The Life and Strange Death of Dr. Wallach – Jeffrey Wallach
The decline and untimely demise of a gifted healer charts one case of severe battle fatigue after almost 20 years on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic
The leathermen with the boa constrictors had left just before dawn on this chilly spring Sunday morning, but inside New York City’s Roseland Ballroom, thousands of sweaty gay men remained on the dance floor, many dressed in leather chaps, boots, caps, and harnesses. They had been dancing all night, celebrating the legendary Black Party. Among them was 46-year-old physician Jeffrey Wallach, a short, handsome, goateed man with large muscles. Wallach and his lover–Michael Replogle, a 47-year-old weight trainer and former model–were familiar faces on the circuit, that endless series of all-night gay bacchanals that attract the same crowd of well-heeled A-listers to different cities across the globe.
But the doctor had been looking forward to this March 24-25 bash in particular. He needed the distraction. After fire wave of hope that accompanied the introduction of the multidrug AIDS “cocktail” in the mid 1990s, Wallach’s patients–many of them educated gay men steeped in safer-sex messages–were again seroconverting at an alarming rate; others, already taking the cocktail, were developing drug resistance. And Wallach was facing a health crisis of his own: a stubborn throat infection, aggravated by his use of party drugs and two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, which had further roughened his high-pitched Harvey Fierstein rasp.
Then there was his current financial crisis. Managed health care pricing was eating away at his income–as were monthly flights to Miami Beach, Fla., where he kept an apartment in the ritzy Decoplage complex in the South Beach area. The rent there was long overdue, and he also faced foreclosure on his Manhattan condo in a Park Avenue South high-rise called the Ascot.
Replogle, who had been with Wallach for over five years, was another challenge. Wallach’s friends say he had no real income and that the couple had had recurring arguments about money, fidelity, drug use, and boundaries in general. Just three weeks earlier, a serious scuffle had prompted Wallach to call 911 and have Replogle arrested; the doctor had bailed out his boyfriend the next day. When Wallach tried dating other men, Replogle allegedly confronted them angrily. Friends say that Wallach had confided his fears about his partner, and they had urged him to throw Replogle out. But the doctor felt responsible for his unemployed, HIV-positive lover. “I’ll never let this man starve,” Wallach reportedly insisted.
This morning at Roseland, however, Wallach was happy. Dancing with old friends, he glided along on a combination of drugs, Replogle later recounted: crystal meth, ecstasy, and Special K. This would be his final circuit party, he told longtime friend Jim Hobbs. “I’m getting too old,” he sighed. “This is for younger boys.” Hobbs merely chuckled; Wallach had made such pledges in the past. Wallach and Replogle headed home from the Black Party after 9 A.M.
Three days later, Wallach was dead.
The doctor left behind a complex tangle of questions, from the precise cause of his demise one morning during breakfast to the enigma of his long decline from acclaimed healer to nearly bankrupt party boy.
When the AIDS crisis had been at its worst, in the mid 1980s and early ’90s, Wallach had been at his best. A popular internal medicine and infectious diseases specialist, he had devoted his life to his patients. And when they died, he took each loss personally. Wherever he went he was approached by grateful patients paying their respects. Hundreds of HIV-positive men literally owed him their lives.
Indeed, Wallach surrounded himself with adoring people: friends from the Fire Island Pines, where he and his previous partner spent summer weekends; current and former patients with whom he had become close; other cob leagues facing down the AIDS crisis. Sebastian Caltabiano, Wallach’s partner of a decade, until 1995, recalls their crowded life. “Would I have liked walks on the beach alone, hand in hand?” he muses. “Sure, but that wasn’t life with Jeffrey.”
According to friends, life with Jeffrey had been changing dramatically in the mid 1990s, around the time Caltabiano departed. The 24/7 physician surrounded by men whose health he guarded was becoming a 24/7 circuit boy surrounded by men who shared his affection for working out, dancing, and party drugs. His attention to his medical practice slipped, his financial state collapsed, his home life became a battleground. And the specter of HIV took on a new shape: With new weapons to keep it at bay, AIDS became less Wallach’s sworn enemy and more a formidable adversary he had resentfully learned to live with.
