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[This was the eulogy I presented at Sam Hall’s memorial service, a month after his death and three weeks after his burial. Same church, packed to the gills. Speakers included his lifelong lawyer, his last director, various old friends, his daughter- in-law, who read a fantastic poem, On The Edge by Dorianne Laux, and me. And there was a singer, Kevin Spirtas, who did Stephen Sondhiem’s “Being Alive” a capella. It was a song capable of making Sam cry, and capable of making me cry, and this guy tore it to shreds. Afterwards, old friends of Sam’s opened their home for a reception that was lovely and weird, because I kept expecting Sam to walk in and be the funniest man in the room.
Anyway, here’s what I said. Some of it is the same as the first eulogy. A lot of it is not.]
I really didn’t know my father until I was fourteen.
I mean I knew him—he was my father, and he loved me, and he hugged me, and we had tickle time. He got me a pug when I was four, my only one and his first of many, and he worked extremely hard to provide a constant flow of money into our home, giving up his own dreams in many ways to do so. He built other dreams, new dreams, and he fulfilled those dreams magnificently, but in his heart he was a playwright, and on his income tax forms he was a television writer, and specifically a writer of soap operas.
But he was a man in competition with his own father. And in many ways he was a man who had left his family behind, as my mother had her own, to become something their parents did not, could not understand.
In that sense, my father was an entirely self-invented man. Writing was his form of self-creation; it allowed him to escape whoever that person was in Carrollton, Ohio whom he had refused to be. It allowed him to build a successful life with my mother and me in New York based entirely on writing. It allowed him, after my mother died, to become the figure of both charm and gravitas—and power, in his way he was immensely powerful—you all knew him to be in Rhinebeck. In a sense, he wrote himself into existence; his enormous writing talent—and it was prodigious, the largest talent I have ever known or ever will know—allowed him to become precisely who he wanted to be.
And he always gave himself the best lines. Thirty years ago—more—we were driving back from a party at a very silly, very rich man’s home. I remarked that while certainly the man was charming, there was something empty in his determined frivolity. Sam turned to me and said “I like my children young.”
At the vet, after having to put down one of his pugs, he asked to pay the bill. Upon being told there was no charge for euthanasia, he said “if I’d known that, I’d’ve brought the other one too.”
Or him with a guest on the porch at Wildercliff, watching someone on a tractor take umpteen turns back and forth and back and forth and back and forth mowing across that vast lawn. Finally the guest asked: “How long is he going to keep riding that tractor?” And Sam waited the perfect millisecond of timing and then said “Until he has an orgasm.”
But those are stories about what Sam said. Even better are the stories he told, and one of my favorites could not be less appropriate for this beautiful church we are in today. But I’m going to tell it anyway.
I was a ten-month baby. I was a month late, which became a medical crisis. After many attempts to induce labor, finally an emergency cesarean was performed, and I emerged into the world. Afterwards, once we were home and I was introduced to my crib and a nanny was hired and installed in the maid’s room by the kitchen, my mom had to heal. The damage was such that they were cautioned not to be intimate for a few weeks. And then finally things got better, the stitches came out, and, the moment finally came when the doctor gave them the go-ahead to resume relations. And so they did, one eager evening, and things were heating up to a long-awaited level when they heard the nanny running down the hall, and she burst into the room and wailed “THE POPE IS DEAD!”
See, that was the kind of story Sam liked to tell. He had great one-liners; we all know that. But more than that—much more than that—he had great stories. And one of my favorite things he would say when telling a story was this: he would start a story, and build it, and get a laugh—and then he would say these words: “now, wait.” Because he knew there was more story, that it was about to get even better, and all he had done so far was just set up something that would have a bigger payoff later.
It’s difficult to explain what a brilliant writer he was. His work isn’t in the pages of any book—you can’t go to the bookstore and buy him and read him and have that moment of “My God, he’s amazing.” To the world at large it would appear that he never wrote a word. Yet more people saw his work than have ever read Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Updike or Roth or any other 20th century American writer. He was a colossus, but unknown even to the people most avidly caught up in his work.
He was a war veteran. He was in the signal corps, he landed on Normandy Beach two days after D-Day and walked from Normandy Beach to Munich. Every town he came to, the Germans had just left, and they’d taken all the wine, so all that was left was calvados. He emerged from the war hating Patton and not much liking calvados.
One afternoon at Wildercliff 20 years ago I found a large cardboard boot box from a long-gone shoe store in Carrollton. I opened it and discovered that his parents had saved all his wartime letters home. There they were, hundreds of them, neatly arranged in three columns. My excitement was visceral—here was the entire history of my father’s war! I didn’t have time that day, but I made a plan that the next time I came up I would block out an afternoon, sit down and really go through this box of living history.
