Monday, February 2, 2009

A father's legacy lives on

Looking south along Fifth Avenue and 40th Street. 2:10 PM. Photo: JH.
February 2, 2009. June in January over the weekend. Well, maybe late March. Sun came out, so did New Yorkers, for some fresh air. Yesterday was sunny and mild, mid-50s, almost tropical to a New Yorker right now. By last night (Sunday) with twilight getting later, there was a touch of Spring. A tease as they say in media.

Yesterday morning I went over to the Frank Campbell Funeral Chapel on 81st Street and Madison Avenue. Campbell’s is the most famous funeral home in New York, and possibly the world. The list of funerals of the famous is historical, including Rudolph Valentino, Judy Garland, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Garbo, Toscanini, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, John Lennon, Malcolm Forbes, Jimmy Cagney, Stravinsky, William Randolph Hearst, Luther Vandross, Tennessee Williams. Notorious B.I.G.

It sits amidst the most fashionable neighborhood in New York, the Upper East Side. It’s very neighborhood-y. Across the avenue is P.S. 6, long considered the “best” public school in New York. Across the street is the Villequin, the Swim Wear boutique where a man’s bathing suit is both pretty and pretty pricey.

And all along the avenue is a fashion parade. This is where the denizens of Fifth and Park stroll to shop, to run errands, to walk the dogs. The dress code has always been: weekend chill.

The funeral was for a man named Greg Speiser, a lifelong New Yorker who was the husband of our Executive Editor Sian Ballen who also collaborates on the NYSD HOUSE. Greg had fallen severely ill a week ago Friday, in so much pain that his wife took him to the hospital. There they discovered in his agony that he had cancerous tumors on several vital organs and was near death. I recount this as simply and starkly and unbelievably as it was put to his wife within a few hours of his admission.

This was a 53-year-old man who had had some serious symptoms of undetermined cause only a month ago when he took his young sons skiing in the West during the holiday vacation. When the symptoms didn’t completely disappear he was put on another medication. How it was that only a month later he was wracked with virulent tumors and clotting remains a mystery. Doctors told his wife they had never seen anything like this. He died last Tuesday night.

Greg was one of those people whom I have known of but really never knew. His wife, Sian and I have worked together for the past ten years, first at Avenue, then Quest and now the NYSD. There is an intimacy in that kind of “knowing” because family members talk about their family in the course of a longtime work relationship. At least in my life they do.

I knew that he was a guy who had grown up in the city and gone to Horace Mann, that he worked for Bear Stearns in Money Management until the bottom fell out. I knew that he quickly resurrected himself business-wise and was working hard. And I knew that he was one of those guys who was a real family man – the old-style, hands-on type father. He had two young sons, 12 and 17 to whom he was devoted. I mean devoted. Idolized, maybe you could say. He loved being with his sons. They were the center of his life. Every night the family sat down to dinner together, something that is for many people now an ancient, forgotten tradition.

I am portraying an ideal because in that way the man was an ideal. There was another side to life also, obviously. He and his wife ahd been together for 27 years. There were circumstances with his birth family that were less than ideal and must have been painful as it always is when it is. But life went on and Greg’s family with Sian came first.

Yesterday I learned about the man. There was a line waiting to get into Campbell’s at 11:20 in the morning, including a large number of teenagers, with parents, dressed appropriately (jacket and tie) for the service. By the time we got into the entrance gallery, Allman Brothers and Stones music was playing (not loudly but audibly). The Chapel was full with more than 300 seated. By the time the service began, there must have been another two hundred jammed into the adjacent rooms. And very quiet. Only listening.

There was no seat left for me in the sanctuary so access sound-wise and visually was limited. I could not see the speakers. There were several. Greg’s eldest son Alex, who is going to his father’s alma mater, Wesleyan in the fall, spoke first. The kid recounted a father who was always engaging his sons in talk, in baseball games, in ski trips, sight-seeing trips, guitar paying, bantering. And parenting. The boy spoke with aplomb and authority and affection as if his father were by his side.

Sian’s sister Kate spoke of her brother-in-law and his place in their family and how he was as much a son to their father (who is still very active in his early 90s).

Three or four of the speakers were old friends, friends since grade school, friends since college, and friends since Wall Street. The further back they went, the more they portrayed a guy who loved his family, loved his friends, loved his music and sports, loved taking trips – which he always planned at length and in detail so as to make it fun and interesting for everyone else, always at the center of it.

A Yankees fan with no athletic abilities when it came to a ball but could ski like a champ; a guy who came of age at the height of Hippiedom and absorbed much of its culture as his; yet a man who was a brilliant money manager always concerned about his clients’ personal security. He left miles of memories of good times, amusement, camaraderie and joyous fatherhood.

It seemed as if everyone standing and sitting in the room was there to pay tribute to that, for him and for that part of themselves that was Greg. A picture emerged of an energetic man playful in his humor with his friends and with his children, whose life was full of joys that he created for himself and those around him. There was laughter in the sanctuary and with a lot of men and women removing their glasses to daub their eyes, both smiling and sad, in recollection.

