June 23, 2006

PUBLIC LIVES; A Happy Fellow, and No Doubt a Heroic One, Too


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 spots.

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.

Exhibitionists 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 scale.

''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 did.

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 middle age.

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.''