The Rose without Thorns
Interview with Andrew Rosenthal, USA2 Mixed Teams
Andrew has kind eyes. He has a cane by his side not matching his 61 years. Life has presented him with more challenges than most, yet he regards himself lucky for having loved and do what he loves.
Andrew grew up in New York and has lived there all of his life besides college.
“I wanted to get away from New York. I don’t think my mother did this on purpose, but she said: “If you go to California I will buy you a car, and if you stay here, you can have my car.”
So at the age of 18 Andrew went to a college in California where he majored in theater and became an actor.
He did several shows during the next four years and won his school’s major acting award in his senior year.
“I definitely think it was good for me to get out on my own. After finishing school, I went to live in San Francisco for six months and then went back to New York. I was a little depressed and I had friends and family in NY, so I went home to try to be an actor.”
Yet the competition in New York was tough. Andrew did some acting and had a variety of other jobs from everywhere from producing, working as a casting agent, associate editor of a music magazine to doing lights at a play.
“I had some money so I didn’t pursue acting as actively as I might. Acting is very hard, you can be super talented, but if no one ever sees you it is difficult to make a living of.”
Turning the Room
In November 1988 he met his partner in New York.
“My therapist at the time had known John and knew we had a lot in common. I came out late. I have known forever, but really didn’t want to deal with it. I was thinking “It is just a phase, maybe I am bisexual.” He thought John would be a good person for me to know.”
John was a theatre and film director. Andrew talked to John on the phone, who told him to come to an audition.
“I was nervous and couldn’t memorize anything, so I didn’t go. Later that day there was a party in the same building I did go to. John came and was looking around to see if there was anyone he knew. I had had an unfortunate accident with sun-in. It was supposed to make my hair lighter, but instead it turned red and it was still growing out at the time. He looked at me from the back and said to himself “Who is that little redhead over there?” He came to introduce himself and saw my badge. “Oh, you are Andrew, I am John.”
It was love at first sight. The next day John and Andrew went to a meeting in a gay science fiction club (for the ones wondering, the people are gay, not the science fiction/CLM). The meeting was boring, so John asked Andrew if he wanted to see the place he was making his next show.
“We walked upstairs and had our first kiss there. It was the feeling when the room starts turning around you. As far as I was concerned, very shortly after we were together. He said: “You need some more experience, you should go date more people.” I said: “I don’t want to see other people.”
Yet John did not move in till years after. Andrew introduced him to his parents as a close friend, who also happened to join them for holidays.
“I came out to my parents in January 1990. At first when I met John, I thought “I will just put a wall between us and my parents”. But that wall was there. In 1985 it wasn’t so easy being gay. Just changing your idea about how your life is going to be is really hard. I thought I was going to have a big house and lots of kids. Coming to the acceptance that “this is my life” is the hard part.”
Andrew’s biggest fear was that his parents would just ignore it. His fears were justified.
“My father got up and left the room. My mother said there in awkward silence for a while. Then she said “Well, what else is new?” I said “Don’t you have any questions?” She said “What else is there to know?””
It took a while for Andrew’s parents to accept it. Emotions were not something you talked about in Andrew’s childhood home.
“That was the nice thing about being with John. He was very emotional and could not not show emotions.”
Andrew’s father was a very well-known doctor and a workaholic. His mother played bridge with her friends at least once a week, and his father played some evenings with friends. Andrew got introduced to the game through his parents during his childhood, and in college he put in an add to find other bridge players. Two people showed up, and three is one too few.
When he was 30, Andrew got reintroduced to bridge through a friend of a friend and got hooked. They played for 3 months and by that time Andrew had long surpassed him and ended the partnership. John did not play bridge and felt the competition from the time-consuming hobby bridge is.
“I made an unfortunate statement at the time. I said “I think I couldn’t just play bridge and do nothing else.“ That was held against me for a number of years.” He laughs at the memory.
An Undercurrent of Sorrow
Bridge was but a tiny rock compared to the mountains ahead of them. By the end of 1995 John got sick. He had a period where he lost all his weight. He kept fainting. Finally he went to see a new doctor, who told him he needed to take an HIV-test. It was positive.
“I sort of knew. His partner before me died within 6 months of us being together. Within the seven years of our relationship we thought maybe he didn’t have it, but then he got sick. John didn’t want to know if he was HIV-positive as long as he wasn’t symptomatic. In our relationship there was always a little undercurrent of sorrow or fear. I always knew that he was going to be ill.”
John got diagnosed with pneumocystis pneumonia, which is a common aids symptom. The next two years were hard. Andrew got very depressed and started seeing a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 35.
“I wasn’t particularly happy as a teenager. I think part of it was my undiagnosed ADHD. I was not hyperactive at all, I was the opposite. I was not particularly coordinated. I loved to read and read a lot of science fiction. I wasn’t happy with who I was. I got bullied when I was younger and in science fiction everything is better.“
“I try not to have any regrets, but that is the one thing I really wish I could change. If I had got diagnosed with ADHD when I was younger that might have changed my feelings of my self-image and my life completely.”
Though AIDS could not be cured at the time, there were methods of treatment. In 1997 John recovered.
After some tough years of sorrow and uncertainty, Andrew decided to make himself happy again.
“I thought I want to do something I like. What do I really like? I really like playing bridge.”
Andrew quickly improved and won the Red Ribbons, which is a match point tournament at the US nationals for players with less than 2500 masterpoints.
“It was an important achievement in mt bridge life and gave me the confidence to think perhaps if I kept studying, I could raise my game to a higher level.”
He also took a director’s certificate and began working at Honor’s Bridge Club in New York, where he was for five years till 2004. Andrew has a natural kindness and modesty to him and quickly became popular as both a teacher and director.
