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Larry Kramer, author and outspoken AIDS activist, 84

Mr. Kramer on his aggresive activism stance: “I discovered that anger got you further than being nice.”
Mr. Kramer on his aggresive activism stance: “I discovered that anger got you further than being nice.”Sara Krulwich/The New York Times/File 1989

NEW YORK — Larry Kramer, the noted writer whose raucous, antagonistic campaign for an all-out response to the AIDS crisis helped shift national health policy in the 1980s and ’90s, died Wednesday morning in Manhattan. He was 84.

His husband, David Webster, said the cause was pneumonia. Mr. Kramer had weathered illness for much of his adult life. Among other things he had been infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, contracted liver disease, and underwent a successful liver transplant.

An author, essayist, and playwright — notably hailed for his autobiographical 1985 play, “The Normal Heart” — Mr. Kramer had feet in both the world of letters and the public sphere. In 1981, he was a founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first service organization for HIV-positive people, though his fellow directors effectively kicked him out a year later for his aggressive approach.

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He was then a founder of a more militant group, ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), whose street actions demanding a speedup in AIDS drugs research and an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians severely disrupted the operations of government offices, Wall Street, and the Roman Catholic hierarchy.

“One of America’s most valuable troublemakers,” Susan Sontag called him.

Even some of the officials Mr. Kramer accused of “murder” and “genocide” recognized that his outbursts were part of a strategy to shock the country into dealing with AIDS as a public-health emergency.

In the early 1980s, he was among the first activists to foresee that what had at first caused alarm as a rare form of cancer among gay men would spread worldwide, like any other sexually transmitted disease, and kill millions of people without regard to sexual orientation. Under the circumstances, he said, “If you write a calm letter and fax it to nobody, it sinks like a brick in the Hudson.”

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The infectious-disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was one who got the message — after Mr. Kramer wrote an open letter published in The San Francisco Examiner in 1988 calling him a killer and “an incompetent idiot.”

“Once you got past the rhetoric,” Fauci said in an interview for this obituary, “you found that Larry Kramer made a lot of sense, and that he had a heart of gold.”

Mr. Kramer, he said, had helped him to see how the federal bureaucracy was indeed slowing the search for effective treatments. He credited Mr. Kramer with playing an essential role in the development of elaborate drug regimens that could prolong the lives of those infected with HIV, and in prompting the Food and Drug Administration to streamline its assessment and approval of certain new drugs.

In recent years, Mr. Kramer developed a grudging friendship with Fauci, particularly after Mr. Kramer developed liver disease and underwent the transplant in 2001. Fauci helped get him into a lifesaving experimental drug trial afterward.

Their bond grew stronger this year, when Fauci became the public face of the White House task force on the coronavirus epidemic, opening him to criticism in some quarters.

“We are friends again,” Mr. Kramer said in an e-mail to the reporter John Leland of The New York Times for an article published at the end of March. “I’m feeling sorry for how he’s being treated. I e-mailed him this, but his one line answer was, ‘Hunker down.’ ”

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At his death Mr. Kramer was at work on a play centered on the epidemic. “It’s about gay people having to live through three plagues,” he told Leland — HIV/AIDS, COVID-19, and the decline of the human body, an inevitability brought home to him last year when he fell and broke a leg in his apartment, then lay on the floor for hours waiting for a home attendant to arrive.

His breakthrough as a writer came with a screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Women in Love,” for which he had obtained the film rights with $4,200 of his own money. He also produced the film, which was a box-office hit when it was released in 1969 and a high point of more than one career. The screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award; Glenda Jackson won an Oscar as best actress for her performance; and the director, Ken Russell, established himself as an important filmmaker.

Four years later, Mr. Kramer wrote the screenplay for the ill-fated musical remake of the classic 1937 film “Lost Horizon.”

Mr. Kramer eventually turned to gay themes, and in his first novel, “Faggots,” he did so with a vengeance. A scathing look at promiscuous sex, drug use, predation, and sadomasochism among gay men, it was a lightning rod from the day of its publication in 1978.

Laurence David Kramer was born on June 25, 1935, in Bridgeport, Conn., the second son of George and Rea (Wishengrad) Kramer. In 1941, his father got a government job in Washington, and the family moved.

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By his own account, Mr. Kramer had a miserable childhood and hated his father. His protective older brother, Arthur, was the scholar-athlete of the family, on his way to becoming a prominent lawyer. Mr. Kramer read the Hollywood gossip columns.

The two brothers weren’t always on the easiest terms. In “The Normal Heart,” Arthur Kramer is represented by the character Ben Weeks, a man with ambivalent feelings about his brother’s homosexuality. But they shared an abiding affection until Arthur’s death in 2008. Arthur gave $1 million to Yale in 2001 to establish the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, and his law firm became active in pro bono work for causes such as same-sex marriage.

Larry Kramer himself married his partner, Webster, in 2013, in a ceremony in the intensive care unit of NYU Langone Medical Center, where Mr. Kramer was recovering from surgery for a bowel obstruction.

In 1953, Mr. Kramer, like his father and brother before him, enrolled at Yale. He studied English literature, tried to commit suicide once, and had a liberating affair with a male professor.

After graduating in 1957 and serving a tour in the Army, he worked in New York, first for the William Morris Agency and then for Columbia Pictures. In 1961, Columbia sent him to London, where he worked as production executive on “Dr. Strangelove” and “Lawrence of Arabia.” He returned to the United States in 1972.

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He got into AIDS work in the summer of 1981 after reading an article about deadly cases of a rare cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma, among young gay men. It had previously been associated mostly with older men. A meeting of about 80 people in his New York apartment the next week led to the formation of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

For the next several years, Mr. Kramer threw himself into fund-raising, lobbying, and confrontation, and also into his writing. His landmark essay “1,112 and Counting,” which appeared in the March 14, 1983, issue of The New York Native, was one of many articles taking gay men to task for apathy.

The urgency of his life found its way into his plays. “The Normal Heart,” which opened at the Public Theater in April 1985 and ran for nine months, was a passionate account of the early years of AIDS and his campaign to get somebody to do something about it.

“The Normal Heart” returned to the stage in 2011, to powerful effect. “By the play’s end,” Ben Brantley of The New York Times wrote in his review, “even people who think they have no patience for polemical theater may find their resistance has melted into tears. No, make that sobs.”

That production won the Tony Award for best revival of a play. An HBO adaptation, written by Mr. Kramer, won the 2014 Emmy for outstanding television movie.

Less successful was Mr. Kramer’s “Just Say No,” a sendup of official morality aimed at familiar targets, including Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Widely criticized as crude and nasty, it opened off-Broadway in October 1988 and closed a month later.

The same year, tests confirmed what Mr. Kramer had long suspected: He was carrying the virus that causes AIDS.

“A new fear has now joined my daily repertoire of emotions, and my nighttime ones, too,” he wrote in the afterword to a later edition of his 1989 book, “Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist.”

He turned his attention to another autobiographical play, ultimately titled “The Destiny of Me,” which opened in 1992.

He and Webster, an architect, began living together in 1994, and Mr. Kramer was able to devote much of his time to writing, in spite of being ill for many more years. Believing that he would die soon, he began putting his literary affairs in order. In fact, The Associated Press reported in 2001 that he had died.

Looking back in 2017 on his early days as an activist, Mr. Kramer, frail but still impassioned, explained the thinking behind his approach:

“I was trying to make people united and angry. I was known as the angriest man in the world, mainly because I discovered that anger got you further than being nice.”