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(Illustrations by Daniel Pudles —

I promise not to act hurt if, upon meeting me, you do not recall my name. Lots of people meeting me don’t, even though for four seasons in the late 1970s I played the second lead on the country’s top-rated television show, a police story called Witness Protection. I’ve also appeared in half-a-dozen or so fairly forgettable B movies. “Isn’t your name Harrison, or Harrington?” people ask. “Actually,” I say, “my name is Jack Devlin, but I played a character named Detective Jim Hartigan on a television show a long time ago.” I want to add, but don’t allow myself to do so: “Thanks for almost remembering.” 

This story isn’t about me, but about a remarkable man named Elliott Lazar and his family. I met Elliott roughly twenty years ago on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts. The Council was, I gathered soon after being asked to join it, a rest home of sorts for actors, dancers, artists beyond their prime. When I was on it Martha Graham was a member; so, too, Roberta Peters; and the 1950s movie star Celeste Holm, a very Teutonic Kurt Adler who had been the general director of the San Francisco Opera, Robert Joffrey, Helen Frankenthaler, Douglas Dillon, a poet whose name I cannot now recall, the heads of the Chicago Art Institute and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and a few wealthy patrons of the arts. We met four times a year in the Old Post Office Building in Washington, now, I believe, owned by the Trump family and soon to be converted into a hotel.

The dominant figure during my time on the Council was Elliott Lazar, a short, pudgy figure with a preposterous comb-over hairdo. Elliott was a former violin prodigy, who now wrote music criticism and was an adjunct professor at the Juilliard School of Music. At eight years old he had a patron, the daughter of the woman in San Francisco whose mother had been the patron of the young Yehudi Menuhin. She gave Elliott’s parents $200 a month, a serious figure in those days, so that they could hire the best teachers (Pierre Monteux among them) for him; also tutors, so that he didn’t have to go to school full-time and could put in more time practising the violin.

“A German Jewess,” Elliott told me, “she made me pay back every penny in little humiliations. I used to play at her luncheons for her friends. She never hesitated to correct the table manners, dress, pronunciation, and everything else about this uncouth little Ostjude with his immigrant parents. Merciless, really.”

Elliott described his mother to me as “the Stalinista princess.” His father, who ran an appliance store, in later years acquired some real estate in Oakland that he sold for an immense profit. When his parents died, Elliott, an only child, came into an impressive sum of money — enough to allow him not to have to work at a regular job. This was after he realised that the glittering career as a concert violin soloist he once dreamed of wasn’t on the cards for him. He and his own wife, Gerianne, kept a full-time maid in their capacious apartment on the West Side in New York. Defending the notion of his employing this woman to me, not that I ever questioned it, he said, “What’s the point of having a bit of money if you can’t spend forty grand a year for clean sheets every night and warm coffee in the morning?” I could myself see lots of other points, but I didn’t bring them up.
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