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Posted by Clayton Littlewood
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Eulogy for my Husband, Jorge Ignacio Betancourt (31/7/56 – 06/07/15)

I’ve known Father Allen for nearly 20 years. He conducted a service for me when my last partner died. And back in the 90s Father Alan would come to our flat, and we’d be partying in one room, and he’d be sipping a sweet sherry in another. So I want to thank Father Alan for conducting this service today. I hope that I can now call you a friend.

 

When we arranging the service for my last partner, Father Alan said to me, ‘Clay, when you do your speech, you won’t go on forever will you? Some people prattle on for hours and you don’t want people nodding off.’ So I’m going to try not to do that. But there are things I have to say about Jorge’s life. Because there were decades that preceded ours. And it’s important for me to talk about these so that I paint a complete picture of my husband.

 

***

 

Jorge Ignacio Betancourt was born in 1956 on July 31st. Today is his birthday. He was born in Havana, Cuba, and his early childhood was a happy one. He told me he used to have a little pet goat which he would lead around the streets. His family were quite well off by Cuban standards. His father ran the Cuban version of the National Lottery, and they had a number of properties, artwork, and a finely furnished home.

 

But in 1959, Castro came to power, and soon after their properties were taken from them. Their bank accounts were frozen. Their art and furniture confiscated. So Jorge’s parents made a decision. Rather than live in poverty, they would flee the country and start a new life in America. But to leave Cuba they had to make the excuse they were going on holiday. The authorities suspected that’s what people were doing, so the rule was, you could only leave with the clothes on your back. Fortunately Jorge’s mother had a plan. And she sewed the family jewels into the hems of Jorge’s and his sister’s clothing – so at least they would arrive in America with something.

 

The family arrived in America in October 1961. But it was not what they were expecting. They were a Catholic family, but were forced to change their religion to Presbyterian, because that was the church that sponsored them. The US Government stripped them of their full names as they were deemed to be too long. And they were placed in a rough neighbourhood in Upstate New York. Jorge told me the worst things about living there were; getting chased by the local kids, and the food they were given; Velveeta, a kind of processed cheese, Peanut Butter, powdered milk. And American instant coffee – which he always hated.

 

The family had lost everything. Jorge’s parents couldn’t speak English. So from the age of six Jorge had to translate and become the father figure. Jorge’s father eventually became a school janitor and his mother a seamstress, working for Lilly Pulitzer, the American fashion designer. And it’s from his mother that Jorge learnt about cutting techniques, fabrics, stitching, hemming, the different types of collars and cuffs.

 

His parents worked hard, and eventually the family moved to Miami to be nearer to their relations. Jorge’s parents spent all their money on sending Jorge and his sister to a private school in Palm Beach Gardens. Jorge was the poorest kid in the class. But he was also one of the brightest. An old school friend from that Elementary School contacted me a week ago, and she said, ‘He was special even then. There was something so open. And curious. And generous about him. And I never forgot him.’

 

In those early years Jorge became a ballet dancer and years later, when disco hit, he would teach his girlfriends how to dance. But then he found tennis. Tennis became his greatest love. He won cups and trophies. He would have tennis on TV all the time at home. And I don’t just mean the Grand Slams. The Basildon Open could be on and he’d be watching it.

 

When he was in High School he became a tennis coach for rich children of Palm Beach high society, where the Kennedys and the Astors once lived. Another friend told me recently that Jorge was fascinated by this society. Maybe it was a reminder of the life he’d once had.

 

He graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Business and Interior Design. He was fluent in English, Spanish and French, and in 1978 he started working for a tabletop store in Coconut Grove as the Head of Visuals, working with luxury accessories like Lalique and Bacarat. From there he moved to a company called Ogetti, where he became the ‘in house’ designer. From the age of 20, he was managing teams of men, constructing showrooms and stores throughout the US, working on commissions, designing cocktail books, creating installations for the Clinton’s in The White House, the homes of Whoopi Goldberg and Robert de Niro, traveling the world for 9 months of the year.

 

But then … a holocaust hit America.

 

Imagine, if you will, being 26 years old and you catch a virus, a virus that kills all your friends. Then imagine doctors telling you that you’re next. Imagine doctors telling you three times that you’re about to die and you need to say goodbye to your family. Imagine that not only have you just lost a whole address book full of friends, but this virus – that doesn’t even yet have a name – has a stigma attached to it, so great, that the press condemn you. That you witness families turning their backs on their children. A Government that fails to respond because you’re deemed unimportant and probably better off dead. Funeral parlours refusing to take bodies. People don’t want to touch you. Drink out of your glass. The whole world is blaming you. Your religion condemns you. And you’ve been told that you’re about to die. Imagine the strength of character it would take, at 26, surrounded by all this loss to say, ‘I’m not going to give up. And not only will I not give up. I’ll rise even higher.’

