, I say.
Lasorda doesn't answer. Then he says, "You think people would have cared so much if it had been Mike Tyson?"
On death certificates issued by the state of California, there are three lines to list the deceased's cause of death, and after each is a space labeled TIME INTERVAL BETWEEN ONSET AND DEATH.
Tom Lasorda Jr.'s, death certificate reads:
IMMEDIATE CAUSE: A) PNEUMONITIS — 2 WEEKS
DUE TO: B) DEHYDRATION — 6 WEEKS
DUE TO: C) PROBABLE ACQUIRED IMMUNE
DEFICIENCY SYNDROME — 1 YEAR.
At Sunny Hills High School, in Fullerton, Calif.—"the most horrible nouveau riche white-bread high school in the world," recalls Cat Gwynn, a Los Angeles photographer and filmmaker and a Sunny Hills alumna—Tommy Lasorda moved through the hallways with a style and a self-assurance uncommon in a man so young; you could see them from afar, Tommy and his group. They were all girls, and they were all very pretty. Tommy was invariably dressed impeccably. He was as beautiful as his friends. He had none of his father's basset-hound features; Tommy's bones were carved, gently, from glass.
"It was very obvious that he was feminine, but none of the jocks nailed him to the wall or anything," Gwynn says. "I was enamored of him because he wasn't at all uncomfortable with who he was. In this judgmental, narrow-minded high school, he strutted his stuff."
In 1980, at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Cindy Stevens and Tommy Lasorda shared a class in color theory. Tommy, Stevens recalls, often did not do his homework. He would spend a lot of his time at Dodgers games or on the road with the team. At school, they shared cigarettes in the hallway. Tommy would tell her about the latest material he'd bought to have made into a suit. She'd ask him where the money came from. Home, he'd say.
"He talked lovingly about his father and their relationship—they had a very good relationship," Stevens says now. "I was surprised. I didn't think it'd be like that. You'd think it'd be hard on a macho Italian man. This famous American idol. You'd figure it'd be [the father saying] 'Please don't let people know you're my son,' but it was the opposite. I had new respect for his father. There had to be acceptance from his mom and dad. Tommy had that good self-esteem—where you figure that [his] parents did something right."
In the late seventies, Tommy left Fullerton, moving only an hour northwest in distance—though he might as well have been crossing the border between two sovereign nations—to West Hollywood, a pocket of gay America unlike any other, a community bound by the shared knowledge that those within it had been drawn by its double distinction: to be among gays, and to be in Hollywood. And an outrageous kid from Fullerton, ready to take the world by storm, found himself dropped smack into the soup—of a thousand other outrageous kids, from Appleton, and Omaha, and Scranton.
But Tommy could never stand to be just another anything. The father and the son had that in common. They had a great deal in common. Start with the voice: gravelly, like a car trying to start on a cold morning. The father, of course, spends his life barking and regaling, never stopping; he's baseball's oral poet, an anti-Homer. It's a well-worn voice. Issuing from the son, a man so attractive that men tended to assume he was a woman, it was the most jarring of notes. One of his closest friends compared it to Linda Blair's in The Exorcist—the scenes in which she was possessed.
More significantly, the father's world was no less eccentric than the son's: The subset of baseball America found in locker rooms and banquet halls is filled with men who have, in large part, managed quite nicely to avoid the socialization processes of the rest of society.
Then, the most obvious similarity: Both men were so outrageous, so outsized and surreal in their chosen persona, that, when it came down to it, for all of one's skepticism about their sincerity, it was impossible not to like them—not to, finally, just give in and let their version of things wash over you, rather than resist. Both strutted an impossibly simplistic view of the world—the father with his gospel of fierce optimism and blind obeisance to a baseball mythology, and the son with a slavery to fashion that he carried to the point of religion.
But where the illusion left off and reality started, that was a place hidden to everyone but themselves. In trying to figure out what each had tucked down deep, we can only conjecture. "You'd be surprised what agonies people have," Dusty Baker, the former Dodger, reminds us, himself a good friend of both father and son, a solid citizen in a sport that could use a few more. "There's that old saying that we all have something that's hurting us."
