Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Arnold Beichman, 1913-2010

Arnold Beichman, one of nature’s noblemen—or at any rate, because he would have dismissed that title with a guffaw, one of God’s most magnificent creatures (never mind his complicated relations with God)—died today at the age of 96. How often do we mourn the death of a beloved friend by saying, “Oh, he was in the prime of his life. He died too soon?” By “prime” we usually mean what you get to have, if you are lucky, in your late middle age: the blessings of good health and vigor, children and grandchildren, and freedom from many of the cares and anxieties that dogged your youth. And indeed, Arnold experienced all of those joys, and more. But those of us who had the great good fortune to know and love him—three generations of us, in my family—thought of him as a man in his prime until the end of his days. As the editor of Commentary beautifully tells us:
What a life he lived! I'm talking about a man who grew up on the Lower East Side, a Yiddish-speaking son of a pious working-class father who made his way to Columbia University in the late 1920s — there to edit the Columbia Spectator along with the man who would be his lifelong friend, Herman Wouk. In the 1930s he worked for what was called the "exploitation department" of Warner Bros., I believe, writing press releases about Jimmy Cagney's command of Yiddish and showing Cagney around New York during a publicity tour. (He knew Babe Ruth too.) He then became a journalist, and had a storied career, going from the New York Herald Tribune to PM to other places, as a labor reporter and city editor and foreign correspondent. He wrote cover stories for Newsweek about the anti-imperialist wars in Africa in the late 1950s and 1960s. In his 50s he decided he needed to educate himself better and went to get himself a Ph.D. in history, then became a teacher, and then, in his 60s, embarked on yet another career as a Sovietologist of distinction. He was writing regularly until he was 95.
But what Arnold was, first and foremost, was a man of roaring enthusiasm, a man who always looked forward — it was why he never sat down to write a memoir, I think, even though he had a great one in him, because he didn't want to look back. There was a reason for this. A great family man, he had lost one of his beloved children to suicide; the only time he ever spoke of it to me was when he was speaking passionately (as he spoke of everything) about his atheism — and revealed suddenly that he wasn't really an atheist at all, but a man who in a state of permanent anger at God for what had happened to his son. That he survived that blow, and thrived in spite of it, and kept himself moving, driving motorcycles into his 60s and flying planes into his 80s and spending the springs and summers tending to apple orchards and writing books and columns with his beloved wife, Carroll, on her family farm in Naramata, BC, a hundred million worlds away from the streets below Houston that he had haunted as a child of the tenements, until this very last summer, testified to a greatness of spirit unique in my experience.
A man couldn’t have a more splendid obit, and the world couldn’t have had a more splendid man.

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