 

It was 1982. Gay men were guinea pigs back then. Jorge had lymph nodes removed from his neck. His friends were given experimental drugs like AZT that finished them off. Jorge refused it. And it saved his life. Even today, in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital – just a few weeks ago – a nurse told me, ‘So many gay men die in here on their own. Rejected by their families. We walk out the room. Go back an hour later. And they’ve gone.’ But back then it was far worse. There was no funding. No support. No combination treatment to keep the virus at bay. But Jorge fought back. He said, ‘I will not look like an AIDS patient. I’ll work out at the gym. 7 days a week. For hours on end. I will get the biggest body I can.’ And he did. He lived for another 33 years. The oldest surviving HIV patient the Chelsea and Westminster doctors had ever had.

 

I remember he used to walk round our flat, looking at the donated artwork from friends who had died, and he’d say, ‘Why me? Why was I spared? Why did God let me stay when all my friends died?’

 

Jorge had a home in Key West at the time. But when AIDS swept the nation, the first towns that were decimated were the gay meccas. He took me to Key West every year. Where Hemingway and Tennessee Williams once lived. We couldn’t wait to grow old and retire there. So Jorge could garden, and I could write. And every year we’d make a point of visiting the AIDS memorial where Jorge would point out the names of friends, makeup artists, drag queens, people he once knew.

 

In 1986, Jorge traveled to London for an interview. He was down to the last two candidates for a position with David Hicks – then one of the world’s leading interior decorators. In the end, because it was between two candidates, the job had to be given to a Brit. But Jorge always felt that one day he would live in London.

 

He carried on working in interior design for many years. But with his diagnosis, attending so many funerals, the thought that he would end up a world famous designer left him with doubt. So he started designing a range of teeshirts and sportswear, selling wholesale.

 

In 1992, he opened his first store, Dirty White Boy in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. It became an instant success. In 1997, he opened a second store in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod – an eccentric little seaside town full of painters and writers, the birthplace of American theatre. Jorge’s Provincetown store was named by the New York Times as the ‘Most Fashionable Store’ – because as well as selling his own line, he was stocking first collection menswear, like Ferre, Lacroix, Thierry Mugler, Versace, Cavalli and Sonia Rykiel. He would choose the collections from the Paris catwalks, then have the collars altered, the colours changed, the cuffs redesigned, so that the clothes were unique. He had those stores for 16 years, with celebrity shoppers like John Waters and Norman Mailer.

 

In the winter, the weather being quite brutal, the town closes down. Jorge had an apartment in Miami. So when the Provincetown season ended – that’s where he went. And that’s where we met.

 

It was March 2004. It was my last night on holiday. It was one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments. I was due to catch a flight back to London the next day and I remember thinking, ‘Should I go out one more night? Or should I be sensible and get some sleep?’ That split second decision – that seemed so inconsequential at the time – changed everything. We spent one night together and then we didn’t see each other again for another three months – getting to know each other by instant message. I’d race home from work and we’d communicate that way for hours.

 

I remember when he first invited me over…

 

To get to Provincetown you have to fly into Boston. Then you catch a little 20 seater plane over the Cape. The plane landed in a field. The pilot got out. Handed me my luggage. And then he flew off. I sat on my suitcase and I thought, ‘What the hell have I done? I’m in a field, in the middle of nowhere. What if he doesn’t turn up?’

 

But of course he did turn up. And we ended up in a long distance relationship, living with each other for 10 days at a time. Then months apart – counting the days until we could be together again. It was tough. And after a year, it got to the point where one of us would have to make a move.

 

Now we were fortunate, because Provincetown is in Massachusetts, which at the time was the only state in America which allowed for same sex marriage. So on October 28th, 2005, we got married – one of the first same sex couples to get married in the country. We got married on top of the Provincetown Monument, a monument that commemorates where the Pilgrims first landed – pioneers who had started a new life. As I like to think we were, in legalising ours.

