Letter from Katie: Curtain Call

As a champion of the arts, even Jim Edgy’s death was surrounded by grace notes.

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The death of a good friend is like the mess that’s left in the kitchen after the party’s over; like the untidiness of a room once life has left it. Emily Dickinson described it best. In her plain, unaffected way, she reduced Death to a domestic event, something to be swept up and put away for the next time, a room in the heart to be straightened, the trappings returned to a hall closet. Life goes on. Miss Dickinson was a pragmatist in her poetry, and Jim Edgy, my own dear, departed friend, shared her sensibility.
Art began popping up all over the United States during the Kennedy era, when Jacqueline Kennedy invited the cream of America’s creative class to perform at the White House. Americans embraced this new style of excellence—a little self-consciously, perhaps, but elegance and beauty were things we had hungered for unconsciously. In any case, Jim Edgy, a young man in Macon, Georgia, was a seeker.
I first became aware of Jim in 1970, when he was hired to run the Kentucky Arts Commission, which eventually got renamed the Kentucky Arts Council. Kentucky is a wide state and he was met with confounding clashes of culture when he moved to Lexington. He faced the challenges with grace and good manners, and most important, respect. For instance, he made a point of seeking out the culture of southeastern Kentucky—the fiddle and banjo tunes of the mountains, the great families who carried songs from Britain and kept them alive in the new land. He also met and befriended the horse people between Lexington and Louisville. Throughout this refining process he attempted to keep music, dance, paintings, and theater on an accessible level everyone could enjoy without any condescension. Like a great dam, the boats rose to higher levels and then were lowered once again on the other side.
“I knew Jean Ritchie,” he told me once, when I asked him about the musical Ritchie family who lived outside of Hazard. Jean Ritchie, now in her 80s, became known as the “Mother of Folk” for such songs as “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” and “My Dear Companion,” which she sang with Pete Seeger and the Weavers. “Perhaps more important,” he added, “I knew her sister, Edna, who organized the family’s song collections and spent many years in Europe tracing the origins of the music.”
He paused, thoughtfully. “Did you see the movie Songcatcher?” he asked.
I said I had; I loved Maggie Greenwald’s film about a straight-laced college professor who fell into a passion with Appalachian music. “I would have loved to see the faces of the people in the Old Country when they heard all the verses of ‘Barbara Allen’ the way they came to be sung in Kentucky,” he said.
By recognizing the importance of the folk arts in Kentucky, he legitimized them, embracing the brilliance of artists like Bill Monroe and the color and resonance of bluegrass music itself. Irma Lazarus, the doyenne of Cincinnati culture from the early ’60s till the day she passed away in 1993, eventually flushed Jim out like a prize covey of quail and actively wooed him for the Ohio Arts Council. The arts council was her baby; she’d helped found it in the ’60s, and in 1974, she lured Jim to Columbus to serve as its director. Ohio’s arts were even more diverse than Kentucky’s had been: polka bands, ballet dancers, symphony players, and all manner of singers and actors and visual artists who, as Irma saw it, needed to be carded like woolen strands and knit into one dazzling tapestry representing the state. And in her view, Jim Edgy was the one to do it.
It was the ’70s, after all. Anything was possible.

 

Years after her death, Jim still spoke of Irma Lazarus with amusement. “Irma liked Southerners, Episcopalians, and gays,” he recalled, smiling. “And I fit all three categories.”

Jim and Irma would periodically set off in his vintage Volkswagen convertible, bound for the cornfields and rural counties in southeastern Ohio to stump for money and support for the arts, with Irma packing a Thermos of coffee and hard-boiled eggs and Jim drinking Coca-Cola from an old-fashioned green bottle into which he’d dumped a small bag of salted peanuts. “I had never seen anyone drink Coca-Cola for breakfast,” she said to me once in horror.

“I had a lot to learn,” Jim said, laughing at the memory. “We all did. I remember getting a grant for a symphony performance in a small town. When I showed up for the performance not a soul was there. The symphony was waiting in a bus outside a closed building. That’s how I learned about audience development.”

