Saturday, February 25, 2012

Remembering Howard Kissel

It is with enormous sadness that I report the contents of an email this morning informing me of the death of Howard Kissel, whom I have known since the late 1960s, and whose friendship I've cherished from the start. He was brilliant, funny, and a unique man. I saw him develop from a newcomer fresh from Milwaukee and dreaming of a career in the glamorous part of New York--the New York he and I knew from movies and plays--to an eminence gris who was very much a part of that world.

Howard came to visit me in Hoboken in late 2008, when I had relocated here after returning to my hometown in Alabama for almost 20 years. This is the blog post he wrote about that visit, appearing in the New York Daily News January 8, 2009.

Tuesday I took a journey that lasted barely 15 minutes but brought me into a totally different world.

Boarding a Jersey Transit bus at Port Authority, following the directions given me by my friend Mary Lois Adshead, in a quarter of an hour I found myself in downtown Hoboken, a place that until then had only been a name.

I knew its history -- it gave us Frank Sinatra and "On the Waterfront" -- but I had no sense of it as a place. I have known Mary Lois for over 40 years -- we worked together at Fairchild Publications in the late '60s, a quiet time in New York, when the city was thought to be headed for self-destruction.

We toiled in an old building on 13th Street just east of Fifth Avenue, which did not even have air conditioning. In the summer if the Temperature Humidity Index reached 80 and you had finished your work you could go home earlly. The one good thing was that we got, after only a year of employment, three weeks of vacation.

In those days Fairchild was still a family-owned business. (It would later be acquired by Capital Cities, ABC and finally Disney, which sold it to Conde Nast a few years ago.) Its best known publication was Women's Wear Daily. Mary Lois and I worked for what was the original Fairchild publication, Daily News Record, which had been started as a general business paper at the turn of the century Chicago World's Fair. As businesses grew in importance -- like women's ready-to-wear -- separate papers would be spun off DNR. A few months ago DNR became a weekly page in WWD.

When I was there DNR covered men's fashions and textiles. My career began writing about hosiery and underwear. Then I was given work clothes, soon pants, then sport jackets and eventually all of sportswear. I remember telling a source about one of these shifts (perhaps the addition of sport jackets to my other responsibilities.) "I hope this is not just a lateral move," he said, by way of congratulation.

I was indeed an intrepid reporter and in my coverage of work clothes I even ventured to the East Village, a bar called Slug's in the Far East (in the '60s that meant East 4th Street between Avenues B and C, dangerous territory in those days.) There I heard the not yet known Sun Ra and interviewed him the next day.

I wish I could remember who had recommended him -- I did not have many hip friends in those days. All things considered, I do not have many hip friends all these years later, which is why it seems so remarkable that I could have known about Sun Ra. The main thing I remember about out interview was that he costumed his Arkestra (his coinage) in fabrics from a store called Paterson Silks, around the corner from m office on Union Square.

As work clothes editor, I also did a tongue-in-cheek review of the latest Sears, Roebuck catalogue, for which I was chastised by my editor, Blll Taffin, one of the few bosses in my long career for whom I had unreserved respect and affection. Once a year he and I would go to lunch with executives from Sears. Whenever we ordered a round of drinks and someone said, 'Cheers,' one of the executives would say, with an impish grin, "And Roebuck!"

Mary Lois covered textiles. At the time she was married to an actor of the avant-garde variety, Jim Vann. He had a young daughter roughly the same age as Mary Lois's Alison. (I remember that when Alison saw her first Afghan she asked, "Mommy, is that dog wearing a costume?") Weekends with Jim's ex-spouse the girls were taken to avant-garde performance spaces. At some point they were taken to see a play in a Broadway theater and were enraptured by the spectacle of the curtain.

Mary Lois left Fairchild well before I did. At one point she married an executive with DuPont and spent several years in Geneva, Switzerland. A dozen years ago, when she had moved back to her home town, Fairhope Alabama, she invited me to direct Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosenzweig" at the semi-professional theater she ran, the Jubilee Fish Theater, three of the happiest weeks of my life.

A year ago she returned to this vicinity and settled in Hoboken, about which she blogs on "Finding Myself in Hoboken." She has also written a history of Fairhope, a Utopian community, called  The Fair Hope of Heaven.

She suggested we meet Tuesday at an old German restaurant called Helmer's, a block from the bus stop. It had the Spartan charm of working class taverns of a century ago. It also had an excellent steak sandwich with very thin slices of steak and gravy topped by perfect home fried potatoes. I wish there were a place in New York where you could get perfect home fried potatoes.

Mary Lois also invited Jerry and Kathy Anderson to join us. It is a sign of how naive the times were that dating between employees was forbidden but Jerry and Kathy had ignored the ban. When they decided to get married they had to tell one of the supervisors about it so they could take simultaneous three week vacations for their honeymoon. All this had to be kept secret, but their last day before getting hitched somehow the word got out. We tortured them mercilessly but they refused to come clean. Jerry continued to work in the men's wear industry, most recently as director of the Men's Tie Foundation, which recently disbanded. Neither of us, I regret to say, wore a tie to lunch.

One test of true friendship is that time is erased within seconds when you see someone with whom you were once truly close. I think of my four years at DNR as the darkest, longest part of my life, but there was deep camaraderie among the inmates, and our reunion could not have been warmer or more festive.

After lunch we wandered through the streets of Hoboken to have dessert at Mary Lois's apartment, a few short blocks away. The architecture resembled that of Brooklyn more than that of Manhattan, and there were a few buildings glittering enough to be on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland.

Mary Lois has been delighted to find that longtime citizens of Hoboken have a deep understanding of their history, which they share with her on her blog. She had learned, for example, that Helmer's had been destroyed in a fire a few years ago but was restored to its original state from photographs. It is more authentic now than it was before the fire.

The discovery of a getaway, free from the cares of Manhattan, just across the river, has contributed enormously to my mental well-being as we begin a difficult new year.


I'm pretty sure Howard didn't believe in heaven any more than I do, but today I keep visualizing him there, making the acquaintance of his heroes in music and in the theatre. How happy they are to meet him--and, well, he is in heaven.


Linda Horne Small said...

Great piece, ML. I could almost taste the sandwich and certainly enjoyed the friendship he captured.

Mary Lois said...

The absolutely best (so far) obituary and appreciation of Howard appears here.

jaques mullet said...

"One test of true friendship is that time is erased within seconds when you see someone with whom you were once truly close." wow,
I thought something like that just the other day.
I am glad for that friendship you had.

Cheryl A. said...

He sounded like a wonderful human. I'm sorry he's gone. Thanks for sharing Mary.

Nan said...

I am so very sorry, Mary Lois.

Mary Lois said...

Nan, at 7 PM Tuesday, February 28, 2012, the lights were dimmed on Broadway for one minute in Howard's honor. A fitting tribute for a man who loved the place and the institution that is the Broadway theatre. I paused in my life, and devoted some ten minutes to willing myself there, with him, in spirit-- and wishing with all my heart that we still had him.