 

Fortunately again, a clause in that year’s UK Civil Partnership Law, meant that our marriage was recognised over here. So Jorge was able to move over as my partner. So while Jorge was packing up his PTown store. I looked for one in London. And I found one. In Soho. On the corner of Old Compton Street and Dean Street. Jorge shipped everything over. Every shelf. Every wall bracket. The screws from the wall. And he created a home for us underneath the shop, in a mouldy, rat infested, basement. We’d go to sleep at night, listening to punters running up and down the stairway to the brothel above. But he turned that basement into a palace. He would always say, ‘I can turn chicken shit into chicken salad.’ And he could.

 

We opened in Feb 2006. Working 7 days a week to try to make the shop work. And initially it did. Takings were rising. We had celebrity shoppers like Graham Norton and Kathy Griffin. And Jorge would hand out our old stock to Soho’s homeless. Our friends, Elton and Lidio, who are here today, worked in the shop and helped to make it a success. And we met so many people. All the local Soho faces. And I started a blog on Myspace about our Soho life.

 

Jorge was so creative you see, that it ignited the creativity in me. I think when two people are that close, you feed off each other. Jorge taught me about art history; how African fertility dolls led to the Cubist movement, that in turn influenced Picasso. He gave me Warhol’s diaries to read. I learnt about ballet, famous interior designers, high end accessories, menswear. And he cooked me fabulous Cuban dishes every night, a different meal every night, on a one ring stove in a windowless Soho basement.

 

He would style me each morning. I’d be about to leave to go to work and he’d say, ‘Stop!’

And I’d say, ‘What?’

And he’d say, ‘Your socks clash with your belt.’

And I’d say, ‘Yeah, but no one’s going to see.’

And he’d say, ‘Yes, but we’ll know. And that’s what counts.’

 

He encouraged me with my writing. He made me send my blogs to The London Paper. And he told me to tell them that I wanted a weekly column. And they gave me one. Then he made me phone them up and ask for money. So I did. And they offered me £100 for each one. Then Jorge said, ‘Now phone them back and say you want £250.’ I hesitated. But he insisted. So I phoned them back. And they paid it.

 

Jorge said, ‘Clay, you see, it’s not about the money. But if you don’t value yourself. Why should anyone else?’

 

A couple of years later I did a play in the West End, based on our shop experiences, alongside David Benson and Alexis Gerred. I came off stage one night and Jorge was waiting in the wings. I said, ‘Listen to that applause. It went really well, didn’t it?’

And he said, ‘Yes, but you got a line wrong.’

And I said, ‘Yeah, but no one knew.’

And he said, ‘Yes, but we know. We’ll practise it tonight, until you get it right.’

 

He was a perfectionist like that. His view was, you must be the best version of yourself that you can possibly be. Whether it was a ballet dancer, a tennis player, to have the biggest body, the best job…

 

He could be a bit ‘Mommie Dearest’ about the cleaning. I’d hoover up. And it would infuriate me that once I’d finished, he’d re-hoover again. In our wardrobe, all the hangers had to face in the same direction. Our clothes had to be hung in colour order. But this wasn’t just an OCD thing. For Jorge, everything had to perfect. His view was, we’re only here for a short time, so you must try your best. Maybe being told he was going to die in the 80s taught him that. And now it’s taught me that.

 

But with the ups in Soho, came the downs. We suffered shop raids. And then the credit crunch appeared out of nowhere. And who could’ve predicted that? Our takings collapsed overnight. After 2 1/2 years we had to do a midnight flit to escape the creditors. And we were declared bankrupt.

 

Luckily, I still had a job, and some of my work friends are here today. I had a book coming out. Elton John read it and invited us to dinner. I received emails from Stephen Fry, the Pet Shop Boys and Marc Almond. But I’m not saying this to ‘show off’. Because it wasn’t a particularly happy time. Or it wasn’t as happy as it should’ve been. Things were happening for me. But Jorge had just lost everything. His shop. He had to sell his flat in Miami to pay off debts. He’d left a life in America to be with me. And yet again, just like in Cuba, he’d lost everything. And I was very very aware of that.

 

We moved back to our Holland Park flat, and around that time our flat was flooded. We had leaks from above and below. The whole flat had to be ripped out. For a year we lived in a building site. Things couldn’t have gotten much worse.

 

Jorge was now in the 50s. His age had become a barrier. But he never gave up. During this period, Jorge redesigned the flat and the garden. And he started applying for jobs. Sending out 50 CVs a day. Finally, after three years, he landed a job with an accessory store in Marylebone. I remember he phoned me up after the interview and he was crying. He’d been offered a job manning the till. And he said, ‘Is this what it’s come to?’ But he carried on applying. Eventually becoming Wholesale Director for India Jane. But he knew he deserved better. From there he went to work for a company in the Kings Road that worked with rare marbles from the quarries of Verona. Jorge project managed the fitting of a new shoe store in Harrods, called ‘Harrods Shoe Heaven’. It was in all the press. And it was biggest and most luxurious shoe store opening in the world.

