I feel as if I’ve been writing nothing but obituaries today. Three of my favorite public figures — Mike Nichols, the Duchess of Alba, Jimmy Ruffin: how’s that for variety? — have died. But I’m not going to mope. I’m going to spend the day listening to the music and watching film clips that reflect all the joy Nichols and Ruffin brought us. As for My Last Duchess, all I have to do is look at her cosmetically-assisted face to get a laugh.
My friend Mike Nichols died today. He was 83. I met him in 1994, when I was writing a profile for The New Yorker of our mutual friend, Cynthia O’Neal, and the invaluable organization they founded, Friends in Deed. By that time, I had interviewed plenty of famous people, but for some reason I was nervous of meeting Mr. Nichols. He put me immediately at ease: a light repast had been prepared for us (Mr. Nichols loved food, sometimes to the chagrin of his widow, Diane Sawyer), and I was happy to indulge because I knew it would get me a better interview.
I had grown up listening to “An Evening with Mike Nichols & Elaine May,” the recording of the show he did with his brilliant longtime collaborator Miss May. Their names were so intertwined to my parents’ generation that many people assumed they were married. Mr. Nichols treated this misunderstanding as he treated most inanity: with wit. He recounted the time a woman once stopped him on the street:
Woman: You’re Mike Nichols, aren’t you?
Mr. Nichols: Yes, I am.
Woman: How is your wife, Elaine May?
Mr. Nichols: Elaine May is not my wife.
Woman: And do you have children?
I confessed to Mr. Nichols that his recording with Miss May had me convinced, at age 8, that I was Jewish. Years later, I told him that an uncle of mine had delved into the family ancestry and it turned out that I did, in fact, have Jewish ancestry. Mr. Nichols chuckled and said, “Was there every any doubt?”
A sense of the absurd was key to getting on with Mr. Nichols. Though he worked with some greatest crafters of one-liners – he directed four plays by Neil Simon, starting with “Barefoot in the Park,” in 1963 – his own sensibility was more biting than Borscht Belt. Once, as we were walking down Madison Avenue, Mr. Nichols spied a woman he knew approaching. It was too late to cross the street so he whispered to me, “For God’s sake, let me do the talking.” He expertly guided us through the obstacle. As soon as we were out of earshot, he said, “Humor to that woman is as a cross is to a vampire.”
In 1996, Cynthia O’Neal and I and our friend, Robert Levithan, were in London to see Mr. Nichols perform, with utter relaxed immediacy, in the premiere of Wallace Shawn’s play, “The Designated Mourner.” (Mr. Nichols’ final professional act was to take part, last Friday, in a reading of Shawn’s new play, “An Evening at the Talk Club.”) After the performance, we piled into Mr. Nichols’ car and went to The Ivy, a London establishment that is more club than restaurant. As we were entering, Mr. Nichols spotted Joan Collins at a table. He leaned toward me, conspiratorially, and said, “I fucked her once.” “You have just gone down three notches in my estimation,” I said, laughing. He parried: “But I also kept company with Jackie Kennedy.” “Reputation restored,” I conceded.
I will leave it to other critics and commentators to assess Mr. Nichols’ work. My favorite of his movies: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and “Silkwood,” with Meryl Streep. I told him once that no one, not even Mrs. Burton, could “approach the ferocity” of Uta Hagen, who originated the role of Martha on Broadway. “Yes,” he laughed, “and no one could approach Uta BECAUSE of her ferocity, either.”
With Streep, there was no levity only love. (He was doing his final project with her, “Master Class,” about Maria Callas. Will someone else finish it, or will Maria be abandoned tragically once more?) Occasionally, I would attempt to get Mr. Nichols to share a few secrets about his collaboration with Streep. But he would never take the bait. That’s how you know that a person’s affection for someone is profound: he needs always to guard some secrets for himself. Happily, the relationship between Streep and Mr. Nichols is up there on that screen.
My favorite living European royal, the Duchess of Alba, has died. She had 49 inherited aristocratic titles — dozens more than the Queen of England. Born in Madrid on 28 March 1926, the duchess – whose full name was Maria del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Francisca Fitz-James-Stuart y de Silva – died on Thursday morning in her home, a 16th-century palace in Seville, with her six children and husband at her side. “Cayetana always had Seville in her heart and for this reason she will always remain in Seville’s heart. May she rest in peace,” tweeted Seville’s mayor, Juan Ignacio Zoido, referring to the duchess by the name she was known by in Spain. Her body will lie in state in the Andalusian capital, Spanish media reported. One of Spain’s wealthiest aristocrats and a constant presence in Spain’s gossip press, the duchess became famous around the world in 2011 when she married Alfonso Díez, a civil servant 25 years her junior. Her decision provoked a family feud, with her children accusing Díez of being a gold-digger who was only interested in her fortune, estimated to be up to $5 billion. With those assets, she not only has more titles than Queen Elizabeth — she also (probably) had more money.
Jimmy Ruffin, the Motown singer whose hits include two of my all-time favorites, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” and “Hold on to My Love,” died on Monday in a Las Vegas hospital. He was 78. Philicia Ruffin and Jimmy Lee Ruffin Jr, the singer’s children, confirmed on Wednesday Ruffin had died. There were no details of the cause of death. Ruffin was the older brother of Temptations lead singer David Ruffin, who died in 1991, aged 50. Ruffin was born in 1936, in Collinsville, Mississippi. He was signed to Berry Gordy’s Motown Records, and had a string of hits in the 1960s, including “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted,” which reached the top 10.
That’s according to this enjoyable New York Times profile of him. At least they didn’t call him “a bachelor.” I was impressed that Osborne owns three apartments in his midtown-Manhattan building — the charming old Osborne, natch. That TCM gig must pay decently for him to have so much real estate.
Stephen Hawking is a physicist, cosmologist, ALS survivor, author, all-around genius and, it turns out, savvy award season participant. Hawking took to Facebook to praise “The Theory of Everything,” the movie about his life starring Eddie Redmayne whose performance Hawking admires: ‘I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well in “The Theory of Everything.” He spent time with ALS sufferers so he could be authentic. At times, I thought he was me. Seeing the film has given me the opportunity to reflect on my life. Although I’m severely disabled, I have been successful in my scientific work. I travel widely and have been to Antarctica and Easter Island, down in a submarine and up on a zero Read more »
That’s the question everyone has started buzzing about since Steve McQueen‘s announcement this week that his next movie will be devoted to Robeson, one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. Robeson, who died in 1976, was trained as a lawyer, but left the profession after facing racism. He went on to become a well-regarded actor, singer and civil rights activist who achieved worldwide fame. There is no one alive who is as gifted as Robeson. At the very least, whoever’s cast would have to be handsome, intelligent, and, this is essential, be possessed of a powerful, deep singing voice. Robeson, did, after all, indelibly sing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 movie of “Show Boat.” Obvious choice for the role: Idris Elba; inevitable choice for the role: Denzel. But I think McQueen Read more »