“I was very liked there,” he confides to me.
Andrew began attending the American nationals regularly and once “rented” a team from a sponsor who fell ill. He and his team did very well, and Andrew became hungry for more. After five years at honors Andrew decided he would rather become better himself than teach others. Instead of income, bridge became his outcome.
In 2004 John became ill again. He had been ok since 1997 but now his health was deteriorating. Tuesday before the summer nationals in 2004, Andrew had to take John to the hospital.
“He was very sick. For two years we were in the emergency room every other weekend. When he was in the hospital, they discovered that his kidneys had failed.”
He started on dialysis and his doctor noticed he was a little out of it. He had HIV-related dementia. He also began having strokes, and at first the doctors could not figure out what caused them. They figured out it was his heart, and he had a pacemaker built in.
John had his final a stroke in March 2007 and passed away in April. He was 49 years old.
“We were together 18 years – 18 and a half years.”
Amid Andrew’s sorrow his parents stepped up a bit to Andrew’s surprise. After the initial shock – and disappointment – when Andrew told them about John, they came to accept and know him.
“They loved him in their way. They recognize how important he was to me. When he died, they were more supportive than I ever hoped. I give them all the credit in the world for really being there. They hate funerals and they came to his memorial service and to the graveyard when he was buried, which is more than I expected. I remember that day. For obvious reasons.”
He sends me a tiny smile.
How would John describe you in three words?
“I am not good at that.” He is rubbing his eyes while thinking. “I am very non-judgemental. Maybe overly generous. Smart.” He pauses. “I don’t know if he would have said any of that.”
Bridge to Fight the Grief
“After he died, I threw myself into bridge, which made me feel better because it was so all consuming.”
His mother also gave him a trip to Australia and New Zealand.
“I loved it, it was so beautiful. In New Zealand I went on a Lord of the Ring’s tour. I crossed some streams and walked up a small mountain. I got a sore throat and went to chemist and got some medicine there. I had a great time anyway, but I didn’t go to Japan as planned. I couldn’t get rid of this cold for 3 months.”
Back in New York Andrew’s doctor was worried because his blood sugar was quite high. She got the results of a blood test and saw that Andrew’s white blood cells, that were supposed to be around 5000 were 125.000. It turned out to be leukemia.
“If you are going to get leukemia it was the best kind. 90 % could just take some medicine and die of something else years later.”
The medicine worked for about three and a half years. Meanwhile Andrew was working on his health and lost 120 pounds.
“A friend of mine said: “You know, it is interesting that you seem to be getting so healthy after he has passed away.” Especially the last few years of his life, my life was about his life. It took a lot of work on my part and it was really hard to spend time on myself. After I got over some of the grief… I really never got over the grief even though it has been 16 years…” His sentence fades.
In the years between 2008 and 2011 Andrew’s bridge results continued to improve. He had begun playing with Aaron Silverstein, who he still plays with today, and their team came third in the Reisinger in 2010. Andrew’s greatest dream was to win a major national championship.
In October 2011 Andrew started getting high temperatures at night. After all the tests in the book, they concluded that his leukemia had returned.
“I was apparently one of the 10 percent it did not work for. My oncologist sent me to one of the top cancer centers in the world, who told me I needed a stem cell transplant – and “No, you cannot go to Seattle to play bridge.”
Andrew wasn’t on the best terms with his brother at the time.
“When I asked him if he would be tested for my stem cell, he said “Yeah, of course.”
His brother got tested and his stem cells were a match for Andrew.
“Through that process we got so much closer. One of the major things in our relationship and my life was when I was in the hospital a month and my brother was there for two weeks with me because of the transplant. He eventually had to go back to his wife and family, and for the first time in his life he didn’t want to leave. “I have a brother here who wants to take care of me.””
After a month in the hospital Andrew got released. Because of his immune system he couldn’t throw himself a 50th birthday. Yet that was not what grieved him.
“I missed another three nationals, that was very disappointing to me.”
The Dream coming to Life
Andrew’s come back was not until March 2013.
“Aaron told me before it will just be my comeback and we will have some practice in. Then we reached the semifinals in the Vanderbilt for the first time ever. It was the year Dennis and Morten Bilde won with Roy Welland and Sabine Auken. We met them in the semifinal and got crushed in the 3rd quarter and lost. I didn’t care, it was still the best day of my life.”
Being in the semi-finals encouraged Andrew to striving to do more and more, putting together even stronger teams.
Andrew had to wait until 2022 for his dream to come true when he won the Vanderbilt. By that time both his parents had passed away, his mother in 2019, and did not get to see their son celebrate his greatest triumph.
“I think my mother would have loved it. She was more supportive of my bridge than I thought.”
Andrew holds no grudges towards people nor life despite the hardship he had to endure. He is thankful for what life has given him and at peace with who he is today.
“I am pretty open about who I am. I live my life and try to have no regrets. Who knows how my life had turned out had some choices been different? Let’s say I had come out earlier when I was 19 years old in 1980 in New York and nobody even knew what AIDS was at the time. Things happen for a reason. I am a big believer in karma. I try to put out good energy and hope to get good energy back. The only thing I don’t want is to hurt anyone else’s feelings. I acknowledge that my life experience is much different to anyone else’s. Despite everything I still feel I am one of the luckiest people in the world. I have money, I can travel, I get to do what I love.”
If you could pass on a piece of life advice to future generations, what would it be?
“You treat others as you want to be treated. And you acknowledge that you are not worth more than anyone else. Even if you have money or status, just treat people as you want to be treated and all will go well.”