No friend like this old friend

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Looking west across the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir during the snow. 3:00 PM. Photo: JH.

Thursday, February 4, 2021. It’s cold in New York and the snow has stopped and the roads are cleared but it still sitting in the white stuff all over the cars and the roadsides. It might get a little warmer tomorrow and maybe by the end of the day a lot more slow will have melted. It was great while it was happening, but …

This Diary is about my friend Bob Schulenberg whose weekly page appears on Thursdays (today, included). We were introduced  in the late 1960s by a mutual friend. I was pursuing an acting career at the time (the tender age of 22) and he was going to take some headshots of me for my book. 

I’m not sure of the time of year but it must have been Springtime. He came to our apartment about four in the afternoon. I had never seen him before — a good looking guy about thirty, with dark, wavy hair, bright eyes behind black framed glasses, and a big smile on greeting. He was carrying a large black sketchbook under one arm, and camera in a case strapped around the opposite shoulder.

A photo of Bob, the young artist out in the world, taken by his friend Caterine Milinaire, the photographer. On it she inscribed (in orange): “A mon ami Choux Lin Bergue, au souvenir d’une belle journée de printemps sans trop de soileil or caprice/whim/fantasy but just me, Mi Lin air.”

The sketchbook, I learned, was something he always had with him. It was an exercise for his work as an artist/illustrator. It was intriguing immediately. It was like a diary as he recorded wherever he was — subway, diner, dinner party. I was in awe of his productivity. Also, he’d sit in a conversation anywhere and draw while we talked. (He talked too.)

I did not know, until that evening, that he was an artist and focusing on illustration. He also took photos.  I had no idea then or even until he began publishing his sketchbook-memoir, that he had already begun this odyssey of recording his life on paper in much the same way a filmmaker might record a life on film.

About seven my wife Sheila (we were newlywed) served dinner. About eleven we were still in the thrall of conversation. About midnight we were talking about music (I played the piano and sang and he — it turned out — was a kind of child prodigy on the piano). He started talking about the psychological aspects of different composers as revealed in their music and how they would play other composers’ work.

The very young would-be (but not for long) actor in a “headshot” taken by his new friend, “Choux Lin Bergue.”

I wasn’t quite sure what he meant but he sat down at the piano and played Mendelssohn “the way George Gershwin would have” played him, and then he played Chopin the “way Mendelssohn would have played Chopin.” At 4:30 a.m. he was running through the Gershwin repertoire (no music in front of him) and the sun was not far from rising. It was about then I called it a night. Sheila had turned in about three hours before. I don’t believe in all the years since, that we ever spent another eight hours steeped in conversation. Although no doubt we have spent thousands of hours exploring each others thoughts, memories and experiences. It is always a learning.

Fifty years later I remain transfixed by the creativity of this man’s thoughts. He’s a modest man by nature, but he is also a natural giant of wisdom that spills out in his work and his thoughts. A man of  a multitude of interests he best expresses it in the hundreds of sketchbooks he’s created in his long but still very youthful life. He may be, in his way, the smartest man I’ve ever known. I state that cautiously because often people’s “smarts” are not as obvious as we might think. Howbeit, he has one of the most engaging minds of anyone I’ve ever known.

Some of the many faces Bob has drawn over the last 50+ years.

The thousands of pages of his drawings are accompanied by conversations of subjects narrow and wide, universal  and local,  as well as gossip, history, jokes, and political opinions.

More New York scenes including a portrait of a young Barbra Streisand.

I was reading Jean Strouse’s piece about John Singer Sargent’s portraits and how he was very verbal, talkative as he painted his subjects. It amazed many of his sitters that he could paint so brilliantly while at the same time converse. All of Schulenberg’s works in those sketchbooks over the years were expanded greatly by conversation going on at the same time.

He and I have lived on separate coasts for the past 30 years, and we’ve rarely seen each other, or even talked to each other. I’m afraid to get on the phone with him because it can go on and on. He once had a nine-hour-long phone conversation with Barbra Streisand — this was back in her earliest years as she was about to enter worldwide fame (Bob knew her then). 

Bob was born and brought up in Los Angeles, and then in his teens lived in Fresno where his father had business interests. He went to UCLA, worked in Hollywood costume houses that provided garments to the movie studios, and was generally – as it often is, or was, for young people growing up in what was then a one-industry town – enthralled with the movies. He came to New York after college (as his readers now know), and then accidentally moved to Paris for a few years, returning to New York in the mid-‘60s, and then in the early 1980s, coincidentally after I’d moved my life to LA, he returned West.

Bob in his house on Craig Drive in Los Angeles. Circa 1995. Photograph by Bob Stone.

He’s entirely an individual. It’s been in many ways a solitary life because his life is his art and vice versa. He lives the artist’s life by his nature, just as the child is the father of the man. He’s very perceptive and he also has a vivid imagination; take your pick. He has a loud but lovely guffaw when he laughs.

Discussing all this with JH over the phone, I told him about Bob’s letters. Never was there an envelope containing one of his not infrequent epistles over the years that he hadn’t prepared it as  thoroughly as the message inside. I’ve saved almost all of them and so we’re sharing a few of them with you. They give you the gist of the man’s eye, wit, and observations.

Besides our phone conversations, when each is on the other side of the continent, there were letters. His, even his postcards, which is the flip side of that portrait of Bob in purple above, were always with the artist’s touch and wit. This message, which was written in November 1997, reflected my becoming the editor-in-chief of Judy Price’s Avenue magazine.
This particular chef d’oeuvre, which I call “Schulenberg’s Dog Dinner,” was created on the back of an envelope for a letter he sent me eight years ago when the news came out that Leona Helmsley had left her Maltese dog “Trouble” a $12 million trust fund. The sum was later reduced to $2 million after some conscientious lawyers and judges decided a Maltese didn’t need that much.
Schulenberg never lost the need to take a blank page (the back of an envelope addressed to me in this case) and provide a little drama with some American historical context, and maybe a little laugh.
Front of envelope.
And the back.

Another back of an envelope. You can see I was very careful opening the letters to avoid tearing the art work.
You don’t want to know what they’re thinking …
Another back of an envelope. And who sez anybody’s thinking? Much.
More envelopes to savor …

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