On his 53rd birthday, Kevin Sessums woke up in his L.A. hotel room wondering how he would get through his scheduled interview with Hugh Jackman. For years he had interviewed the bright lights: Madonna, Courtney Love, Jessica Lange, and all the other usual suspects; but, Kevin knew that his rapidly unraveling life was as shallow as the hotel's hip furniture and he was hanging on by his fingertips. In I Left It on the Mountain, Sessums chronicles his early days in NY as an actor, his years working for Andy Warhol at Interview and Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, countless nights of anonymous sex, his HIV Positive diagnosis and his descent into addiction. It's also the chronicle of one man's spiritual redemption found while climbing to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostelo and trudging across the cold, lonely winter beaches of Provincetown. Peopled with the famous like Daniel Radcliffe and Diane Sawyer as well as anonymous companions corporeal and otherwise whom he met while mountain climbing and hiking, I Left It on the Mountain is the story of one man's fall and rebirth, the next moving chapter in Kevin Sessums' extraordinary life that takes him from the high to the low and back again. For readers who loved Mississippi Sissy and want to know what happened to that tenacious little boy with the baseball mitt, I Left It On the Mountain is the sometimes very dark, but ultimately hopeful answer.
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About the Author
KEVIN SESSUMS is Editor-in-Chief of 429 and author of the New York Times bestseller Mississippi Sissy. He was previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Allure. His work has appeared in Elle, Travel + Leisure, Playboy, Out, and Show People. He lives in San Francisco, California.
KEVIN SESSUMS is Editor-in-Chief of 429 and New York Times Bestselling author of I Left It on the Mountain and Mississippi Sissy. He was previously a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Allure. His work has appeared in Elle, Travel + Leisure, Playboy, Out, and Show People. He lives in San Francisco, California.
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I Left It on the Mountain
By Kevin Sessums
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Kevin Sessums
All rights reserved.
Still in bed, I realized it was my fifty-third birthday. My next thought was about the adventure I was going to have in a month. As a kind of birthday present to myself I had decided, as suggested by my friend Perry Moore, to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. The Camino is a spiritual pilgrimage of over five hundred miles across northern Spain that pilgrims have walked for over two thousand years. Maybe that was why I was having so much trouble getting out of bed that birthday morning—not that I was another year older, but that my body had already begun to rebel at having to walk those five hundred miles of a trek my depleted spirit was demanding of it.
I cracked open an eye: another hotel room. Down the hill outside my window, Los Angeles, like me, lolled and continued to wake. I have awakened in many such overly conceptualized hotel rooms in Los Angeles since becoming known as a writer uninhibited by fame. I cracked open my other eye in that one six years ago and focused on it all. The low-slung sofa a sloe-eyed decorator, no doubt, deemed, "Divine!" before demanding an assistant buy it in bulk at the Pacific Design Center out there down that same hill outside my window so he, the sloe-eyed one, could then speed off to Melrose to make a tattoo appointment, his bicep finally big enough to have Emily Dickinson's entire two lines "'Hope' is the thing with feathers / that perches in the soul" inked across it. Next to the sofa was a rather tatty red repro Saarinen chair. But the thing I recall the most from that immobile morning I turned fifty-three is my featherless solitude. They were—the sofa, the Saarinen, the solitude—the same somehow: each carefully chosen, precisely placed, all elements of an acquired aesthetic.
Many of my assignments over the years have taken me to LA to interview the phalanx of movie stars over whom I have mostly fawned. "The Impertinent Fawner" could have been printed on my business cards if I had ever thought myself in need of any. I had—I have—chosen a life free of business cards. That alone, I tell myself still, is accomplishment enough.
Or has it been? Is it?
Is it enough for a man to interview Madonna?
Is it man enough?
She was the first person about whom I wrote a cover story for Vanity Fair during my fourteen years there as a contributor after my stint as executive editor at Andy Warhol's Interview. This was, however, the once-upon-a-time Madonna, the one during Dick Tracy and Warren Beatty, before Malawi and Lourdes and alleged face-lifts, the one who has found a way, unlike me so far, to inhabit her fifties. Back when I first met her she had, through her first surge of real wealth, an aesthetic that could also be described as an acquired one. Her pride at her good taste outweighed her need for privacy at that point and she invited me to her home.
