On Howard's Birthday

By: Sarah Ashman Gillespie — May 17, 2018

Watching the documentary, Howard, at the Tribeca Film Festival was thrilling and oddly upsetting.  Oddly, because having seen it so often and in so many incarnations, I didn’t expect to be as moved as I was when finally viewing it on a big screen and with an audience.

Over the past two years, Don Hahn has sent roughs and versions of his film my way.  Each time a new one came in, I had to prepare myself to watch.  I don’t think I ever watched a version without crying.  The hardest time was first hearing the audio tape of Howard telling John Musker and Ron Clements about the recording session for Beauty and the Beast with Angela Lansbury and Jerry Orbach.  I had no idea that audio existed (the Library of Congress found it on an answering machine tape Bill Lauch sent them).  It was the way Howard sounded that was so distressing – so tired, hoarse and weak.  That was how he sounded at the end, or at least until he lost the energy to even make conversation.  That will never be Howard’s true voice to me.

When I began this blog in 2010, my goal was to tell people about Howard.  To not let him be forgotten.  I thought – I still think – that his story was unique, as was his talent.  I wanted to tell people about my brother, Howard, too.  Not the writer and director but the man.  I think in some way, I was trying to bring him back to life.  Because I want so much to see him again. 

Which is clearly futile.  Of course, as much as we miss them, we can’t bring the people we love back from death.  It is such a simple statement, one we all know to be true, but how our psyches fight against it.

And though I can share with you some part of who Howard was, I can’t share it all.  Neither can Don.  Neither can anyone else.  Howard, like all of us, was the sum of many parts.  None of us can truly know the entirety of another person.

Yet, I’m always so amazed how we feel so free to explain what an artist meant when he wrote a song.  Or what a person represented to the world, as though he had not been a person but a symbol. I’ll be honest, I resent the modifiers sometimes attached to Howard’s name.  I would resent them being attached to my name as well.  It’s not about the modifier – gay, straight, AIDS victim, polio survivor.  Some are true of Howard, some are not and all are fine.  It’s the defining of a person into a headline that I don’t like. 

Howard was a blond, gay man born in Baltimore.  He was a Jewish Taurus who died of AIDS.  None of those things, all true, define him on their own.  Highlight any of those adjectives and you make a complex person – and we’re all complex – very simple indeed.

So today, on Howard’s 68th birthday, let’s celebrate the person we all think we knew.  And listen to a song, tell a story, look at some pictures, watch a movie and remember Howard Ashman, who was, like all of us, a person of many, many parts.