My friend Iris Love passed away. I am — at the moment, anyway — less sad than … startled. Feeling much as I did when our mutual good friend Liz Smith dashed off her final item.
Completely different women in manner, tastes, sense and sensibility; similar in what seemed to be endless resources of energy and vitality. Like great oil wells than never run dry. My life was richer — and considerably more stressful! — for knowing them. I am poorer now, and what I wouldn’t give for those particular stresses today. (Fuck pandemic anxiety — just try getting Miss Love, a woman who had traveled the world often — to show up on time for drinks in a restaurant that was literally in a building where she lived. Between “I’ll be right down” and her invariably flustered Tennessee Williams heroine arrival, Rome had burned, Nero had fiddled, the Dark Ages and come and gone, Marie Antoinette had given her head so France could be free, Marie Curie had given her life to save others and a carnival barker was redefining the Constitution.
That I’ll never again chastise Iris for her chronic tardiness — while simultaneously ordering her first margarita — doesn’t seem fair, or even possible.
But I won’t be sad.
Iris was almost absurdly optimistic and she always encouraged me to be less inherently broody, worried and tense. At some point in an Iris Love pep talk I would always burst into genuinely happy laughter. She appeared completely innocent of the knowledge that she (and Miss Smith) were significant factors in my tension. Iris’s reaction to any chaos she might cause reminded me of the famous Tallulah Bankhead anecdote: “Tallulah dropped an egg and stood aside.”
Iris would slip into the role of Glinda — my personal Land of Oz was inevitable, available and right around the corner! I did my best Dorothy Gale. With a tequila chaser.
I won’t be sad.
Last summer when I was still a working man (sort of) I wrote about the anniversary of Iris’s great professional moment as an archaeologist. Now in this terrible spring, I reprint it:
FIFTY YEARS ago tomorrow, millions around the world watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. I watched it in a bar, and was less impressed by that “one giant leap for mankind” than I was busy wondering why people drank so much! (I would be fully 19 before liquor passed my lips. After that I never wondered again why people drank.)
On the same day, on earth, in Turkey, archaeologist Iris Love discovered the Temple of Aphrodite at Knidos. Later in the year, the New York Times announced the discovery and put Miss Love on its front page. I read the Times story as well as a massive piece in The New Yorker, a year later. As a mythology nerd and an admirer of decorative ruins and statuary, Love’s name and her historic finding stayed in my head. (As did her nickname “the mini-skirted archaeologist.” Nobody was “woke” then, okay?)
11 years later, on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art I encountered Iris Love in the flesh. It was a Met Costume Exhibit. I was the escort to a new acquaintance, columnist Liz Smith. Wearing my very first (and very last!) tuxedo, I was in the early days of getting to know Liz, scribbling items, learning to type, being sent to shows and screenings. Wondering when the hell I was going to wake up from this twisted, improbable dream! At evening’s end, I noticed a wiry, dangerously tan, startlingly blonde woman, got up in a cream-colored Greek goddess one shoulder gown. She appeared extremely vivacious and looked vaguely familiar. Liz took note of this lady’s vivacity and said, “Denis, excuse me.”
She marched down the steps, took the lady by her well-toned arm and engaged in lively chat. (Actually, it seemed to be an argument, which I found thrilling. Famous people arguing — if my mother could see me now!) “That’s Iris Love, the archaeologist,” Liz said brusquely when she got back to me. So! How interesting! Before I could form another thought, Miss Love gathered up the folds of her Athena-themed gown and headed for a car, calling out with good cheer and just a bit of an edge, “Good night Liz!”
Three years later I was working out of Liz’s East 38th Street office where Miss Love made frequent chaotic pit-stops between her travels to China, Italy, and other far flung places. We became friends. We still are.
I am not scholarly enough to properly honor Iris’ discovery and her passionate, romantic commitment to temples, legends, rituals and her belief that antiquity was nothing of the sort — if one couldn’t find commonalty with the denizens of Olympus — and dig for it! — well, one just wasn’t trying hard enough. Her biographer — some hearty soul with the patience of Penelope — will have to do all that.
I can speak today only of how little she has changed in all these years. She retains a guileless sense of wonder and playfulness. She still loves her dachshunds — all dogs, really. (Iris won the Westminster Kennel Club Show in 2012) she still takes evocative photographs. She still has great legs. Her mind is as nimble as ever. She does not lie. She refuses to tell a story that requires less than 750,000 words — and that’s just the prelude to the “real” story. She is still almost always invariably late. It is almost never, ever her fault, and, of course, she is forgiven instantly.
Iris, honey — the moon seems to have been abandoned, but here on earth Aphrodite still casts her spell. And so do you.
Love, Denis. (July 19, 2019)
Glinda, Glinda — people come and go so quickly here! Are you available? I need to chat.
I will not be sad.