A Tribute to Charles Marowitz
(Swans - May 19, 2014) It was pitch dark one night of September 2004. I was alone with my faithful Priam cozily ensconced under my down comforter when I heard a big slashing sound and a loud crash. Priam got on alert immediately. Personally, I felt uncomfortable, as I was very isolated in the Mendocino hills, in a house I had very recently occupied. I went out, turned on the outside lights, and saw a big tree lying on the ground. In the morning I figured out that it was a 65-70-foot California black oak with a 10-foot circumference and a forty-five-inch diameter at the base. It was a big tree. One moment it was alive, the other it was dead. I purchased a chain saw to clean the mess. During my stay there, about 10 years, I saw quite a few of those magnificent trees fall. You'd hear a snap, a crackle, and the trees would feed the soil or end up in a wood stove. It is said that it's due to root rot or oak apples made by the gall wasp (I could come across oak apples on an almost daily basis). We all are acutely aware of the cycle of life, especially when we age. Yet, to see magnificent living creatures visited by the Grim Reaper armed with his scythe is a never-ending painful experience. And here again the Grim Reaper noiselessly visited a majestic being, a beautiful man of immense talent.
On May 8, 2014, I received an e-mail from Jane Windsor Marowitz, the wife of Charles Marowitz. Among other things it succinctly read: "Sadly my darling husband, Charles Marowitz, passed away on Friday evening, May 2nd at 8.40pm." He died from complications of Parkinson's Disease. He was 82.
Yes, a never-ending sadness. In my seventeen years of publishing and co-editing Swans, Richard Macintosh (1933-2005), Philip Greenspan (1926-2008), Martin Murie (1925-2012), and Isidor Saslav (1938-2013) were visited by the Grim Reaper. Cancer was the cause of their deaths. And now, it's Charles. Few people, I suppose, will grasp the deep bond that develops between an editor and some contributors. It's very deep and emotional.
I have no intention to write an obit. The closest to an obit you can find on Swans is that of Peter Byrne, which as always is creative and often personal. For boiler-plate obits, do not hesitate to read those of The Independent, The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Scotsman, etc. There are many more, but they all look pretty identical (I would recommend The Independent -- slightly different...). However, you will note two details. First they cannot agree on Charles's date of birth. Is it January 26, 1932, or January 26, 1934? It's the former but the scribes know not. I figure each newsroom has a file cabinet filled with ready-made obits. When the personality passes away a scribe is assigned to the job. All he or she has to do is write an intro and end with the usual "he is survived by his wife xxx and son zzz." Pretty simple. For birth date, check Wikipedia. It says 1934. So you have it.
The second detail to note is that none of them mentions the collaboration of Charles with Swans. Nine years and 200 pieces that are not mentioned, as though obliterated from his life and career. It should tell you something about the quality and objectivity of the MSM (or presstitute). Amusing...
So, no obits here, just a few reminiscences.
I don't exactly recall how Charles landed his plumage on Swans pond and found his way to Swans Island (not the one in Maine, the one on the Web). Perhaps it was his life-long friend Ivan Gold who told him to check out Swans. On November 15, 2004, we published his first piece, a book review, "Lisa Appignanesi's The Cabaret," until nine years later, before fading away, he sent us his 200th and last contribution, "Remembering Lenny Bruce."
Over time, having read his work and done some research, I got bewildered. How come such a man of immense culture and talent keeps contributing to our fairly small and largely ignored magazine? I dared ask him the question over a phone conversation (we had regular ones). He responded that Swans reminded him of Encore, the tiny magazine that he co-founded and co-edited in the 1950s and early '60s. It may have been tiny but it was quite influential in the European literary world. He added that he was not paid and liked the fact that neither was I. He liked my efforts to balance arts and politics and still be an acerbic contrarian. But, above all, he said, your publication is superbly edited and simply presented with no ads -- a gem in the ocean of commercial and ideological platitudes you find on the Web. Life went on. Pieces kept coming.
I often asked him for guidance of all kinds, either by phone or by e-mail. Once as I was putting a piece on J.D. Salinger together, "Vignettes on J.D. Salinger," which had been suggested by Charles -- each willing contributor would send me their take in two hundred words -- I contacted him. I sent him my take and said that I had some difficulty to hold people to the 200-word limit. He answered: "Dear Gilles: As a Salinger splinter-piece, your little reverie is perfectly fine. - Do sit on the other scribes who cannot count up to two hundred. Explain we're looking for 'insights' not PhD theses. Mwtz"
He was always generous with his advice to improve and develop the publication, often relevant but seldom feasible. However, when I went overboard with one of my Gallic tantrums he would not hesitate to chastise me in no uncertain terms, as though I was a kid who needed to learn his lesson: "Do not disparage a contributor, especially one who works hard and works pro bono. It's not a good signal to send to the crew." What I appreciated the most was his dedication and loyalty. While he was careful to remind us (and himself) that Jan and I are were the decision makers, he did not hesitate to share his opinion or advocate a direction, a policy for the future of the publication. And when a contributor was not up to his standard of quality he would indicate that so-and-so was a drag and "we" should get rid of him or her. In other words, he had fully identified with Swans. Somehow, it had become a part of his life, his own publication by proxy.
I met him once a few summer later. He had driven with his wife Jane to meet a friend in the town where I lived nearby. We met in a café. I was quite anxious and nervous. Now he was going to find out how much of a nothingness I was. I was intimidated to death. We sat around a table. He looked much older than I had imagined. But he was incredibly friendly, genteel, and courteous. He said how he devoured the interview Jan had done with me on the occasion of Swans tenth anniversary and liked my personality. Here again he brought me up. It was time to go. Life went on.
One day I shall have to elaborate on the relationship between an editor and a contributing writer. A bond is developed, affection grows, one begins to have a good sense or feeling of the other even if the main communication is done electronically. Of course, it does not work that way all the time but it does with a few individuals. It certainly did with Charles. I could sense how he was, his mood, his active life. He was a prolific writer and we talked on the phone.
Suddenly, in 2012 something happened. His contributions became sparse. They were filled with typos and errors, which were hard to edit. Then he would send me a piece that we had already published, or ask about this and that piece ("Yes, Charles we have published them on this date and that date"). In the summer he called to tell that due to the Great Recession he had no more money and was entirely dependent on his wife. I kind of laughed and simply said, "welcome to the club!" (I too am quite dependent on my wife's job.) He could not write as often as he used to and be much involved with Swans any longer. I was flabbergasted. I knew, or sensed, that something else was happening. The few pieces he sent were poorly written, his e-mails hardly readable. I inquired about his health. He became quite defensive and angry. Charles had never been angry with me, never ever. He'd say he was fit as a fiddle. Silence fell in the sky. You know the rest of the story.
I had a lot of respect, appreciation, and affection for Charles Marowitz. Whatever you may read about him, he was a very genteel man with an immense culture and talent. He simply did not support fools -- too many of them crossed his path one way or another. Fortunately, I was not one of them.
Thank you, Charles, for your generosity and all you brought to arts & culture, and gave to little Swans. Thank you.
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