Catching up with Pat Loud, America’s first reality TV star

The matriarch of the revolutionary PBS series An American Family discusses divorce, her son Lance, and the current state of television.

Lance Loud was at the Santa Barbara Museum, waiting for a fashion show to start, when dialed-out, track-marked heiress Edie Sedgwick came bounding up to him and the camera crew, but mostly the camera crew, that was filming Loud for the reality television series An American Family. It was November 15, 1971. More importantly, it was the night before Sedgwick’s death from an overdose of barbiturates.

At the fashion show’s afterparty, Sedgwick was berated by Veronica Janeway. She loudly accused Sedgwick of being a heroin addict. Those aren’t heroin marks; that’s from a cat,” Jeffrey Post, Sedwick’s brother-in-law, rebutted. Sedgwick took great offense, went home and, the next morning, didn’t wake up.

The ex-Warhol muse’s death isn’t a mystery. She’d gone the same way as Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland had before her. But the last surviving footage of Sedgwick taken that night never aired. It was scrubbed from An American Family and, if accounts are to be believed, was unceremoniously destroyed. Rather curiously, a New York Observer interview with Lance Loud ran in the early 00s in which he admitted that in that unused footage, his mother Pat allegedly accused him of delivering the coup de grâce to Edie Sedgwick.”

Oh God, I’ll tell you what happened,” Pat, now 92 and living alone in Los Angeles, recently told me by phone.

I had a very bad cold and Lance had a guy visiting him, Norman Fisher. And Norman, turns out, was the drug dealer to the stars in New York City. They went to the opening and the camera crew followed them. And when the lights came on, Edie Sedgwick – I saw the footage – came running up to the cameras and she was almost inarticulate, almost unable to speak. She was either high or drunk or both,” she says.

They were talking and Lance offered to take her home, and she let him. So he took her home and the next morning Jack Baker called me around 10:00 am and he told me that she was dead. And so I called Lance. I said, You did not do drugs or anything, did you?’ And he said no. He saw this table by [Sedgwick’s] door that was just filled with prescription bottles. And that was all; he dropped her off and left… PBS threw out all the outtakes away. So that’s the story of that.”

Pat Loud has many stories like this. Stories of excess and early American fame and interactions with icons of counterculture. She must, as arguably the first ever reality television star. An American Family was in production for seven months, cost $1.2 million to make, and produced 300 hours of footage. The premise of the series was to film an average but attractive middle-class American family, to drill into the wood of a workaday suburban family unit.

The Louds – father Bill, mother Pat, sons Grant, Lance and Kevin and daughters Delilah and Michele – provided that domestic drama. When it debuted on PBS in early 1973, 10 million viewers across the country were glued to their sets, watching and judging and tsk-ing as Bill frequently left town for work, Pat announced she wanted a divorce on air, and Lance came out as gay during the remaining days of America’s white picket fence era. Though it would be dismissed as milquetoast in today’s hot tub-wanking celebrity-choked landscape, at the time it was unprecedented. And though it’s contested, An American Family was the first ever reality TV show.

The Louds became the poster family for this American life.

Listen now: Pat Loud talks about her encounter with Edie Sedgwick

I’m so excited to talk to you.

Pat Loud: I don’t even know how you people even remember who the hell I am!

Where am I reaching you?

Pat Loud: I’m at home in Los Angeles. I have a very small little Spanish 1926 cottage not far from Paramount Studios. I’ve been here for 18 years – a long time.

How do you spend your days?

Pat Loud: I’m old now. I’m 92 years old, so I don’t have to get up and cook breakfast for five kids and a husband anymore. I don’t get up very early; I get up at 8:30 or 9:00 am every morning and then I read the New York Times. I do that every morning and take a nap in the afternoon. Then do a little exercise. Then I have friends over for cocktails around 5:00 pm, have dinner and go to bed.

What’s the biggest misconception about you?

Pat Loud: I have no idea. I don’t know if people even – I’m surprised that you guys dug me out of the dim, dark past. [laughs]

I read this very old interview after An American Family came out and you said, I can’t believe I am portrayed to be so cold.”

Pat Loud: I’m kind of a private person. I don’t think I was very relaxed at all during that filming. And our house was the house that all the kids came to. We had five kids that were very close together and all the other kids came up to our house to entertain themselves and play music and dance and eat. We had a very happy, very full house every weekend. And I’m sorry that didn’t show up in any way or form during the filming. I don’t think that that was portrayed properly.

What made you say yes to having your family filmed?

Pat Loud: Honey, that is such a loaded question. You have no idea. [Laughs] There are so many answers to that. In the first place, we were only going to do it for two weeks. [Producer Craig Gilbert] was going to do [a family on] the West Coast, somewhere in the middle and then East Coast. There were going to be three or four different families. Then he decided to do it all on us. I don’t know why.

I had many reasons I wanted to do it for that short period of time. Mainly, I was very proud of my children and Grant was such an outstanding gifted singer and guitar player. I thought that would be good for him. And I was having marital problems. I thought, maybe somebody ought to take a good look at this big family. I was very naive. Very naive.

