PUBLIC LIVES; A Happy Fellow, and No Doubt a Heroic One, Too
BY ROBIN FINN
RUNNING fashionably late, Florent Morellet
maneuvers his platinum Subaru into a semblance
of a parking space on the rutted cobblestones
outside his restaurant in what used to be
a meatpacker-dominated Meatpacking District
and doubled, after dark, as a meet market
for gallivanting gay men like himself.
After he opened Restaurant Florent, the
Gallic version of a greasy spoon diner for
Bohemian types, in 1985, the neighborhood
didn't stand a chance of staying under the
radar. Mr. Morellet attracts attention with
moth-to-flame persistence and became his
own brand of Renaissance man (one with a
penchant for dressing up like Marie Antoinette
at his Bastille Day parties) long before
branding was a synonym for success.
Bug-eyed and open-mouthed -- he has perfected
the art of appearing to be in a flurry of
perpetual surprise -- he whisks his petite
self into position on a chrome stool flanked
by a colorful gay pride banner and hands
off the car keys to a colleague with a better
grasp of Gansevoort Street's legal parking
Next he orders a Perrier. The jumbo bottle,
not just a glass. Mr. Morellet, a birthday
boy today at 53 (he's partying on the John
J. Harvey, the antique fireboat he owns with
friends and brought out of retirement to
help fight the flames downtown on Sept. 11,
2001), has lots to say.
That the district is now teetering on the
cusp of terminal gentrification -- heck,
even Mr. Morellet is husband hunting -- is
a piece of progress for which this French
expatriate, co-grand marshal with City Council
Speaker Christine C. Quinn of this year's
Gay Pride Parade, suavely takes both the
blame and the credit.
''I was the first culprit of gentrification
when I opened this place, but I think it's
important to have a place in the city where
there is night life and it's O.K., where
there is value in the commercial versus the
residential,'' he says. ''It is one of the
reasons this neighborhood is so charming;
well, I don't know if charming is the right
word. So iconoclast. I want to make a mark
on the world, and this is one way that I
have, this and my AIDS and gay rights work.
All these little pieces are going to outlive
me: it's not immortality, but it's a mark,''
he adds, sans hyperbole.
are like that. In Mr. Morellet's case,
it's in the genes: his father, François,
is a well-regarded artist whose work is displayed
on both sides of the Atlantic. Though Mr.
Morellet is an artist, too -- he draws painstakingly
detailed maps of imaginary cities -- what
he is most adept at exhibiting is his extroverted
persona. He exudes incandescence on a solar
''I am one of those rare homosexuals where
the family is actually happy I turned out
gay,'' he says. ''My mother outed me when
I was 15.'' The Jean-Paul Belmondo posters
on his bedroom wall -- his brothers preferred
Bardot -- in Cholet, a town known for its
handkerchief-making, were a bit of a hint.
His parents took him to a psychiatrist in
Paris who confirmed and affirmed his sexual
identity: ''He told them, 'The good news
is that your son is fine with his homosexuality;
the bad news is that he is sexually on overdrive
and putting himself at risk.' '' He was and
Who else would react to learning he was
H.I.V.-positive 20 years ago -- when contracting
the AIDS virus was considered a virtual death
sentence -- by going public and posting his
T-cell count along with the daily specials
on the retro bulletin board behind the bistro's
counter? And it's still there, a meandering
lineup of numbers beneath this tongue-in-cheek
headline: Reasons to Go Back in the Closet.
His low: 235, when he came down with hepatitis
and shingles in 1987 and was given two years
to live. He attributes his current high of
804 to a five-drug cocktail that has granted
him an opportunity to ''die old and get wrinkles.''
He celebrated his partnership with Daniel
Platten in an at-home double ceremony (the
other couple was heterosexual) in Newark,
N.J., in 1986. Mr. Platten died of AIDS in
1994; Mr. Morellet credits a meditation course
with helping him learn to live singly and
manage his anger.
He has been called a hero for demystifying
and deconstructing AIDS; he considers it
a public service message. Same goes for his
work since 1987 with Compassion and Choices
(the organization provides aid to the dying
as opposed, he explains, to suicide assistance);
and with the Save the Gansevoort Market task
force (thanks to it, a 32-story residential
tower was vetoed as an out-of-sync eyesore,
and the Meatpacking District received landmark
status in 2003).
He dines, and greets diners, at Florent
almost every night; privacy has never been
Mr. Morellet's thing. He lives in NoLIta,
in an apartment his parents bought for him,
and owns a home on Lake Iosco in New Jersey.
There, manic gardening is his nod toward
ON this particular afternoon, he is reserving
some of his ebullience for command performance
chitchat at Gracie Mansion, where Mayor Michael
R. Bloomberg is holding his annual preparade
soiree for gay activists. Mr. Morellet is
toting a backup arsenal of shirts sheathed
in dry cleaners' plastic for the occasion;
he is leaning, he confides, toward pale green.
And why, in this very hip city in a very
blue state, does there still need to be a
Gay Pride Parade?
''Because conservatives are passing amendments
to the Constitution that give latitude to
the bigoted, and because we still don't have
equal rights. I'm sorry, I'm a romantic.''