The End of the Lazars

A new short story.

Joseph Epstein

I promise not to act hurt if, upon meeting me, you do not recall my name. Lots of people meeting me don’t, even though for four seasons in the late 1970s I played the second lead on the country’s top-rated television show, a police story called Witness Protection. I’ve also appeared in half-a-dozen or so fairly forgettable B movies. “Isn’t your name Harrison, or Harrington?” people ask. “Actually,” I say, “my name is Jack Devlin, but I played a character named Detective Jim Hartigan on a television show a long time ago.” I want to add, but don’t allow myself to do so: “Thanks for almost remembering.” 

This story isn’t about me, but about a remarkable man named Elliott Lazar and his family. I met Elliott roughly twenty years ago on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Council was, I gathered soon after being asked to join it, a rest home of sorts for actors, dancers, artists beyond their prime. When I was on it Martha Graham was a member; so, too, Roberta Peters; and the 1950s movie star Celeste Holm, a very Teutonic Kurt Adler who had been the general director of the San Francisco Opera, Robert Joffrey, Helen Frankenthaler, Douglas Dillon, a poet whose name I cannot now recall, the heads of the Chicago Art Institute and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a few wealthy patrons of the arts. We met four times a year in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, now, I believe, owned by the Trump family and soon to be converted into a hotel.

The dominant figure during my time on the Council was Elliott Lazar, a short, pudgy figure with a preposterous comb-over hairdo. Elliott was a former violin prodigy, who now wrote music criticism and was an adjunct professor at the Juilliard School of Music. At eight years old he had a patron, the daughter of the woman in San Francisco whose mother had been the patron of the young Yehudi Menuhin. She gave Elliott’s parents $200 a month, a serious figure in those days, so that they could hire the best teachers (Pierre Monteux among them) for him; also tutors, so that he didn’t have to go to school full-time and could put in more time practising the violin.

“A German Jewess,” Elliott told me, “she made me pay back every penny in little humiliations. I used to play at her luncheons for her friends. She never hesitated to correct the table manners, dress, pronunciation, and everything else about this uncouth little Ostjude with his immigrant parents. Merciless, really.”

Elliott described his mother to me as “the Stalinista princess.” His father, who ran an appliance store, in later years acquired some real estate in Oakland that he sold for an immense profit. When his parents died, Elliott, an only child, came into an impressive sum of money — enough to allow him not to have to work at a regular job. This was after he realised that the glittering career as a concert violin soloist he once dreamed of wasn’t on the cards for him. He and his own wife, Gerianne, kept a full-time maid in their capacious apartment on the West Side in New York. Defending the notion of his employing this woman to me, not that I ever questioned it, he said, “What’s the point of having a bit of money if you can’t spend forty grand a year for clean sheets every night and warm coffee in the morning?” I could myself see lots of other points, but I didn’t bring them up.

I neglected to mention that Jack Devlin is my stage name; I was born Jacob Davidson. Elliott, of course, knew this before he met me. He had the book, the lowdown, on everyone on the Council. He knew who had been in psychoanalysis and for how long, who was hiding his or her homosexuality, the names of everyone’s former and current lovers. In the case of the rich on the Council, he knew the origin of their wealth. He liked to quote Balzac saying that behind every great fortune there is a crime. Elliott made it his business to discover the crime. What else he knew about me, I don’t know, but I assume pretty much everything.

Before our quarterly meetings the members of the Council were sent a thick notebook containing grants up for approval, new legislative items of interest for the arts, and much general bureaucratic bumpf. Most of us never opened these notebooks before the meeting, so soporific was the material contained within. Best I could do was glimpse it before isinglass eye glaze set in. Elliott, though, read the stuff as if it were Talmud. He read it at the level of discovering typographical errors and correcting punctuation. This reading allowed him to dominate our meetings — distinctly not, let me add, to the liking of just about everyone in the room, including the political appointee who was the chairman of the NEA, a former Republican congressman from Oregon named John Featherstone, whose ignorance of art, as Elliott liked to say, was “ten steps down from zilch.”