I never knew the man, never had a conversation with him except for those brief moments on the phone from time to time while waiting for Sian to pick up. He had a brightness about him, a glint in his eye that reflected that humor his friends loved about him. 53 is very young to die in this world, as was made apparent by all the young families in the room. It seemed unreal; it happened so quickly. His loss drove home the delicate balance for all of us but no doubt moreso for his peers and contemporaries. As a friend he was a mensch. As a man he was a father. Yet youth still held sway. It seemed as if he really hadn’t left.

Then after the speakers were finished, his two sons and a friend, on their guitars played and sang the Greg Allman song, "Melissa."

Crossroads, seem to come and go, yeah.
The gypsy flies from coast to coast

Knowing many, loving none
Bearing sorry havin fun,
But back home hel’ll always run
To sweet Melissa ...

When they finished, there was a moment and then the crowd began to slowly disburse. The man I never knew was a father and a friend and an almost religiously devoted family man. Some friends, in one of the notices in the New York Times used the word “mensch” to describe him, assuring me that from his memorial I got the picture. I left Campbell’s with the feeling that despite his still young age, he’d achieved what mattered most to him, and that was a gracious fatherhood. And then, just outside, at the entrance were the two boys, his legacy, Alex now tall and forthright like his dad, and William, younger, more circumspect, but also out there, like his dad. Greeting their father's friends, with thanks. Everything is all right. He made it so, along with his partner, their mother.
The scene at the Winter Antiques Show Young Collectors' Night.
Last Thursday night at the Park Avenue Armory at 67th Street, Elie Tahari hosted Young Collector’s Night at the Winter Antiques Show. The evening was co-hosted by Kipton Cronkite, Willia Bilbane 3rd, Emily Israel, Ph.D., Elizabeth Meigher, Hudson Morgan, Tatiana G. P. Perkin, and Gillian Hearst Simonds. This is always a great party and brings out a great crowd of prominent 20- 30-something New Yorkers. The Winter Antiques Show benefits the East Side House Settlement. Elie Tahari besides being the sponsor also held a kick-off cocktail party earlier last month at his SoHo boutique which also benefitted the charity.
Ariel Moses and David Chines
Caitlin Davis and Jennifer Wright
Cena Hackler Jackson and Matt Jackson
Caroline Cummings, Georgia Tapert, and Bettina Prentice
Amy McFarland and Aleta Spitaleri
April Grunow, Amanda Starbuck, and Dabney Mercer
Billy Gilbane, Tatiana Perkin, Elie Tahari, Susan Kellogg, Gillian Hearst Simonds, and Kipton Cronkite
Donald Ellis and Bettina Prentice
Chris Breck and Emma Snowdon-Jones
Heather Gambino, Robert Meringolo, and Jennie Meringolo
Leslie Francisco and Avery Broadbent
Tess Viljoen, Benedicta von Waldow, and Bettina Prentice
Melissa Fisher, Edward Barsamian, Mark Gilbertson, Georgina Schaeffer, and Phillip Thomas
Michael Voris and Alexandra Buckley Voris
Ines de Seroux and William Noortman
Suzanne de Mailly and Kevin Conru
Gillian Hearst Simonds
Tatiana Perkin
Dabney Mercer
Anthony Scardino and Andrew Scott
Adriana Pidwerbetsky, Jared Clark, and Suzanne Fuller
Kirsten Hardigg, Kipton Cronkite, Julia Moore, and Leslie Francisco
Georgia Tapert and Caroline Cummings
Jill Crawford, Jillian Stile, and Anna Lee Wolcott
Rachel Wolkowitz and Krista Schulz
Todd Merrill, Scott Currie, Susan Kellogg, and Joe Lupo
Caroline Dowd, Leigh Keno, and Laura Aronsson
Amber Hopkins and Hillary Lewis
Valaer Van Roijen and Dr. Emily Israel
Amy McFarland and Alita Stitaleri
Melanie Brunl, Paul Woods, and Laura Dowling
Tim Morehouse, Scott Buccheit, and Jason Rogers
Caitlin Mehner and Eric Decholnoky
Jull Ross and Corinne Keller
Dawne Maria Grannum and Erica Faust
Ariana Loreto, Catherine McCarthy, and Larisa Grollemond
Caroline Cummings, Georgia Tapert, and Bettina Prentice
Jon Kurpis and Elizabeth Grimalti
Macey Booth and Lydia Gidwitz
Jacqui Stafford and Sandra Gabriele
Andrew Charbin, Stephanie Guyot, Bryna Butler, and Benedicta von Waldow
Jillian Stile, John Dalsheim, Anna Lee Wolcott, and Jill Crawford
Michaela Gannon and Catherine MacKay
Douglas Gilman, Lauren Sercander, and Matthew Dukes
Scott Buccheit and Grace Gomez Brea
Valerie Aston, Elizabeth Riley, and Erica Mann
Melanie Clifton-Harvey and June Terry
Marysia Walker and Erica Leever
Will Motley
Bryna Butler and Maria Palmieri
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