Jim Rhodes was Ohio’s governor then, a staunch Republican. Rhodes wanted to reward Marge Schott with a state political appointment commensurate with the large amount of money she had contributed. So he gave her a seat on the arts council—an honor to which she responded by sputtering, “Culture? I wanted agriculture.”

“Marge thought giving money to the ballet was a lot like giving money to a bunch of fairies in tutus,” Jim told me, laughing at the memory. “Bless Marge’s heart. She always said exactly what was on her mind.”

Still, they lived through it all—the excitement, the disappointments, the unbelievable wonder of a time when Ohioans were falling in love with the arts. I have never forgotten driving to Irma’s swimming pool on a torrid day in summer. Mikhail Baryshnikov and his dance troupe were cooling off, the tiny ballerinas repairing their toe shoes with needles so thin they were almost invisible. Baryshnikov himself was perched on the diving board wearing leopard print trunks, poised to execute the perfect dive.

It was in the company of Jim and Irma that I got to know the inimitable Freddie Franklin of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, an Englishman who still danced in his 80s and dashed off Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles with such alacrity that I used to telephone him in New York when I was absolutely stumped. “Wasn’t it cunning how they worked out 118-down?” he’d say to me, and he went on to explain it, as if I already knew anyway, and he was just making conversation.

In the late 1970s, Jim left Ohio for Washington, D.C., to work for Nancy Hanks at the National Endowment for the Arts. His relationship with her was not as close as the one with Irma had been, and within a few years he was back in Ohio, settled in Cincinnati. He was as busy and driven as ever. When he rehabbed a house on Dayton Street in the West End, he built an apartment onto it for visiting artists; I even rented it for a while. Over time, Jim served as the associate director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, the director of the Cincinnati Ballet, then ran the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra. He ran a couple of restaurants, too, and somewhere in there we drifted apart. I remember he called me once and apologized because he and his partner, Bob Lee, hadn’t been in touch. He said he wasn’t feeling well. “Bob and I have been planning to have you over,” he’d say, “but then I just run out of steam.”

A year ago, Jim learned the reason for the lassitude that had overtaken him, and late last spring, he sat down and wrote a calm and beautiful e-mail to his friends in Cincinnati to tell them, in the kindest possible way, that he had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—Lou Gehrig’s Disease—and that he had about a year to live. “Many of you won’t know how to talk to me,” he wrote, “but I’m the same person I always was….  I’m not afraid to die. All of us will die.”

He went on to say that he wanted to spend time with all of us, talking about ideas, art, music—the things he had always enjoyed. Nothing could be more dreary, he declared, than talking about his illness, which he had to talk about way too much with doctors and had to live with every day.

Reading this news was like being kicked by a mule; I had to go to bed with ice packs under my lower back. But Jim’s resilience straightened me out. He saw his diagnosis as a luxury, giving him time to plan and be with his friends of many years.

And so we began another adventure, this one with our mutual friend Lib Stone instead of Irma. We decided to meet weekly, have lunch, talk about life, and see movies. Some were terrible; others just could not match the drama of our time together, and we eventually drifted toward other activities. I began to look forward to our visits with great enthusiasm. It was draining, and at first we walked on eggshells with each other, but then it was a joy just to be in Jim’s house again, so full of art, sculpture, and pottery perfectly hung and placed. As he approached his death, he was cataloguing the paintings, the watercolors, the wonderful ceramics.

“I believe if it were me, I’d just go to bed and let somebody else worry about it,” I told him during one of our summer visits, taking a sip of iced tea which Jim served to me in grand Southern style, a wedge of lemon, a frosted glass.

“Oh, no. That wouldn’t do,” he replied. He told Lib and me about a cat he and Bob had to have euthanized. “I didn’t want the cat to spend its last night in a concrete cell at the animal hospital, sick and all alone, so we brought her home with us and spent the night with her and took her in the next day for the procedure. I held her in my arms the last minutes of her life,” he said. “I had even paid for the procedure ahead of time, so we wouldn’t have to go through that.”

I couldn’t help rolling my eyes and smiling. “Well,” he said, “I hated to have people see two old men bawling their eyes out over a cat.”

