‘Spalding Gray,’ the Color? It’s a Long Story


Of such moments, history is made.

The Color

Encouraged by the interest, Mr. Williams and Ms. Goodman decided to approach the house paint manufacturers, Sherwin Williams, which happened to be headquartered in Cleveland, with the idea of duplicating their dogs’ coat hue for a paint of the same name. “That was in 2001,” noted Sue Wadden, Sherwin Williams’s director of color marketing, “and since that time Spalding Gray has consistently ranked among the top 20 percent of all colors sold.” The internet seems fond of it too. Google “Spalding Gray” and “paint color” and you will see websites and endless Pinterest pages devoted to this particular shade of gray with subtle undertones of chocolate.

Wait. We’re not done yet. Coincidences work at their own pace.

Fast forward to 2011. John Williams was at a New York City fund-raiser for the Moth, the nonprofit performance group dedicated to storytelling. That night Gray was being honored posthumously and his widow, Kathleen Russo, was there to accept the award. Mr. Williams sidled up to Ms. Russo, and shyly told her his story of superfandom, which led to his dog’s moniker, which led to the paint color. Ms. Russo, now the producer of NPR’s “Here’s the Thing” with Alec Baldwin and director of the audio podcasts program at Stony Brook University’s Southampton campus, was tickled. She is also a practical sort. Eventually she thought, well, even though the paint was technically named after a dog, the company could at least say thank you to her husband’s memory — in the form of a paint job on her home.


Gray pictured with his children, Forrest and Marissa, in August, 1993.

Which is how I ended up in Sag Harbor, eating mozzarella and basil with Ms. Russo, her partner, the artist David Olson (who calls himself Dave O), and an indignant dachshund named Gertrude Stein. The house, built in 1840, is a warren of small pine-floored rooms in a blaze of different colors and odd configurations. The widow’s walk was being turned into a meditation room; photographs of Gray and his children, now grown, occupied every wall and corner. (Marissa is a television producer, Forrest a composer, and Theo is a filmmaker; all, Russo notes, have found different ways to be storytellers.)

The outside of the house was being painted as we ate on the terrace. It is a place that has great meaning in Ms. Russo’s life, then and now. She and Spalding had purchased it in 2001. Ordinarily a frugal man who took a long time to make any kind of financial decision, he had seen this place, fallen in love and made an offer on the spot. Then came the trip to Ireland and the dark days that followed. Though he had written and performed himself out of depression many times in the past, this time he was a changed man; in the accident Gray’s head and Ms. Russo’s head banged together violently, and Gray was left with a traumatic brain injury that exacerbated his depression. Gray’s love for the house turned into a brooding obsession. He saw signs and portents everywhere, beginning with the fact that their official moving day was Sept. 11, 2001. (Ms. Russo had the movers come back the next day.) His own mother had moved from a house she loved shortly before she killed herself. “He would repeat daily, ‘If only we were in the old house I would be whole again,’” Ms. Russo recalled. “He gave that old house a lot of power, in his mind.”

Many grieving women would have given the house that power too, and sold it after a husband’s tragic death. But first of all, Ms. Russo’s three children loved it. And then, there is something about Ms. Russo, some combination of compassion and contrariness, that made her love those blameless walls even more. They told a story. And it was pretty clear, given whom she loved, that she was a sucker for a good story.

Spalding Gray, the dog and the human, are long gone. Spalding Gray the color is flourishing. Ms. Russo looks at the home that is spalding gray, the color of a Weimaraner, with deep satisfaction. “My Spalding would have loved this whole weird series of coincidences,” she said. “He would have written a piece about it.”

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