I don’t think anybody really knew what would happen or what would come of it.

Pat Loud: Nobody had ever done anything like that before.

There were a lot of different people arguing whether it was the first ever reality show but I think it’s fair to say that you are the first reality television star.

Pat Loud: Yeah? I think that would be [my son] Lance. Everybody was fascinated with Lance because he was such a strong personality.

In this old interview you said, I never worried about any of the kids except Lance,” in terms of deciding whether or not to do this whole thing. He would do anything in front of a camera. Absolutely anything… I wanted him to come across a little bit straighter than he did.”

Pat Loud: Oh my God, yes. He put on black lipstick and Greta Garbo hats. He was all over the place. Crazy boy. Lance had this brilliant mind but he never processed anything through it. He didn’t examine [his thoughts], he just said it. I didn’t want him to do anything that would jeopardize his safety because Lance was gay and that was not a good time to be gay. You had to be pretty careful in those days.

Of the seven Louds, Lance was undoubtedly loudest. In the press about the show, the late queer icon is described as camping and queening about like a pathetic court jester” with his flamboyant, leechlike homosexuality” and is likened to, among other derogatory terms, a Goyaesque emotional dwarf.” This was the consequence for being unapologetically himself, possibly the only out gay man on television in the 70s. (Match Game host Charles Nelson Reilly was still in the closet.) Naturally, just four years after the Stonewall uprising in 1969 and the subsequent birth of the modern gay liberation movement, Loud was a magnet for derision and criticism. He was also cute.

But that never stopped him from doubling down on his personality and befriending, in New York, many members of the Warhol underground (including, tangentially at least, Edie Sedgwick). For a time, he lived in the Chelsea Hotel. During Pat’s visit to New York City, her and her son Lance take a stroll through the streets captured by the cameras. Lance, arm slung around his mother, talks openly about his upbringing – like being a little mouse trapped in a box” – and it feels like he is teetering on the precipice of a great reveal, of shouting I’m gay!” It never happens, but the scene has become the original blueprint for how these types of conversations seem to go, of explaining in the best words you can find that you’ve only ever wanted to be yourself, but society’s oppressive constructs have forced you to push that self further inwards to be accepted.

Lance Loud had punched out his life’s timecard too soon. Loud died in 2001 due to complications from HIV – but later in his life he became a gay hero.

People say that Lance came out on television.

Pat Loud: No, he didn’t.

There was the scene in which Lance is describing how he grew up so different, how he would always dye his hair different colors and disobey… Was that him telling you that he was gay?

Pat Loud: I have no idea. I think Lance would not have told me like that, Lance was direct. He didn’t pussyfoot around an issue, Lance told you what he thought. I was always uncomfortable when the camera was on. I tried to talk to Lance alone but they insisted on doing that. So I had to do it.

Did he come out to you in private?

Pat Loud: No, he never did. He never stopped being Lance. He never tried to explain himself. He was who he was and he was proud of himself that he did not care. He did not think he needed to explain anything to anybody. And to me. He didn’t need to do that.

In one scene, when you went to visit Lance at New York’s Chelsea Hotel, the look on your face as you enter is one of pure discomfort. Was it disgusting back then?

Pat Loud: It was pretty bad. All you could smell was marijuana. I was from Eugene, Oregon. And I moved to Santa Barbara. I had a very protected, very naive life.

Like sheltered?

Pat Loud: Yeah, that’s a good word, yes. When I went to the Chelsea hotel, that was the first time I had ever been filmed. So when I got out of the cab, the filmmakers were there and they followed me in. I thought I was going to go into this quaint little hotel called The Chelsea and it would have English people taking care of everyone, offering tea. It was far from that. It was dirty. [Laughs] It was a wreck. Then I get to my floor and the cameras are on me and Holly Woodlawn comes rushing out to greet me and Lance introduces me to the first transvestite I ever met. Holly lived here. Holly died five years ago but Holly and I became good friends. I saw Holly quite a bit.

You hear about the stories of the Chelsea Hotel being so legendary and then when you walk into the room, to paraphrase, you’re like, This bed hasn’t even been cleaned yet!”

Pat Loud: Filthy, filthy! They didn’t care.

You said that was the first time you’d met a trans person. How did you feel about that?

Pat Loud: What is this person?! Because Holly wasn’t fully gay yet when I met him. As I say, we became good friends. I saw a lot of him here. And I went to his last birthday party, and we had a good friendship. I always used to go see Holly perform. We had a good relationship.

The biggest takeaway from the series, what it’s most often credited with, is normalizing the private nightmare of divorce. This is all thanks to Pat, who told her unfaithful husband Bill in no uncertain terms to get out of the house on the show, and kindly ask that he get in touch with her lawyer. It scandalized the nation, who up until that point had only whispered about a neighbour’s divorce from behind patterned linen curtains. Newsweek put the Louds on their cover under the headline The Broken Family.” But Pat became the unlikely bat signal for a growing acceptance of feminism and an alternative family structure.