It was January 1990. Time Inc. and Warner Brothers were about to merge. The Leaning Tower of Pisa needed repair and was suddenly closed to visitors. A few days before, the Dow Jones reached a record 2,800 points. Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan were to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame that month and Panama's Manuel Noriega was to surrender to American forces. Moscow was getting its first McDonald's. The Simpsons was ready to premiere on the fledgling Fox Network. And I was sitting in the back of a black sedan being driven high into the hills overlooking all of Los Angeles, a kind of city-state replete with valet parking, huevos rancheros, and replication. I stared out my window. On one side, down below, was the gnarl of Sunset. On the other, looming even larger, was the Valley in a city that states: This is what a valley is.
The sedan pulled into Madonna's drive. I waited a bit before getting out, because I was early for the interview. It is a trait of mine—arriving early—ingrained in me by my grandfather, who made sure, back in my Mississippi childhood, that ours was the first car each Sunday morning in the parking lot of Trinity Methodist Church. He would then make all of us, my grandmother and brother and sister and me, wait until the second family drove up for the worship service before we could get out. Then on his cue—an exaggerated groan as he opened his door and unfolded his body—we all climbed from the car.
Madonna's house up in those hills that day was as far from Trinity Methodist's parking lot as I had ever traveled. With an exaggerated groan I unfolded my own body and, climbing from the car, climbed from the life that had brought me to such a place.
* * *
I rang Madonna's bell and readied myself for one of her assistants to answer it. Wrong. "Ready or not, here I come!" could, since her own childhood, have been her mantra, the mantra of a woman who has never hidden from but always sought herself. Why had it surprised me—she could not disguise her satisfied grin when I gasped a little at the sudden sight of her—when it was she who swung open the door to greet me?
She wore no makeup at all that day except for lipstick that had been applied to the now-reddest lips allowed in town. On her tiny, exquisitely toned legs she was wearing black fishnet stockings beneath black cutoff jeans. She had not buttoned the top three buttons on a studded black denim shirt. A black leather cap was cocked atop her head. Black pumps were on her feet. Even the straggly strands of dirty hair streaming from under that cap were surprisingly dark, for she had planned, slyly so, to end our time together that day in her kitchen as I watched her eat a big bag of barbecue potato chips and feign bemusement at the trashy tabloids she purposefully had waiting for her perusal, all the while getting her hair washed in the kitchen sink, then dyed yet again back to the blond color that was her showbiz shade.
The house, like her, was surprisingly small, startlingly white, all modern angles and hard edges. Everywhere there was an exquisite incongruity. Outside, a black Mercedes 560SL was parked next to a coral-colored '57 Thunderbird; inside, twentieth-century art hung above eighteenth-century furniture. Candles, embossed with Catholic saints, dotted the house's sophisticated rooms. On a kitchen counter, audiotapes of Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth lay stacked beside tapes by Public Enemy.
Atop her work desk was a beautiful portrait of her mother, who died of cancer when Madonna was six. "My memories of her drift in and out," she admitted to me. "When I turned thirty, which was the age my mother was when she died, I just flipped because I kept thinking I'm now outliving my mother."
I didn't gasp this time, but I did noticeably blanch. My mother had died at the age of thirty-three from cancer when I was eight and I, having already outlived her by several months, was about to turn thirty-four in a matter of weeks. The fact that I had also by then outlived my father, who had just turned thirty-two when he was killed in a car crash before my mother's illness, didn't lessen the odd panic I had been experiencing. It only served as the panic's foundation. Fed it. It was a heady feeling. Addictive? Perhaps. I only knew I was ironically growing to depend on such panic to feel alive.
I told Madonna of this shared panic of ours when she asked if I was all right. I had planned to match her brashness that day but had not anticipated just how brash we would instantly be with each other. It threw me. Where do I take the conversation from here? I was thinking, but there was no need to worry. She remained firmly in control.