Toward the end–perhaps 1998 or ’99, according to Harry “Bud” Beatty, Wallach’s nurse for over six years–he confessed to friends that he had himself become HIV-positive. Beatty and Replogle say Wallach explained that he had probably stuck himself in the leg with a patient’s needle.
As in so many areas of his life, the doctor had let his guard down. Perhaps as a result, he lost control and, eventually, his life. “Jeffrey knew how to take care of everyone but Jeffrey,” offers Manhattan lawyer and friend Bill Candiloros.
According to Replogle, Wallach had begun to realize that he was drifting away from his own ideals. Speaking only days after his partner’s death, Replogle said, “The Black Party was going to be our swan song. We felt that it was time to pare down a little and step back, because there were other avenues of life we wanted to pursue.”
Wallach’s trajectory was impressive; the celebrity doctor was once a chubby boy from the Borough Park section of Brooklyn, N.Y. There, among the bakeries and storefront Hasid shuls, he and his sister were raised by their parents, Herbert and Florence.
By 1985 the shy boy had transformed himself into a hard-working doctor. That year he began a fellowship in the infectious diseases program at Manhattan’s Cabrini Medical Center; he opened his own practice in 1987, treating patients from Cabrini. As word spread about the doctor who was equal parts campy queen and Yiddish mama, his office became packed with people. “He truly had a shaman’s power of healing over people, in his funny Jewish boy kind of way,” remembers friend Jim Ramadei, who was chief administrator for Wallach’s practice.
“He was like family,” recalls Tom DiTommaso, a patient for 12 years. “If [you] got hysterical about something, Jeffrey got hysterical with you. He’d put a hand on your shoulder.”
Wallach treated people without judgment, says another patient, recalling the day he needed treatment for a sexually transmitted disease. “Being a straight male with the sexual drive of a double-peckered billy goat, I found the right doctor,” the patient says, laughing. “He told me, `We’re all slum. Don’t worry about it.'”
From the beginning, however, the work took an emotional toll. “I would be there when Jeffrey got the call at 2 A.M. that his patient had passed away,” recalls Caltabiano, who also worked in his partner’s office. “And the gay community is so small that many of these people were friends. We watched them get buried.”
Wallach drew no line between his professional and personal lives. His social circle included patients who had become friends and vice versa. Weekends in the Fire Island Pines were legendary: a day on the beach followed by a huge communal dinner. Afterward Wallach, Caltabiano, and friends would bypass all-night dancing at the Pavilion to watch Funny Girl for the hundredth time. The doctor could recite every line from memory.
Wallach’s relationship with his chosen family was in stark contrast to that with his biological kin. The Wallach family colluded in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” scenario: Yes, his folks knew, but they preferred not to; the information was immediately swept under the rug–along with Wallach’s boyfriends. “I lived with him for l0 years, but they didn’t know who I was to him,” Caltabiano says sharply. He bowed out in 1995, unable to deal with Wallach’s parents and his growing circle of patients who had become party friends. “The reason I broke up with Jeffrey was because I wanted to be number one,” Caltabiano continues, “and Jeffrey couldn’t make me number one. His patient were number one.”
Within weeks Wallach was seeing Michael Replogle, a charismatic and physically imposing former Wilhemina model. The pair originally met on Fire Island; Replogle was later referred to Wallach as a patient. Replogle had cared for and buried two lovers lost to AIDS. A part-time student at City University of New York’s Hunter College in psychology and sociology, he supported himself as a waiter. The short doctor and the tall trainer quickly became mutually smitten. Replogle moved into Wallach’s condo.
Wallach was soon bulking up, shooting steroids, and hitting circuit parties, Replogle recalls. “He always felt like he was the fat Jewish boy from Brooklyn.” Replogle says. “I gave him a gym sense.” The pair exchanged wedding bands–bought at Cartier–and got matching tattoos incorporating their astrological signs: a lion for Wallach’s Leo, and a fish for his lover’s Pisces. (Replogle declined permission for The Advocate to use any photographs of him for this story.) They seemed like high-schoolers with crushes, going so far as to wear matching clothes. Wallach was “one of the most romantic men that I have ever met,” says Replogle. “His attention and his love were something I had never experienced. My feet did not touch the ground for a few years.”
