By Alan Swyer
The phone conversation, as reported to Leibowitz, had a quintessentially New York flavor.
Caller: “Mrs. Orgel?”
Caller: “I’ve got news about your husband.”
Elaine: “What kind of news?”
Caller: “It appears he’s dead.”
Elaine: “That’s not funny.”
Caller: “No shit!”
While reeling from the loss of his brother-in-law, and worrying about the impact it was likely to have on his niece and nephew, who, though no longer kids, were certain to be shell-shocked, an unwelcome thought kept gnawing at Leibowitz — one he didn’t dare share with anyone, even his brother. But then there was little he actually discussed with him, other than Phil’s financial woes, which too often led to money being lent, plus New Jersey-based Phil’s refusal to give up smoking, drinking, and gambling.
It was a joke that kept running through Leibowitz’s mind, one he’d heard many times since his childhood, but that only started to make sense once he got older.
Q: Why do Jewish men die before their wives?
A: They want to.
All humor, Leibowitz knew not just from personal experience, but also professionally, thanks to his years in show biz, was based upon a man in trouble. And when it came to trouble, marriage to Leibowitz’s sister was trouble carried to new heights — what the French term hors de concours.
With a scorched earth philosophy inherited from both her mother and her maternal grandmother — one that allowed for no ambiguity and zero questioning — Roberta Leibowitz Orgel did not simply make decisions or determinations. She issued edicts, gave ukases, and made decrees that served as the law of the land — her land — with no appeals granted and no questions allowed.
Leibowitz recalled vividly a call he received from Robbie, right after she’d seen the bio-pic about Ray Charles.
“You knew Ray a little, right?” she asked.
“Actually, I knew him well.”
“So how true is the movie?”
“Let’s put it this way: it’s a fictional story about a character named Ray Charles.”
“Remember the scene where they’re recording “Georgia On My Mind?”
“What about it?”
“The choir accompanying Ray is black.”
“In real life they were white.”
“The goal was a crossover record.”
“And it wasn’t Ray who wrote “Hit The Road, Jack.” It was the great Percy Mayfield. And the real Ray liked intelligent women, not the shriekers seen on-screen. And then there’s the depiction of his manager, Joe Adams —”
“You never change, do you?”
“What’s that mean?”
“All you do is find fault.”
“Find fault? What about accuracy?”
“What do you mean, Doesn’t matter? You’re the one who asked how much is true.”
“I like the movie!” she proclaimed peremptorily, announcing what she considered to be the final verdict.
It was only because Leibowitz happened to be in Boston, rather than at his home base of Los Angeles, that he was able to get to the funeral. Though the weather was unseasonably balmy the day that the late Don Orgel’s heart failed while jogging in Central Park, by the next morning winter had rudely reasserted itself with a snow storm that closed the local airports.
Having managed to get one of the last remaining tickets for a New York-bound train, Leibowitz was met at the station by his brother.
“Hope you know it’s only because of you that I’m doing this,” Phil said as the two of them hugged.
“Don’t be mad at a dead guy.”
“He’s not the one I’m mad at,” Phil said as he led the way to where his car was parked. “And just so you know, Her Majesty is being impossible.”
“What else is new?”
“Worse than ever.”
“Worse than when she tried to disinherit you?”
Phil cringed as he unlocked the door to his Saab convertible, then climbed in behind the wheel. “This gives the diva a chance to star in her own goddamn movie,” he grumbled.
Though Robbie had a long history of positioning herself as the good child — consistently scheduling celebrations for their parents’ birthdays and anniversaries that were intended to be as inconvenient as possible for both Phil and Leibowitz — the capper came with an earlier death, their father’s.
Worse than the star turn was her announcement that she and Don would handle the estate, then the indignation when Phil insisted on being present both for the opening of the safe deposit box and the reading of the documents.
“What in hell for?” Robbie snarled.
“Because I feel like it,” Phil replied.
“If you don’t trust me, just say so.”
“Okay, I don’t trust you.”
World War III erupted immediately. That led to Robbie and Don dragging Leibowitz out to a coffee shop.
“I’ve made a decision,” Robbie announced.
“Phil’s not entitled to a goddamn thing,” she said, referring to the not particularly large or significant inheritance that was meant to be divided three ways.