 

But the company weren’t respectful of Jorge’s talents, and he felt the job was beneath him. So he kept on applying. Until finally, at the beginning of this year, he landed the job of his dreams – working for Collier Webb on the famous design street of Pimlico Road – selling bespoke luxury furniture to Lords and Ladies and princesses. Within a couple of months he was sketching out his own designs; of coffee tables. And chairs. And chandeliers. He loved that job. He loved the girls who worked for him. And he loved working for the owner, Geoff. Finally, after the setback in the 80s, he was back in interior design. And in London.

 

Everything was going right. I told him just a few weeks ago, ‘We don’t need to win the lottery. We have everything. Our beautiful flat. The garden. Our careers. And we have each other.’ But then in March … another terminal illness swooped down.

 

When he first found out he had cancer, Jorge said, ‘Clay I mustn’t be greedy. I’ve been given an extra 33 years. And if I hadn’t, I’d never have met you.’ At first he refused the chemotherapy, just as he had AZT back in the 80s. He told the doctors, ‘If you can’t cure me, and you can only extend the time I have – if it’s a choice between 9 months of illness and 3 months of life – I choose life.’ Towards the end, when Jorge’s intestine could no longer tolerate food, the doctors told him, if you don’t start chemo now, there’s nothing we can do. So, reluctantly, we went into hospital to start his first chemo session, thinking we’d be back home that afternoon. We never left that hospital.

 

The first week the doctors were full of hope. By the second, they were trying to help him die. The window between those two weeks was 24 hours. We sat in a park that day. Just days before he’d walked into hospital. But that day, he was in a wheelchair. I said, ‘We can still fight this.’ And he looked at me and shook his head.

 

I’ve always hated that expression ‘There are no words’. Of course, there are words. There are thousands of words. But that afternoon, there were words in our heads, but sometimes, when you’re that close, none need to be said.

 

***

 

At the beginning of that final week, he drifted in and out of consciousness. I was sleeping in his room with my sisters, and at one point he opened his eyes. They were filled with so much love. I said, ‘I love you.’ And he tried to put his arms around me, and he mouthed, ‘I love you too.’ I said, ‘You are the best boyfriend in the world.’ And a cheeky smile flickered across his face and he said, ‘I know.’

 

Those were the last words we shared.

 

I know we all have to go at some point. But the speed of it … I said to my friend Isabelle just a few weeks ago, ‘I don’t know where I am. I buried Dale just two years ago. And now Jorge. How this can be happening?’ And she said, ‘Clay, this is your destiny. And this is your burden.’ I didn’t know what she meant at the time. I thought we were going to grow old together. Retire to Key West. I thought we’d die in our 80s or 90s.

 

I had an operation last year, and when I came out of hospital Jorge said, ‘If you die first, I’ll have to kill myself.’ I said, ‘Don’t be silly! You’ll get an insurance payout from my job. You’ll be loaded.’ He said, ‘Clay, the money means nothing.’ And he would’ve done it.

 

After Jorge died, my sister Tori, who’s a nurse, said, ‘Clay, can I take Jorge’s medication home with me?’ I think she was worried I would do something silly. But I said, ‘No! That’s Jorge’s medication. And if you think I’m going to chop all his tablets into lines and snort them, and go out in a HIV medicated drug induced suicide haze – it’s not going to happen.’ But I’ll be honest with you, at times like this, you do think about it. How could you not?

 

When Virginia Woolf committed suicide, she left a letter for her husband. And there’re a few simple lines from that letter that have always stayed with me. She wrote:

 

You have given me the greatest possible happiness … If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

 

***

 

I’ve always been fascinated by death. My friend David will tell you that whenever we get together, that’s all we talk about. But until you’ve experienced it. Until part of that same beating heart of two people separates and drifts away…

 

When you create something you’re trying to understand death. That’s what art is. Art is trying to understand why we are here, and what death means.

 

Growing up gay in the 70s, when there was no same sex marriage. No chance of having children to follow you – for gay people art were our children. But art doesn’t need an audience. My friend Sebastian Horsely once told me, ‘Good artists don’t create with an audience in mind.’ And he was right. It’s not the numbers. The sales figures. It’s the expression.

