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(Illustration by Daniel Pudles)


A brief stillness followed. All three grants were voted down. I remember at that moment feeling proud that Elliott Lazar was my friend.

I finished out my last year on the Council. Without Elliott the interesting tension of the meetings had departed. He and I hadn’t lost touch. He would call me at my home in Brentwood, usually at least once a week. He was hungry for news and gossip about the NEA. He was himself starting to write a memoir of his days as a child prodigy. Once, when I was in New York, we met for lunch, at a Chinese restaurant on West 59th Street. Gerianne joined us. Elliott forgot his reading glasses, and, rather peremptorily I thought, instructed his wife to call their maid to bring them over to the restaurant. By this act Elliott, I was reminded, still thought himself a concert artist, with all the temperament the role allows: ordering people about, expecting a high degree of service, a steady stream of praise. At that time I had the flash thought that Elliott missed his real calling — that of conducting a symphony orchestra. The title maestro would have both suited and pleased him.

Richard meanwhile had graduated from Yale and was now at Oxford, Balliol College, I think Elliott said. Elliott’s own education was chiefly musical, though he had somehow managed to work in a degree in liberal arts at San Francisco State. Like the rest of us he was an autodidact, though to a very high power. For a smart guy, he was unduly impressed, I thought, by what the world thought of great institutions of learning, and obviously pleased that his only child was able to find acceptance in them. I hoped Richard wasn’t put in a co-ed dorm at Oxford.

While his son was in his second year at Oxford, Elliott was discovered to have leukaemia. He told me about it over the phone, at the close of a long gossip-filled call. “By the way,” he said, “I’ve got cancer of the blood, pretty serious they tell me.”

Before he was able to hang up, which I think he wanted to do, I asked him to fill me in on some details. He said only that he was going three times a week to Sloan-Kettering, there were lots of transfusions, and the whole thing was, in his words, “a terrific nuisance”.

“One amusing note,” Elliott said. “Because they’re doing all this blood work, and because of fear of AIDS, they told me they had to ask me a personal question. When I asked what it was, a nurse there said they needed to know how many people I have had sex-relations with over the past twenty-five years. ‘I’ll tell you,’ I replied, ‘but you are going to be disappointed,’ and I raised my index finger.”

How Gerianne was taking Elliott’s illness, I have no idea, for I had no reason to go to New York during this time. But it couldn’t have been easy for her. They were such a tight-knit family, the Lazars. Richard I know remained at university in England, though Elliott told me that he flew in from time to time to be with him.

The cancer was not improving, Elliott reported. At one point I asked him if he had thought about radical therapies, which sometimes, or so I was told, worked.

“Like what?” he asked.
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