“It’s not exactly your call,” Liebowitz replied, trying his best not to be overly inflammatory.
“Don, you’re an attorney. Tell her.”
“Tell me what?” Robbie snarled.
“There are two things that matter,” Leibowitz said before his brother-in-law could utter a word.
“What Dad wanted —”
“Something called the law. There’s a will, and it’ll be honored.”
Fuming, Robbie turned to her husband, forcing him to speak up.
“My vote says —” Don began, only to be interrupted by Leibowitz.
“You one of the siblings?” Leibowitz asked.
“N-no, but —”
“Then no vote, and no but. Clear?”
“But I think —” Robbie interjected.
“Doesn’t matter what you think,” Leibowitz said forcefully. “At home you can have your way all you want. But with this? No unilateral decisions.”
Spurned when she later suggested that Don handle the legal matters concerning the estate, Robbie insisted that she be allowed to find the attorney. Though that irritated Phil no end, Leibowitz acquiesced, adding two conditions: that it be someone practicing in Florida, and that both he and Phil have the opportunity to say Yes or No.
Neither the search nor the conference call proved to be unpleasant or onerous, and a Miami-based woman was promptly retained. But her stint wound up being short-lived, for less than a week later she called Leibowitz to have an off-the-record conversation. Robbie, it turned out, had taken to hounding her day and night, making demands that ranged from questionable to outrageous. Uncomfortable being harangued, and unwilling to bend or break any laws, she was giving Leibowitz notice that through no fault of his or his brother’s, she was dropping the three siblings as clients. In the hope of honoring protocol, she asked him to arrange another conference call.
With Phil, who’d been prepped, remaining largely silent, the attorney stated in clear and simple terms that she was abandoning the case, then asked if there was anything anyone wanted to say.
“You’re fired!” Robbie screamed.
“My best to you, too,” the lawyer stated, as both Leibowitz and Phil laughed out loud.
Aside from the occasional email, that was the last communication Leibowitz had with his sister until the news of Don’s death. And even that revelation came via his niece, Joanie, who reached out to him by phone.
Upon reaching the cemetery on Long Island, Leibowitz instantly recognized that for Robbie, their father’s funeral had been little more than a warm-up — or, in theatrical terms, a dress rehearsal. Clearly aiming for some sort of imaginary Oscar, Emmy, or Tony, she made her husband’s passing her personal tragedy with a non-stop spectacle of sobbing, shrieking, and screaming. “Why?” she shouted repeatedly. “Why has God done this to me?”
“Shouldn’t she be consoling her kids?” Phil whispered to Leibowitz.
Instead of answering, Leibowitz merely shrugged.
“And if she’s so shaken up,” Phil continued, “how come she had her hair and nails done?”
All too aware that his brother’s observations, though mean-spirited, were nonetheless right, Leibowitz had to fight to hold back laughter. “You’re killing me,” he said softly.
“And how much you want to bet that’s a brand new dress?” Phil added.
In contrast to the warm embraces Leibowitz and Phil exchanged with Joanie and her younger brother Max, the hugs given to them by Robbie were clearly only for show — the equivalent of the air kisses so prevalent in the show biz world in which Leibowitz had long toiled.
Choosing not to dwell on what he took to be bad theater, Leibowitz made a point of doing the appropriate amount of embracing and shaking hands with the few people he knew — among them Don’s sister Kate, whose battles with Robbie were the stuff of legend. Then he gulped when the new widow, rousting herself from her wails, started to address the crowd.
“Don and I were more than husband and wife,” she began, summoning her inner Meryl Streep, or perhaps Katharine Hepburn. “We were soul mates. Best friends. And above all, inseparable.”
“Which is why they took separate vacations,” Phil whispered in Leibowitz’s ear.
Onward Robbie went, not merely painting a rosier picture of the relationship than ever existed, but taking revisionism to new heights. When she mentioned that their years together were non-stop bliss, Phil started laughing, causing Leibowitz to elbow him. Worse still was her contention that in twenty-five years of marriage, the two of them had never had so much as an argument, let alone a fight.
“Then how come they were in couples therapy?” Phil asked in what had escalated to a stage whisper. “And why’d they sell their house and move to Manhattan in a last ditch effort to save the marriage?”
Leibowitz realized that while he could argue with the timing of his brother’s remarks, there was no doubting their veracity.
