20 November 2009

What I Didn’t Say at Bob’s Memorial

In every memorial service, I think, comes a moment when the talk ceases to serve its consoling purpose. No matter what the speakers say, they can’t fill up the absence, that empty seat in the theater. Yesterday’s memorial service for Bob Straus was especially poignant because, for most of my adult life, he’s been the guy who helped me get through other people’s memorial services: I knew that, at the end, he’d take me out for a bite to eat, and I’d feel better. Yesterday, he was present only in our loving recollections — and of course that wasn’t quite enough.

So often, it has been Bob’s presence that saved the day for me — not so much the specific things he said or did, as his just being there. During the tortuous production of the Broadway musical Rags, in 1986, it often seemed that Bob was the only grownup in the theater, and though he was powerless to correct most of our worst problems (an underdeveloped script, clashing egos, dwindling finances), it helped me — it helped most of us — just to know he was there, seeing through the most elaborate façades and cutting through the densest bullshit, keeping us connected to reality. It was fascinating to hear other people, who worked on other shows, confirming this experience of Bob.

For example, it turns out I am not the only person whom Bob counseled to shut up and take a needed paycheck with the words, “We’re all whores.”

Beyond theater and work, though, Bob could — simply by being who he was — remind you of what was good and possible in life. All of us who loved him have examples of this, whether we’re talking about his love of good food or of travel, or of any of the things that Bob valued. For me, Bob and his wife, Marguerite, served as irrefutable proof of the possibility of true love, at a time when I most needed to believe.

I had my first love affair with another man while I was working on Rags. He was involved in the show, too, but among that close-knit troupe of colleagues, friends and surrogate family, we told no one. And so when he and I broke up, I felt I had no one to turn to. And I kept it to myself.

Swift and heavy, the guillotine blade of our breakup dropped on me in the middle of 51st Street, outside the Mark Hellinger Theater. I was so overwhelmed by emotion that I staggered back, slammed against the brick wall, and slid to sit on the ground. Judy Kuhn and Lonny Price, who played young lovers in the show, walked up. “What’s the matter?” they wanted to know. And the only word I could find to answer was: “Nothing.”

They left me to my stupefaction. They had work to do. So did I, for that matter, but I was so consumed by loneliness, by the certainty that, if Scott didn’t love me, then no one ever would, that I wasn’t much good for anything but staring into the middle distance, where visions of my empty future danced before me. I couldn’t even cry; I could barely breathe. Only when show time approached did I manage to pick myself up and take my place in the stage manager’s office.

Was Marguerite backstage that night, or was Bob merely talking with her on the telephone? I can’t remember. What I do remember — most vividly — was the sound of their voices, and what it told me, more than what they told each other. For at that moment I understood that, if Bob and Marguerite could find true love, then so could other people. Sure, it hadn’t worked for me this time, but it was out there, something to look for and aspire to. It took me nearly two years to try again, but I’m still hoping.

Theirs has been a rare sort of love, that doesn’t shut out others; when Bob and Marguerite were together, you felt the embrace, as if we were all in a big group hug. You felt warmer and better protected. You liked the human race, and the whole planet Earth a little better. And you hoped that some day, somebody would feel the same way about you.

Bob’s passing hasn’t taken that hope out of the world, but he was one of its best models, and in this as in so many other things, I’m going to miss him. A grown man — a straight man — who called me “Sweetie.” Where will I ever meet his like again?


Michael Leddy said...

I’m reading with tears in my eyes.

Your post has made me feel a bit better about humanity today.

compostmoi said...

Fabulous blog entry...great story telling....oh yeah, and a vivid memory recalled...so vivid, I could smell it...and there is a title for your best seller: THE STraight Man Who Called Me Sweetie: A LIfe in the Theatre.


William V. Madison said...

Thanks to Dan Guller, I'm able to update this essay with the photo collage that graced the cover of the program for Bob's memorial.

Among its other virtues, this illustration incorporates a picture from Bob and Marguerite's wedding: in it, Bob looks the way he sounded whenever he spoke to (or of) Marguerite.