Original Reality TV Matriarch Pat Loud Became a Den Mother to the City’s Most Famous Misfits

Loud, who painfully pulled herself from the wreckage of America’s first reality TV show, PBS’s controversial ’An American Family,’ passed away in January
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Pat Loud, the author, literary agent, television legend, pioneering LGBTQ ally, and consummate hostess—who, like a modern-day Gertrude Stein, entertained the underground and creative set in New York City and Los Angeles—left the party that she made out of life on January 10, 2021, at 94. “She passed away peacefully in her sleep of natural causes, snuggled up safe in her comfy home, attended by loving children Michele, Delilah, Kevin, and Grant,” the family announced.

Reports of her death, as Mark Twain would have said, have been greatly exaggerated: Tributes linked her appearance as the forthright, forward-thinking matriarch in the 1973 PBS documentary series An American Family to the drama-queen housewives and brainless monetizers of today’s manufactured reality TV. For those who knew Pat‚ this is a somewhat facile reduction of a multifaceted woman who offered access to her family’s life with the utmost sincerity, thinking it would be a learning experience.

Boy, was it ever. In the wake of An American Family—an ever-relevant cautionary tale about the distorted looking glass of the camera—Pat was viciously pilloried for unconditionally loving her unabashedly gay son, Lance, and for announcing on-camera her intention to divorce her husband, Bill. Yet as devastating as the backlash was, it by no means diminished her; Pat’s resilient life thereafter was a bold and storied adventure in which she emerged vindicated and revered.

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The Loud family (clockwise fr. top): Kevin, Lance, Michele, Pat, Delilah, Grant & Bill, subjects of 1973 PBS documentary An American Family, sitting in their living room.

John Dominis/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images

“Pat confronted head-on the elitists and wannabe intellectuals who would try to define or manhandle her ‘position in life,’ observes actress Diane Lane, who earned Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for her portrayal of Pat in the 2011 HBO film Cinema Verite, a behind-the-scenes account of the show. “She stepped into the very public challenge of self-definition and showed the world how to graciously stop apologizing for an authentic self and identity.” Lane adds, “The proverbial salt of the earth, Pat was insightful, kind, funny, and sexy all while being ‘Mom.’ ”

Pat’s fierce maternal instincts also embraced an extended multigenerational family of artists, iconoclasts, and outcasts. Among her celebrated chums: Andy Warhol; superstar drag queens Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, and Candy Darling; Lily Tomlin and her partner, writer Jane Wagner; TV’s Catwoman, Julie Newmar; actors Debi Mazar and Taylor Negron; singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright; and photographer Christopher Makos.

“People felt free enough to let their hair down around her and just talk because she was so wise,” says Makos, a longtime family friend who collaborated with Pat on the 2012 book Lance Out Loud, about her eldest son. “And if you were real, she would take you in, because she knew that she could learn from you, too. She was the first cool mom most of us had ever known.”

Born in Eugene, Oregon, on October 4, 1926, Patricia Claire Russell was the daughter of Myrle, a nurse and homemaker, and Tom, an engineer who moved the family to Brazil and Panama for work. A brilliant student with a sly sense of humor, she wrote in her high school yearbook that her ambition was “to be the female Frank Sinatra” and her aptitude was “talking teachers into ‘A’s.” She graduated from Stanford University in 1948 with degrees in world history and English literature. Two years later, she married Bill Loud in Mexico City. By 1962, they had five kids and were living in Santa Barbara in a style that allowed for culture-seeking family vacations in Europe.

In 1971, Pat met the documentary filmmaker Craig Gilbert, who name-checked anthropologist Margaret Mead to pitch a series for PBS about contemporary family life across the U.S. The Louds of Santa Barbara were to represent Southern California, but upon meeting them, Gilbert decided they would be the only subjects of An American Family. Unbeknownst to the Louds, it was a Faustian bargain that ended, in true Hollywood fashion, with a knife in their backs.

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For seven months, a film crew captured 300 hours of fly-on-the-wall footage of the Louds. Twelve episodes of An American Family ran on PBS in early 1973, drawing 10 million viewers. I was one of them, riveted by Pat, a witty brunette beauty with a majestic profile and arched eyebrows who favored white jeans, white-filtered cigarettes, and huge designer sunglasses.

“She was a combination of Jackie Onassis and Maria Callas with a little Liz Taylor,” Wainwright recalls. “She had innate glamour mixed with an earthy warmth.”

Most significantly, Pat clearly accepted and adored her son Lance, who, in one episode that blew my closeted 17-year-old mind, introduced her to his New York City drag queen friends at the infamous Chelsea Hotel.

“Pop culture has always given us idealized versions of love, family, and mothers,” says Timothy Young, who, in 2014, acquired the Loud family archives for the Beinecke Library at Yale where he is curator of modern books and manuscripts. “And then along came Pat Loud, a real mother who was living her life in front of the camera. She was also facilitating everybody’s life, and she did it dancing backwards in high heels.”

In 1973, however, Pat was not celebrated; she and her family were viciously trolled. She fought back, pulling back the curtain on the artifice of the series and telling talk show host Dick Cavett, “We’ve lost dignity. We’ve been humiliated. Our honor is at question.”

“For the rest of her life,” says Young, “she made sure people saw the rest of the picture.”