Wishing to get rid of his suitcase and splash some water on his face, Leibowitz had his brother take him to his hotel before they headed to the post-cemetery reception at their sister’s apartment near Lincoln Center.
Arriving late, it turned out, enabled them to miss an eruption when a huge deli platter arrived from Zabar’s. Having failed until then to acknowledge her sister-in-law Kate, Robbie suddenly grabbed the unsuspecting woman and demanded that she be the one to pay the delivery man.
“Why can’t you just ask nicely?” Don’s sister inquired.
“Because you don’t understand nice!” Robbie roared. “You never have, you never will, and I hope I never see you again!”
“I’m happy to foot the bill,” Kate reportedly said with surprising aplomb. “But not if you’re going to stand here yelling at me.”
“Then I’ll pay if it’s a way to get rid of you!” Robbie was said to have bellowed.
Never before having stepped foot in the apartment into which Robbie and Don had chosen for the next chapter of their life together, Leibowitz took a moment to examine the way that his sister, born like him in industrial New Jersey, had reinvented herself as an upscale Manhattanite. Then he made a point of cornering first his niece, then his nephew. With each he set up a rendezvous — breakfast with Joanie at his hotel; lunch and a stroll through the Museum of Modern Art with Max.
His goal in each case was to make explicit what he hoped went without saying: that he was, and always would be, there for them in every way possible.
Once that was said face-to-face, off he headed to California, wondering if or when his counsel or services might be needed.
The very next day Max called not once, twice, or even three times. There were six calls in all, ranging from the substantive — financial matters — to the absurd — bits of nostalgia about which his grieving mother wanted more information.
More poignant was an urgent call from Joanie, who was distraught after a tongue-lashing from her mother. Robbie, not surprisingly, had insisted that her daughter drop everything — in perpetuity, if necessary — to be at her beck and call.
“She says I’m the worst person in the world!” Joanie informed him.
“Sorry, but you can’t be,” Leibowitz responded.
“Well, the way your mother views things, isn’t your Aunt Kate the worst person in the world?”
“I g-guess,” Joanie said haltingly.
“And how about your Uncle Phil? Doesn’t your mom call him the worst person in the world?”
“And what about me? Don’t I qualify on occasion?”
“Not just on occasion,” she acknowledged.
“Then see? The job’s taken. You’ll have to settle for being the fourth worst person. Make you feel better?”
Hearing Joanie chuckle made Leibowitz continue. “Help her when you can — if you can. But above all remember that she’s the one who should be consoling you, not the other way around.”
That advice was useful, but only up to a point, for a day later Joanie called in tears. “My mother hit me!” she told Leibowitz.
“What do you mean, hit you?”
“She told me I had to go with her to Jamaica. And when I said no, she started pounding on me, screaming that I’m horrible. Am I that horrible?”
“Not to me, you’re not. Or to your Dad, as I remember. Or your brother. Or your friends. Right?
“I suppose,” she said softly.
“So whose word are you going to take — your mom’s, or everybody else’s?”
“So what do I do?”
“First, whenever possible you speak over the phone, rather than actually getting together. And you tell her you’ll do everything you can, but that there’s an if —”
“Only if she’s willing to help herself.”
“Help herself how?”
“By seeing a professional. With me?”
“Then there’s the big one. Ready?”
“You’re finishing law school in June, right?”
“Then it’s time to pick a city where you think you might like to live —- whether here in L.A., or Chicago, or San Francisco, or wherever.”
“Move there to study for the Bar Exam.”
“Can I ask why?”
“Because you need to start a life of your own.”
“Somebody won’t be happy.”
“Ask you a question?”
“Ever seen her happy?”
Joanie’s silence spoke volumes.
It took a joint campaign by both her son and daughter to get Robbie, who maintained that she was absolutely, perfectly fine, to interview therapists. But doing so at least provided something to do above and beyond driving her kids nuts.
Then at last came a decision which Joanie reported to Leibowitz. After rejecting ten therapists for various reasons, Robbie at last found one who seemed acceptable. Why? Because he told her exactly what she wanted to hear.
As days turned into weeks, then weeks into months, the frequency of crises diminished, with the calls moving from constant to occasional.
