María Irene Fornés returns to NYC but custody struggle continues

María Irene Fornés returns to NYC but custody struggle continues

María Irene Fornés (from Fornés Facebook page)
María Irene Fornés has gained three pounds in the last two weeks.

Not a big deal, or maybe a big deal in some quarters, but for one of the greatest living English-language playwrights, those three pounds are a very good sign.

“If you made a list of the most influential English language playwrights of the 20th Century, it seems to me you have the vein of writers who descend from Beckett (his lineage includes Pinter, Mamet, Churchill), the poetic naturalists like O’Neill and Williams, all the various kinds of expressionists, and then there is Fornés,” said Jorge Ignacio Cortiñas, who was mentored by Fornés and is best known for his play, Blind Mouth Singing (staged in Chicago by Teatro Vista in 2005). “I don’t know how we get to Paula Vogel or 13P or the ethos or aesthetics of off-Broadway today without Fornés. Why she is lesser known then playwrights that she is just as important as is an interesting phenomenon and seems connected to gender and ethnic bias to be sure, but this phenomenon is also compounded by what an iconoclast she was. How difficult it is categorize her … She is the ultimate playwright’s playwright. Everyone in theater knows who she is and many are deeply influenced by her.”

Now, finally, after years in an upstate New York nursing home close to her blood family but far from friends, former students, colleagues, and a vast and adoring support network of chosen family, Fornés, who has Alzheimer’s, is back in New York City.

And in New York City, where she lived most of her life, her friends have organized themselves into a disciplined army of love, with a Facebook page and a Google calendar to schedule regular and continuous visits in which they sit with her, read to her, bring her gifts and treats — all efforts that seem to be making Fornés, 83, flourish in her new home.

The move to New York, which was chronicled by the New York Times, was supposed to alleviate tensions between the friends and Fornés’ family. But the battle over Fornés’ last days continues, playing out even on the Times story’s comments page.

The winner of nine Obie awards for plays such as Fefu and her Friends, Mud, The Conduct of Life, Manual for a Desperate Crossing and Letters from Cuba, Fornés began having some symptoms of short term memory loss in 2000. I met her that year when she came to town to have a public conversation with Mary Zimmerman up at Northwestern. And during our interview for the Chicago Tribune, she spoke openly about her recent struggles to remember.

“You know, I’ve never had a very good memory, but it seems now, as I’m getting older, I still remember things, but not for as long,” she told me over lunch.

The following year, we were on faculty together (along with Junot Díaz, Danny Hoch, David Unger and Cortiñas) for a U.S.-Cuba exchange program called Writers of the Americas. Cortiñas, the performance artist Tania Bruguera, a local writer and I spent a lovely afternoon walking through the town of Matanzas with Fornés in a dreamy sweet state. Technically, Cortiñas was there as her assistant, but in fact, he was more of an anchor.

By 2006, Fornés was no longer able to function on her own and custody was granted to her nephew, David Lapinel.

“After custody was awarded, Irene lived with her sister’s family for a while, but when her sister became ill as well, David Lapinel placed her in a home in nearby Oneanta,” said Morgan Jenness, Fornés’ agent at the Helen Merrill Agency since 1997, when Merrill, Fornés longtime agent, died. “The idea was that it was close to the upstate family and that there could be frequent visitations and also visits to her family for the holidays, etc. This did happen, I think, for about a year or so. However, (around) 2008-2009 there were decreasing visitations, and it became clear that aspects of the guardianship were not being properly maintained… At one point, another brother, Dean, wrote to the court outlining all the issues which were not being taken care of and tried to garner custody – but he was deemed not appropriate – or ignored – it’s hard to say.”

“It’s hard not to see here that old privileging of biological families over chosen families,” Cortiñas said. “It makes me worry about how queer artists fare when they get older and (more) vulnerable. Irene was single, unmarried and had no children when her dementia began. Her mother was dead. Her sister was ill. Her sister’s children were given custody.”

Jenness and others tried to get friends and chosen family to visit Fornés upstate, but those three and a half hours it took to drive up were insurmountable for most. Then David Lapinel asked that Fornés be put on “comfort care” when she stopped eating, which Jenness describes as basically “being allowed to starve to death.”

“(This was) without an ethics committee hearing and against objections from us and other members of the family,” Jenness said. “This would have meant a quick passage.”

Tipped off by Jenness and others, friends made the trek.

“What happened (no surprise) is that she rallied and blossomed from being visited and so the situation changed from come and see her while she’s still here to another last ditch attempt to get her moved closer,” Jenness explained.

This time the efforts were helped by other family members and by a public petition that garnered nearly 3,000 signatures asking to have her moved. Two weeks ago, Fornés was finally transferred to Manhattan.

“When Irene is left alone she seems to get depressed, stops eating, and starts certain compulsive actions,” Cortiñas said. “For example, upstate she started scratching her face so continuously that small scabs formed. While she doesn’t seem to recognize anybody, she does respond to touch, affection, music. And there are sparks of that old world, whimsical personality we all loved. She doesn’t speak much, but still says ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ when she does.”

And there are those three pounds. And reports of smiles at the sound of salsa music. And winks. And flirting.

All very good, very beautiful things.