They jetted to South Beach for weekends. Staying at the Decoplage apartment, they would wake early for breakfast at the Van Dyke Cafe, work out at Idol’s Gym, and linger over a Cuban coffee before spending the day at the pool. Come ,nightfall, they’d begin the ritual of dancing and partying that continued into the next morning.
Although the doctor’s finances were already in peril, Ramadei says, Wallach supported his partner. Replogle stopped waiting tables and was a fitness instructor at a gym for the Associated Blind, a center for visually impaired New Yorkers. Otherwise, he was content to play the doctor’s spouse. “It was a marriage,” Replogle says. “He only had to get up and go to work. I took care of everything else.” Replogle became territorial, alienating some of Wallach’s social circle, according to longtime
friends Ramadei and Nelson Steele. Before Replogle arrived, Wallach had been naive sexually, Caltabiano recalls, preferring take-out food and a night of cuddling. Together, Wallach and Replogle reportedly moved into a heavier scene. One of Wallach’s patients recalls seeing Replogle and the doctor occasionally at the sex club where the patient worked and where S/M was a staple of the scene. “Michael put [Jeffrey] on the merry-go-round–but Jeffrey was not unwilling to go,” says Rick Pascual, Wallach’s former receptionist.
Replogle, however, offers a different picture of their life together, marked by late-night Chinese dinners, buying CDs at the Virgin Megastore, curling up with their three dogs–two pugs and a spaniel–and listening to Wallach’s beloved Streisand.
By 1996 “things were already going sour,” Pascual says, adding that Wallach was taking Mondays off, calling from home or South Beach with transparent excuses. Pascual reshuffled patients, or they were seen by nurse Beatty. The doctor exchanged his tailored suits for tight jeans and tank tops, his torso swollen with steroid-enhanced muscles. Pascual says he responded with black humor, often answering the office phone, “Crystal Hills Medical Center.”
Many patients were jazzed to be partying with their caregiver. Besides, Wallach could explain which party drugs clashed with antivirals. Some were not so pleased. One man recalls watching Wallach on several weekend binges, staggering along the Pines boardwalk: “I decided his practice was not going to be hurt by my leaving.”
Wallach’s story is not uncommon: Several other gay HIV doctors in Manhattan have struggled with dependence on party drugs. But Wallach’s attitude toward drug use was nonjudgmental to the point that the gay grapevine dubbed him “Dr. Dispense-Me” for his allegedly liberal distribution of Viagra, steroids, and Xanax. (Beatty counters that these drugs aggressively treat impotence, wasting, fatigue, and depression in HIV patients.)
By 1997, Wallach’s relationship with Replogle was spiral-out of control. Gigi Walters, the couple’s friend who often volunteered to sit their dog, began noticing a vase or statue suddenly gone, or glass shards in the living room. “Weird shit was always broken in weird places,” she says. When she confronted the lovers, they would blame the cleaning lady. But Wallach finally confessed to Walters their ongoing fights. John Wolf, the couple’s dentist and friend, says Wallach’s ambivalence about Replogle may have contributed to the tension. “Jeffrey, by having his own conflicting feelings about the relationship, was sending mixed signals to Michael,” he says, “and that would drive anyone crazy.”
Ramadei, however, speculates that Wallach’s behavior could have been a result of psychosis stemming from longtime steroid and methamphetamine use: “If you put the two together, you will have permanent changes to brain chemistry.”
On March 5 of this year, the most severe altercation occurred. Returning from an all-weekend romp, Replogle discovered Wallach leaving home with a friend named Chris Scott. Replogle lunged after them, tearing from Scott’s arms a bag full of porn videos and sex toys. Scott left, and Wallach stayed to try to calm his lover down. But after hours of arguing, somehow Wallach was struck in the head with a picture frame, leaving a gash on his forehead. That was when Wallach had Replogle arrested–and just as quickly bailed him out, borrowing money from Wolf.
“When I found that Jeffrey bailed him out afterwards,” friend Candida Scott Piel says, “I thought, What the fuck does he have on him?”
By early spring, Wallach was working to fight his demons, Wolf says: “He seemed to be getting his life back together and have more of a focus on the future.” Wallach told friends he was trying to sell the New York apartment in order to expedite a separation from Replogle. Had that happened, and had Wallach and Replogle then parted amicably, perhaps the Black Party would have been his last hurrah, a temporal pivot leading back to control.