Elliott could be brutal in these meetings. Staff members at the NEA later spoke to me of their terror when he questioned — interrogated would be closer to it — them on their various programmes. I recall his speaking out against a grant for something called “writers’ places,” which were to be places set aside for novelists, poets, critics, to meet, talk, drink coffee and tea, enjoy one another’s company. Elliott remarked that he thought this was ranked with the most genuinely foolish grants up for approval in his time on the Council. “Writers don’t need a place to meet. What writers need is to get their bottoms into the chair before their desk and start writing.” A black woman novelist on the Council, of whom Elliott once remarked to me that she had won every national and international prize going but the Heisman Football Trophy, replied that she could not disagree more with what Elliott said.

“Writing is the loneliest of jobs,” she said. “The creative writer is often filled with doubt. He or she works alone, struggling for clarity and meaning. Wasn’t it Henry James who said of the literary artist something on the order of ‘We work in the dark — we do what we can — we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task.’ No, I quite disagree. A place for writers to meet to talk, to share ideas, to form a community of artists seems to me a grand idea, and I wholeheartedly support this grant.”

“Gee, Marva,” Elliott responded, “that was beautiful. You ought to show slides with it.”

Elliott, as I say, took no prisoners. He was, I thought, sometimes wrong but never less than brilliant. His own passion, contra Henry James, came without doubt. This passion was for art and was genuine. I recall one session of the Council when a grant was proposed for teaching painting and sculpture to patients with terminal cancer. He voted against it, urged everyone else in the room to do so, yet was not emphatic in his denunciation, lest he give way to his powerful detestation. At the break he said to me, a pained look on his face, “I cannot tell you how much I hate this kind of shit.” At another time a grant came up for teaching poetry in prisons. Elliott asked, ironically but with a perfectly straight face, “May we assume that this grant would include prisoners on death row?” When he was told yes, of course, he merely nodded, and was, with me, the only person in the room to vote against the grant, which passed despite us.

As the months passed, Elliott sought me out, sensing, a kindred soul, at least when it came to a distaste for genuinely egregious nonsense in the arts. At least I like to think that’s why he befriended me. I allowed myself to be cultivated by him, for after three or four meetings of the Council I came to admire his courage in speaking his mind in an atmosphere where candour wasn’t in great demand. I had seem him hold forth with unpopular opinions several times before his twenty-five fellow Council members and a room filled with NEA staffers in which everyone in the room, perhaps two hundred or so people, myself apart, clearly loathed him. I once asked him how it felt to take up such strong positions, knowing that doing so was making him the very reverse of popular.

“It’s not my idea of a good time,” he said. “My kishkes churn. But what choice have I?”

During our three-day meetings, Elliott and I usually had one or two meals alone together. At these meals over the years he filled me in on his past and on his hopes for the future. He was then in his early fifties. At one lunch he told me that he was thinking of putting in for the job of Chairman of the NEA, noting that what with keeping up two households, one in New York, one in Washington, it would probably cost him a hundred grand or so a year to do so. But he felt it was worth it. Not that he was likely to get the job — he was much too critical in spirit, too implacable in his high standards, to be approved by Congress.

Elliott would frequently arrive at Council meetings looking exhausted, then pick up energy as the day, and his combat with others in the room, wore on. He told me that he suffered from serious insomnia. Not, I subsequently learned, from insomnia alone. One day, just before the opening of a morning session of the Council, he said, “I think Dougie is trying to outflank me.” Dougie was C. Douglas Dillon, the former Secretary of the Treasury.

Astonished, I asked, “Why would he want to do that, Elliott?”

“Don’t worry,” he said, “he has his reasons.”

He was a great motive finder, Elliott. One day when he set out what seemed to me a truly wild motive for the behaviour of one of our fellow Council members, I told him that he reminded me of Metternich.

“What does that mean?” he asked.

“When he heard that Talleyrand had died, Metternich is supposed to have said, ‘I wonder what he meant by that?’”

Elliott didn’t laugh.

