Fall River Legend: Remembering Eileen Darby — She happened to like New York

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2014, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on November 5, 2014. Eileen Darby — pillar of the dance world, star of publishing, exemplary human being, treasured mother, dedicated friend, the spitting image of Claudette Colbert with a dash of Shirley MacLaine circa “The Appartment” thrown in — died three years ago today.

When I received the news that my friend, my mentor in life and work (we met in 1995 when she was the advertising director of Dance magazine, and she’s been the Dance Insider’s advisor since its founding in 1998), my guide, my ‘repere’ of first resort, my rock, my model for the realization of the New York fairy tale Eileen Darby had passed away, my first thought — after the shock and upset, and I am still in shock, I don’t think I’ve yet realized that Eileen is gone, it’s surreal even to be writing this, as it’s the sort of piece I would send to Eileen before anyone else for input and approval — was that Eileen would have frowned at the euphemism ‘passed away,’ as she did whenever I used it in an obituary. “Just say ‘died’!” And even the first word that comes to mind to describe Eileen — ‘class’ — is one at which she would grimace. “‘Class’ is a word used by those who don’t have it. It’s cheap.” As in, “Classy Chassy Cassie” — George Raft to waitress Ann Sheridan as she turns to pour coffee for him and Humphrey Bogart in “They Drive by Night.” And speaking of coffee, Eileen, who liked to make hers in a French press (they’re actually made in Switzerland), added the touch of stirring the grinds up to better distribute and dissimulate the flavor, a gesture I’d copy early mornings in the narrow kitchen of her spacious two-bedroom on the 8th floor of Peter Cooper, while looking out the window at the green and white road signs along the FDR Drive set against the backdrop of the East River, where Gatsby’s Green Light was mirrored by a purple neon palm tree (“Tacky!” sighed Eileen) on the deck of one of the private boats docked near the heliport: the quintessential New York scene, the New York of my dreams, which always signified this prodigal’s return to the city, Eileen’s pad the traditional gateway as she hosted me for a couple of nights after my ‘aterrisage.’ (Mornings ideally leavened by the best bagels in the world from nearby Essa’s on 21st & First; that Eileen could not eat gluten didn’t stop her from lugging a dozen of them uptown to the Literary Brownstone I was cat/house-sitting at for a bountiful back terrace 50th birthday brunch in 2010.)

During the nine years that I lived in France, our tradition was that I’d call Eileen right before my parties for last-minute aperitif advice, famously including one year her recipe for Oysters Rockefeller, but the best advice was when she counseled me to make everything ahead of time so that I could actually mingle with my guests and enjoy the party; we also liked to argue over the most authentic recipe for Manhattans (rye-based, with bourbon a suitable back-up). Even the anonymously bleak red-brown brick buildings of Peter Cooper (in which Bogie also made his swan song, as a down-and-out press agent who resided there in “The Harder they Fall”; Eileen always kept good company — or maybe it’s the other way around) — no one would ever think to break in here, Eileen pointed out — concealed, more than the occasional material treasure, a rich cosmopolitan life, above all intellectual. Early in her New York career, Eileen worked for the Modern Language Association, forming friendships with a literary coterie (some of whom would grow up to become essential elements of the city’s intellectual nucleus) that would last a lifetime. It’s this association more than Madison Avenue (or, as another pillar of that nucleus John Leonard wrote in “The Naked Martini,” “the canyons of lower Lexington”) — she spent most of her professional life in advertising and marketing, starting out with Annenberg’s Gourmet and Good Food magazines — that defined her mental life. (Sitting next to Joyce Carol Oates at a dinner organized by one of these figures, Eileen gave me a much needed ego boost by reporting that when she mentioned she was friends with one of the prodigious novelist’s former Princeton students, Oates remembered me.)

If I’ve put off writing this ‘memoriam’ — Eileen died September 27 — it’s because it means recognizing that Eileen is gone.

After my return to New York in 2010, our get-togethers usually involved Cosmos mixed by Eileen in her apartment. (Paul: “It’s fine, but could I have an ice cube?” Eileen, while fetching ice cube in its own petite glass tea-cup from the fridge: “I never use plastic ice trays, because the plastic leaches into the ice.” Grandfather-clock-sized cuckoo clock in entree-way with a different bird popping out of its trunk every hour: “Tweet! Tweet!”) En route to Eileen’s I sometimes stopped for a slice of $1 pizza at the corner of 23rd and Park, really just an excuse to have a NY moment as I chomped the slice down while gazing uptown at the Chrysler Building. I seized another gem of a moment one early morning in 2012 while transferring from Greenpoint digs to Eileen’s place, drinking my thermos coffee on the boardwalk while gazing across the river at Brooklyn; the evening before, on the type of vanishing ramshackle pier you used to be able to access by climbing through an improvised hole in a wire fence made by other pioneers, I looked across the river from the other side at the sprawling Peter Cooper buildings and tried to reconnoiter Eileen’s place to toast her. On my last visit to her place, push/wheeling my luggage from Penn Station south and eastward, I paused in an anonymous parking lot off 7th avenue to munch a slice of whole wheat bread and cheddar while contemplating the water towers set against the grey-charcoal late-summer sky; never mind if I was getting doused by a downpour — I felt euphoric to be on my way to Eileen’s and a much more elevated air.) I felt a bit guilty about always inviting myself over as opposed to inviting Eileen out, but really, who could desire a more idyllic New York scene than drinking Cosmos while overlooking the East River from Eileen’s vast windows, the shelves on the opposite side of the room crammed with the genre of books that marked the second half of the 20th as the New York socio-politico-literary century? It also allowed us to ‘control’ the environment.