Wallach called in sick on Monday, March 26. The patient who worked at the sex club says he saw Wallach and Replogle at 3 A.M. Tuesday in midtown Manhattan on a street where a popular drug dealer lives. With a wink and a laugh, Replogle told him they were picking up “vitamins.” Later that day, Wallach complied with Beatty’s pleas to see a throat specialist, William Portnoy from St. Vincent’s Hospital, who prescribed antibiotics. A maintenance man saw Wallach in the Ascot elevator Tuesday afternoon, visibly shivering. He admitted he was sick. That evening, friends came over to socialize.
The next morning, Wednesday, March 28, a call to 911 came from the Ascot’s doorman. Replogle had just called down to the lobby, frantic, saying, “Hurry up, please call an ambulance.” Wallach had stopped breathing.
Replogle recounts that he and Wallach had been preparing for the gym. Wallach was having a bowl of cereal; Replogle was heading for the shower. Suddenly, Wallach gasped, and Replogle rushed back to see him fall to the floor, fighting for breath.
“He went rigid,” Replogle says, adding that he tried to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation but was uncertain of the proper steps. Both of them naked, Replogle pulled Wallach toward the front door so he could open it and scream for help. “I tried to bring life back into my husband and I couldn’t,” Replogle says, weeping. “My husband died naked in my arms in the hallway of my apartment building. And there was nothing I could do.”
Six minutes after the doorman’s call, two ambulances pulled up. “Essentially, he was too young to `flatline’ [on the EKG], and he had some electrical response, but he was still technically dead,” says a paramedic who was at the scene. Emergency workers spent nearly an hour trying to revive him. But at 7:23 A.M., Wallach was dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital.
Replogle says he was so hysterical that the hospital staff considered admitting him as a suicide risk. Instead, a friend finally escorted him back to the Park Avenue condo, where the floor was strewn with emergency equipment and cereal.
New York City’s Office of the Medical Examiner ruled more than a month later that Wallach died of natural causes, specifically “multiple complications of chronic substance abuse,” according to spokeswoman Ellen Borakove. Despite entreaties from several of Wallach’s friends, his parents refused an autopsy, citing their religious beliefs. Wallach was buried within three days of his death in a graveside funeral in Queens.
Replogle continues to deny that an overdose caused his partner’s death, telling everyone Wallach succumbed to the throat infection. Soon after the death, he phoned Walters, weeping, “I feel like everyone’s blaming me for this; I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
Indeed, within hours of Wallach’s death, rumors circulated that he had dropped dead at the Black Party. “Did you hear?” Chelsea boys gossiped between ab crunches. “Dr. Dispense-Me died on the dance floor.” Wallach’s office was flooded with phone calls from panicked patients from as far away as Puerto Rico and California. “They had to physically come in and see me to tell them this is true,” Beatty says. The small waiting room began to fill with floral arrangements.
Wallach’s friends continue to question Replogle’s character. “We’re very suspicious of Michael’s role in this,” says Ramadei. “There are just too many conflicting stories.” Replogle’s account of what happened that morning has changed several times, according to Ramadei. In fact, Replogle recounted different versions of Wallach’s death for this stow, wherein the doctor’s respiratory failure happened in the bedroom, the bathroom, and at the breakfast table.
Within hours friends and relatives converged on the apartment. First came colleagues Beatty and Ramadei, along with Wallach’s parents; his mother, Florence, refused to go upstairs and sat in the lobby, rocking back and forth, wailing, “Who’s going to take care of us?” (The Wallachs declined several requests for interviews.)
“They walked in and acted like [Replogle] wasn’t there,” says Rachel, a friend of Replogle’s since 1983, who rushed to his side that morning (but asked that her last name not be used in this story). “They didn’t look him in the eye.” Rachel says Ramadei and Beatty immediately set about opening drawers, taking paintings off the walls, and demanding the safe-deposit box key. Numbed by tranquilizers, Replogle sputtered, “Do you realize the horror I went through?” Bud Beatty turned to him and said, “I hope it was the ugliest and most horrifying thing you ever saw in your life, and I hope you die remembering it,” Replogle recalls, adding that Rachel quickly spoke up. “If you didn’t approve of their choices, you should have stepped in a long time ago,” she told Beatty. “There’s such a thing as an intervention.”
