As I awakened Tuesday morning to his Good Morning America theme playing in
the background, I was shocked to learn that my friend, Marvin Hamlisch, the
award-winning composer, conductor and versatile entertainer had passed at
the relatively young age of 68.
Marvin had an engaging personality and a quick and delightful sense of
humor. Over the years our friendship developed. He was intellectually
curious and politically concerned. He spent time in Washington after he was
named the first Principal Pops Conductor for the National Symphony
Orchestra. Although his main residence was in New York, he bought a house
around the corner from mine in Georgetown. But he still preferred to stay a
few blocks away at the Four Seasons Hotel where he had a tuned grand piano
moved into his suite so he could write. And Presidents from both parties
frequently invited Hamlisch to perform his numerous hits at The White House.
He usually spontaneously incorporated some special material as well. He
liked Washington and once told me that the Lincoln Memorial was his favorite
monument. He said he could look at the stone, read the words and “feel the
I first met Marvin through a mutual friend some 35 years ago at Westbury
Music Fair in New York where he was performing. We were introduced in his
dressing room prior to the show. Marvin seemed to take an immediate liking
to me. I found him smart, funny, and real, but he just wasn’t sexy. In fact,
he was outright “nerdy.” After all, we were both in our twenties – he, a few
years my senior– and sex appeal was important in those days.
He invited me to join him at his mother’s house for an informal dinner after
the show. It was the classic story of the haymisheh Jewish guy taking home
“a nice Jewish girl” home to meet his mother, in this case a widowed
Austrian-immigrant. We sat around her dining table as she served up her
special goulash, one of Marvin’s favorites, and bragged about “my son, the
entertainer.” She must have thought a “shidduch” was in the works. Marvin
laughed as she related embarrassing childhood stories about her son.
Our paths crossed again several years back on a cruise ship in the South
Pacific. We were both part of the onboard “enrichment” program: Marvin as a
performer; and me, a lecturer on “political dish.” He spent his days
composing and we met in the private dining room for dinner. His nerdiness
became more appealing as he matured and his accomplishments stacked up.
Hamlisch was open to new ideas and beliefs, always curious, always
questioning. He believed in the healing arts. He consulted a psychic,
Dezia, at the suggestion of his wife, Terre. One of Dezia’s best known
clients was Yoko Ono, and she is said to have predicted John Lennon’s death.
Hamlisch also visited the Dalai Lama. Whatever he believed, it seemed to
work for him, but no matter how brilliant he was musically and otherwise,
even the best spiritual healers and teachers could not save him from the
toll that a recent kidney transplant took on his body.
He barely stopped working long enough to recover, keeping a hectic pace
conducting top orchestras, performing at major venues, and creating,
writing, composing. Four months later, the transplant failed, he fell into a
coma and passed on. Although he accomplished more in those short 68 years,
than most in a lifetime, his work wasn’t finished. The Liberace film is
still in the works. The legacy he left is vast.
Four months ago, he quietly accepted a kidney from a close friend. At his
age, he would not have had such good fortune waiting on an organ donor list.
He was too young to die, but too old to move up the list for an anonymous
donor kidney. Though the surgery was deemed successful, just months later
his body rejected the kidney and he fell into a fatal coma. Marvin did not
want to use his well-nurtured and extensive connections to leap frog the
organ waiting list. Had this very private celebrity gone public with his
transplant surgery, speculation as to how he got the kidney when there is a
waiting list of younger individuals, would likely have taken on a life of
its own via the show biz grapevine. And he wasn’t one to complain or seek
Despite his many awards – Oscars, Grammys, Emmys, Golden Globes, a Tony and
even a Pulitzer Prize, Hamlisch told me one of his most cherished
possessions was the duck that came down during the show, “You Bet Your
Life,” a gift from Groucho Marx. Marvin had been a pianist for Groucho. And
Joe Pap gave him a gift he always treasured as well-his own words after they
opened on Broadway with “A Chorus Line.” It was his advice, Hamlisch
confided, that changed his life. “Be true to yourself and write the music
you feel is right for the show, even if you’re criticized for it.” He lived
up to that.
Hamlisch was an authentic man, he didn’t want his life tabloidized even
though his success was larger than life. He was what my grandmother called
“a haymisheh guy.”