Evan Hunter’s Last Waltz

It’s impossible to prove if he had anything to do with it, but after a solid week of non-stop rain, the sun broke out on what proved to a be a beautiful fall afternoon — and a perfect setting for the memorial service for Hunter (aka Ed McBain) held yesterday at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Because this was less memorial and more celebration, with laughter and fond reminiscences lightening what could have been a somber event.

But Hunter, as guest speaker after guest speaker reminded the crowd, wasn’t a somber man. Witty, charming, erudite and loyal, certainly; also one with a keen sense of humor and a real mischevious streak. But above all, what got through especially to someone like me, who did not know him, was his capacity to love. All one had to do was take one look at his widow, Dragica, as she stepped onto the stage in a sumptuous black frock that highlighted her beauty. Her face, already brimming with tears, betrayed too many emotions to name as she recited a short poem by Mary Frye, and every word she spoke –be it to introduce a speaker, read out messages from fans, or what have you — was overladen with love for her husband. Would that we all could experience what they shared.

So many speakers, so many highlights: Elmore Leonard’s altogether brief appearance; former NYPD Commissioner Richard Condon remembering his love of McBain books years before they became friends after a dinner party in Westchester County; Lawrence Block wishing he’d had a chance to thank Hunter for buying him a drink back in 1957, when he toiled as an editorial assistant in the Scott Meredith Literary Agency; Jane Gelfman, Hunter’s longtime agent, reading a moving passage from LET’S TALK (only available in the UK); a couple of brief excerpts from THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S, the unproduced musical Hunter wrote the book for (with Charles Strouse supplying the music and Susan Birkenhead the lyrics); Michael Malone explaining how a review of UNCIVIL SEASONS led to his friendship with Hunter, while Marilyn Stasio related an anecdote about how a confrontration with Hunter at an Edgar ceremony ultimately led to an unlikely alliance — and to her breaking some cardinal rules; Pocket Books editor Kevin Smith talking about how working with Hunter on an 87th Precinct paperback was a dream come true for the self-professed “8-7 nerd”; letters sent from Stuart Kaminsky and Peter Straub, read with emotion by co-MC Otto Penzler; I’m forgetting much, but others who were there can supply further details as they wish.

Perhaps the most amazing sight was Kitty Carlisle Hart. Here is this woman, ninety-six years old, wearing a fire engine red dress, and she’s still able to entertain a crowd and hit the notes. As I remarked to a friend afterwards, I’d sure as hell would like to be able to sing the way she can when I’m that age. Even if at one point, in a bit of a misunderstanding with the accompanist about whether to sing a song by heart or from music, she looked at the sheet music and proclaimed, “I can’t read that!” which caused the crowd to erupt in laughter. Stage presence, oh yes.

The service might have been on the long side (at nearly 3 hours) but I really didn’t notice till close to the end, because, even with instrumental pieces peppered with guest speakers and slide shows and so many memories, it just kept moving. Not unlike the best of McBain’s books, really. And I suspect that’s exactly how he would have wanted it.