A smart ex-girlfriend of mine always started her matutinal Times reading with the obituaries. At the time, this struck me as peculiar: what kind of spiritual necrophilia induced a vivacious, with-it young woman to evince such retrograde interest? Wasn’t there enough news from the quick to supersede that about the dead?
Well, I was wrong. Obituaries are easily as fascinating as anything else in the morning paper. An obit is really a miniature biography, a life rendered as a short-short story, breakfast food quite as nutritive as Cheerios. But does short-short story, vignette, anecdote or whatever you want to call it do justice to what is essentially stranger than fiction? And please don’t accuse me of peddling platitudes; the phrase “stranger than fiction” has been slathered on any number of lives and become worn as thin as the slice of meat in a bargain ham sandwich.
Stranger than fiction, why not? Many, if not most, lives are that—can’t help being that. Fiction, however avant-garde or post-modern, must play by some rules, if only those circumscribing a lone writer’s imagination. But life, which shuffles events more thoroughly than a professional gambler does cards, is under no obligation to obey any rules. Otherwise would my vita be what it is?
When I was sick as a little boy, I would want my favorite movie star, Jeanette MacDonald to come to my bedside and nurse me back to health. Responding to my urging, my parents assured me that they had wired her, and that most likely come she would. Alas, not even life was quite that strange. But it was when the little boy from Yugoslavia (which no longer exists) came unaccountably to America, and actually could turn on his radio to hear his other favorite, Loretta Young, as it were live on the air waves.
Stranger yet, could he have dreamed that someday he would be married to a girl from Ohio? Not that fiction I had read wasn’t strange enough. As a boy, I devoured the books of Karl May, the German young-adult novelist who had never set foot in America, but made the Wild West as real as possible in his many novels, about, among other things, the blood brotherhood between the magnificent Indian chief Winnetou and the great white hunter, trapper, adventurer (or whatever he was) Old Shatterhand, who turned out to be, of all things, German.
Even stranger than the Apache chieftain were some of the white characters, who went by names like Old Firehand and Old Surehand (which in those days I mispronounced as trisyllabic), but were small potatoes compared to Old Shatterhand, whose very stallion was smarter than some of these Old This and Thats.
How strange was it that, besides loving Erich Kastner (add umlaut on the a) and Edgar Rice Burroughs (for the Martian novels, not the Tarzan ones), I shared the beloved Karl May with another May enthusiast, Adolf Hitler. (No snide comparisons, please.) Later I got to James Fenimore Cooper, Jack London and Mark Twain, but could they really compare with Kastner’s “Emil and the Detectives” and the May novels, including his equally great ones about the Beduins of North Africa and the Incas of South America?
Strange that only the French made a movie based on May, entitled “Winnetou” (played by a French actor), a flop. What could the French know about the German Wild West? They even made the noble savage the protagonist (shades of Rousseau?) rather than the matchless, omniscient German American, Old Shatterhand.
You don’t think life is that strange? Then how about that party at the Persian Shah’s ambassador to the U.N.? One attended those parties mostly for the abundant caviar, and it was there that I encountered a bright young Iranian, Farhad Diba, who had briefly attended M.I.T., where I, equally briefly, had taught Humanities.
Diba said he had had only one good teacher at M.I.T, and I responded that, similarly, I had only one really good student, an Iranian. Did you guess it? I turned out to have been that teacher, and Farhad, that student. A good thing, too, because he was a cousin of the queen, or empress, or whatever the Shah’s royal spouse was known as. So when, later, I was a member of a group of Americans invited to the Tehran Film Festival, it emerged that I was the only one for whom a hotel room had not been reserved. Luckily, however, there was one for Buster Keaton, who had been dead for many years, which I was allowed to inherit.
Thanks to Farhad’s royal cousin, I was provided with a limousine, which none of the others were, but which I generously shared with them, who included Otto Preminger, Paul Mazursky, Sally Kellerman and Brenda Vaccaro. I forgave Otto his cheekiness, when, upon arrival and no room for me, he offered me the space underneath his bed.