In the case of the son, friends say the West Hollywood years were born of a Catch-22 kind of loneliness: The more bizarre the lengths to which he went to hone the illusion, the less accessible he became. In his last years, friends say, everything quieted down, markedly so. The flamboyant life gave way to a routine of health clubs and abstinence and sobriety and religion. But by then, of course, the excesses of the earlier years had taken their inexorable toll.
As for the father, there's no question about the nature of the demon he's been prey to for the past two years. Few in his locker room saw any evidence of sadness as his son's illness grew worse, but this should come as no surprise: Tom Lasorda has spent most of four decades in the same baseball uniform. Where else would he go to get away from the grief?
"Maybe," Baker says, "his ballpark was his sanctuary."
It's a plague town now, there's no way around it. At brunch at the French Quarter, men stop their conversations to lay out their pills on the tables, and take them one by one with sips of juice. A mile west is Rage, its name having taken on a new meaning. Two blocks away, on Santa Monica Boulevard, at A Different Light, atop the shelves given over to books on how to manage to stay alive for another few weeks, sit a dozen clear bottles, each filled with amber fluid and a rag—symbolic Molotovs, labeled with the name of a man or a woman or a government agency that is setting back the common cause, reinforcing the stereotypes, driving the social stigmata even deeper into West Hollywood's already weakened flesh.
But in the late seventies, it was a raucous, outrageous and joyous neighborhood, free of the pall that afflicted hetero Los Angeles, thronged as it was with people who'd lemminged their way out west until there was no more land, fugitives from back east.
In the late seventies and the early eighties, say his friends and his acquaintances and those who knew him and those who watched him, Tommy Lasorda was impossible to miss. They tell stories that careen from wild and touching to sordid and scary; some ring true, others fanciful. Collected, they paint a neon scar of a boy slashing across the town. They trace the path of a perfect, practiced, very lonely shooting star.
His haunt was the Rose Tattoo, a gay club with male strippers, long closed now. One night, he entered—no, he made an entrance—in a cape, with a pre-power ponytail and a cigarette holder: Garbo with a touch of Bowie and the sidelong glance of Veronica Lake. He caught the eye of an older man. They talked. In time, became friends. In the early eighties, they spent a lot of time together. Friends is all they were. They were very much alike.
"I'm one of those gentlemen who liked him," says the man. "I was his Oscar Wilde. He liked me because I was an older guy who'd tasted life. I was his Marne. I showed him life. Art. Theater. I made him a little more sophisticated. [Showed him] how to dress a little better."
They spent the days poolside at a private home up behind the perfect pink stucco of the Beverly Hills Hotel, Tommy lacquering himself with a tan that was the stuff of legend. The tan is de rigueur. The tan is all. It may not look like work, but it is; the work is to look as good as you can.
He occasionally held a job, never for long. Once, he got work at the Right Bank, a shoe store, to get discounts. His father bought him an antique-clothing store. He wearied of it. Tommy, says one friend, wanted to be like those women in soap operas who have their own businesses but never actually work at them.
Tommy's look was his work. If there were others who were young and lithe and handsome and androgynous, none were as outre as Tommy. Tommy never ate. A few sprouts, some fruit, a potato. Tommy spent hours at the makeup table. Tommy studied portraits of Dietrich and Garbo to see how the makeup was done. Tommy bleached his hair. On his head. On his legs. Tommy had all of his teeth capped. Tommy had a chemabrasion performed on his face, in which an acid bath removes four of the skin's six layers. Then the skin is scrubbed to remove yet another layer. It is generally used to erase scars or wrinkles. Tommy had two done.
But he smoked, and he drank. Champagne in a flute, cigarette in a long holder, graceful and vampish at the same time: This was Tommy at the Rose Tattoo. His friend also remembers how well Tommy and his father got along. His friend would drive Tommy to the Italian restaurant where he'd meet his father for Sunday dinners.
"He loved his father, you know. They got along perfectly well." His friend was never his lover. Only his friend. That was all. That was enough. "He was very lonely."
On occasion, the nighttime ramble led him far from the stilted elegance of Santa Monica Boulevard. In the punk dubs, amid the slam-dancing and the head-butting, Tommy parted the leathered seas, a chic foil for all the pierced flesh and fury, this man who didn't sweat. This man who crossed himself when someone swore in public.
