National News

End of a Love Story

Posted January 13, 2018 6:23 p.m. EST

Kenneth Leedom met Peter Cott in 1955, and when they were interviewed in 2013 about their 58 years together, they were newly married, living in a senior building in lower Manhattan where I regularly visit my mother.

Cott was the more sociable of the two, and saucy; he was also slipping into dementia. Leedom was the organizer and planner, worried that he would not be able to take care of his husband.

“Short-term memory is terrible,” Leedom said.

“But I’m charming,” Cott said. And he was.

Cott died the following year. Leedom continued on, going out less and less frequently. He went to “Kinky Boots.” He went to “Sunset Boulevard.”

Now the story comes to an end. Leedom died of congestive heart failure on Jan. 5. The last meal he requested was Champagne and caviar on his 93rd birthday, New Year’s Day. “Let the dying man have whatever he wants,” Leedom said, waving his arm theatrically from his bed, said his nephew Michael Sorenson, 57, who was with him.

A niece of Cott, Linda Abrahams, fetched the caviar.

“He said, it’s OK, but it’s not beluga,” she said. And it wasn’t.

In his last years, Leedom broke his hip, but also danced at a holiday party in the building. He was matter of fact about some of his infirmities, such as needing help cleaning himself, but frustrated by declines in his hearing and vision. He rejected hearing aids because they squealed with feedback, then complained that he could not follow movies or plays, or make new friends.

“If you asked him, he had no infirmity,” said Craig Weltha, 49, who visited regularly and helped manage Leedom’s care. “The problem was always outside of him. He didn’t have a hearing problem — the problem was that people were speaking gibberish.”

One aide called him “My Kenneth, my lovely,” and he liked that.

He was firmly decisive. After Cott’s death, Weltha said, Leedom threw away papers, photograph albums, all of Cott’s clothes. “He survived by just willing the wound to close,” Weltha said. As Leedom’s energy and mobility fell sharply in fall, he gave tickets from his subscriptions to the ballet and the symphony to Weltha, with one condition. “He said, ‘You have to invite me first, and I’m going to decline,'” Weltha said.

Leedom befriended a neighbor who had dementia, and they often ate together in the dining room — some in the building speculated that they might be a couple — but she suffered a stroke and died in 2017. “He didn’t say anything, but I think he missed her,” Sorenson said.

Leedom, the son of an itinerant farmer, was an executive director of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and said he enjoyed the work, but he more readily told about a five-year stint as a traveling companion and then lover to Vladimir Horowitz, the celebrated pianist. “He had an anger in him that was unbelievable,” Leedom said. “The number of meals I’ve had thrown on the floor or in my lap.”

“But then he was calm and sweet,” Leedom added. “And he really adored me.”

Leedom and Cott both said they were welcomed by each other’s families, though there was no discussion of their being gay. Sorenson, who is also gay, said his uncle used to chide him for being monogamous, which for the older couple did not preclude casual sex with others. “They were monogamous as a couple, but monogamy was foreign to him,” Sorenson said. “He found that strange.”

One day in December, Leedom told Weltha, “I have no joy, I have no pleasure, I’m alone, I want to die.”

He mentioned a pill used on the farms to kill cows when he was growing up, Weltha said. “He said, ‘Get me that,'” Weltha said. “And it was horrifying. He said, ‘I give you five minutes and I want to be out of here.’ I said, ‘We don’t do that, all we can do is keep you comfortable.'”

Toward the end of December, his 97-year-old sister, Shirley Seitz, called from Mountain Ranch, California, and urged him to stay alive for his birthday, Jan. 1. He said he would try.

It was the last thing he ever attempted, and he made it. He said he did not believe in an afterlife.

But if there is one, Abrahams said, “Peter probably said, ‘What the hell took you so long?'”