But back to the strangeness of life per Times obituaries. Where else would I have read about Anna Merz, guardian and champion of the rhinoceros, “a species that is often misunderstood”? A photograph shows Anna (born Florence Ann Hepburn in England and married successively in Ghana to two husbands both Swiss) cheek to cheek with a hippo. Let me quote from her obit by Douglas Martin.
“Anna Merz, who went to Kenya seeking a serene retirement but became so appalled by the slaughter of black rhinoceroses that she helped start a reserve to protect them, becoming a global leader in the fight against their extinction. . . . She left no immediate survivors, but more than 70 black rhinos, including one born the day she died, continue to thrive in the sanctuary.”
Among other things, she hired, likewise mostly from her own pockets, 100 guards for the expanded sanctuary and bought a surveillance plane, as well as developing a network of spy informants, all to protect against the numerous armed poachers killing the hapless beasts for their horns, which, ground to a powder, are sold for prices often higher than gold to Asiatics as a medicine or aphrodisiac, and to Arabs whole, to be carved into dagger handles.
A law-school graduate, Mrs. Merz was previously saved as a child during World War Two from attack by a German plane, when a stranger covered her body with his own and paid for it with his life. This started her on preservation, as did also, in Kenya, hearing the yelp from the next room of her favorite dog being swallowed by a python. She grabbed her pistol and shot the snake in the head, and gradually unraveled the dog from its maw.
She revealed rhinos to be far from mean or stupid as commonly held, and able to communicate by altering their breathing rhythms. She read them Shakespeare to soothe them. It is just that they have poor eyesight, “leading them to charge first and ask questions later.” More from the obit:
“Samia, an orphan rhino whom she raised from babyhood, even crawled into bed with Mrs. Merz—not entirely to her delight. Samia would follow her around like a dog, even after leaving Mrs. Merz’s immediate care and returning to the reserve, where she mated and had her own calf. If Mrs. Merz fell, Samia would extend her tail to help her up.
Not realizing how big she had grown, Samia once tried to sneak back into the house where she had been nursed and became jammed in the dining room door. Mrs. Merz had to pour a gallon of cooking oil on her rough skin to ease her through.”
This April 22, 2013 obit (try to seek out the whole article) brings me close to tears. Conversely, I smile at the one of June 10 for Paul Soros, Hungarian-American billionaire shipping entrepreneur, philanthropist, and older brother of the even richer and more famous George Soros. It ends by quoting Paul, “My story is riches to rags to riches again. I was lucky to survive. The rest was relatively easy.”
Not all that easy, what with imprisonment and near shipment to a Nazi death camp. But what brings on the smile is Paul’s “losing a kidney in a skiing accident in which a buried slalom pole popped up and speared him in the back.” Later, in New Canaan, he “lost an eye while taking an indoor golf lesson at a country club.” Is that something out of Monty Python or what?
Today, June 23, I read about the death of the French fashion designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, whose clients included Jacqueline Kennedy, Sophia Loren, Raquel Welch, and French first lady Anne-Aymone Giscard d’Estaing. Now I, a collector of neckties from most of the famous Italian and French couturiers, including Jean-Paul Gaultier, Claude Montana and, bought in Hong Kong, Milla Schon (sorry I haven’t the umlaut for her), still lack any by Thierry Mugler and Scherrer, assuming that Scherrer designed ties.
Anyway, my point is that Scherrer’s wife, whom he subsequently divorced, was called Laurence, and that their daughters were Laetitia and Leonor (sorry again for lacking an acute accent). Just think how euphonious a house it was that resounded with calls for Laurence, Laetitia and Leonor. Just read aloud those gorgeously alliterative names in L, and allow me a distich: “Laurence, Laetitia, Leonor,/ Vocables sonnant comme de l’or.”