"I thought something horrible was going to happen to me when I turned thirty," she said, reaching down and straightening the frame that contained her mother's image. Had the woman in that picture known already that she had cancer? Had she sensed something awful was about to happen? I stared into the eyes of Madonna's mother, eyes that a long-ago camera lens had caught in an unguarded moment. I saw the anger that had embedded itself there, the sorrow, peering back at me from beneath my own reflection.
"I kept thinking, like, this is it, my time is up," said Madonna, cutting her eyes defiantly my way after they had caught mine there in the glass atop her mother's face. Madonna's defiance somehow gladdened me. It was, in essence, her allure. She continued to straighten her desk. "It was a tough year last year. I was going through so many things ... and my divorce ...," she said, mentioning Sean Penn without mentioning his name.
An ornately gold-framed Langlois, originally painted for Versailles, was as large as the entire ceiling in the house's main room, and that is exactly where Madonna had hung it, Hermes's exposed loins dangling over our heads as we headed that way. Boxer Joe Louis, photographed by Irving Penn, pouted in a corner across from May Ray's nude of Kiki de Montparnasse. Above the fireplace was a 1932 Léger painting, Composition. Across from it was a self-portrait by Frida Kahlo.
Earlier, in the entrance foyer, I had walked by another Kahlo. I stopped following Madonna about the house long enough to walk back toward it all by myself. She now followed me. I asked her the painting's name. "My Birth," she told me, coming to stand close beside me and gaze also at the image. It depicted Kahlo's mother in bed with the sheets folded back over her head. All that could be seen of the mother were her opened bloody legs, the head of the adult Kahlo emerging from between them.
Madonna touched my arm.
"If somebody doesn't like this painting," she said, "then I know they can't be my friend."
* * *
I did like the painting—it haunts me still—but I did not become her friend. We became, as one does so often where I reside just outside the frame of fame, heightened acquaintances. It's the kind of public relationship that can so easily flow from the intimacy that a good interview engenders when it veers into a conversation performed as a private one. Madonna and I, veering, talked a lot that day about abandonment because of the deaths of our mothers from cancer when we were children. "I don't know if going to a shrink cures the loneliness caused by such abandonment," she'd confided, "but it sure helps you understand it."
Would I ever truly understand it? I wondered the morning of my fifty-third birthday as I continued to lie in bed, feeling as if I had even abandoned myself in a way I had yet fully to comprehend. Noon arrived. I had to be at lunch in a matter of an hour over at the Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills to interview Hugh Jackman for the cover of Parade. A siren outside my window was the day's first wail as I considered the arc of my career. Andy Warhol's Interview. Vanity Fair. Parade. Yep: fifty-three.
I thought back to an earlier birthday. It was the night of the Vanity Fair Oscar party at Morton's—March 27, 1995. Courtney Love was at my table, since she had also requested that I be her escort that night. We had already been spending a lot of time with each other leading up to a cover story for Vanity Fair that was scheduled to run in its upcoming May issue and were by then heightened acquaintances of our own.
A couple of months before the Vanity Fair party I had flown out to Seattle, where she lived on the shores of Lake Washington. It was to be our first meeting and she had kept me waiting for well over an hour down in the living room of the house she had shared with her late husband, Kurt Cobain. I became bored going over my interview notes by the fourth or fifth time and began to inspect what appeared to be a kind of Buddhist altar set up on a side table. I opened a tiny box positioned there. What exactly could it contain? I picked up a bit of its contents with my fingers and felt the coarseness of the crinkled thread-like stuff I was holding. As I more closely inspected it—even giving it a whiff—Love entered the living room behind me and I heard, for the first time, a voice. Low. Hoarse. Hers. "What are you doing with Kurt's pubic hair?" she asked.
I ended up conducting most of the interview with her that day as she lay naked in her tub and scrubbed her own pubic hair while I sat on the toilet with the seat down. I also spent many more hours with her on the road as she toured with her band Hole. I swigged vodka from the bottles she offered me both backstage in Salt Lake City and at New York's Roseland. And I accompanied her to New Orleans to look at real estate. She wanted to own a haunted house, as if the one back in Seattle weren't haunted enough.