Three weeks later I sat down one morning, opened the lid of the box and again marveled at this unexpected treasure trove. I took out the first letter, addressed in pen to my grandparents in their house on Main Street in Carrollton. Carefully I unfolded the notepad-sized paper inside. There, in Sam’s open, cursive handwriting were the words:
Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…
I opened the second:
Dear Sam and Bea
I’m somewhere in Europe. I’m not allowed to tell you where.
Today for lunch we had…
Hundreds of letters detailing the lunch routines of the United States Army as it chased the Nazis across Europe.
But the real story, the story he never told, was this: Sam actually managed to write a 13-act play during his time in the army, with over one hundred characters. He told me that he had done it, that it existed, and that it was terrible. And while he never let anyone see it, I expect it wasn’t about lunch.
And I expect, in some weird way, it taught him more about how to write than his MFA from the Yale School of Drama.
One quick story. After college, for a period of about a year, I worked at One Life to Live during my father’s tenure as head writer. The team had collaborated on a three-month arc of story, and submitted it to the network, as was standard. The head of daytime—still and yet, my favorite job title ever—had rejected it, as was also standard. Sam and I—just the two of us— came in on a Saturday to build a new arc of story to submit that Monday. We sat across from each other at a desk, spent fifteen minutes discussing what the network hadn’t liked, and then stared at our yellow legal pads, trying to think up solutions.
After about five minutes, Sam began to write. And once he started he did not stop—he filled up a legal pad page, flipped it over and kept on, pages and pages of finely wrought story that took the characters into utterly new situations and emotional places that simply hadn’t existed when we walked into the room. After another 15 minutes, I had a pokey little idea, and then another, and then I began to write as well. By the end of the afternoon he had solved the problem, and had even incorporated a couple of my ideas into the thread of story, suitably transmogrified, as necessary. Mostly, though, I had sat there and watched, in awe.
Sam’s wit sometimes had the edge of a well-sharpened dagger, the blade so smooth the victim didn’t feel it as it slipped in. But if it could sometimes be a weapon, it was a defensive one, because I’ve never known anyone who was so fundamentally curious about the people around him. The thing with Sam was that he was actually open to anybody who interested him. He actually listened, and he actually remembered, and he actually thought about and made decisions about people based on what he saw and heard.
In the early 1980s, Elaine Stritch was married to a lovely man named John Bey, who sadly was diagnosed with cancer. At this moment when they needed it most, it turned out they had no health insurance. Sam heard that, and immediately wrote Stritch onto One Life to Live, putting her character on air the exact number of times it took for her actor’s union insurance to kick in.
Sometimes his generosity could be negative as well as positive. When I finished the first draft of my first novel, with a mixture of pride and caution I asked if he would read it. His answer was… “No—if I tell you I like it, you won’t believe me, and if I tell you I don’t, you’ll never write again.”
He and I had a relationship that was both more loving and more complicated than many of you can imagine. In a way he allowed me a childhood, something I’m not sure he necessarily got from his parents. But one night, when I was fourteen, he sat across from me at a Chinese restaurant on 7th Avenue and drank three martinis and explained to me what his real relationship with his father was. And I was shocked, because in a way he had always been distant, and at that moment I realized that he had been waiting for me to be old enough to be let in on the real person he actually was, and not the role he had been playing as my father. He had, in a sense, waited for me to be suitably adult to explain the truth behind my nice grandparents in Carrollton, Ohio. There were no deep dark secrets there—none of the shocking things you might all be imagining, just a small-town boy desperate to get out from under the shadow of a father with dynastic intentions—but it was a narrative I had not known, and when he told me it literally rocked my world.
It was interesting, being the only child of a man who had rejected his own father. I could turn to him at any time and ask him what he was thinking, and he would actually tell me. Sometimes his thoughts were hilarious. After a moment of quiet, I’d say “What are you thinking?” And he’d say: “I was thinking that weiner schnitzel is never as good as it was meant to be.” Sometimes his thoughts were trenchant, sometimes mordant. But he always offered them immediately, as unfiltered as possible, and this from a man who did not impart his secrets easily.
Sometimes Sam never allowed people to see the things most important to him. But he allowed me to see how much he loved me, and Cecilia, and Caleb and Jed, and Grayson—always Grayson. And he allowed you all to see various bits and pieces of himself, and that’s why you’re all here—because whatever it was he allowed you to see, you all recognized that it was—and here again, there is simply no better word—brilliant.
Sam Hall, sitting on the porch in the shifting light of sunset at Wildercliff… listening, constantly filtering all he heard through that labarynthine mind, yet the picture of ease in a boldly colored shirt with a globe of red wine and a pug snuffling around and the world as far as the eye could see before him.
And here, now, it is my sad duty to inform you all that this time the pope really is dead.