During that period, Max fell in love with a kindergarten teacher named Gina, which meant that he was too busy with his own affairs to be on-call 24/7. Then Joanie, a lifelong New Yorker, announced that she was moving to Berkeley to study for the California Bar Exam.
The biggest change of all, however, came when Robbie, who had maintained that her love for Don was, and would always be, eternal, started dating an economics professor from NYU. That was an even bigger boon to her kids, for it gave her someone new to boss around.
Strangely, the family member from whom Leibowitz heard the most during that time was his brother, whose personal woes were mounting exponentially.
Even so, Leibowitz was surprised to be awakened early on a Monday morning by a call from none other than his sister. “I’ve got news about Phil,” Robbie announced.
“What kind of news?” Leibowitz mumbled groggily.
“As in heart attack. Get on a plane as soon as you can. I’m setting the memorial service for Wednesday at noon.”
Still not sure where he was — or even who he was — Leibowitz tried hard to shake off his drowsiness. “Wednesday at noon?”
“Wednesday at noon.”
Hanging up, Leibowitz took several deep breaths, then made himself a pot of his favorite Chinese green tea. Sitting at his kitchen table, he thought long and hard about his kid brother, whose ongoing series of disappointments had at last come to an end.
The excessive smoking and drinking, Leibowitz understood, had been more than an indication of Phil’s unhappiness. And the same was true of the gambling.
Feeling immobilized, Leibowitz sat there pondering the hows and whys about the different paths taken by his siblings and himself.
Then, in the hope of finding something to savor, he tried to think of the good times. But to his dismay, the few that came to mind were quickly overshadowed by the squabbling and strife that rarely abated.
He was about to book flights when the phone rang again.
“It’s Max,” announced his nephew. “Since you’re coming in, which is great, Gina and I want to see if you can have dinner with us after the memorial on Tuesday.”
“You mean Wednesday.”
Silenced reigned until it was broken by Max. “You didn’t hear?” he asked with what sounded like embarrassment.
“My mom moved it up a day.”
Realizing that he had only barely been saved from arriving a day late, Leibowitz instantly gave up any thought of making the trip.
In the days and weeks that followed, Leibowitz found himself, as never before, pondering his own mortality. With two family members — one sharing his DNA — having succumbed to heart attacks in fairly rapid succession, it was inevitable that he would worry about his own future as well.
He scheduled the medical exam he’d been ducking for too long, cut back on the consumption of ice cream, cheese and wine, made a concerted effort to be more diligent about exercise, and even dug out a meditation CD for use in times of stress.
It was at a moment when he was actually hoping for some headphone-assisted transcendence that he got a call from his niece.
“Your guest bedroom offer — can I take you up on it?” Joanie asked.
“And the stuff that went on — you know I had nothing to do with it.”
“About Uncle Phil.”
“What about Uncle Phil?” asked Leibowitz, suddenly both apprehensive and alert.
“M-my mom didn’t t-tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“M-maybe you better call her.”
“Joanie, please. Tell me what this is about.”
“The heart attack .”
“What about it?”
“Y-you really don’t know?”
“There wasn’t one.”
“Joanie, please speak to me in English.”
“Well, Uncle Phil —” she stammered.
“H-he hanged himself.”
As though the wind had been punched out of him, Leibowitz struggled to catch his breath. Then, careful not to inflict his rage upon his niece, he did everything in his power to measure his words.
“But the truth was known from the beginning?”
“S-so it seems,” Joanie said softly.
“And it was your mom’s decision not to —”
“L-let others know?”
“I guess,” she said even more faintly.
“Mind my asking when you found this out?”
“I had to go back for a wedding, and it kind of —”
“Y-yeah,” Joanie said sadly.
Leibowitz let a moment pass for Joanie’s sake. “Okay if I ask one last question?”
“This decision your mom made. Think it was to spare her — for want of a better word — embarrassment?”
Joanie hesitated before finally responding. “Probably,” she said with more than a measure of shame.
Leibowitz thought about his kid brother, whose cry for help was neither heard nor acknowledged. Then he thought about the people all over the world whose suffering goes unheeded by those whose only concern is self-interest.
It was at that very moment that he vowed never again to speak to his sister.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have been about the criminal justice system, Eastern spirituality in the Western world, diabetes, and boxing. Though American, he also writes regularly for a British music magazine called ‘Blues & Rhythm’. His fiction has been published hither and yon.