Like Madonna all those years earlier, Love had graciously given me a tour of her home. She'd even unlocked a kind of inner sanctum where Cobain had committed suicide in the studio above the garage, which she'd had converted to a hothouse filled with row upon row of orchids. It was the last thing we did together at the end of a very long day there on the shores of Lake Washington. She walked me into it. Not the studio exactly. Not the hothouse. But the silence Cobain had left there. The light refracted from Lake Washington gilded it all with a silvery grayness. She too touched my arm. We talked about the orchids.
* * *
Love had asked me to pick her up at her room at the Chateau Marmont the night of the Oscar party. When I arrived she was not alone but had paired up with a kind of dollish doppelgänger, Amanda de Cadenet, who was then the wife of Duran Duran's bassist John Taylor. The women were wearing matching dime-store tiaras and were dressed in what appeared to be long, lacy satin slips, as if they had tried on their gowns but then decided to discard such a bourgeois concept as clothing.
"These are the cheapest wedding dresses we could find," Courtney had insisted when I asked if she and de Cadenet were indeed wearing undergarments to the party. "We are gorgeous lesbians in twenty-dollar dresses," she grandly stated, then stated it again later, less grandly, with more of a put-upon rock 'n' roll moll in the mix, when we got to the party and she was interviewed outside by a cadre of roped-off reporters.
The flashbulbs went into a frenzy at the rope line outside Morton's. The satin from the slips or wedding dresses or whatever it was she and de Cadenet were wearing shimmered in the shock that even those cameras seemed to be registering at such attire, the tacky gimcrackery of their tiaras exposed by the chum of paparazzi. Forget her faux-lesbian pal de Cadenet; this was the real chum for which Love was ravenous. All their posing—chins just so, those chintzy tiaras becoming precariously unpinned—churned the chum even more. Me? I happened to be the bald gay guy who remained completely still between them in the midst of it all, which is an apt description of a certain swath of that town, perennial, patient, that has always been there, dead center.
* * *
One of the Vanity Fair cover stories that had run before that imminent one on Love was one on Jessica Lange, who was nominated for Best Actress that night for her performance in Blue Sky. Madonna, Lange, and Love—they were the three blond muses I thought about the morning of my fifty-third birthday as I lay in bed unable to move. Unbeknownst to Lange—the truest of these muses—she had even been the person who inspired me to embark on the adventure I was about to attempt in a matter of weeks.
There have been times in my job as a chronicler of celebrity that I thought I owed it to an actor or actress to write more than an impertinent puff piece. In those incidences I have tried to mine the ore of stardom, if not art, and find its seam and, in so doing, perhaps discover the very essence of that person. Yet even mining metaphors seemed lacking when dealing with Lange. Her allure—her own gravity, if you will—went deeper than any ore, any seam in it. She had recently returned at that point to live much of the year back on her family farm in Minnesota and by rediscovering her roots she had also rediscovered the gravity one attains from the land itself, the ever-onward trudge atop it, its hold on us all as we walk. There was, she had insisted to me, a mystical grounding one encountered when one was alone with one's own undergrowth.
"That's all I do anywhere is walk. Walking for the sake of walking," she told me when surprising me with a phone call one morning after I thought our interviews had been completed. "But none of that silly walking," she warned. "That power walking."
She was piddling around in her kitchen with the phone to her ear, so I asked what she had taped to her refrigerator. The piddling stopped and she read aloud the two quotes I assumed she read silently to herself every time she reached for a carton of milk or some leftovers.
The first was from T. S. Eliot:
"'We shall not cease from exploration,'" she read, "'and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.'"
She paused, seeming to gather herself before she could go on. "Then there's this," she said. "It's from Kierkegaard. 'Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it. But if sitting still—and the more one sits still—the closer one comes to feeling ill. If one just keeps on walking everything will be all right.'"
Excerpted from I Left It on the Mountain by Kevin Sessums. Copyright © 2015 Kevin Sessums. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
1. The Starfucker,
2. The Climber,
3. The Role-Player,
4. The Brother,
5. The Mentor,
6. The Factory Worker,
7. The Dogged,
8. The Pilgrim,
9. The Addict,
About the Author,
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