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Remembering a great man, a good man

Riverside Park. 3:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Tuesday, October 4, 2011. Cool and rainy, yesterday in New York. Temperatures dipping to the high 40s late at night. With that chill and the damp streets, the feeling at night always reminds me of film noir. The time that when you’re out, you think about going home and getting warm. And dry.

Roger Webster died yesterday morning at 6. He had been ill with cancer for several months although he’d kept it from most of us and just lived his life, did his work, saw his friends. His illness which for quite awhile seemed to be in remission, got to the point where he had to be hospitalized. That was several weeks ago. At first we thought he would be home soon. Then the news changed.

He was not a big man but he was almost six feet, broad shouldered, salt and pepper grey hair, with a tendency to hold his head up, chin up, when he was silent in the room, or walking or standing still. Roger had a lot of friends. He wasn’t famous in New York but there were a lot of people who knew him and liked him. He liked them too. He was unimpressed by celebrity although anyone whose work he admired was impressive to him.

He had a large and eclectic group of friends, probably because he seemed to have the natural ability to accept people on their terms. He could easily find their foibles fascinating, and could brush aside their shortcomings. He was generous that way, although I think he thought it was the better way to look at things.

In his earlier years he’d been an actor (when he left his birth name behind and became Roger Webster), and artist, and landscape gardener. I’m sure he worked at all kinds of odd jobs, whatever needed to be done to pay the rent. He’d live in L.A. as well as New York, and probably elsewhere. Everywhere he went he met interesting people, and they’d meet a man who liked them for who they were. That was part of what was interesting about Roger. That’s quite a talent in breakneck city life, and rarely achieved honestly.

Roger was honest. He also loved religions. They may have had something to do with his almost divine patience, but that’s just a hunch. I know he was searching for the Answers, and that the process was always enough for him – like a mountain-climber scaling a new and challenging peak.

His funeral will be held at the Greek Orthodox Church but he loved the Roman Catholics too, and the Jewish religion. Every Tuesday night he went to Kabalah classes. He had none of the bias or prejudice that often go with these organized religions, but rather loved what they stood for and ignored the rest.
Jason Grant and Roger Webster.
He was kind of like an angel, and I say that seriously.

In his early 20s, he met Couri Hay, worked with him when Couri had a column in the National Enquirer in the 1970s and 80s, and got involved in the public relations business and New York. It fit him well. You’ve seen his picture on these pages many times. In the past few years, after he left Couri, he went out on his own. With the assistance of his friend Jason Grant, he handled a lot of active accounts including Doubles, The Central Park Conservancy, the American Cancer Society and many others.

But all of that seems incidental whenever I think of Roger. I first met him about eighteen years ago when he was working for Couri Hay. He was a cut-above most because he was always gentleman in his behavior toward everybody, and it wasn’t a businesslike act; that’s who he was. And he knew what he was doing.
Roger with just some of his many friends and admirers.
I intended to write this Diary but my problem has been What To Say. Because as well as I knew him -- and he was easy to feel close to, or confide in -- I knew very little about his childhood, and his early family life. These matters, to me, are always key elements in knowing somebody.

I knew that he grew up in Minnesota and that he had siblings. I suspected just from the nature of his personality, that his family life was difficult. He never talked about it, and I never asked. Because he was honest by nature, I’m sure he would have answered any question, yet there was a sense that he’d separated himself from that. Such is often a natural road to survival.

Difficult family lives is nothing new, and even commonplace for many of us. It’s often a matter of degree. Although I learned only a few days ago, for example, that Roger’s father had been a POW in the Second World War and that he had been marked emotionally forever after. I don’t recall Roger ever talking about his father or his mother. Or his family But I have learned that he was close to his parents, both of whom passed away a number of years ago, and left him a small inhertiance.

Also, most importantly, there was a sadness about Roger in repose, when spotted by himself on the street, or in the madding crowd. Despite the relaxed and well-turned out presence he assumed so comfortably, there was a sadness. It wasn’t pronounced, or a woe-is-me, but more a surrender to whatever he perceived as his reality. His immense tolerance and kindness toward others were the best defenses against that sadness. I think he knew that. As if he had turned it into love. The act of giving assuages a lot of pain on both sides. As hard a lesson as it is for us to learn, Roger had mastered it.

He also, it should be said, enjoyed his life. He loved traveling. In his long relationship with Couri Hay, he traveled all over the world. He and Jason had been to Europe two or three times in the last year. His last trip early in summer was to Paris, to show his sister around. Then he took the Orient Express to Istanbul. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he was in his own kind of heaven tasting the wines, testing the waters, wherever he went.

Roger had a zest for life.
That’s probably what drew him out of Minnesota into the big world. He loved all of it, right up to the last few weeks. He was 65 last June, looking good, especially for a man his age. Many of us knew about his prostate condition but it didn’t seem to affect him in any way. He worked a full schedule on a busy calendar. He wrote. He dined and went to parties and theatre and exhibitions. If there were a birthday he always brought a thoughtful present. Because of all that everyone was surprised that he should suddenly be in hospital. Even more surprising that he lost ground so fast.

I was wondering what he was thinking, how his mind was processing this last few moments of his active life. I wouldn't have asked him although I would have wanted to. I knew from his ability to tolerate that he was working at it. Until he suddenly slipped away from us. Roger was a great man, a good man, and a great loss to all of us. All of us.
 

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