Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Neal Travis

Neal with Tolly Travis
In Memoriam. 8.20.02 - First day in New York after Los Angeles. A very hot, very hot day, after a very hot night where it felt like the furnace was outside your door.

There was a funeral at the Holy Cross Church on 42nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenue for Neal Travis, the New York Post columnist who died last week of cancer at 62.

Neal, born in New Zealand, began his career in journalism in Australia where he made friendships that he took with him for the rest of his life. He later wrote a novel, worked in tabloid television (“Hot Copy”) and a number of years ago began his column in the Rupert Murdoch-owned Post, “serving the dish on the famous and infamous” five times a week.

He and his wife Tolly, a warm and friendly woman who was seemingly always at his side, were popular members of the New York social scene and particularly the tables up at Elaine’s.

There they often congregated with their buddies – many of whom were journalists and politicians – frequently and with notable conviviality.

Neal was out of the old school of journalism where style, story and personality were unfettered by the issues of ego and celebrity that afflict a lot of people in the business today. Small, silver-haired and slight in stature, he wore a perpetual impish grin and had the eyes of a pixie. Not pugnacious, but thoroughly his own man, he could and did mingle with anybody with ease and je ne sais quoi (not his kind of word, incidentally, but very applicable to his disposition).

He was a very democratic reporter. Friends of all, he was never thwarted by his friendships in reporting a story if it was a scoop or a scandal. That impish grin and those pixie eyes related trenchantly when necessary. Former Senator Al D’Amato, one of those giving the eulogies today, a long time friend of Neal, recalled that when it came to reporting about the goings-on of his friends, Neal did his job. And the friendships continued, and in the end, as in the beginning, were shared with many laughs.

The mass was conducted by Father Pete Colapietro, who was also a close friend of Neal and a frequent guest at the Travises’ round tables at Elaine’s. A big Italian-American man, he spoke in the manner of an old friend, intimately, with a booming voice and the familiarity of a buddy. I’ve never experienced a member of the clergy with such an open, laid-back, yet authoritative quality to his conduct of religious ritual. It added to the poignancy of the afternoon.

The service began at 2:30. There were several hundred friends and acquaintances. I saw Raoul Felder, Richard Johnson, Vickie Ward and her husband Matt Doull, CZ Guest, Danny Zarem, Couri Hay, Ann Rapp, Sharon Sondes, Liz Smith, Nancy Holmes, Catherine Saxton, Carl Bernstein, Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Sir Howard Stringer, Denise Rich, Tommy Corcoran, Sharon Hoge, Bill and Adair Beutel, Kathy Sloane, Elaine Kaufman of course. The ushers were Colin Myler, Robert Zimmerman, Bill Bratton and Geoffrey Thomas. The pallbearers were Steve Dunleavy, Sidney Zion, Bill O’Shaunnessy, Marty Richards, Micky Brennan, Jerry Della Femina and Col Allen, the editor of the New York Post.

Ambassador Carl Spielvogel gave the Old Testament Reading, Andrew Stein gave the New Testament reading and Claudia Cohen read the Prayer of the Faithful.The mass included eulogies by Steve Dunleavy, former Governor Mario Cuomo, Col Allan, Ron Konecky, former Senator D’Amato and Ann Downey. Steve Dunleavy had known Neal since they were teenagers in Australia. Mario Cuomo paid tribute to Neal’s fellowship recalling how Neal once mistook him for Al D’Amato – who sat on the other side of the political aisle – also a great friend.

It was a very emotional service because there were so many who had so much affection for Neal, so many who are personally going to miss his company, and so many who grieved over Tolly Travis’ great loss. Tolly, in black dress and wide-brim black hat with two long stems of two very large white lilies wrapped around it, was shattered by the loss of her husband. The many of us who knew them felt her grief and anguish; they were a team, the ideal couple in the eyes of many. When each finished, Tolly got up to thank them. Several times during the service Tolly Travis got up from her seat and embraced her husband’s shrouded casket.

At the end of the service of almost two hours of tears and laughter, Lesley Gore, another old and devoted friend told about visiting Neal in his hospital room only last week. Before she left, he was having his screwdriver and his favorite sushis delivered for his dinner. He went out living his life as he always lived his life: his way. She then sang a song she wrote some time ago, remarking that Neal would have asked her to sing “It’s My Party (and I’ll Cry if I Want To),” adding that he would have requested the dirty version. Gore’s song today, “I Am On My Own” was very effective and touching for the moment. Then came the Final Commendation and Farewell; the congregation rose along with the pallbearers; Frank Sinatra singing “I Did It My Way” began to play over the speaker system, and the processional to the burial began.

I never knew him well and although we were contemporaries, I always regarded him as the ultimate old pro, someone one looks up to as one might look up to an elder, with respect. He was nevertheless, always hail-fellow-well-met toward me, with the warmth of a friend; always encouraging and quick to compliment especially in the presence of others. He shared what he had, much of which was that warmth and humor, that worldliness that included everybody. He had been ill, growing progressively worse over the past year. None of it seemed to affect his attitude about his life, his work, and his world of friends. He approached his end with the same bemused insouciance that he approached everything in life. “Without an ounce of self-pity,” as his friend Steve Dunleavy observed, and always with that wry little grin that warmed us all.