“You were never old to me,” I told him. And he wasn’t. At 74, his blue eyes were still as innocent as a child’s, and he had the same cowlick in his dusty blonde hair that he’d had when we first met—a rooster tail, as we would have called it in the country. And we were both from the country.

I stopped talking for a while and let the water pool in the corners of my eyes. I thought of a very funny story about Irma and Jim, which distracted me for a moment. It happened after Jim had accepted the NEA position. He and Irma put their heads together and settled on a young man named Wayne Lawson to replace Jim. They planned a dazzling dinner party for him and the search committee in Jim’s apartment in Columbus, where he was living back then. “I’ll do the flowers,” Irma said.

It was a two-hour drive from Irma’s house in East Walnut Hills to Jim’s apartment in Columbus. She never believed in spending money on things like flowers; instead, she picked branches of dogwood and flowering fruit trees from her yard and laid the stems on newspapers in the back seat. What with a hold-up here and there, she was late getting to Jim’s, and when he answered the doorbell, she pushed past him.

“I need to get these in the bathtub fast, dahling,” she said. They had no time for questions and fell into their own particular shorthand to finish the dining room before the guests’ arrival.

Wayne Lawson rang at exactly 7:30, young and nervous, auditioning for the job of a lifetime, and like everyone else, dazzled by the thought of meeting Irma Lazarus.

“Where is she?” he asked Jim, running his finger around the inside of his collar.

Jim looked up at him and squinted. “She’s in my bathroom,” he said absently, “cleaning out the tub.”

The stars must have been aligned precisely, because the dogwood branches made a quick enough recovery to grace the dining room table, and Wayne Lawson went on to run the Ohio Arts Council for 30 years.

On this past Memorial Day, Jim’s friends gathered for a picnic at Dr. Tom Partridge’s farm in Hillsboro, Ohio. The farm was as green as Ireland, and Jim sat in the log cabin Tom had so carefully and so artfully reconstructed. He was surrounded by people who loved him, in a rural setting like his beloved Georgia. The food was spectacular, the wine extraordinary, and just as Jim had requested, the talk was of ideas, creativity, art, music, and dance. Irma thought almost anything could be resolved by a picnic, and she would have approved of the whole affair.

Few people knew that Jim had been an organist for almost all of his working life, playing at whatever church needed him. Now that his Sunday mornings were his own, he could return to Christ Church Cathedral downtown to worship. Being Jim, he had already planned his funeral service and had selected the organ pieces and the music for the choir. He was proud to have secured the rector to speak at his funeral at Evensong, something reserved for only the most honored church members. Part of his ashes will rest in a niche at Christ Church in the chapel where Evensong is held.

One Sunday morning, not long before his death, I sat beside him on the pew while the rector anointed him quietly with sweet oil, the Balm of Gilead to Jim. I held his hand, and we both cried as the rector’s procession moved on, holding the cross before them.

The last story Jim Edgy told me, before he died in November, was about an Armenian rug dealer at Closson’s. It was 1974 and Jim was moving from Lexington to Columbus to join the Ohio Arts Council. On the way he’d stopped in Cincinnati to explore—halfway between Lexington and Columbus, in the middle of the old and the new.

Closson’s was magnificent in those days: sophisticated, elegant, unmistakably Closson’s. They carried fancy china and faïence and only the finest flatware. He said he found himself drawn to the rug department in the back of the store. He was hot, tired, and thirsty, and he sat down on a pile of rugs, amidst patterns of color so rich and deep he was amazed.

“Do you like rugs?” Mr. Markarian, the rug dealer, asked, appearing from nowhere, like a genie from a bottle.

“Why, I don’t really know anything about them,” Jim said, surprised, “but I think they’re beautiful.”

Mr. Markarian smiled like Hercule Poirot, Jim said, and within two hours, he had sold Jim three rugs of great value, which Jim rolled up and put in the trunk of his VW bug. For payment, he signed his name and new address in Columbus on the back of an envelope.

The rugs, like the arts, were a wonderful investment for Jim. Indeed, he used those rugs in all the houses he lived in for the next 30 or so years. The colors remained rich and deep and the patterns elegant—just like Jim himself.

Photograph provided by Robert Lee

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