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.
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.