The event consists of musical selections and gentle reminiscences that poke respectful fun. The audience learns that Alan was an urbane and witty gentleman genius; that he was a loving father who, married eight times, had a passion for women; that his death left a vacancy in the hearts of those who knew him; and that when everyone in the theater has turned to dust, his lyrics will live on for millions yet unborn. An old film clip of Rex Harrison singing “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” reveals how sophisticated and beautiful those lyrics could be.
But the remembrances are curiously unmoving. However deeply Leonard Bernstein, Kitty Carlisle Hart, and the others may be feeling Lerner’s loss, their grief is not apparent. The impression they give is more like “I hope someone does this for me when I go” than “I miss this guy.” Perhaps cynicism is unfair. A public ceremony like this has its own rituals; wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve may not be one of them.
Paradoxically, it is the usually very proper, very English Julie Andrews who triggers the strongest emotions. She remembers being a young actress not fully aware of the immense gift Alan bestowed on her some 30 years ago when he helped train her for the part of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. She wishes she had let him know how much she appreciated what he had given her. Amidst the event’s clubby sense of professionalism, here is the clearest hint of a human being lurking beneath the glittery facade of celebrity.
Aside from Julie, though, the celebration is disappointingly flat, lacking that special mixture of joy and sorrow—of life—that the circumstances promised. There is a staleness in the air. Nothing is capturing the fact that Alan himself is now DEAD.
But is he?
Everything seems to say otherwise. Because the art he produced and bequeathed is eternal, it is as if he has not died after all. He has left his mark upon the world, and in that mark he lives. There is something comforting about this immortality: a life has not been obliterated. In a way that is impossible for the billions who live and die unknown, remembered only by a few, death has been defeated.
Then something extraordinary happens. Someone announces that one of Alan’s surviving children, Susan, “is not here today. She died a little while ago.” A gasp runs through the audience. Death is not supposed to behave this way, is it? Striking again, so soon, so close? A blunt reminder has been delivered. Our hope of a refuge—of death contained, death transcended—is a fiction.
Having set loose our insecurities one more time, death moves away. Then, slowly, the soothing balm of reminiscence spreads itself out again. The celebration closes with Alan himself singing “Camelot” on the video monitor. Order has been restored.
No people who turn their backs on death can be alive. The presence of the dead among the living will be a daily fact in any society which encourages its people to live. Huge cemeteries on the outskirts of cities, or in places no one ever visits, impersonal funeral rites, taboos which hide the fact of death from children, all conspire to keep the fact of death away from us, the living.
Early on the morning after my father died, the day he would be buried, my mother angrily emptied the drawers and closets and threw his clothes and artifacts on the floor. From the pile she withdrew a few items—the dark brown plaid flannel shirt she now wears to bed on very cold nights was one—and instructed my sister-in-law and me to get rid of the rest.
We packed the objects filled with my father into trash bags, loaded them into the car and deposited them at a Goodwill collection point which, for some odd reason, I had remembered passing. We searched a while for a place to unload his walker and the combination toilet-wheelchair contraption he had used in his last months and finally found a giant dumpster in an industrial area nearby.