By 1974, Pat had settled in Manhattan with her daughters, Delilah and Michele, and released a frank and moving memoir, Pat Loud: A Woman’s Story, the same year. “Pat was an incredibly brave figure,” Bob Pulcini and Shari Springer, the directors of Cinema Verite, remark, “a twentieth-century woman full of complexities, finding her own voice, going through a divorce, and starting a second act at 47.”

Pat worked as a literary agent, publishing The Russian Tea Room Cookbook and developing a book with clothing designer Rudi Gernreich. She amassed a large circle of friends in fashion and fine arts (along with an elegant gent who, she later discovered, provided drugs to the jet set) who attended her Upper East Side soirees. That crowd mixed it up with downtown denizens of Warhol’s Factory and the burgeoning punk/New Wave scene, a younger generation she had met through Lance, who had formed a band, the Mumps, with childhood friend Kristian Hoffman.

“She was a combination of Jackie Onassis and Maria Callas with a little Liz Taylor.” —Rufus Wainwright

“Pat would hang out at CBGB, and everyone wanted to meet her,” musician and photographer Paul Zone remembers. “Nobody thought she was a suburban mom—unless you mean in a Tim Burton movie. She was so well educated, never phony, and if someone failed to be suitably interesting to her, she would say, ‘That guy is like shirt cardboard, darling.’”

After a three-year intermission in London and Bath, England, Pat began her third act in West Hollywood, when she moved into a duplex on Fountain Avenue with Lance, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1987. That’s where I first experienced her immense charm and hospitality, after commissioning Lance to write essays for Details magazine in the early 1990s.

Her gatherings, a cross section of performers and industry and media folk, were legendary. “She knew how to mix a party as well as she knew how to mix a cocktail,” recalls event and film producer Bryan Rabin, who credits her with creating the theme for a legendary Oscars 75th anniversary industry dinner. “She’d say ‘Oh, dear, come for cocktail hour,’ which was two hours of vodka stingers and martinis that could make a sailor pass out. And then she would present a full-blown meal straight out of 1960s Julia Child.”

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Loud and drag legend Constance at Chateau Marmont in 2005

Rabin marveled at her hard-won wisdom. “She was everyone’s greatest cheerleader, no matter how harebrained the scheme was. And she’d say, ‘When people are mean to you, they see the light in you that they know they don’t possess, so that should give you confidence.’ ”

For Wainwright, Pat became a “shamanistic figure in my world, who always left me feeling supported.” He sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for Pat for the service at the Chateau Marmont memorializing Lance, who passed away at age 50 in 2001. “Afterward, at her house, she took my badly sunburned mother into the bathroom and gave her a makeover,” he says, “an amazingly gracious thing to do for someone else in the middle of such an emotional day.”

Abiding by their son’s dying wish, Pat and her ex, Bill, reunited as housemates in a cottage near Paramount Studios until his death, at 97, in 2018. There, they hosted family get-togethers with their L.A.-based children—Delilah, a PR executive at King World, CBS, and Sony; Grant, an Emmy-winning producer on Jeopardy!; Michele, a fashion designer at Vince; and Kevin, a tech entrepreneur who lives in Arizona. They also continued to entertain casually, though always using fine china, crystal, and silver. (“That’s what it’s for!” Pat would proclaim.) To a soundtrack of Harry Nilsson, Kurt Weill, Louis Armstrong, and the Mumps, mixed with lively banter and the clink of ice in cocktails, they held court in a tiny backyard garden decorated with vines, classical busts, a midcentury-modern freestanding fireplace, and wandering cats.

“Pat commanded a room. We revolved around her like she was the sun, and once you proved you were a raconteur, you could move into her circle,” says her neighbor and self-described bestie, Sharon McConoche, a PR and media consultant nearly 50 years Pat’s junior. “She believed in love, family, hope, good taste, and good manners. She did the New York Times crossword every day, quoted Teddy Roosevelt, Joseph Conrad, Gore Vidal, and Martin Luther King and could recite Tennyson’s “Ulysses” by heart,” McConoche marvels. “She’d say, ‘You have to keep sharp, girl.’ We’d work out at Curves, watch the History Channel and TCM, and see movies at the Arclight, followed by sand dabs and martinis at Musso & Frank. And I’d always have a front-row seat for her at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.”

In turn, the always-quotable Pat taught McConoche how to resolve a communication breakdown (“You write back one sentence: ‘Perhaps you’re right.’ ”) and how to get over a disappointment (“Let it lay where Jesus flung it. Then pick yourself up, brush yourself off, put on some frosted pink lipstick, do your hair, and go for cocktails, leaving your troubles at the door.”)

Tomlin admits with a laugh that she was “terribly intimidated by such a handsome woman with a great mane of hair.” She adds: “But she just treated everyone like they were regular. I felt very at home going to her house and hanging out with her, getting sloshed and sitting close to her so I didn’t teeter. I always wanted her to like me best.”

That feeling is mutual. I’ll always remember Pat as a regal soul—adorned in white blouses and beaded necklaces and anointed with Jungle Gardenia—whose loving gaze made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. She loved long goodbyes, but she never said them. Enfolding you in her arms in a warm, marshmallow-sweet embrace, she would softly say, “I can’t wait to see you again.”


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