Leslie Jordan: Farewell, and We Are Not Doing Okay.

Portrait color photo Leslie Jordan in a black suitcoat with a blue shirt, red bow tie and bright blue pocket square. He is smiling with his lips closed, eyebrows raised, right hand and extended fingers under his chin.

The late Leslie Jordan. Photo credit: Sean Black.

Leslie Jordan died of an apparent medical emergency this morning while driving in Los Angeles. His beloved BMW crashed into the wall of a building. He was pronounced dead at the scene. No one else was hurt. He was 67.

Adorable, generous and hilarious to the very end, one of his last public appearances was at the National Book Festival in September. He was on the main stage to talk about his latest book, “How Y’all Doing? Misadventures and Mischief from a Life Well-Lived” with Megan Mullally, his Will & Grace co-star. Well, technically he was promoting the book. Actually, he was just cutting up, at which he was very accomplished, as television, film and Instagram devotees well know.

Here’s their conversation:

I interviewed him via Zoom a few weeks before the festival and again on camera that day. (“Interview” is a loose term; one just lobbed him softball questions and let him swat them out of the park.) We both grew up in very conservative Southern Baptist households, one state over and about half a generation apart, and both moved on to different lives. As soon as I clicked into the video call, he said, “We’re just gonna’ have at it.”

We did, and that was his magic: He made everyone feel they not only knew him, but that they had always known him. His humor and public persona were based on his unique identity: very Southern, very openly gay and very short. (He stood 4’11” and proudly referred to himself as a “Southern Baptist sissy.” He pronounced his hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. as “Chattanugga.”)  He was never conflicted about his sexuality, he often said, and his literary heroes as a young man were Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, two Southern writers who were among the most flamboyant gay men of their generation. That took a lot of guts for those men, and I don’t think their bravery was lost on him.

“Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams saved my life,” was one of his go-to quotes on this book tour.

He was exactly like you think he would be, too: a complete lack of pretension, good natured, ready to laugh and ready to make you laugh. Surprise of the conversation? He said that he was once cast as Capote in a play — which would seem like perfect casting — but had to withdraw just before opening night. He couldn’t get past Capote the public character and the find the man himself.  And, he candidly said, the part required him to memorize large chunks of monologues, which he just couldn’t nail down.

Here’s a clip that was perfectly him. It’s from near the end of our conversation, after I asked when he knew for certain that he was gay. Like a true Southerner, he did not respond with an answer; he answered with a story:

That wit is the sort of talent that propelled him to rack up more than 130 television and film credits in a 36-year career. Most famously, he starred in “Will & Grace,” for which he won an Emmy. He also popped in several seasons of “American Horror Story,” had a supporting role in “The Help,” The United States vs. Billie Holiday” and “Sordid Lives.” He was starring in “Call Me Kat,” opposite Mayim Bialik at the time of his death.

It was not easy for him to succeed in public life during his generation with his over-the-top manner, of course. Overcoming the religious and social strictures of his youth and the larger social mores of the 1970s and 1980s took its toll in drugs and alcohol abuse, the same demons that had tormented Capote and Williams. But he found a way past it. He went sober at the age of 42 in 1997, he said, after a stint in L.A. county jail. An earlier book, “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” was “full of angst,” he said in our conversation, something that he was “done with.”

That was one reason why his late-in-life success was so charming — because it was so clearly earned. He had won this peace, this self-acceptance, this good humor. He became a hero of the COVID-19 quarantine (when he was in his mid 60s) by filming short comic bits and filing them to Instagram. One after another went viral, to the point he amassed some 5.8 million followers, and a whole new generation found him as he was.

“It’s very young and it’s all female,” he said of  his audience, when I asked. “I don’t have a single man following me … It’s young girls and they just adore me.”

Most everyone else did, too.

So, today, to answer his frequent conversation-starting question — “How y’all doing?” — today we have to answer, with a long sigh and a lowered gaze, “Not so good, partner. Not so good.”

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