Three extraordinary talents died in late December, all of whose roots were in New York and whose passing marks the end of an era. Susan Sontag, Jerry Orbach and Artie Shaw-somehow, only New York could have created them, and only New York could have contained them. All three belonged to a time when genius, courage and street smarts needed no publicists or highly paid handlers. Each was a New York original, and here we salute them.
Even her beginnings sound glamorous, the stuff of a Russian novel: She was born in Manhattan, the asthmatic daughter of a fur trader who died in China when she was 5. Her mother moved her to Arizona for the fresh air and married a World War II captain, whose name the daughter took. Thus did Susan Rosenblatt become Susan Sontag, who graduated from high school before the age of 16 and, in quick succession, notched degrees from the University of Chicago and Harvard onto her belt-not to mention a Freud scholar, whom she married when she was, Dear Reader, just 17.
Having done the marriage-and-motherhood thing, at age 26 the newly divorced, dark-eyed beauty came back to the city of her birth with her 7-year-old son (David Rieff, who would in later years become her editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux). She taught at City College, Sarah Lawrence and Columbia, and thrillingly announced herself to New York’s literary society with her essay “Notes on Camp,” published in the woolly, masculine pages of the Partisan Review. She championed a “daring and witty hedonism” as a way of knocking the stuffing out of a stuffy, overly serious and frustrated intellectual climate. “The man who insists on high and serious pleasures is depriving himself of pleasure,” she wrote. “He continually restricts what he can enjoy.” There was a new girl in town. And the world noticed.
The irony, of course, was that despite Sontag’s refreshing rejection of “serious” thinking, there was no more serious writer on the planet. In book-length essays such as Illness as Metaphor, On Photography and Regarding the Pain of Others, and in her choice to spend significant time in highly dangerous places, such as Israel during the Six Day War and Sarajevo under the Serbian bombardment, she understood that ideas can be a matter of life and death. As president of the P.E.N. American Center, she rallied nervous writers and publishers to publicly stand up to Islamist militants when they issued the death threat to Salman Rushdie. Her own mortality was something she knew well; for the last 30 of her 71 years, she grappled with cancer.
But one will never find self-pity in Sontag’s work. She spent her time arguing on behalf of others-whether she was attacking the American political establishment for ignoring the massacre in Rwanda, or writing passionately about unknown books by Eastern European writers, she put her formidable intellect in the service of expanding the possibilities of both literature and humane political action.
Susan Sontag lived a life as large as her ideas, and changed what it meant to be an intellectual in the city she loved.
The phrase “song-and-dance man” sounds quaint in 2005. The legion of fans who embraced Jerry Orbach as the grizzled detective Lennie Briscoe on the hit NBC series Law and Order had little idea that their favorite TV cop had been one of Broadway’s most dazzling entertainers. But New Yorkers who remember the sights and sounds of Broadway’s golden age will never forget Orbach, a son of the Bronx who wowed audiences in musicals such as The Fantasticks, Guys and Dolls, The Threepenny Opera and 42nd Street. Whether originating the role of Billy Flynn in Bob Fosse’s Chicago, or winning a Tony for Best Actor in Promises, Promises, Orbach exuded a powerful, electric charm which carried the show.
His beginnings were modest: The only child of a restaurant manager and his wife, Orbach got a taste of theater at Northwestern University but soon headed back to New York, where he understudied Off Broadway parts until his breakthrough came with The Fantasticks. Over the years, his stage work won him glowing reviews, and he became a fixture in the ambitious, gritty social world which surrounds New York theater. Then came television. The success of Law and Order was due in large part to Orbach’s acting chops; he was larger than television, and viewers felt they were seeing the real thing rather then a mere facsimile of a New York cop.
Few if any TV actors these days got their training the way Orbach did. He embodied a time when a night at the theater meant something magical. The curtain may have come down, but the vivid memory of Jerry Orbach will always feel like opening night.
Artie Shaw gave up the music business a half-century ago, at the age of 43. He walked away from his art in the prime of life, weary of audiences that wished to hear only the old standards, like his classic rendition of Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.”
And yet when Artie Shaw died at the age of 94, his music was still a part of the American canon, his name revered by artists born after he played his last note in 1954. His career produced works of art that have withstood time and fashion, and will be celebrated for their genius in the decades to come. His recordings of standards like “Lady Be Good” and “Star Dust” have never been equaled.
Arthur Arshawsky was born and reared on the Lower East Side, and, like his Chicago-born rival Benny Goodman, he was the son of Jewish immigrants. He changed his name to Art Shaw, and then to Artie, as his career took off in the 1930’s.
Many consider him to be the greatest clarinetist who ever picked up the instrument. His fame soared when he formed his own band in 1935, at the beginning of the swing era. His music was a national sensation, but to Shaw, the adoration of his fans was a bit much. Once, he called them morons.
Artie Shaw’s story is a portrait of the virtuoso as curmudgeon. He nearly walked away from music in the early 1930’s because he wanted to become a writer. He ran, not walked, away from his fans at the height of his stardom in 1939. His retreated to Mexico for several months, far away from his fame and his music. “I got miserable when I became a commodity,” he said.
Later in life, he wrote several well-received books, including a memoir, The Trouble with Cinderella, and books of short stories. He also became a popular speaker on college lecture tours, where one of his favorite topics was “Consecutive Monogamy and Ideal Divorce.” He described himself as “the ex-husband of love goddesses and an authority on divorce.” Indeed, his eight wives included Elizabeth Kern, the daughter of Jerome Kern, and the movie starlets Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Evelyn Keyes.
He was an authentic genius, Artie Shaw of the Lower East Side.