Hugh Hamrick — David Sedaris’ Boyfriend — Finally Tells His Side of Their Story

He (mostly) doesn’t mind being written about as “Congressman Prude.”

Hamrick’s head in Sedaris’s hands. Photo: Benedict Evans/Copyright Benedict Evans
Hamrick’s head in Sedaris’s hands. Photo: Benedict Evans/Copyright Benedict Evans

At the door of a dignified apartment on the Upper East Side: Hugh. Among David Sedaris’s devoted fans, the ones who read his pieces in The New Yorker and make his books best sellers and flocked to the 50-city live tours he did each year before the pandemic paused them, he’s just Hugh — the way Sedaris’s sister Amy (comedian, crafter, all-time-great Letterman guest) is just Amy. David writes family comedies, sketch dispatches from the Sedaris clan (his grouchy Greek father and late mother, his clown car of sisters and brother) with himself at the center as nebbish-raconteur. Funny things just seem to happen to him and his satellite Sedarises, and he has made his family the main characters of a decadeslong, clearly very profitable, and reliably amusing page-and-stage act. Everyone in Sedaris’s ambit ends up sounding a little bit off-kilter in that very Sedaris way, at least as reported by David. Or at least everyone save one. Every comic needs his straight man. David has his boyfriend, Hugh.

Who is Hugh? In Sedaris’s stories, Hugh is a mainstay, a durable but background presence. (Fans at Sedaris’ shows ask after him.) He isn’t kookified, and he doesn’t get the laugh lines. When the kilter needs to be un-offed, he is deployed; he restores order, like the gods in the last act of a Greek drama. When the Sedaris family head to North Carolina to clean up their father’s house after his move to assisted living, everyone is stymied by a turd on the carpet left by some untended animal — but not Hugh, who picks it up with his bare hands and disposes of it. “You people, my God,” says Hugh, which is the kind of thing Hugh can be counted on to say. It’s the kind of thing he does say, over and over, in The Best of Me, the greatest-hits collection Sedaris published this month. It’s the reason Sedaris’s nickname for him is Congressman Prude.

Hugh, whose last name is Hamrick, looks like someone built to reflect public trust and rectitude, all steel-gray hair and strong-jawed gravitas. He ushers me in, past a small framed Charles Addams illustration in the hall and a medium-size Philip Guston painting in the entryway, looking, uncharacteristically for someone with said jawline, a little spooked. If Sedaris is antic confession, Hamrick is Wasp reserve. In all his years with Sedaris (readers will remember “A Modest Proposal,” about their mutual reluctance to get married), he has never given an interview. “I feel like David writes about us, and that’s enough,” he says.

Hamrick understands life with writers. His father was a career diplomat, and Hugh, the youngest of four, lived in Beirut, the Congo, Somalia, and Ethiopia growing up. But his father also wrote spy novels à la le Carré under the name W.T. Tyler. He remembers one of his brothers calling, early in his relationship with Sedaris, and hearing the typewriter going in the background. (Sedaris used to write at night amid clouds of cigarette smoke.) “My brother said, ‘Oh, I’m so jealous,’” he says. “‘That’s just the sound we grew up with. I’d love it if there was someone that could type me to sleep like that.’” Not everyone was as enthused by the prospect. Hamrick remembered his mother calling once early on, too, and asking what Sedaris did. He’s a writer, Hamrick said. “Oh, I’m sorry,” his mother replied.

The pair met when Sedaris helped a friend borrow Hamrick’s ladder. It was 1990, and Hamrick was living with roommates in a loft above The Trader, a now-gone military surplus shop on Canal Street which counted survivalists and Grace Jones among the customers for its gas masks. In his diary (the first section, Theft by Finding, came out in 2017), Sedaris records meeting Hamrick on October 22. By March 21, 1991, Sedaris was confessing to his diary that it was serious. “On this, the first day of spring, I am able to shop around and find chicken for 59 cents per pound,” he wrote. “Tonight I’ll have chicken with some squid-ink linguine Hugh brought me. It’s black. This spring I am, if I’m not mistaken, in love.”

At the time, it wasn’t clear Sedaris would have any success at all. Before this classic seven (they just bought the penthouse above their apartment to combine them), and the homes over the years in London, Sussex, Paris, and Normandy, and the beach house in Sedaris’s native North Carolina, Sedaris was working odd jobs, moving and housecleaning and—as recounted in the story that brought him national attention and, eventually, publishing deals—a $9-an-hour gig as a Macy’s holiday elf. They lived the broke-bohemian dream, Sedaris giving readings at the Kitchen and Feature Inc., never expecting to make it north of 14th Street. “I didn’t expect to be here, sitting on a terrace at one of several properties, but I don’t think that’s important,” Hamrick says. “That’s just the way it happened.”