Penelope Spheeris met him at Club Zero. She would go on to direct the punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization and, years later, Wayne's World. They became friends. They met at punk clubs—the blond man in custom-made suits, the striking woman in black cocktail dresses and leather boots. In 1981, she interviewed Tommy for a short-lived underground paper called No Mag.
PENELOPE: Have you been interviewed very much before?
TOMMY: No, but I'm very...oral...
PENELOPE: People who would see you around town, they would probably think you were gay.
TOMMY: I don't care.
PENELOPE: What do you do when you get that reaction from them?
TOMMY : I like all people. And it's better having comments, be it GOOD, BAD or WHATEVER. I don't mind at all, but I dress quite...well, I wouldn't say it's FLAMBOYANT because it's not intentional. It's just intentionally ME.
PENELOPE: O.K., but you understand, when somebody looks at a picture of you, they're going to say, this guy's awfully feminine.
TOMMY: I'm there for anyone to draw any conclusions.
PENELOPE: Are you?
TOMMY: Well, I mean, I've done different things...of course...I have no label on myself because then I have restrictions. I would really hate to state anything like that.
PENELOPE: When you were young did your dad say, "Come on, Tommy, Jr., let's go play baseball"?
TOMMY : Never. They always allowed me to do exactly what I pleased. I don't know how they had the sense to be that way. As parents they're both so...well, very straitlaced and conservative. I don't know how I was allowed to just be ME, but I think it was because I was so strongly ME that I don't think they thought they could ever STOP IT...
PENELOPE: Do you feel like you should be careful in the public eye?
TOMMY: I feel like I should, but I don't.
PENELOPE: Do you think the press would be mean to you if they had the chance?
TOMMY: I'm sure they would, but I'll take ANY PUBLICITY.
TOMMY: Because that's what I want...I do everything TO BE SEEN.
"I found him totally fascinating. He was astoundingly beautiful, more than most women," Spheeris says now. "I became interested in...the blatant contrast in lifestyles. Tommy Lasorda Sr., was so involved in that macho sports world, and his son was the opposite..."
"I was astounded at how many clothes he had. I remember walking into the closet. The closet was as big as my living room. Everything was organized perfectly. Beautiful designer clothes he looked great in."
Often in the early eighties, when fashion photographer Eugene Pinkowski's phone would ring, it would be Tommy. Tommy wanting to shop or Tommy wanting Eugene to photograph his new look.
When they went shopping, they would fly down Melrose in Tommy's Datsun 280Z, much, much too fast, Tommy leaning out of the driver's window, hair flying in the wind, like some Valley Girl gone weird, hurling gravelly insults ("Who did your hair? It looks awful") at the pedestrians diving out of the way.
He was a terrible driver. Once he hit a cat. He got out of the car, knelt on the street, and cried. He rang doorbells up and down the street, trying to find the owner.
Tommy would call to tell Eugene he was going to buy him a gift. Then Tommy would spend all his money on himself. Then, the next day, Tommy would make up for it. He would hand him something. A pair of porcelain figures, babies, a boy and a girl, meant to be displayed on a grand piano—very difficult to find, very expensive.
Then the phone would ring. It'd be Eugene's mother, saying she just got a bracelet. From his friend Tommy.
"He was a character," Pinkowski says at breakfast in a Pasadena coffee shop. "He was a case. He was a complete and total case."
Then he looks away.
"He was really lonely," Pinkowski says. "He was sad."
When he was being photographed, Tommy was always trying to become different people.
Eugene captured them all. Tommy with long hair. With short hair. With the cigarette. Without it. With some of his exceptionally beautiful women friends. Tommy often had beautiful women around him, Pinkowski recalls—vaguely European, vaguely models. Sometimes Tommy had Pinkowski take pictures of them.
Mostly he took pictures of Tommy. Tommy with a stuffed fox. Lounging on the floor. In the piano. Sitting in a grocery cart.
In red. In green. In white. In blue. In black and gray.
His four toes. Tommy had four toes on his right foot, the fifth lost in a childhood accident. He posed the foot next to a gray boot on the gray carpet. Then he posed it next to a red shoe on the gray carpet. The red looked better.
Tommy and his foot were a regular subject of conversation, often led by Tommy.
"Tommy was a great storyteller, and he'd tell you stories of his dad in the minor leagues," Pinkowski says. "Everybody'd like him. He was very much like the old boy. He could really hold his own in a group of strangers. And he'd do anything to keep it going. To be the center of attention. He'd just suddenly take his shoe and sock off at dinner and say 'Did you know I was missing my toe?'"
