My dear friend and mentor Claudia von Canon used to tell a story about a memorial service she attended for a university colleague where someone — I can’t remember exactly who — had the bad manners and poor form to begin her eulogy for the dearly departed with the pronoun “I,” and continued in this first-person vein, telling stories about herself in which the great man figured only as a minor character.
I was reminded of this story this morning just as I was on the verge of committing the same clumsy, self-serving move: I was going to write, by way of introduction, I never knew Natasha Richardson. I saw her and heard her speak only once, at a fundraiser last year for Amfar, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Her father, Tony Richardson, had died of AIDS in 1991, and Ms. Richardson had dedicated herself to raising money for research. She was a member of Amfar’s board.
Nearly everybody at this gala event seemed to be either rich or a celebrity of one kind or another. These were the days before the Lehman collapse and before Bernard Madoff absconded with half the fortune of half the Upper East side, or at least before half the Upper East Side knew he had. There was still lots of money floating around New York, so the event drew a good crowd; and later in the evening, during the fundraising auction, I watched people make bids of fifteen-, twenty-, and thirty- thousand dollars in the same carefree, casual manner you or I might bid fifteen or twenty or thirty dollars. For this crowd, it was good fun for a good cause.
I’d been invited as a courtesy. Natasha Richardson’s brief talk preceded and introduced a short film I’d made — a promotional film about Amfar’s work fighting HIV/AIDS around the world. But I was clearly out of my element. I don’t usually party with the rich at black tie events, and I am woefully (or, to be honest, happily) ignorant of celebrity culture. I don’t recognize celebrities when I see them on TV or in magazines or on the street here in New York, and even when I recognize a celebrity’s name, I usually can’t put a face to it. I’m not sure I would have recognized the celebrity of Natasha Richardson or any of the other stars and starlets who were at the Amfar benefit that night if the paparazzi had not gathered around them.
For instance, I saw one especially unhappy looking teenage girl, who seemed to be bored with the speeches and the entertainment in the way teenagers are bored with everything; and I felt a little sorry for her, a rich kid dragged by her parents, I assumed, to this fancy adult occasion, until I was told that she was one of the Olsen Twins. That made me look at her in a different light. But to this day, I must confess, I still don’t really know who the Olsen Twins are. They are either on a television program or they play music. Or maybe both – or neither. I haven’t bothered to find out.
My ignorance of celebrity names and faces and my impatience with television make it difficult for me to participate in certain conversations, but I would rather suffer the handicap than the remedy. It’s especially difficult for me to participate in the kind of conversation the major media are now having about Natasha Richardson – the prying news about her family’s grief, the solemn-faced tributes by news anchors, the variations ad nauseam on her tragic, accidental death. I just don’t feel connected. Princess Di left me cold as well.
I wonder at the feelings people attach or bring to these events; I tell myself that mourning over the great and rich and famous is really a way of mourning for other things, other losses – the way life can end suddenly, just by accident, the passing of goodness from the world; sic transit gloria mundi. Or maybe people feel they really know these celebrities who flicker at them from the television screen in the living room.
I realize, of course, that to someone of Claudia’s refined sensibilities, sitting down to write in the first person about my indifference to the passing of a celebrity, or my ignorance of celebrity on the occasion of a celebrity’s death, would probably appear boorish. And to get at the point in this roundabout way – telling the story she would rather have me not tell by telling the story of how she would rather not have me tell it – would no doubt appear worse than boorish. And I understand that most people will agree with that view, or write me off as hopelessly self-involved or insensitive and uncaring.
But I take some refuge in the observation that sitting down to write about Natasha Richardson in the first person brought Claudia’s story of bad form at the MIT memorial back to me, and helped me remember her. I never really had a chance to mourn her when she died, in 2002, after a long bout with cancer. (Nothing accidental about that.) I never wrote a eulogy for her. Her daughter Susanna organized a memorial service, in Massachusetts, a few months after she died. On the day, torrential rains flooded out I-95, and I was persuaded to turn back: we probably wouldn’t have made it to Cambridge in time for the service anyway.
It strikes me that Claudia would have agreed, in any case, with St. Augustine, who advanced the opinion (in The City of God and On the Care to be Given for the Dead ) that funerals are for the living, not the dead. For the latter, God has already provided. The question, in my reading of Augustine, really becomes what we, the living, do in this secular world to honor the dead or to remember them.
Mourning, in this view, can be a political or politically fraught act. When goodness passes from the world, there is always more goodness to be done in the name of the goodness that is gone.
So a good way, maybe the best way to honor Natasha Richardson is probably not to weep in front of the television as a soft-focus montage plays, but to make a donation to Amfar. It seems especially urgent to support research and a scientific approach to HIV/AIDS at a moment when Pope Benedict XVI is advancing the view that condom distribution is not an effective way to prevent the spread of AIDS in Africa.
If you want to have some fun with it, make your contribution not in your own name, but on behalf of a third person: Joseph Ratzinger. After all, it’s not exactly good form to claim, or pride oneself on, one’s own charitable deeds.