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The Man Who Came to Dinner 

Harry Denton

Wednesday, Oct 6 1999
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Page 2 of 3

We talked about addictions -- in the broadest sense of the word. "I'm not into heavy drugs," explained Harry. "And I haven't had a drink in six years. Not a drop, six years in November, which saved my life. Checked into rehab the day after my 50th birthday, so I am rather dramatic. But you have cross-addictions, you know? I can't walk into a store ... you saw my clothes ... I don't need shit. I mean, it's an addiction. I'm a major shopper."

"Not a bad one to have."

"No, it's better than cocaine. Or any of that shit," agreed Harry. "But the hardest is being a foodaholic, because you have to eat. I was 315 pounds at one point. And I've kept it off, that's another reason I'm happy. I just made a deal with myself not to eat horizontal, and it's working."

A knock on the door brought word from Harry's manager: "They're ready for you upstairs, Harry."

Back in the Starlight Room we listened to speeches from the three Stop AIDS award recipients -- Blackberri, a local singer/songwriter; Ed Decker, director of the New Conservatory Theater; and Ron Stall, a UCSF professor and AIDS researcher. Before the ceremony could end, Harry was called to the microphone to be named honorary chair. "I'm very fortunate, people always want to throw parties for me ...oh, shit," he said. "I mean, people always want to throw parties up here, and all I do is make the space available. But the thanks go to all the people who do the real work."

While Harry took a few minutes to work the crowd, his specialty, I listened to lounge singer Connie Champagne continue the evening's entertainment. "I need a man. A big, strong man," she announced between songs. During the long pause that followed I twisted my head around to see no one in the predominantly male audience making a move. So, with several martinis now working their magic, I surmised that perhaps I was the man for the job. I stepped forward, lifted Connie onto the piano for her final number, posed for a kiss and a snapshot, and disappeared back into the crowd.

As the place began to empty out, Harry and I settled into a large U-shaped booth for a late-night supper. The Starlight normally serves a light menu of caviar, salads, cheese plates, desserts, and a raw bar. But for "special occasions, like this," Harry explained, he calls down to Scala's on the ground floor. Tory, our waitress, arrived with silver covered platters, beneath which we found a beautiful Caesar salad and a plate of buttermilk mashed potatoes topped with a perfectly seared fillet of salmon for me, and a grilled vegetable plate and greens for Harry.

"You've got quite a place here," I said, taking in the views of the city.

"It used to be a penthouse," he answered. "The whole floor. Can you imagine? But I'm very lucky. I've been at it a long time. Twenty-five years. None of this stuff comes overnight, unless you win the lottery. You ever fantasize about what you'd do if you won the lottery? When I can't sleep at night, that's what I dream about."

"That's what the Brown Twins told me," I recalled, "when I saw them at the restaurant. They said, 'We still play the lottery, and we're going to win.'"

After we finished our meals Harry had me follow him through the Starlight's kitchen before ducking out a swinging glass window.

"Yowza," I said.

Harry had had a small, elegant table set on the fire escape, with a glass of champagne for me, and two decadent desserts from Scala's. It was a clear night 21 floors up and the view, hanging out over Union Square, was extraordinary.

"Every two or three months, we get exhibitionists in these hotels," laughed Harry.

"Now that would make for an interesting column," I said.

"Oh, they know you're watchin' 'em." Harry roared some more. "I've got my staff binoculars. I mean, they want you to watch them."

With no moon out this night, Harry dug into the Chocolate IV, while I marveled at the Bostini, an unbelievable creation inspired by the Boston cream pie. "I see I got you with that one," Harry smiled.

"I might not look it," I told him, "but to steal your word, I'm a foodaholic too. If food didn't make you gain weight, that's all I'd ever eat: cheeseburgers, french fries, and Boston cream pie."

"Isn't it a trip?" asked Harry. "But I'm learning to maintain it. Let me tell you, first of all you never do major diets. They never work. And you don't ever cut yourself off of anything totally. I have a pound of bacon twice a year. A pound. Christmas day and on my birthday. I love bacon, but it's so fucking bad for you."

I am forced to applaud in awe. "A pound?"

"I really do. Crispy. And someday, I don't know how I'm going to do it, but I am going to crawl into a hot tub -- with somebody -- into a hot tub of warm chocolate mousse. Once in my life. Once. Some people think that sounds gross."

I respond with increased applause.

"Just once in your life," asked Harry, "to be covered in chocolate? Because money isn't everything -- I mean, you don't want to be 50 years old without any -- but I have a three-letter word for money, F-U-N. Because you know, we may just have this once -- I mean, I'm not counting on another life. I would love it. But I would be wonderfully surprised if it happened."

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Barry Levine

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