One day, Tommy wanted to pose wrapped in a transparent shower curtain. Tommy was wearing white underwear. For forty-five minutes they tried to light the shot so that the underwear was concealed, to no avail. Tommy left, and returned in flesh-colored underwear.
There was nothing sexual about Tommy's fashion-posing. Tommy's fashion-posing was designed to get Tommy into fashion magazines. Tommy was forever bugging the editors of Interview to feature him, but they wouldn't.
"As beautiful as he was, as famous as his father was, he thought he should be in magazines," Pinkowski says now. "He was as hungry as Madonna. But Bowie and Grace [Jones] could do something. He couldn't do anything. He could never see any talent in himself."
The closest Tommy came was when he bought himself a full page in Stuff magazine, in 1982, for a picture of himself that Eugene took.
He would pay Eugene out of the house account his parents had set up for him. On occasion, Eugene would get a call from Tommy's mother: We don't need any more pictures this year. Still, Tommy would have several of his favorites printed for his parents. One is from the blue period.
First, the obvious answer to the obvious question: Yes, Tommy was livid when it was published. Tracked me down in a motel in Indiana, screamed over the phone, talked of how he thought we were friends, although our relationship had consisted of a half-dozen interviews over the years in which I quoted him and presented him in my newspaper exactly as he wanted to be presented, which did not cleave to my idea of friendship. On the other hand, as a father, I was torn. Did I have a right to go against a father's wishes? To display for all of the world to see a part of his son he didn't want seen? Especially since the more I reported, the more obvious it became that this was a love story about a father and a son? But ultimately, on balance, I had no choice. I had to adhere to what Penelope Spheeris had referred to: values.
The first time I saw Tommy Jr. was a decade earlier. He was on the field during BP. Assuming he was a woman, I asked a writer, "Who's that?"
"That's Tommy's son," he said.
"Really? That's incredible. Who's written the best piece about this?"
No one had. Not a single Los Angeles writer, seeing the diaphanous beauty on the field, talking to his father, Mister Baseball, had seen fit to explore it. By the time I joined GQ's staff, the plague had blown up. I had visited a friend at St. Vincent's who was in the terminal stages of an HIV-related illness, and smuggled in a chocolate milkshake from McDonald's for him, and fed it to him, but he couldn't keep it down. I could never get the image out of my mind. Then I reported, and reported, and wrote and rewrote—and took note that all Tommy Sr. had spoken of was how the son's death had affected him and his wife, and not of his kid, and how difficult it must have been to be one thing to himself, and something else to please his dad—and waited, and waited, and finally, the death certificate I'd asked for from the county arrived in the mail, and I knew what I had to do.
There was a plague, and it was gutting the arts world in my city, and it needed to be cured, and quickly. Expecting the father to ask that donations go to the Gay Men's Health Crisis? That would have been too much. But what if Tommy Sr., one of the most highly visible men in all of professional sports in those days, had simply acknowledged his son's sexuality and his cause of death? It could have saved more lives than we can ever know.
Ultimately, I wrote the piece confident that it would advance the cause. I was wrong. Two decades later? No vaccine. More locker-room enlightenment about gays in sports? Despite current events, ultimately, no. In corporate sportsworld, talking the talk is very different from walking the walk. As a for-profit goliath, fed by young men who learn homophobia at an early age, governed by men who were themselves raised in a primitive society, Big Sport's seeds of gender-preference bias have been sown very, very deeply, and uprooting them is going to take more than a story or two and more than a handful of men who come out every few years. It's going to take loud voices and even louder fury. It's funny that Tommy cites Magic, isn't it? The man who earlier this month spoke so wonderfully of his pride in his gay son? I couldn't help wondering what Tommy Sr. thought when heard about how Magic was so supportive of his son. I wonder if he even listened.
Peter Richmond is at work on two books for imprints of Penguin Publishing: Lord of the Rings, a biography of Phil Jackson, scheduled to be published this fall, and Always a Catch, a young-adult novel, to be published in the autumn of 2014. His most recent book is Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death, and John Madden's Oakland Raiders, which was excerpted on Deadspin. Find more of his work at his website.