On another occasion, Elliott Lazar, this tubby Jewish character, a failed fiddler, told me that he was a great admirer of Lawrence of Arabia. Although Elliot was as far from possible from being a socialist, on another occasion he revealed an admiration for Leon Trotsky. A third god in his pantheon of heroes was Disraeli. The pattern behind all this, I began to see, was Elliott’s hunger for power, which caused him to admire the men he did, outsiders, who had come out of nowhere to achieve it. Did he see taking up the chairmanship of the NEA as his equivalent of arriving at Aqaba, leading the Red Army, winning Queen Victoria over to his side and defeating Gladstone?

I began to see that Elliott suffered not merely from insomnia, but also from megalomania and paranoia. This meant that he was up all night worrying about people taking power away from him that he never really possessed. His couldn’t have been an easy life.

As I say, I found myself on Elliott’s side in these disputes over grants to hopeless poets and quilt-makers and left-wing folk singers. Owing to this, our friendship deepened; he also had an uncanny way of drawing me in, making me feel as if I were part of his family. This, though it provided some of the pleasures of intimacy, also carried, I began to sense, certain responsibilities. The unspoken understanding was that, as a member of his inner circle, a family member, one must never betray him.

During my second year on the Council I met Elliott’s actual family, his wife Gerianne and his son Richard, the only son of an only son. Gerianne was not the wife I would have imagined for Elliott. She was from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, a largish woman, dishwater blonde, a striking face with high cheekbones, a bit taller than he, distinctly not Jewish. She was a singer, for years singing secondary roles for the Atlanta Opera and, later, the Lyric Opera in Chicago. Elliott had met her at the Aspen Music Festival, where they both performed one summer and in later years returned to teach. Gerianne’s specialised in saying amusing, slightly outrageous things in a southern twang. Coming out of the movie Bull Durham, which I went to with her one night in Washington, she said: “That does it. I’m never again going to see a movie again I haven’t seen before.”

Their son Richard — never Rich, or Richie, or Rick or Dick, always Richard — was twenty when I first met him. He was in his sophomore year at Yale. He looked like neither of his parents, was tallish, handsome, with dark wavy hair. I recall his grousing about the co-ed dorm he had been put into. He thought the idea of such dorms gravely mistaken, an insult even. The increased sexual possibilities of such an arrangement either never occurred to him, or held no interest for him. Richard wasn’t gay, at least I don’t think he was, but merely unnaturally stuffy, especially for a kid. He was wearing a suit and tie that night, and on the four or five subsequent occasions on which we were together he was never tieless.

One night the four of us, Elliott, Gerianne, Richard and I, were dining at a then fashionable Washington restaurant called Jean-Louis. At the serving of our first course, Gerianne noted that there was no salt at the table. I asked our waiter to bring us salt, and when I did so, he replied, in a highly suspicious accent, “Jean-Louis does not permit salt at table.” Gerianne replied, “Then I guess this good ole’ Jean-Louis fella wouldn’t mind if I called and had a small pizza delivered, since these scallops he prepared haven’t a prayer without some help from salt.”

What I remember above all from that evening was Richard’s extravagant ordering. He had oysters, a Caesar salad, a full lobster, crêpes suzette — it must have been more than $200 worth of food — and he ate scarcely any of it. Neither his mother nor his father said a word about the waste of it all. Two other times that I had dinner with Elliott and Richard, something similar occurred. What, I wondered, was going on?

Elliott’s term on the NEA Council ended a year before mine. I remember at this last meeting a number of especially dopey grants were up for approval. One involved a woman performance artist whose specialty was covering her naked body in chocolate syrup, another a sculptor who set a bronze crucifix in a bottle containing urine, yet another for an exhibition of a deceased gay photographer many of whose pictures entailed plumping parts placed up the rectums of muscular young men. Elliott spoke out strongly against all three, claiming that to award such artists and their work grants was not only to degrade the National Endowment for the Arts but art itself.

One of the arts patrons on the Council, a man in the oil business in Houston, said that he couldn’t agree with Elliott Lazar’s judgment of the actual art more, but added that we needed to be careful that, in not supporting such work, we weren’t headed down “a slippery slope.”

