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Talking back

A resilient David Brudnoy, after yet another near-death battle, returns to the radio

It was Sunday, four days before Christmas, and David Brudnoy was back in a hospital bed. The 1958 film version of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" starring Burl Ives as cancer-stricken Big Daddy flickered on the TV.

"Lord, if you exist," Brudnoy whispered, eyes closed, "take me now."

Racked by the effects of radiation and an enormous amount of chemotherapy, and rail thin -- almost cadaverous at 118 pounds -- Brudnoy finally had given up. It was his third hospitalization in as many months, and the prospects for recovery were bleak.

To the astonishment of his friends and doctors, Brudnoy survived that gray December day and, four months later, is back hosting his popular radio talk show on WBZ. The voice is thin, but Brudnoy, 63, retains his nimble wit and intellect, qualities that long ago set him apart from most other talk show hosts.

"Did you happen to hear the promo for my return?" he said last week. "It's like `Brudnoy: After the Resurrection.' "

His recovery is not the greatest story ever told, but it's close, because before Brudnoy had cancer he had AIDS. A conservative who had never publicly discussed his homosexuality, Brudnoy became horribly sick in 1994, eventually collapsing and spending nine days in a coma. Weeks later, when his condition was revealed in The Boston Globe, many of his friends, acquaintances, and devoted listeners were stunned.

Over lunch recently at the St. Botolph Club and, later, amid the leatherbound books, Japanese prints, framed photos, and celebrity mementos that fill his marvelous Back Bay apartment, Brudnoy talked about his life, and what he's learned along the way.

"It hasn't been pleasant going through it all -- '94 and, now, this rare and hideously hard to treat cancer," he said. "But I've had a wonderful life, and I'm not one of those people who regrets a lot."

An only child of middle-class Jewish parents, Brudnoy grew up in Minneapolis but came east for college. He graduated from Yale with a degree in Japanese, got a master's in East Asian Studies at Harvard, then earned a PhD in American history from Brandeis.

As his 1997 memoir, "Life Is Not a Rehearsal," makes clear, Brudnoy was never confused about his sexuality. As a young boy, he recalls fixating on a newspaper ad for the film "The Story of Robin Hood" that showed British actor Richard Todd bare-chested, and another time admiring a National Geographic photo of a naked African boy. Nonetheless, Brudnoy dated girls throughout high school. "Difference itself was a contagion that we feared," he writes.

If his parents knew he was gay -- and they almost certainly did -- they never let on. After reading "Life Is Not a Rehearsal," which recounts the author's exuberant sex life, Brudnoy's father, then past 90, said he was actually relieved to get to the part where Brudnoy was hospitalized.

Although he didn't conceal his homosexuality, Brudnoy didn't discuss it either, even as he became more sexually active, and had a platform from which to comment on issues. By the time he settled in Boston in the 1970s, he'd had multiple partners and three serious relationships, but rarely addressed gay themes in his commentaries on local TV, or in the pieces he wrote for the National Review, the conservative journal founded by his friend William F. Buckley Jr.

"When I met David, his private life had calmed down, or maybe he was just exhausted," said Peter Meade, who worked with Brudnoy at WBZ and remains a close friend. "But he never hid anything. We'd only been working together for about two weeks when, I remember, a beautiful woman walked into the building, and David said, `Gee, I wonder if she has a brother.' "

On the radio -- first at WHDH, then WRKO, and since 1986 at WBZ -- Brudnoy distinguished himself as thoughtful and extremely well informed. Although his conservative-libertarian politics and precise language can make him sound brittle and snooty, Brudnoy is the rare talk show host who is neither mean nor moralistic. And that's unlikely to change. He believes his brushes with death have mellowed him, made him less judgmental, and more "willing to wonder and doubt."

"I've never believed that the only way to make a dent is to be a table thumper," he said. "Condemnatory conservatism isn't anything I'm interested in."

Brudnoy tested positive for HIV in 1988, but to guard his privacy he traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., for medication. He became sick in 1994 but stubbornly refused to consult a doctor. By that fall, he'd developed pneumonia and his weight dropped dramatically, but still he staggered on, teaching media studies at Boston University during the day and hosting his show at night.

"I was barely eating breakfast, usually skipping lunch, frequently forgetting dinner -- and I couldn't walk without holding onto walls and got from here to there on purple feet and bloated legs," he writes in his book. "I remained ignorant of what it was and continued to avoid anybody who might tell me things I didn't want to hear."