Even if, by her own admission, Eileen did not go out a lot in her final years in New York, she insisted that she liked knowing that it — it being New York — was there if she wanted to take advantage of the city’s myriad stimulations. (When she did go out, she usually had adventures. On one blustery New York late afternoon of the type that turns the city’s belly into the vortex of a canyon, Eileen’s response to a woman who stopped her to compliment her tan beret was to give it to her.) Sometimes Eileen would order Chinese food delivered for our confabs and insist I take the leftovers with me; sometimes she’d cook up a Portuguese specialty stew combining pork, beans, and usually sweet potatoes or yams. We consumed these feasts on a simple, huge but elegant light mahogany rectangular table which Eileen proudly boasted was built by hand by her late second husband Roger, as manually adept as he was mentally sharp. (Eileen insisted that her daughter Diane, about whom she also never stopped boasting, got her smarts from her father, but, ‘Mom’s math’ not withstanding, I’m sure a healthy dose came from her sharp mother, not so incidentally a ‘numbers-cruncher’ sans pareil, who helped make the owners of Dance magazine rich.) The table (long enough so that Eileen could keep her work papers on one end and dine on the other) was one of the few things she took with her when she moved from New York to Miami Beach to be with Diane, along with Beat era paintings that she and her first husband, Jimmy, had collected in the late 1950s ‘at the scene’ in San Francisco, where they met at Enrico’s or another North Beach club. (Jimmy would later work at the Old Spaghetti Factory.) Another in Jimmy’s party was courting Eileen, but Jimmy took his time and persisted, and they ended up together. I think Eileen never stopped loving Jimmy (she might refine that to just appreciating the adventures they had together). I liked the synchronicity between that Jimmy was the first president of Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady, and that from 1995 to 2001 I lived next door to the legendary recording studio on W. 8th Street, where my favorite singer, Carly Simon, also recorded her early albums “Carly Simon” and “Anticipation.” (Another synchronicity: Carly’s children played with Diane when they were neighbors on the Upper West Side.) It seems that Eileen and Jimmy were everywhere where the Scene was being created in the late ’50s and early ’60s — they probably helped create those scenes in San Francisco and Greenwich Village (not to mention Ebiza), where they rented the classic cold-water flat for $25 a week. It’s no accident that when Hollywood tried to make a movie musical about the Village at that time, they called it “My Sister Eileen.” (Later Eileen would visualize, and she and Roger would subsequently — consequently? — find, the brownstone of their dreams, complete with yard. Eileen was sure she was psychic, and the many many times she anticipated what I was going to say confirmed this gift.) As far as Roger was concerned, she appreciated that when he accepted an executive post with Metropolitan Life, his condition was that his (by then ex-) wife Eileen and daughter would get the apartment in Peter Cooper, then owned by the insurance company. “He wanted to make sure we were taken care of — that’s the kind of man he was.” This is typical Eileen; far from harboring rancor towards her exes, she appreciated how they’d enriched her life and that of her daughter. She also didn’t waste negative energy on those who might have exasperated the rest of us. If it’s true that on the political level Eileen didn’t ‘suffer fools gladly,’ as a colleague has recalled (nor on a societal level; looking out her window on the FDR Drive, packed at NY’s extended rush hour, she’d excoriate the commuters who gassed up the planet instead of taking public transportation), when confronting a fool face to face, her advice was to smile and say “Thank you” or “That’s nice.” It wasn’t so much that Eileen believed in turning the other cheek, but that here too, she didn’t like to waste energy.