The group left, but the Wallachs reportedly later demanded that a number of items be turned over to them, including Baccarat glasses, Streisand memorabilia–and the couple’s Cartier wedding bands. There was no will. There was little money. There was only $40 in Wallach’s wallet. Replogle had the locks changed to prevent further intrusions by friends or the Wallachs, but under legal pressure he finally agreed to give up everything–except his own ring. “In life there are really not any tangibles,” he says. “Sometimes my wedding ring is my teddy bear. I touch it to stop the horror.”
Replogle was not invited to his partner’s funeral, and a week later, Wallach’s parents demanded he vacate the apartment. Leaving the dogs to Wolf, Replogle borrowed money from his mother and flew to South Beach.
He spent the day doing chores, going to the gym, and getting an elaborate henna tattoo on his back in memory of Wallach. But his asylum was brief. Later that evening, the Decoplage landlord came to the door, flanked by two security guards. Wallach’s family had alerted him to Replogle’s arrival. His name was not on the lease. The rent had gone unpaid for several months. The landlord insisted he leave immediately.
“He was a tall muscle man,” recalls a security guard. “He looked very nervous and red. He had no registration card. No right to go into the building.”
Replogle, facing yet another ejection, burst into tears, but the landlord gave him only an hour to gather his belongings. He called two friends, patients of Wallach’s, who drove from Fort Lauderdale to pick him up; they found Replogle sitting in the lobby, surrounded by Publix shopping bags. “By the time he put the bags in the car, we had changed the locks,” the security guard says.
Replogle, who is now staying in Southern California, remains bitter toward the people who left him homeless, saying, “They shit on Jeffrey’s life out of their own greed for grief.”
As they sort through the hazy details of Wallach’s death, many of the doctor’s friends and associates remain paralyzed with grief and anger. Several are consumed with hatred for Replogle, blaming him for Wallach’s demise. But they seem reluctant to question their own roles in the tragedy or to ponder how a well-loved professional could so easily slip into a mode of self-destructive behavior either condoned or ignored by his gay social circle.
On a balmy Friday evening in mid May, nearly 200 people crammed a meetinghouse on East 15th Street in Manhattan for a memorial service not unlike the countless others Wallach had no doubt attended in the previous 15 years. In the lobby were two homemade posters displaying several photos of Wallach, driving home the difference between the younger, pre-steroid doctor and the huge, tanned muscle man.
Then the testimonials began. “From the moment I met Jeffrey I realized this man was a healer,” said a slight, bespectacled man named Kevin, a patient for 14 years. It was a theme that echoed throughout the service, as people spoke of the way that Wallach would place a hand on a shoulder or cheek or begin an appointment with a hug or a dirty joke.
Only Bud Beatty, Wallach’s nurse, spoke plainly about the paradox of Jeffrey Wallach: the behavior that led to his own death despite the wondrous talent he possessed to keep others alive. “Was Jeffrey an angel?” Beatty said. “No. Did he make mistakes? Yes.” But the good outweighed the bad, Beatty insisted: “The only person he hurt was himself.”
Longtime friend and gay activist Piel says that Wallach’s premature death is one more casualty of the epidemic: self-destructive behavior spurred by the unrelenting weight of his AIDS practice, the long-feared second wave, and the recent trend of failure among patients on the cocktail regimen. “You’re not self-destructive because you’re a stupid slob but because you see the big picture,” she explains. “You let yourself ride off the cliff, because how much holocaust can you take?”
If Wallach is a casualty of AIDS, then Replogle has now lost three husbands to the disease. Before leaving for California, the widower sat at a Starbucks in Fort Lauderdale to ponder the chaos of the previous weeks, sipping a coffee and fidgeting while sobbing on and off. By his side was a shopping bag full of small items, including photographs of Wallach and his former lover’s yarmulke. He extracted a greeting card from the bag and began reading:
“Thanks to you I breathe easier.
I couldn’t love you more.
You made my world a better place.
Whatever our problems,
Whoever to blame.
Remember how much I love you.”
The card was signed, “Always love, Jeffrey.”
Blotcher has written for The New York Times, Salon.com, and the Boston Phoenix. McPhee is a police reporter for the New York Daily News.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Liberation Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group