Terrific remembrance/appreciation by Harry Stein of his father, Joseph Stein.
Terrific on many levels:
My father, playwright Joseph Stein, was so vital for so long that when he died in October 2010, at 98, some people were actually taken by surprise. Nearly half a century after his greatest success, ¬Fiddler on the Roof, he had been hard at work on a new musical.
At the service, I began my eulogy with an anecdote from a few years earlier. My father and stepmother were en route from New York to Westport, Connecticut, where one of his old shows was being revived, when he began feeling ill. They called ahead, and by the time they arrived at the theater, an EMS crew was waiting.
“How do you feel?” asked the head EMS guy.
“I don’t feel so good.”
“What hurts you?”
“It hurts me that George Bush is president.”
The line drew a roar from the huge crowd at Riverside Memorial Chapel, as I knew it would. These were his people, New York theater folk, as reliably left a bunch as you’re likely to find anywhere outside a university campus.
Terrific, not least, in how it captures the Neanderthalian humor of the Bush era. Mention of his name (even worse, Cheney’s or Rumsfeld’s) induced manic hyena howls of hypocritical hilarity. Audiences were easy, comedians grew lazy—I had to dismiss the equivalent of an entire month’s guest list on the Tonight Show for the unpardonable sin of safe, comfortable—unfunny—jibes at the Bush administration. Not for their politics; almost everyone I knew shared their politics. But for their lameness. Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion, the New Yorker Magazine, so many other media outlets I followed, died to me with their groupthink humor. Listening to shows like NPR’s “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” felt like being a teetotaler at a boozy bash: why was everyone laughing so hard? (Besides, the joke is too close to the old one told by Jack Lemmon about Walter Matthau: after Matthau fell down a flight of stairs, Lemmon rushed to his side and asked “Are you comfortable?” Matthau rolled over and responded, “I make a nice living.”)
But the piece is also a touching account of love and alienation between father and son:
It was a situation surely familiar to others in families sharply split along ideological lines, though the generational divide generally runs in the opposite direction. My father simply couldn’t fathom how any thinking person, let alone someone who’d imbibed politics at his knee, could have ended up a . . . well, he never actually used the word, at least not directly. The closest he ever came was reporting the reaction of a friend, one of Broadway’s better-known composers, who had come across something I’d written: “When did your son become a Fascist?”
For my part, I understood his worldview far better—a Communist in young adulthood, he’d been a proud progressive ever since—but I found him no less frustrating. In other respects thoughtful, even wise, how could he not see the damage that today’s aggrieved and self-righteous Left was inflicting on the country we both loved?
Boy, ain’t we all been there.
I’ll leave it to you to read the piece. If you like theater (specifically Fiddler), it’s a tremendous behind the curtain look; if you like political history, there are some telling details on the American Left, especially among America’s Jews; if you like memoir, it’s a terrific remembrance of a remarkable life of an ordinary man.
And if you like humor:
Trying to do too much, both hands full, he’d fallen backward down a long flight of stairs, landing on his shoulder. He was to have surgery the next day, when the phone on his bedside table rang, and I picked up. It was Carl Reiner. “I heard what happened to your dad,” he exclaimed, more excited than alarmed. “It’s incredible, it should be in the Guinness book of records! I told Mel [Brooks], and he said, ‘It’s impossible, no 98-year-old could possibly fall down 14 steps backward and survive!’ ”
I tried handing the phone to my father, but he demurred, whispering that he was too tired. But I knew his old friend would cheer him up, so I held the receiver to his ear. He listened for a moment as Carl repeated what he’d told me. “Tell Mel,” he replied wearily, “that not only is it possible; there are several people to whom I’d highly recommend it.”
Now, that’s funny.