“Allow me,” Elliott said, “to take up Arthur Mendelson’s alpine metaphor. I speak of ‘the famous slippery slope,’ by which Arthur of course means ‘censorship,’ if not actual McCarthyism. Beware, Arthur, the blackmail of the avant-garde, for that is the gambit behind all three of these grants proposals. Reject them, the implication is, and you will one day be judged akin to those people who scratched at Matisse’s paintings, or rioted at the premiere in Paris of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Sorry, Arthur, but we mustn’t let being thought reactionary deter us from doing what is right. Not all reaction is bad, especially not well-informed and aesthetically and morally sound reaction. Don’t, I implore you, let crappy art, which specialises in blasphemy and obscenity cow us. Let’s not worry about slippery slopes. Not to be willing to slide down a few of them, and this one in particular, is to show ourselves blind to the importance of true art and cowardly into the bargain.”

(Illustration by Daniel Pudles)

A brief stillness followed. All three grants were voted down. I remember at that moment feeling proud that Elliott Lazar was my friend.

I finished out my last year on the Council. Without Elliott the interesting tension of the meetings had departed. He and I hadn’t lost touch. He would call me at my home in Brentwood, usually at least once a week. He was hungry for news and gossip about the NEA. He was himself starting to write a memoir of his days as a child prodigy. Once, when I was in New York, we met for lunch, at a Chinese restaurant on West 59th Street. Gerianne joined us. Elliott forgot his reading glasses, and, rather peremptorily I thought, instructed his wife to call their maid to bring them over to the restaurant. By this act Elliott, I was reminded, still thought himself a concert artist, with all the temperament the role allows: ordering people about, expecting a high degree of service, a steady stream of praise. At that time I had the flash thought that Elliott missed his real calling — that of conducting a symphony orchestra. The title maestro would have both suited and pleased him.

Richard meanwhile had graduated from Yale and was now at Oxford, Balliol College, I think Elliott said. Elliott’s own education was chiefly musical, though he had somehow managed to work in a degree in liberal arts at San Francisco State. Like the rest of us he was an autodidact, though to a very high power. For a smart guy, he was unduly impressed, I thought, by what the world thought of great institutions of learning, and obviously pleased that his only child was able to find acceptance in them. I hoped Richard wasn’t put in a co-ed dorm at Oxford.

While his son was in his second year at Oxford, Elliott was discovered to have leukaemia. He told me about it over the phone, at the close of a long gossip-filled call. “By the way,” he said, “I’ve got cancer of the blood, pretty serious they tell me.”

Before he was able to hang up, which I think he wanted to do, I asked him to fill me in on some details. He said only that he was going three times a week to Sloan-Kettering, there were lots of transfusions, and the whole thing was, in his words, “a terrific nuisance”.

“One amusing note,” Elliott said. “Because they’re doing all this blood work, and because of fear of AIDS, they told me they had to ask me a personal question. When I asked what it was, a nurse there said they needed to know how many people I have had sex-relations with over the past twenty-five years. ‘I’ll tell you,’ I replied, ‘but you are going to be disappointed,’ and I raised my index finger.”

How Gerianne was taking Elliott’s illness, I have no idea, for I had no reason to go to New York during this time. But it couldn’t have been easy for her. They were such a tight-knit family, the Lazars. Richard I know remained at university in England, though Elliott told me that he flew in from time to time to be with him.

The cancer was not improving, Elliott reported. At one point I asked him if he had thought about radical therapies, which sometimes, or so I was told, worked.

“Like what?” he asked.

“I’ve heard that Steve McQueen went to Mexico for something called Gerson Therapy that included laetrile treatment for his cancer.”

There was a long pause. “Excuse me,” said Elliott, the immitigable highbrow, “but who’s Steve McQueen?”

One week I missed my weekly Elliott call, and when he called the week after he told me that the reason was that, in the midst of all his therapy at Sloan-Kettering, he had had a heart attack. “A mild heart attack,” he said, “but I could’ve done nicely without it.” Two weeks later he mentioned that he had to end our phone call for a dental appointment, for he had an abscessed tooth. “Leukaemia, heart attack, and now a fucking toothache,” he said. “Please, don’t ever tell me God doesn’t love a joke.”

When I didn’t hear from Elliott over the next two weeks, I called him. Gerianne answered, and told me that her husband had died two days before. He was to be buried the next day.