Hamrick once made a living as a painter, often in theatrical-scenery shops. He worked on the original Lion King set on Broadway, and still sometimes does touch-ups for its sets in London. But ever since the couple first moved to France, in the late-1990’s. the logistics became complicated. Today, his painting studio is the former maid’s quarters, with a single window for light. Sometimes, he still works big: the walls of one room in the apartment are painted, floor to ceiling, with a plywood motif, which gives the disorienting, impression of leaving the grand co-op for a rickety lean-to. But most of his work these days is on a smaller scale, little paintings that Sedaris requests for diary covers, like the one he shows me of Lucy from the “Peanuts” strip vibrating with rage. “I wanted something about the election,” Sedaris says, when he joins us.

The real work of Hamrick’s life, one gathers, is taking care of Sedaris, now 63. Hamrick cooks; in front of us is an apple pie he spent the morning making—“Oh, it’s just apples”—and a hillock of barely sweetened cream. Hamrick found this apartment on the Upper East Side, not too upper, and really, not too east. After years abroad, in Paris, moving to London (but keeping the Paris place) then a country place in Sussex, New York wasn’t exactly the plan. The place was meant to be a convenience; somewhere for David to hang his culottes when he came through town for work.  (Sedaris loves the odder and blousier extravagances of Comme des Garçons; Hamrick himself is in a collared T-shirt tucked into belted jeans.) But life interceded. “We came here after one of those tours at the beginning of this year,” Hamrick says. “And we were stuck.” They’ve never spent more time together. “And it’s been great,” he says. Hamrick is a homebody, “like a houseplant or a cat.”

Hamrick is generous but reticent, shy of the spotlight, although the version of him that appears in the stories, crossed arms and pursed lips, is a bit famous. It’s an exaggeration, but recognizable nonetheless. “I think he pretty much nails people,” he says.

Still, it’s not always comfortable. Hamrick describes sitting in the audience recently when Sedaris read a piece he had never heard before: one that discusses, at length and with specific complaints from the Sedaris family, how uptight Hamrick can be. (“I’d like to be loyal when they complain about him,” reads the piece as it was published in The New Yorker in December. “I’d like to say, ‘I’m sorry, but that’s my boyfriend of almost thirty years you’re talking about.’ But I’ve always felt that my first loyalty is to my family, and so I whisper, ‘Isn’t it horrible?’”) Hamrick often acts as an early reader for Sedaris’s work —“If I groan, he thinks it’s good; if I groan, it’s gonna work” — but this one was new to him. “The women behind me started gasping when he was talking about me, like, Oh, how awful!” he says. “I was mortified. I went up to him after and said, ‘I don’t want to hear that ever again.’” He pauses. “But anyway, it was published.”

This just comes with the territory. “I don’t think he’d want to do anything, to say anything, that would hurt me,” Hamrick says. Sedaris says there are things he would never write about for fear of upsetting Hamrick, sex among them. This leads into a short monologue about an Edmund White description in print of giving someone a blow job on the toilet. “Oh, David!” yelps Hugh.

David’s semi-haplessness, Hamrick says, is not a work of fiction. The world visits pricks and indignities upon him. “It’s just the way people treat David sometimes. Why are people so mean to him? He gets a lot of abuse.” (Sedaris’ theory is that it has to do with his size: five-foot-five.) “I worry about it,” Hamrick sighes, with genuine feeling. “I do worry about him.”

So the Congressman’s term must be an appointment without end. Rep. Prude plainly adores his sole constituent, the same one who told to the Times recently that they’d never gotten along better than in Covid quarantine, although he also told him  ‘I hope you die of coronavirus, so I can write about it’” — and then told the Times about the telling. They seem to need either other to play off of: One pushes, the other pulls. “I would never read David’s diary,” is how Hamrick sums up the difference between them. “He would read mine.”

Of such stuff is love made. “He’s like a little kid,” he says. “He just can’t help it. He’s like an inquisitive little boy, who’s poking at everything and touching everything.” Mightn’t maturity follow success, I wondered, might not he have learned a little better over the course of 30 years? “And he won’t!” Hamrick says, and laughs. “He can’t.”

*A version of this article appears in the November 23, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Hugh Hamrick Tells His Side of the Story