OBITUARY

  
"For all we know/We may never meet again./Before you go/Make this moment sweet again..../Tomorrow was made for some,/Tomorrow may never come,/For all we know." A few months ago, over a so-so bottle of wine in a tranquil garden in Washington, D.C., Susannah McCorkle was praising Sam M. Lewisís lyrics for their directness. She had included "For All We Know" on her new record, and I was praising her direct way with the songís directness. Now the song is too bruising to hear. In the middle of the night on May 19th, having placed a will on her desk and a note in her pocket asking anybody who discovered her body to look after her cats, Susannah jumped out the window of her apartment, on West Eighty-sixth Street.

The thought of this gentle intelligence falling sixteen floors in the windy darkness is an evil thought. What affliction of her heart demanded this fatal remedy? Immediately, the explanations began to appear. Her record company had dropped her; she had been warring with cancer; she was lonely; she was depressed. Causes for despair, all, but Susannah belonged, or so I had believed, to the "Good morning, heartache, sit down" school of her idol, the great stoic thinker Billie Holiday, who disarmed despair with familiarity, even with hospitality. Susannah seemed to inhabit a universe that often wounded but never warranted bitterness. In a recent letter about a "fledgling romance" that she had decided to "transform into a friendship," she had stoutly remarked, "I continue to expect to find my soulmate by not looking for him at all. Life has so many other pleasures." And in her music, too, Susannah seemed to have found a way to live with disappointment, to manage disillusion by making it lovely. (Consider her tenderly wised-up rendition of "Werenít We Fools," an undeservedly obscure song that Cole Porter wrote for Fanny Brice in 1927.)

Jazz singing has rarely prospered so richly from sweetness of temper. She was a doll. Her breath-beautiful, unexpectedly intimate, and fiercely discriminating voice was forever patrolling the frontier between girlishness and womanliness. The imp ran gladly with the vamp. Susannah was not a blues singer, even when she sang about the blues. Her achievement was based, instead, on an extraordinary intuition of the musicality of language. With a scholarís strain and a poetís liberty, she studied the words that she sang in their meanings and in their sounds, until meaning and sound became indistinguishable; and in this way she made speech into an experience of the senses. Susannah was certainly the most literary singer in the history of her art. She knew many languages, and translated from them. She wrote stories and learned articles about the traditions of American song -- most recently, a fine exploration of the work of Irving Berlin. And she was working on a book, a big, delightful mess of a manuscript that was a memoir on its way to a novel, about her adventures in the nineteen-sixties, as a cool, delicate American chick prowling the Piazza Navona. It was a vivacious journal of a young womanís openness to the world. I remember her happy giggle when I told her that she should call it "Innocence, A Broad."

On her last visit to Washington, Susannah wanted to talk about books more than about songs; she holed up in her room with "The Education of Henry Adams" and a pile of old Faber & Faber volumes of poetry and the catalogue of the Wayne Thiebaud retrospective. She reported a little grimly that her situation as a singer was becoming very difficult (how could it be anything else, I thought, for somebody so utterly lacking in vulgarity?); but the impression of a foundering woman vanished when she reported cheerfully on the musical workshops she was conducting for children. Susannah conferred upon friendship the glamour of romance. She was finespun, without spin, a genuinely lyrical being, a heroine of the inner life born of city life. And then she went and smashed all these blessings on a Manhattan sidewalk. "I believe that no man ever threw away life, while it was worth keeping," a philosopher once observed. By what reason, this certainty? In an existence of illusions and mistakes, suicide, too, may be an illusion and a mistake. Life is worth keeping, for all we know.

-- Leon Wieseltier





Malian photographer Seydou Keita, who died November 22, was renowned for his studio portraits of ordinary Africans -->

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Simon Raven, one of the most colorful English novelists of the postwar era, has died at the age of 73. Raven, the author of more than 30 books, died in hospital in London at the weekend after a stroke. He had spent the last few years of his life in an almshouse "for distressed gentlemen," having gambled or drunk away most of the proceeds of his work.

Yesterday friends paid tribute to a man whose life could claim to be at least as entertaining as his fiction, one in which intellectual promise fell prey to a taste for saloon bar debauchery.

His best work resided in the Alms for Oblivion series of 10 novels, chronicling the (usually scandalous) lives of a group of public schoolboys making their way through the postwar years. His later sequence of seven novels, The First-Born of Egypt, was less in tune with the times and attracted less attention.

For his raw material, Raven often drew on contemporaries at Charterhouse and Cambridge. Lord Prior, the former Tory Cabinet minister, and Lord Rees-Mogg, the former editor of The Times, are among those who can be found, thinly disguised, among his pages. Raven himself relished the role of cad, managing to have himself thrown out of Charterhouse for the "usual thing" (homosexuality) before having to depart Cambridge to escape his creditors.
He enjoyed one brief marriage which produced a son. When his wife sent him a telegram: "Wife and baby starving send money soonest," the reply was succinct: "Sorry no money suggest eat baby."

-- Neil Tweedie