“Don’t have to tell you, Jack, how quickly you Jews like to bury your dead. But we are going to have a memorial for Elliott in three weeks’ time. May I convince you to speak at it?”

“Thank you, Gerianne,” I said, “I’m honored to be asked. I liked Elliott a lot, but I’m not sure I knew him well enough to speak at his memorial.”

“In that case,” she said, “I’m going to insist that you come and speak.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

“Years ago my Daddy told me that you never let a person speak at a funeral or memorial who asks to do so, because he only wants to talk about himself. Since you don’t want to speak at my husband’s memorial, I know you’ll say good and interesting things about him. Please come, Jack, Elliott would have liked you to be there.”

At the memorial, I was one of four speakers. The others included the past president of the Juilliard School, a man named Paul Levering who edited Opera News and was a friend of the family, and Richard. The Juilliard man spoke of the high standard Elliott’s set as a teacher, Paul Levering spoke about Elliott’s odd idiosyncrasies as a writer (among them, he was unable to quote from a book that he didn’t own, and once, in order to write about the great Grove Dictionary of Music he felt he had to own the work in all its many editions, which Levering had to scamper about to obtain for him), I of his courageous performance at the National Endowment for Arts, and Richard of what a good father he was. Between the four of us, I felt afterward, we hadn’t come close to describing, let alone capturing, the true Elliott Lazar, his ambition, his self-appraisal, his brilliance, not least his meshugass.

At a dinner for a few friends after the memorial, I sat next to Paul Levering.

“Elliott was one of those guys,” he said, “that in order to like him, you had really to like him. He made it impossible to be neutral about him. I’ve had people tell me how much they loathed him, a few even calling him ‘sick.’ I used to tell them I quite understood their feelings, didn’t even strongly disagree with their judgments, but I happen to have loved Elliott who, without his flaws, wouldn’t have been Elliott at all.”

“I guess I’m in your condition,” I said, and told him about the abandon with which Elliott made enemies at the NEA, even though it hurt him to do so. I liked Paul Levering, and we agreed to stay in touch.

Before I left I had a few words with Richard, who was now in his third year at Oxford. I asked him about his plans.

“I’ve applied for an examination fellowship at All Souls,” he said. ”The young Isaiah Berlin had one, you know.”

I neglected to say that I had never heard of Isaiah Berlin. “Best of luck,” I said. “What will you do if you don’t get it.”

“Oh,” he said casually, “I’ll probably return to the United States and become a public figure.”

I searched Richard’s face for traces of humor, sarcasm, irony, but could find none. He wasn’t kidding.

I missed Elliott’s weekly calls, with his wild theories about politics, his sometimes coarse jokes, his ever-whirring motive-finding machine. I sent an annual Christmas card to Gerianne. On a trip to New York, I neglected to call on her, but I did have lunch with Paul Levering, who took me to the Century Club and filled me in on the Lazar family.

“Sad to report,” he began, “things are largely out of control. Richard didn’t get his fellowship, and has been living in the West End Avenue apartment with his mother. They used to travel to Europe fairly regularly, always going first-class, though for reasons I’ll explain they stopped. I don’t know how much money Elliott left — I’m guessing it’s was around two million or so — but Gerianne and Richard are doing a pretty good job of going through it.”

“What does Richard do with his days?” I didn’t mention to Paul Richard’s telling me his fall-back position was to become a public figure.

“What he doesn’t do is go out of the house. Turns out he now suffers from extreme agoraphobia. So bad is it that on my last visit to the apartment, to see Gerianne, he asked if I’d mind dropping their garbarge in the chute down the hall, for he doesn’t like to leave the apartment at all, even to go down the hall. Gerianne tells me he’s also on anti-depressants. Poor kid, he’s as neurotic as a flea.”

“How’s Gerianne holding up?”

“She goes through life with a marvellous obliviousness. She’s like a Tennessee Williams character, an older Blanche DuBois, with the sex part excluded. On the few occasions when I’ve been with her, I’m waiting for her to say something like ‘Are the boys from the university here yet?’ Elliott really was the player-coach, CEO, generalissimo, benign dictator of this little family. Nutty as he could be, he held everything together. Without him, it’s all falling apart.”

