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 man.”
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 sympathy.
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.”