Obituary: Richard Lay

Former Fleet Street newsman Richard Lay who, after moving to the United States, made a new name for himself writing plays – many were produced Off Broadway – has died in New York of liver cancer. He was 66.

During 17 years on the Daily Mail, he worked in a variety of positions, as a sub-editor, gossip columnist, foreign correspondent, newsdesk assistant – and even at one time Father of the Chapel. He also wrote a column on antiques and art, and for nine years was deputy to Nigel Dempster.

Short and tubby, he had a nervous habit of pulling what remained of his hair across his balding head. He also chuckled a lot.

On his first trip to the US – to research a book on Custer’s Last Stand – he met photographer Shannon Sweeney, working at the time for the Trib, while waiting in Costello’s, the famous New York newspapermen’s hangout. She asked him to blow his cigar smoke in some other direction.

It led to romance, and when the Trib folded she went back to England with him. In 1980, they returned to New York, and married the next year in the famous artsy town of Woodstock.

From a flat in Greenwich Village they both freelanced, he for the Mail, she for several Fleet Street papers including the Mail on Sunday, Sunday Express, News of the World, Daily and Sunday Mirror and The Sun.

One day walking in Greenwich Village he saw a sign which read ‘Sign Up For Acting Lessons”. It lit a new spark. But remembering lines was hard, he found. So he started writing his own. He found writing plays better than acting – and in some ways more satisfying than journalism.

Soon his work was appearing Off Broadway, and even in Paris where he won a Spotlight Award for a play called God’s Policemen, billed as a ‘sinister comedy”.

Altogether, he authored more than 15 plays. One, called Andy Warhol’s Secret Girlfriend, is scheduled for revival in Paris in July at a theatre in St Germain des Prés – for which, with his wife, he was planning a return to Europe.

But, unexpectedly, he was taken ill. He spent his last weeks under hospice-style medical care.

From a previous marriage in England he is survived by a son, Tim Lay, a daughter, Lucy Lay Smith, and five grandchildren.

On Sunday 5 August, a memorial service is planned, appropriately, at an off-Broadway theatre in New York.

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