‘Won’t Be Silent’ Memoir Author Abe Gurko Explores an Eclectic Life of Activism, Filmmaking and Serving as Carrie Fisher’s Right-Hand Man

Abe Gurko

Abe Gurko and his dog, Alfie. Photo: Rankin

In his new memoir, Won’t Be Silent: Don’t Stop Until It Matters, writer, producer, political activist – and charming raconteur – Abe Gurko gambols his way through growing up a self-proclaimed fatty four-eyes in New Jersey before coming out as a slimmed down gay swan. Charting decades or Studio 54 boogie nights, flings with Gucci gods, and his career in Manhattan producing photo shoots, media events, and fashion shows for major brands, it’s a narrative that touches on everything from coming out in 1979 and confronting the AIDS epidemic to his rollicking decade as Carrie Fisher’s right-hand man in Beverly Hills. 

With a television series he’s created about protest music with pop star Selena Gomez and voting activist Stacy Abrams coming out this fall, it’s a second documentary project he’s producing about his uncle Wolf Durmashkin – a renowned European composer who endured imprisonment in the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia by writing protest music that inspired him to write his own memoir, which weaves a timely theme about the importance of making your voice heard in the world’s ongoing battle against political tyranny.

Gurko recently spoke about his time working for Carrie Fisher, his documentary about his uncle and the roots of his activism with Zoomer.

 

VIIA BEAUMANIS: Having read your book, we have a lot in common – I’m Estonian and I miss Quaaludes too [laughs]. Let’s start with the fun stuff. After working in fashion and design in New York, you landed in Hollywood and spent years working for the marvellous Carrie Fisher. What was that experience like?

ABE GURKO: It was awesome, I met everyone in Hollywood. A rollicking roller coaster of a wild ride. It was about 10 years on and off, all together, these pockets when I would come and go between New York and Los Angeles 1992 to 1994, then 1998 to 2001, and 2013 2015. She would always be like, Alright, come back here. She had six acres in Beverly Hills with guest houses and pool houses. It was fabulous.  

 

VB: I loved her relationship with her mother, Debbie Reynolds. I thought it was so great that they did the documentary, right before the end, that captured all that …

AG: I’m gonna take full credit for that documentary! I was living on the property, and I was in my room watching a documentary on Carol Channing. I stormed down the hill and said, ‘If Carol Channing can get a documentary, you should do one for your mom!’ So that’s when the whole thing just kind of unfolded.

 

VB: It’s nice because it’s about her mother, but it’s really about their amazing relationship, and unconventional families, and loving people despite some insane eccentricities … 

AG: I called it Grey Gardens with cash … [laughs]

 

VB: Whatever happened to the home?

AG: Carrie’s daughter inherited the property and is rebuilding it, keeping it it’s own little compound, but [they] knocked down the amazing kind of estate that it was. It was one of those beautiful old, u-shaped, one-level conquistador Haciendas. Architectural Digest did a whole thing on it in 1994, when we moved Carrie in.

Carrie Fisher (L) and Abe Gurko hanging out in London, England, in 2014. Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images

 

VB: In your book, you write about your activism starting when you were very young …

AG: I’ve been an activist as far back as the Vietnam War – though I was in grade school at the time. That war was taking young boys into a senseless battle and every week on the 10 o’clock news, the dreaded Honour Roll listed those killed in action. It was my first connection to speaking out against injustice. Since then, I’ve marched in solidarity with women for their right to choose and, with the AIDS catastrophe, to get funding from the corrupt American government. Walking in my first Pride March in NYC in 1979, when I’d just come out, I’ll never forget the sense of elation. Sashaying down Fifth Avenue, regenerated with our new spirit, chanting: We’re Here, We’re Queer, Get Used to It – and Shame, Shame, Shame as we passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral – to be part of a new, beautiful community of people, who, like me, worked hard through personal struggles to get to that very moment, it was exhilarating. 

 

VB: By opposing extremism, actively protesting, speaking out against the hellscape of a potential second Trump administration, writing your book, you’ve amassed a large following across your various social media platforms … 

AG: All this hatred can’t just go on and be, you know? I think the only way we’re going to get out of this is if it kind of explodes. Whether Trump loses, or wins, I think the inciting incident hasn’t happened yet. But I’m a bit of an optimist because it’s not about everybody coming together, it’s about a certain amount of people coming forward. In America, elections are won in the margins, the swing voters, the suburban moms and the dads. With Trump using the F-word at every rally, I mean, people have kids and he’s everything you wouldn’t want them to be. So, that’s what I’m hoping – that it’s going to turn them off. I’m hopeful that Biden will squeak through, just being the only decent person on the ticket. 

 

VB: You’re also producing major film projects that underscore the alarming re-emergence of right-wing political tyranny, but in a way that uses music and the creative heroes of previous rebellions to inspire people to fight back against what’s going on today.

AG: Rather than walk around in a constant state of frustration, I’m focusing my time and effort on two different film projects. During the COVID lockdown, I gained a following with my ‘Won’t Be Silent’ social media platforms – which became the title of my memoir – but I also dove into the history of protest music and put together a docuseries that’s in production now. With Selena Gomez and voting rights activist and former Georgia State Representative Stacey Abrams onboard as executive producers, the pilot focuses on the music of the women’s movement. We started with that, given what’s happened recently with Roe v. Wade being overturned. Slated to air on MAX this October, if the pilot does well, we’ll get into more episodes. There’s so much great protest music over the years and music is a great way to raise people’s awareness of their civic duty and to inspire them to contribute to society. 

 

VB: The theme behind your other film project, also music related, is more personal and also a central narrative of your book … 

AG: Wolf’s Story is based on a piece of music that my uncle, Wolf Durmashkin, a composer, wrote as a resistance song while he was in a concentration camp. He was killed there, just hours before the liberation. Miraculously, this piece of music was recently discovered by the Holocaust Museum, 75 years after his death, in an obscure book written by a survivor of that same camp. When this incredible thing landed on my desk, I knew this was to be my mission: to give my uncle Wolf – who otherwise was just one of the six million anonymous Jews who died in the Holocaust – a face, a name and a legacy. Perhaps in the process, I can have a bit of a legacy myself. In writing the book, I’ve staked my claim: I was here. I matter. 

My book encompasses everything that I believe in. The title, Won’t Be Silent, are words I live by. I can’t and won’t be silent – and neither should anyone else, be it through voting or civic engagement. We have one voice. Use it. I live by two maxims: ‘Life is Choice’ and ‘That Which Doesn’t Kill you Makes You Stronger.’ I say what people think. I hear that all the time. Brutally Honest Abe. ‘I won’t be silent’ is everything I believe in. That’s why those words became the title of the documentary about my Uncle Wolf and for the docuseries about protest music as well. 

Creating these music-centric projects has been a really beautiful way to embrace both my activism and my creativity. Music as resistance has always been vital to the oppressed. Be it in the concentration camps, or the cotton fields and inner-city streets, or for women’s rights. The power of music is in the sense of hope in carries as we face new challenges. Beethoven said, ‘Music can save the world,’ and my intention is to be part of, at least, trying to help heal the world. And we need that now more than ever.