Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Memories of Joan B. Cleveland

At the Cosmic Diner in Hells' Kitchen in 2011.
Our extended family is sad to have lost a great friend, inspiration, and advocate -- Joan Cleveland.

     Lawyer, author, New York City character -- she had been working on a book about those who told a young person at a crucial moment in his or her life, "You can do that." If you were a Cape friend, an aspiring artist or musician, or a member of the Clark extended family, Joan was a person always ready to say, “You can do that.” One of Joan’s sayings was, “If you can do something, you can do anything,” and I’ve come to realize the truth in this. When you set out to pursue a dream, Joan was happy to support you. If you worked hard at it and came up with a good story every now and then, all the better. Joan treasured those only-in-New-York stories as much as anyone since Damon Runyon.

      Many of her stories ended with a coincidence and a person getting a great opportunity because of a chance meeting. "There are only two hundred people in the world,” she often explained, “and we all know each other." 

      She once found herself at a Harvard Club senior singles group with Dick Burgheim, an exceptionally kind man and a legendary People magazine editor who I was lucky enough to work for on an ill-fated startup magazine in the eighties. Joan mentioned to Dick that my company in Knoxville had gone under. They quickly agreed that they needed to reel me back to civilization, and soon thereafter came an offer of an eight-week writers’ trial at People.

     When our nephew Keith Clark expressed an interest in TV and video production, he found himself in the sacrosanct control room of the Today show when Joan was doing one of her interviews about senior citizens. (You can still buy her books, Finding the Right Place at the Right Time; Everything You Need to Know About Retirement Housing (1996, Penguin) and Simplifying Life as a Senior Citizen (1998, St. Martin’s), on Amazon.)  
      I cannot for the life of me imagine Joan rolling hoops and pulling up her white gloves with her classmates in the Wellesley Class of 1953. But I can imagine her matching wits with the Jesuits at Boston College Law School, who bestowed her degree in 1959. She often said that she respected their minds, and that they were more enlightened than you might think. 

       Like a modern day Auntie Mame, Joan enjoyed opening up the wide world to young people, and she encouraged them, in so many words, to “Live! Live! Live!” For so many of us, Joan took the scary prospect of life in New York City and showed that it was like a lively, never-ending cocktail party. The main requirement, in Joan’s world, was that you made an effort to be interesting. If you took part in this movable feast under Joan’s aegis, New York City became a welcoming place, full of amenities available to the initiated.      
      On the beach in 1977, I mention to Joan that I was about to start a summer internship in New York City and live in an NYU dorm. “Why don’t you stay with us?” she asked Joan. When I arrived at her apartment at 96th St. and Madison Avenue, she said she had heard that a local Y was offering special summer memberships for a nominal fee ($30 per month). I had already been assigned a locker, sweated in the extensive weight room, cooled off in the massive pool, and hung my sweaty clothes in a net bag to be washed, when I saw on the bulletin board that the Wednesday evening entertainment was Jascha Heifetz. Over time, I came to realize that the 92nd Street YMHA at Lexington Avenue was one of the most famous cultural crossroads in the world. Plus, they provided towels and did your laundry.

     Thirty years after my internship, our daughter Isabel stayed with Joan when she took courses in writing for TV at NYU’s Tisch School, worked at Barnes and Noble, and walked Joan’s dogs. “She has worked her butt off,” said Joan at summer’s end. If you worked hard, you had her support.  

    Joan Moynagh remembers that, after Vassar, she was headed to Columbia for a graduate program in Dramatic Literature. "But Joan (along with Anne Steere) had other plans for me.  They not only convinced me that I should defer for a year to see what it was like to work in the theatre in New York before committing to a life in a dramaturge’s office, Joan offered to have me live with her while I figured it all out.  In the meantime, my father died, life was even more topsy turvy for a while, and Joan was my magnet — pulling me back to New York, assuring me that I could 'make it there,' despite all the upheavals.  That fall was my 21st birthday — and Joan celebrated by coming into my room first thing in the morning — a candle plunked into a croissant — singing “Happy Birthday” to me in her full lower register! She was such a formidable person, but deep down a complete mush pot (Anne Steere’s term)."

     Joan was a great friend of my late mother, Charlotte Clark. They both shared a habit of maintaining and nurturing relationships and connections over the long term, through thick and thin. When our niece Sarah Hadley Clark Davis was at Smith, every November, she and a friend would stay with Joan for a Smith program that got them tickets to six plays. “I fell in love with New York because of her,” says Sarah. “She made New York such a welcoming place.” 

      When Sarah returned for graduate school at Columbia, Joan felt that Sarah was not getting proper meals and regularly had her over for dinner. They also went to the Irish Repertory Theatre. “After Grandma died,” says Sarah,  I missed her so much, and Joan was my connection to her. Joan missed Grandma too, and in the same way I think I was a connection to Grandma for her.”
     Joan also liked standing by the underdog.

     The evening after Annalise and Ben Mecham’s wedding in the modern Sodom of Charlottesville, Virginia, youngest cousin Olivia and oldest cousin Stacey disappeared with a six-pack of beer to discuss the meaning of life. So rapt were they in cousinly catchings-up that they did not hear their ringing cellphones. Panicked searches of every seedy bar still haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe ended only when Olivia and Stacey returned, joyful and oblivious, at 2:30 a.m.

     At breakfast the next morning, when Olivia was very much in the doghouse, Joan rose up as her advocate. "You didn't commit rape, murder or arson,” she said to Olivia. “People make mistakes. It seems like a big deal, but if this is the worst thing you've ever done. I'd say you're doing just fine.” Joan embraced people who know how to have a good time. She liked to see people carried away by inspiration. She liked to see Clark cousins nurturing their bonds. Most of all, she liked a good story.

     What, some of us might ask, did we do right to earn her friendship?  Some theologies might say that Joan’s largesse was not earned, but rather bestowed. Were we really worthy of the having a friend like Joan? At the very least, we can try follow her advice when we can. She told Joan M., "Always have a bottle of champagne in your refrigerator. That way you'll always be ready for a celebration."

      P.S., says Joan M., "I ALWAYS have a bottle of champagne in my refrigerator."