Patricia Kennedy, a friend of Brudnoy's for more than 30 years, said she and others tried to talk to him but were rebuffed.

"I asked him point-blank once if he had AIDS, and he lied to me," Kennedy said. "He was denying it to me, and he was denying it to himself."

She learned the truth on Oct. 24, 1994, when Brudnoy was found unconscious in the lobby of his apartment building on Commonwealth Avenue, and rushed by ambulance to Massachusetts General Hospital. Doctors later said he was within 20 minutes of death.

Once word got around that he'd been hospitalized, Brudnoy effectively outed himself in the Globe, hoping to control what was written. Of course, the national media found the story of a conservative talk show host with AIDS irresistible, and in no time Brudnoy was sitting down for a chat with Oprah. He became, says his friend Dr. Judith Wurtman, "Magic Johnson without the jump."

No one knew then how long he'd live. Doctors encouraged Brudnoy to take it one year at a time, but he preferred to think in half-decades. Swallowing more than 80 pills a day, he treated his condition as chronic, and four months later returned to work at BU and WBZ. And he once more became a regular at the Travis, the now-closed Newbury Street diner where for years he'd eaten breakfast (two powdered doughnuts) and lunch (a tuna fish sandwich).

"David does not cook," said Kevin Myron, Brudnoy's producer for 10 years until 1997. "His refrigerator is the 7-Eleven on Dartmouth Street."

On air, Brudnoy sounded like his old self, chastising the Clintons and lamenting the state of public education. Now broadcasting from his apartment, he began serving cocktails to guests, which sometimes made for interesting conversation. ("Do your listeners know you make a perfect martini?" inquired George Will, to which Brudnoy replied: "They do now.")

"I've been on 283 million talk shows, and David actually listens to what you say," said mystery writer Robert B. Parker, an occasional guest. "That makes him different than the other 282,999,999 hosts. I don't share David's view on every subject, but I don't share anyone's every view."

While he counts some of the state's most prominent citizens as friends -- Senator Edward Kennedy, Governor Mitt Romney, and former University of Massachusetts president William Bulger, to name a few -- Brudnoy, who lives alone, is sustained by a group he calls his "Gang of Five," which includes Meade, Myron, Patricia Kennedy, WB56 political reporter Jon Keller, and psychologist Dr. Ward Cromer.

Over the past year, Brudnoy also has formed a strong bond with an Emerson College fraternity that voted to make him an honorary member. He gets emotional when he speaks about this group of men in their 20s, one of whom he took on a trip last spring to Barcelona as a graduation present.

"They are absolutely committed to me, and I to them," he said. "The gay-straight thing is completely irrelevant. Obviously, if I am going to sleep with someone, I prefer it to be someone who wants to sleep with me, and these guys know that."

The cancer, a rare and deadly form called Merkel cell carcinoma, was discovered last September when doctors biopsied a blemish on Brudnoy's forehead and a small bump on the side of his face. Because it's a particularly aggressive cancer, doctors cautioned Brudnoy that the treatment would be intense and unrelenting.

"A full dose of chemotherapy and radiation gave him the best chance, but given his weakened immune system we didn't know if he was strong enough to withstand it," said Brudnoy's physician, Dr. Greg Robbins. "All of the doctors, including myself, have been amazed at the strength David has shown."

He was hospitalized three times during treatment -- once for four days, once for 17 days, and once for 10 days. During the last stay in December, Brudnoy became so demoralized he prayed for death.

"I felt like I was never going to get out of the hospital," he said.

Beyond gaunt, Brudnoy looked ghastly. He'd lost all of his hair and most of his weight, and lacked the strength even to read a newspaper. But his depression didn't last. Buoyed by an improving prognosis -- doctors said the cancer was in retreat -- Brudnoy eventually decided he wanted to survive.

"David's the toughest bastard I know," said Meade. "Tougher than anyone I met in the Marine Corps."

On Monday night, Brudnoy returned to the airwaves, and although weak and raspy, the host was in high spirits. As he talked to fellow Minnesotan Jesse Ventura about the onetime wrestler's interest in a presidential bid in 2008, a beaming Brudnoy draped a pink feather boa around his slender frame.

"People tend to overstate my resilience, but, of course, I hope they're right," he said away from the microphone. "It feels very good to have come back this far, and to have another opportunity to be of some use."

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