“Do you suppose Gerianne and Richard can ride things out on the money Elliott left?”

“Now, you might say, we come to the bad news. Richard, with his mother’s approval, is currently taking over investing the money. Ever the good student, he’s convinced Gerianne that he understands the stock market, knows how it really works. Whether she believes him, or doesn’t want a fight, who knows? I only know I wouldn’t let that old boy near my lunch money.”

Nothing I could do about any of this, of course. When we departed the Century Club, I told Paul I’d appreciate it if he’d continue to keep me in touch about Gerianne and Richard, which he agreed to do.

Eighteen, maybe nineteen months later, I had a call from Paul Levering telling me that Richard Lazar was dead.

“What of?” I asked.

“His heart gave out,” Paul said. “He’d put on lots of weight, and it turns out that he was on all sorts of pills for his maladies, real and imagined. Unfortunately for Gerianne, he lost just about all of Elliott’s money before he died. Gerianne has put the West End Avenue apartment up for sale. She tells me that she is going to move back to Arkansas. She has a sister there, in Pine Bluff, also a widow.”

I thought of Gerianne, poor woman, a widow who now had membership in that saddest of all sororities, women who buried their children. I thought of her high spirits, her comic angle on life. Still, it was difficult to imagine her depressed, which now, husbandless, childless, nearly broke, she had every encouragement, even right, to be.

Two months or so later, Gerianne called.“Jack, Gerianne here, how are you anyway?” said the unmistakeable voice on the phone.

“I’m OK, Gerianne. I’m good. How about you?”

“Getting back,” she said. “I take it you’ve heard about Richard.

When I told her I had, she replied, “You know, I sometimes think he wasn’t fit for the world. Elliott gave the poor kid too high an estimate of himself. Lots of talk in the air nowadays about self-esteem, but my son, I’ve come to think, maybe could have done with less of it.”

I couldn’t think of a response.

“But the reason I’m calling, Jack, is I need your help. This is going to sound way off the wall and all that, but I have an idea for a television sit-com, and I wondered if you could put me in touch with people out there I might be able to sell it to.”

“You want to tell me the main idea?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said. “It’s about a clutch of widows living in a big ole building in Manhattan, waiting for the wives of some of the more prosperous men in the building to die, so they can make their moves on these men. The show would be about their various plottings. My working title is Nurses, With and Without Purses. I think it could be very funny.”

“Interesting,” I said, though I didn’t think it very interesting at all. “Why don’t you write up the idea, do what out here they call ‘a treatment.’ Outline some possible episodes. Make suggestions for casting. The casting angle can be very important. Send it to me, and I’ll be glad to work with you on it, and pass it along to some people who may be able to make it happen.”

“Jack, you’re a pussycat. No wonder Elliott thought so much of you. I’ll do it this week. Thank you so much, darling man.”

No treatment was ever forthcoming. Perhaps when Gerianne attempted to set out her plan for the show she saw how thin it was. Perhaps she didn’t have the skill to organise it. I never heard from Gerianne again. I did hear, a year or so later, from Paul Levering, who sent me, via email, an obituary of  her that appeared in the Journal, the Juilliard newsletter. A former student wrote glowingly of Gerianne’s help with her own career. Another student called her “the real thing.” No mention was made of the cause of death. Paul Levering didn’t know what it was either. “I don’t suppose it matters,” he wrote.

This strange family, the Lazars, three people, none among them quite made for this world, were gone, departed without trace. No grandchildren remain. Soon there will be no one alive even to remember them. Not that the same isn’t true about me and, for all I know, you. I have grandchildren — five of them, from my own two kids — and so I suppose I can count on people remembering Jack Devlin for the next forty or fifty years after my death. I don’t kid myself that my work as an actor is likely to have a long life; as I mentioned at the outset, people who’ve seen me on television twenty-five or so years ago have a tough time remembering me even now.

Gerianne, with her long-ago high musical aspirations, Elliott with his own dreams for a soloist’s career and strong opinions on art and just about everything else, poor self-deceived Richard, gone — the three of them, the Lazar family, poof! Vanished. Somehow I couldn’t let them depart without setting out both how sad and how extraordinary they were. 

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