I met Gene at just about this time fourteen years ago at the apartment of a mutual friend, the late John Galliher. He was tall and very self-possessed in bearing and jolly and warm in presence.
He was one of those kids who came to New York just as soon as he was out of school, to seek his fortune. He was born in a little town in North Carolina called Salisbury. Summertimes, when he was old enough, his mother would send him up to New York to stay with an aunt, and he was starry-eyed.
One of his earliest recollections was asking his mother what the difference was between the public drinking fountains that were “For Whites Only.” When his mother told him that there was no difference but that those were the rules, Gene decided he wanted to live in New York when he grew up. Where everybody drank from the same fountain.
He always said he came from a family of fabulous cooks. Many of his stories about his childhood in the South took place in and around the kitchen and the garden where his mother grew her vegetables and flowers. It was an idyllic life, at least in the re-telling. You could see the curious little boy discovering the pleasures of life through his mother’s culinary tastes and talents.
When he came to New York with dreams of being an actor; where he found his way into the more sophisticated circles of the theatre and the arts, he also got into cooking. He took lessons from Dione Lucas who was then one of the leading teachers in Manhattan. Eventually he befriended and learned from the New York Times now legendary food editor Craig Claiborne.
All of this ultimately led to a career in the food business – as a caterer, a professional chef, a food stylist, a food consultant. When I met him he was food editor for HG and co-host with Melba Tolliver on Channel 12’s Long Island People. And he’d written a cookbook harkening back to his roots Gene Hovis’ Uptown Down Home Cookbook. Later he was Vice President and Creative Director, Marketplace and Restaurants for Macy’s.
his profession and his professional life were only aspects
of a larger persona. He was the first African-American
person I’ve known who established a social presence
in what is still all these years later, a very white
world, not by wealth or by celebrity, but by sheer force
of personality. Brilliant, mind you, and well-seasoned
with the wisdom he acquired in childhood.
He traveled in social and artistic circles uptown, downtown, East Side, West Side and worldwide, and that is what he loved about life. He loved Paris and for years spent part of his summers there. And wherever he went he knew people. By his fifties the boy from Salisbury was on the International Best Dressed list, a member of the glitterati and man of the world.
He often entertained at small luncheons or dinners in the large but cozy apartment with a dining room that could hold twelve or fourteen comfortably. There you’d have that uptown down home cooking which also meant a homemade (Gene-made) cake or pie, seated amongst the fast and the fashionable from opera divas to CZ Guest to all kinds of New York types, happy as clams in mud to be at Gene’s table where he’d made a place not only for himself but for everyone else.
He wore his successes and his high life like a well-tailored comfortable jacket. He was always very generous with his kind words and in sharing whatever he had. Including his excellent connections in this culture of supra-networking. In the early 90s, after decades of collecting antiques and storing them in warehouses, he opened what immediately became a very successful antiques shop up in Hudson, New York.
A few years ago, long a diabetic, he had a massive stroke. That changed everything. He handled it with characteristic grace. But when that happens to a very social creature in this most social of metropolitan environments, much of the world falls away. Gene, however, was blessed with two things: courage and Hans, his devoted companion. He made the adjustment as a matter of course.
He also discovered he didn’t miss not going to the parties he was still getting invitations for. Occasionally he got out to lunch or dinner with old friends. He looked great. He needed a cane to get around but he wore it the way he did everything else: with classic style. No doubt he at least considered the laments of a radically quieter life for such an active and creative mind. But the business of taking care of himself and making himself comfortable was now the priority and would always be.
We chatted on the phone every now and then. He was always better at keeping up than I was. I hadn’t seen him in months although when we talked he was his cheerful and mischievous self, concocting thoughts designed to make you laugh. He called me on the phone last week when I was on a business call. “Let me call you back,” I said.
“ You won’t,” he laughed, “you’ll forget,” he said knowingly.
I did forget. I did what I often do, I remembered in the very late night before turning in; when it’s too late to call.
Now it really is. He died in his sleep. He was resting; he was comfortable. He would have said he had a good run. He loved his life, every minute of it.