 

If you write something or paint something and it rots away in the attic, with no one to read it, or no one to look at it. That doesn’t matter. You did it. You expressed it. You gave it life, to help you understand death.

 

I’ve written over the years. And nearly everyone I’ve written about has now died. But what I will write next will have to make this sound like Enid Blyton. If it takes me months, years, decades. If I have to spend a week deciding where to place a semi colon. I’ll do it – to strive for that perfection that Jorge has taught me. That will be my gift back to him. And if I don’t, I know he will be in my ear saying, ‘Get off bloody Facebook and finish the Goddamn thing already!’

 

***

 

You know … there is so much hate and prejudice and discrimination in the world. I’ve felt that since I was a young boy. We live in turmoil. We all have our own private battles. And us lot living here, we’re a truly troubled bunch. And what the hell can you do about these things anyway? After all, it’s all a dream within a dream. It’s all a farce. Life is mere theatre. And there is nothing we can do. For we are all bound by the firmament of fate. But there can also be beauty. And there can be beauty in death. I know this now.

 

Look at you all here. Traveling here. Expressing your love. And the support we’ve had. From my parents. My brother and sisters. Friends. And the family and friends who are waiting for me in Miami for another service. And another celebration. So that they can tell me their stories and the decades of life that preceded ours.

 

And what he has left me. The places we’ve travelled, Driving across America. Visiting the ancient cities of Taormina and Verona. The artistic seaside towns of Provincetown and Key West. Rome. Paris. Barcelona. Madrid. Berlin. Budapest. Visiting ancient cities. Museums. Galleries. Country homes. Discussing art. Meeting writers. And artists. And actors. And pop stars. And, more importantly, friends, who love us. I met the perfect partner at the perfect time in my life. At the perfect time in his life. He gave me so much. And he taught me so much.

 

But as I say, there can be a beauty in death. And if you’re lucky – and maybe we won’t all be this lucky – but if you are, to be surrounded by the best care. 25 NHS doctors and nurses. A room full of visitors. Not coming in to say goodbye. But coming in to say, ‘I love you.’ Until the last few days and nights, it was just me and my sisters in that hospital room. Just me, my sisters, and my Cubano. Because although he had an indefinite stay British visa, an American passport, when people asked what nationality he was, Jorge would always reply, ‘I’m Cuban.’ And he was. He was a proud, artistic, creative, Cuban.

 

A week before he died, I said to a nurse, ‘How many days does he have left?’ She said, ‘One. Maybe two. If he’s here on Monday it will be a miracle.’ And I thought, ‘He’ll be here on Monday.’

 

On the Sunday night he had what I suppose is described as a ‘death rattle’. He was unconscious. But it was still traumatic. I held him, but I was thinking, ‘Don’t go like this. Not like this.’ He stopped breathing for about 20 seconds. Then his heart started again. And I know he was thinking, ‘I can’t leave Clay like this. He won’t be able to handle it.’

 

The next day, the nurses asked me and my sisters to leave the room so that they could put Jorge into a more comfortable position. We went outside to the park. 10 minutes later, we rushed back in. I was afraid he’d go without me being there. But he was still alive. It was our final five minutes together. Of the 11 years we shared, it was the most beautiful 5 minutes we’d ever had. My sisters were at one end of the bed, stroking his arms and legs, bathing him in oil. It was like an ancient Egyptian death scene. Me with my king in my arms. Which I suppose made me the queen.

 

Then I put one hand on his bum. Which I did every night, because it always helped him sleep. And the sun was out that morning, and the sky was a vivid blue. I know that sounds like a cheesy line from that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey – but it really was. Wimbledon was on TV. The greatest tennis event in the world – where I’d taken him for his 50th birthday. He cried when I gave him those tickets.

 

Then I held him in my arms. And whatever that was left – the small part of him that was still beating, that cliche about hanging between life and death, whatever small part that was still there, heard me. And I kept saying, ‘I love you. I love you. And I know you love me.’ Then I said, ‘It’s time for me to take you into your garden.’

 

And he has the most beautiful garden.

 

He always said, ‘I don’t want to create a garden where people can relax and sunbath and be comfortable. My garden is to be looked at. So you can think. And wander around it. And admire it. Like you would a painting.’

 

And then I said. ‘Now I’m taking you into your garden. The sun is out. The sky is blue. And everybody loves you.’

 

Then he took one, two, three, very gentle breaths – and I know that he heard me – and whatever was left, what lingering sense, whatever last remaining cells were floating around that room, they heard it all.

 

Then I took him into the garden.

 

Into his beautiful, beautiful garden.

 

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