Much as she herself made fun of it, Eileen’s practical side was also revealed in little manias like insisting that the guest unfortunate enough to spill water on her floor be made to traipse over it afterwards with paper towels under his stockinged feet while maintaining his glass on a paper plate to avoid recidivism. And her practical-political side was revealed during elections. In the Bush era of lock-step banana Republicans, she campaigned relentlessly under the banner of “Vote Party!” While her contemporaries were e-mailing silly jokes to their friends and colleagues, Eileen’s solution to the Times’s segregating Krugman and Hebert behind a pay-wall was to share their columns with her circle. But if Eileen was a liberal, she was not opposed to having fun. When she treated me to Cosmos and Manhattans during Christmas 2010 at Smith & Wolensky’s, a favorite since her Annenberg years when she’d entertain clients there, I was not at all surprised that a man 20 years her junior tried to pick her up. Partly because of her gluten-free diet, Eileen had the energy and sparkle of a woman 30 years younger; if it sounds strange to be shocked and stunned at the sudden death of someone 78 years old, it should be pointed out that, notwithstanding her self-deprecating comments that she was becoming batty in her dotage, Eileen hadn’t yet passed through the ‘elderly’ and decrepit stage. Which, fortunately, didn’t mean she never talked about her childhood; I remember and carry forward her memories of Star the goat on her grandparents’ farm, a farm ‘right in the middle of a city,’ in this case Fall River; of a father, born at the turn of the last century, who, marking the ingenuity he’d bequeath to his sons Raymond (“so smart”) and Billy (“perpetually handsome, always with a dazzling younger woman on his arm” — Eileen) and their ‘little sister,’ turned to manufacturing all sorts of parts (related to fire-arms for the military, I believe) at the outbreak of World War II. Too old to serve, he still wanted to be ‘useful.’ When Eileen wanted to move to New York City, instead of trying to bar the way, her family moved with her, setting up shop in New Jersey. They were not misguided in wanting to keep an eye on her as little sister soon became the bell of the Gotham ball; one night, even Knick star Walt Frazer turned from basketball court dazzle to dazzling courtship, ultimately escorting her home in a taxi.

Eileen’s allure (which no doubt owed something to the regal Cabral blood from Portugal, which reference I’ll also use as an excuse to vaunt her hand-made Portuguese tea-cups, a pair of which she gave me) — and smarts — were eventually passed on to Diane. Eileen wasn’t just automatically proud of Diane because a mother should be; I have a feeling she’d have remarked her brilliance even if they weren’t related. That they were merely gave her bragging rights — never empty, but always supported by the beyond-her-years observations Diane had made since childhood and the School of Ethical Culture. But she was just as apt to point out that Diane had studied with Chomsky at MIT as that Diane is the kind of intelligent, intrepid, and resourceful woman who sometimes scares insecure (and sexist) men away, because she can do anything; she once took apart and repaired the engine of a glass-bottomed boat stalled in the middle of the Everglades.

I am sure that Diane is hurting now, and all I can offer is some inadequately anodyne second-hand words of guidance:

**After she moved to Miami Beach, Eileen never stopped saying how happy she was to be near her daughter.

**When you have a problem you can’t resolve, let your brain continue to work on it overnight while you’re sleeping.

** (This might apply to me more than Diane, but… just in case:) Whatever it is, no matter how bad it feels, it won’t last.

** You’re better than that.

** You’re gorgeous *and* smart.

** If it pleases you, don’t deprive yourself of the occasional trip to the Azores, dear to Eileen.

In December 1996, a colleague invited me to a New Year’s Eve party on E. 4th Street. I’d been complaining to her that I never met any women. I told another female friend about the party. Meanwhile, I started the evening at a holiday party hosted by a pal of Eileen’s in Chelsea, a tranquil event with some of Eileen’s older and, let’s say, more staid friends, and Diane. When I was about to leave for the East Village fete, Diane gave me a look as if to say “Get me out of here!” (a comment not on her mom, nor her mom’s friends, but on what even Eileen admitted was the relative tameness of her friends’ New Year’s parties). When we walked into my friend’s fiesta, where my other female buddy and one of her girlfriends had already arrived and introduced themselves as “friends of Paul,’ the hostess took one look at me, entering the party accompanied by the instantly most stunning woman in the room, and burst out laughing, my complaint now seeming ludicrous.

We capped the evening by dancing at an anonymous club in the wall at the corner of Avenue B and 7th. What I remember most about Diane that evening is her calm and repose. I know that, having already lost her father, Diane must be living the most turbulent moments of her life right now. My wish for her is that, without forgetting, she find assurance, if not solace — where is the solace in such a profound loss? — in that repose which is still within her somewhere. That she know that she will continue to make her mother proud — or, if you prefer, to live a life that would make her mother proud. And for the future, if I can be so bold and presumptuous, I think her mom would want for her that she is able to find a way, without giving up the tropical climes so important to her, to be surrounded by, or at least have some smart people in her life. (I think Eileen would have similar advice for her nieces, Caroline, whose independence as a teenager on her own in Paris she never stopped vaunting, and Susan, whose smartness she also frequently praised.) Because the fools are plenty, the sages few.

PS: Wondering whether to use ‘wise’ instead of ‘sage’ reminded me of another citation from Eileen which I have often had resort to. It’s from W.B. Yeats, concerns ‘wise love,’ and (paraphrasing) goes something like this:

In wise love, the beloved, refusing to see the daily self of the other, sees his higher self, and reflects it back to him.

For myself, I’ll remember a brilliant Summer Day in 2012 when, the light suffusing 23rd Street as I made my way Eastward towards the river through the throngs and past the second-hand stores to Peter Cooper for Cosmos with Eileen, I was never happier.

Eileen, you really hit the nail on the wall!

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