A Look Back at Elton John and Ryan White’s Friendship
On paper, the friendship between Elton John and Ryan White was an unorthodox one: The former was a teenager from small-town Indiana, while the latter was a global pop superstar. However, the pair bonded quickly and deeply, and forged a relationship that had long-lasting societal, cultural and political effects.
John first became aware of White in 1985, after seeing a magazine article about the teenager's struggle to have a normal adolescence after being diagnosed with AIDS. A hemophiliac, White had contracted HIV via a blood transfusion; by the end of 1984, the virus had developed into AIDS, and he was in the hospital with pneumonia.
By the start of the 1985-86 school year, White was feeling up to returning to class. However, he and his family experienced a backlash from the community, and it took a lawsuit and a subsequent series of appeals before he could attend school with his peers (though with restrictions, such as a separate bathroom).
The ugliness followed White outside of school as well, mostly driven by fear of and ignorance about AIDS. In his book, Love Is the Cure: On Life, Loss and the End of AIDS, John described the bullying, violence and discrimination the teen, his family and their supporters experienced.
"Customers on Ryan’s paper round cancelled their subscriptions," he wrote. "When the Whites went out to eat, restaurants threw away dishes they used. The parents of Ryan’s girlfriend forbade her from seeing him. Tires were slashed on [mother] Jeanne’s car. A bullet was shot through a window of their house. When the local paper supported Ryan’s right to attend school, the publisher’s house was egged and a reporter received death threats."
"The Whites were people of deep Christian faith. But after Ryan’s illness became public, the parishioners at their church were so afraid of developing AIDS that the family were asked to sit in either the first or last pew and no one would use the lavatory after him."
The entire battle moved John so much, he reached out to the Whites and invited them to one of his concerts. In October 1986, the singer then went one step further and "arranged a private tour and a party for Ryan" at Disneyland. "I wanted to give him an adventure – limos, planes, fancy hotels – a carefree time to take his mind off his pain," John wrote in Love Is the Cure. "I felt instantly comfortable with the Whites, instantly connected to Ryan."
This relationship endured for years, in the form of show invites, phone calls, gifts and meetings. But what stood out was John's selfless generosity: He lent Jeanne White $16,500 for a down payment on a house, and then refused to be repaid; instead, he put the amount in a college fund for Ryan's sister, Andrea. And when the teen's health took a turn for the worse in April 1990, John went to be with his family.
The singer was even at Ryan's side when he passed away on April 8, and he performed 'Skyline Pigeon' at his funeral.
Watch Elton John Perform 'Skyline Pigeon' at Ryan White's Funeral
It was clear John's outreach and continued support of the family was no token gesture; the relationship had a profound effect on the artist. Years later, John was very open about the destructive, all-consuming cocaine addiction he was battling while he knew Ryan, and the role the teen and his family played in helping him finally decide to conquer it.
"I grew close to Jeanne during Ryan’s final week," John wrote. "She described me then as her guardian angel, but Jeanne and her family were guardian angels to me. And the message they were sent to deliver was clear: it might be my deathbed next. I had all the money in the world, but it didn’t matter, because I wasn’t well."
In the years since White's death, John has ensured his late friend isn't forgotten. A 2010 open letter by the singer praised his courage, patience, grace and tolerance, and told him about the policy and health changes (and enduring frustrations) involved with the fight against AIDS. John also honored White's legacy by founding the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992. To date, the global nonprofit has raised $321 million in support of HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention.
"Being around the White family made me want to be a better person," John wrote in his book. "It took Ryan’s death to do so. When his eyes closed, mine opened – and they’ve been open ever since."