We opened the doors in a lot of houses and blew out a lot of dust and I’ll bet we started a thousand arguments of the kind Bill and I never had,” Loud wrote in her 1974 autobiography.

Newly single after the finale aired, Pat moved to New York and worked at a literary agency as Bill’s business fell apart. Her claim to fame was publishing the Russian Tea Room cookbook, an uptown institution where Madonna worked as a coat-check girl in 1982. After getting mugged, twice, Pat was lured to London to live with a friend in 1985 for six months. She ended up purchasing a flat in Bath, England, which she owned until 1992. It wasn’t until Lance got sick that Loud returned to America and settled in Los Angeles.

She has outlived both her son, Lance, and her husband, Bill – who died in 2018. I’m the last of the Mohicans, dear,” she tells me, sighing. Everybody my age is gone. I’ve got one foot in the grave but I’m going to hang around until we get rid of Trump.”

Listen now: Pat Loud on allowing her divorce to be filmed for the show

I read that some of the producers would tell you things about what Bill was doing behind your back.

Pat Loud: Yes they did. They were trying to move things forward. They knew I was going to get a divorce; there was no way I could stay married like this and they just had to have that. Why? I don’t know. I was going to do it and not ever on television, not ever. And Craig [Gilbert] talked me into doing it. As I say, I was naive. I would never do that now. I thought he knew what he was doing and I didn’t know that I did. I should have been locked up, I think.

I don’t think you did anything wrong, because the amount of people who watched it and then could relate and say, This is how Pat has dealt with divorce. This is how a normal family goes through these things.’ Maybe it gave them the strength to then do those things.

Pat Loud: I didn’t know what to do. I truly didn’t know. I felt like my life was over. I was 47 years old and an old hag. It just took the rug right out from under my feet. I had no self-confidence. I didn’t think I had a brain in my head and I thought I was physically very unattractive and it all wound up bad.

What helped you find your confidence again?

Pat Loud: I just got older and had a better time. Got over it. You move on. You live in the moment, you don’t live in the past.

Did you feel like at any point your privacy had been violated?

Pat Loud: Oh, yes. For sure.

In what way?

Pat Loud: I don’t remember, I can’t answer that. But I did have moments where I certainly felt like that.

I know Bill has passed away since, but you had become good friends later in life again. Were you friends when he passed away?

Pat Loud: Yes. He passed away here at this house.

So you were living together?

Pat Loud: Yes. We were housemates.

Should that give hope to people, that there’s always a way something can work out?

Pat Loud: We had great lives together and made a lot of memories. There are not many people as you get old that you could share those memories with. So yeah, we did live together and we did understand each other at the end.

After the series you worked at an ad agency. Is that true?

Pat Loud: I was at a literary agency for about five years. I became a literary agent. My claim to fame was that I did The Russian Tea Room Cookbook back when the Russian Tea Room was a wonderful place to go, right next to Carnegie Hall St. on 57th Street.

After the series, did you struggle to support yourself and your kids?

Pat Loud: Yes, because Bill’s business went to pot right afterwards and I went to work. I worked in Santa Barbara for a place called the Forum for Contemporary History. I went to work there and then the series came out and I got an opportunity to do a book. So we got Nora Johnson to write it. She was Nunnally Johnson’s daughter. She’s a great girl. She died about two years ago. She wrote this story called The World of Henry Orient. It’s a cult movie now.

I was wondering if you could give me an update on all your kids.

Pat Loud: Kevin is the oldest and he is part of a group that is starting up a new company, a virtual reality company. Grant is one of the producers of Jeopardy! Delilah was a senior vice president at Sony and she quit three years ago. She runs an animal rescue group that she formed, so she’s into animal rescue. And Michele, who is my youngest, works for a company called Vince. They make high-end ladies’ and men’s clothing.

Listen now: Pat Loud on her decision to participate in An American Family

Do you watch a lot of TV and movies now?

Pat Loud: Yes I do. I am ashamed to say it, but I do. My eyesight is very bad. My near sight. I don’t know the medical name for it, but I could see distance better than I could see up close. I have to use a magnifying glass up close. So I can see my TV screen pretty well. I like to follow the news. I like to see old movies.

Just ones on TV or do you go to the cinema?

Pat Loud: No. No, I don’t go to the cinema very often. I watch television. Very much into Game of Thrones.

What else do you watch?

Pat Loud: I watch a lot of the news. CNN and MSNBC. And then I watch the History Channel a lot.

I know you probably don’t watch current reality TV but—

Pat Loud: No. I have never seen the Kardashians.

What are your thoughts on all these reality TV shows since yours was on?

Pat Loud: The first thought I had would be jealousy that they made money off their life and I did not.

When a journalist asked you after the series ended if you would join a current reality show, you said, Honey, I’m a whore. I’d ask how much.” Do you still feel that way?

Pat Loud: [Laughs] I guess. You know, I’m starting to outlive my savings so I wouldn’t mind earning a little money…

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