Category Archives: In Memoriam

Obituaries and memorials

Passings: 4

I received word that Steven Mead Johnson, whom I portrayed in The Laramie Project in 2004, has passed away, by way of a friend of Steven’s. In reply, I wrote,

I was saddened to learn of Steven’s passing. He was such a gentle, dear man. We had the very good fortune that he was living in Reston at the time of our production, as he was pastor of a local Unitarian congregation. He was able to meet with us and thus to deepen our understanding of the people of that rugged, remote place in Wyoming. And I rather think that he was good-natured about my borrowing of some of his physical mannerisms.

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For Leta: 6

“Lisburn Road,” by Michael Hofmann.

A trunk holding a suitcase holding a holdall,
The travel equivalent of the turducken…

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Chute

Richard Bolles has passed away. Early in my career, as I blundered my way into writing software for a living, I turned to his books for guidance. I’m not sure that he provided any specific, useful advice, but I was reassured: it always felt like he was in my corner.

It turns out that he spent a good part of his early life as a clergyman in the Episcopal church. Leta would say, “of course.”

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For Leta: 5

I delivered a version of the following remarks at Grace Episcopal Church on Saturday, 4 February 2017.

Leta and I were sweethearts for sixteen years. She liked to say that, in our relationship, she was Ernie and I was Bert. I don’t see the resemblance.

Leta never stopped learning, whether the subject was medieval monarchs, Tudors vs. Plantagenets; or how to mix a cocktail that hadn’t been in the recipe books since the 1920s; or American Sign Language; or tagging along with me on a nature walk. She would badger the guide with informed, attentive questions.

And she was good luck when we were out looking for birds together. We took a trip to California, and I planned a visit for us to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, just a short walk down Cannery Row from our hotel. The only problem was that day it was pouring rain. But she was game and we set off—and we got soaked, but I saw a bird for my life list, my first Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus), on that walk in the rain, and she gets the credit.

She never stopped learning. Just a week or so before her diagnosis, she was taking an online class, learning how to code for the web; we did a screen-sharing call for me to help with her JavaScript homework.

Leta loved theater, and she was good at it.

Many of you know that she was nominated twice by the WATCH organization (honoring excellence in Washington area community theater), for her roles as Diane in The Little Dog Laughed and Alma in Taking Leave. Personally, I think that she did even better work in two plays by Donald Margulies: Karen in Dinner with Friends and Sarah in Time Stands Still. She was utterly committed to each role, each project, she took on.

She told me about a director who offered her a part; the director said, “there are many people who can do this role, but there are few that I would trust with this role.”

Leta loved theater, and she didn’t mind sharing that love.

She wouldn’t just tell an actor she happened to see in a lobby how much she liked the show—that’s easy. A few months ago, we saw a show downtown, a regional production on its way to Broadway. One thing and another, it was maybe half an hour after curtain that we started walking to the subway; we were blocks away from the theater… and at a crosswalk, she recognized an actor from that show, on his own way home, and she stopped him to say how much the play meant to her.

For all her expansiveness, her extroversion, Leta’s tastes were clean and simple.

She loved the intricate simplicity of a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, a poem by Langston Hughes, a black and white abstract ballet by George Balanchine, a play of unspoken dread by Harold Pinter. Or just a nice hot cup of tea. When I would come back from a business trip, she didn’t want a fancy gift from the airport shop, but she did expect the free toiletries from the hotel. For fun, we would browse real estate listings, modest little post-war bungalows along Viers Mill Road, houses she called “dumpy.” For her, this was a high compliment.

Leta’s tastes were simple, especially when it came to what she found funny.

The New York Times arts section has a style guide, and it calls for a “Mister” on second reference, even if the subject was someone with a name like Iggy Pop. And so Leta would read about “Mr. Pop,” and dissolve into bubbles of giggles. She is the only person I know who laughed “tee hee.”

I can’t say that Garrison Keillor’s penguin joke was her favorite joke, but it was on her top ten list. So maybe you can help me understand this…

Two penguins are standing on an ice shelf—I don’t know whether they were Adélies or Gentoos or …—getting ready to jump in the ocean and do some fishing.

And the first penguin says, “Say… you look like you’re wearing a tuxedo.”

And the second penguin says, “What makes you think I’m not?”

I think she told it better.

Leta Madeline Hall made the gift of sixteen years of her life to me. Thank you.

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For Leta: 4

The obituary that Charlie and I put together for Leta is online at the Post‘s paid site. The anonymous copy editor who mangled the paragraph breaks, misnamed a G&S opera, munged the Donaldson link, and otherwise added no value, rankles.

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For Leta: 3

CASH: I made it on the bevel.
1. There is more surface for the nails to grip.
2. There is twice the gripping-surface to each seam.
3. The water will have to seep into it on a slant. Water moves easiest up and down or straight across.
4. In a house people are upright two thirds of the time. So the seams and joints are made up-and-down. Because the stress is up-and-down.
5. In a bed where people lie down all the time, the joints and seams are made sideways, because the stress is sideways.
6. Except.
7. A body is not square like a crosstie.
8. Animal magnetism.
9. The animal magnetism of a dead body makes the stress come slanting, so the seams and joints of a coffin are made on the bevel.
10. You can see by an old grave that the earth sinks down on the bevel.
11. While in a natural hole it sinks by the center, the stress being up-and-down.
12. So I made it on the bevel.
13. It makes a neater job.

—William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying
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For Leta: 2

Let us now praise famous men,
and our fathers in their generations.
The Lord appportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and were men renowned for their power,
giving counsel by their understanding,
and proclaiming prophecies;
leaders of the people in their deliberations
and in understanding of learning for the people,
wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
and set forth verses in writing;
rich men furnished with resources,
living peaceably in their habitations—
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the glory of their times.
There are some of them who have left a name,
so that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.
But these were men of mercy,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
their prosperity will remain with their descendants,
and their inheritance to their children’s children.
Their descendants stand by the covenants;
their children also, for their sake.
Their posterity will continue for ever,
and their glory will not be blotted out.
Their bodies were buried in peace,
and their name lives to all generations.
Peoples will declare their wisdom,
and the congregation proclaims their praise.

Sirach 44:1-15
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For Leta

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

—Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream”
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Wild and scenic

Dan Pletscher remembers wildlife biologist John Craighead, in conversation with John Burnham.

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Benefactor

Birdchick remembers Dr. Paul Strange.

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Former Schönberg student makes good

William Schallert has taken his last bow.

In an interview for this obituary in 2009, Mr. Schallert said he had never been particularly selective about the roles he played. “That’s not the best way to build a career,” he admitted, “but I kept on doing it, and eventually it paid off.”

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Purity

RIP Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015).

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George Bell, 1942-2014

A sublime (in the older, aesthetic sense of slightly frightening) piece by N. R. Kleinfield on the death and life of George Bell, who died alone in Queens. Memento mori, indeed.

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Passings: 2

Robert E. Simon, the developer who started the beautiful community where I have lived for the past 30 years, has passed away, according to Michael Neibauer’s report. If Reston hadn’t come into being, I’m not sure that I would still be living here in the D.C. metro.

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Keep in mind the tiny tots

Alas, Stan Freberg has moved on to a new agency.

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