An Unforgettable Person

I don’t think I shall ever return to New York. The person who gave us our ‘home from home’ has just died. I still don’t, can’t think it is true. But it is.

Once you stepped inside the five-storey brownstone and saw the interior loved by four generations and crammed with the generous personality of the owners, you felt at home there. It was at breakfast that guests, mostly young students, assembled at the large table in the dining-room. The rules of the house were simple, honest and trusting. The first one down laid the table and put on the coffee. The day after arrival you bought your share of muffins, milk, cereal, butter – whatever was missing – and replenished it when needed. The rest of the time you bought your own supplies and found a place to put them in the fridge which, when overwhelmed, someone offered to clear out. We ate intervening meals in the kitchen or, if decided at breakfast, went out together, often forming impromptu discussion groups in the favoured local restaurant.

We came from all over the world, mostly musicians or writers or historians, but there could be anyone. Our hostess was often asked why she loved travelling. ‘Because I’m interested in people, the world over, and welcome them into my home.’

She was born fortunate, lived among works by noted artists and devoted her life to sharing it with her family and friends. Scattered over the world she has a diaspora of friends who will never forget her.

My last effort to give a dinner party for our host in New York - the starter. Too busy to photograph the company, alas

My last effort to give a dinner party for our host in New York – the starter. Too busy to photograph the company, alas

I asked her what gift could I bring. ‘Nothing, don’t bother,’ was her answer. ‘Just have a dinner party one evening and invite your friends.’ I can’t recall how many parties I have given, and it was hard for me as I’m no cook and still less a connoisseur of food. I never forget the people, the conversation or the atmosphere, but struggle to recall the food.

One breakfast the last time we stayed with her, she invited us to go to a drinks reception and concert featuring an unusual instrument that had been donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was in a room tucked away under the roof. When the concert was over we were allowed to wander through the sculpture galleries on the ground floor after the public had left. The audience wandered round the figures looking at them from the shadows of the Greek, Roman and other Mediterranean civilisations. It was as if they were whispering to us to take our time with them. Then afterwards we took her to one of her favourite restaurants – a popular inexpensive one. We had, as always, a great time, talking, I remember, of how we got lost above the almost unknown Napoleonic museum, rarely open, and the strange one of Mario Praz’s apartment in Rome, going up and down rickety stairs and along narrow passages to find the father, I think it was, of one of the students who had stayed with her in New York. Eventually a door was opened by a mature man in a caftan who politely asked us, in French, to take off our shoes. We walked over precious oriental carpets on to the balcony where we sipped drinks and discussed whether, as our host maintained, the Lascaux cave paintings are greater than the Sistine Chapel.

The last time I saw her was in Cuzco, Peru over a year ago. I knew she was returning to Peru, but it was pure chance that she disembarked from the plane we were waiting to board back to Lima. We waved at each other and sent kisses through thick glass. It’s that laughing image I’ll carry with me.

I have here an email confirming arrangements for her to come and stay with us at the end of May on her way to the Mediterranean. It’s difficult to read.

She hosted more than one book launch for me in New York. The working title of the present one is What Can We Do? It’s a story about how we mould our one masterpiece, our life, and what we leave behind. I can hear myriad voices crying out how she enabled them, gave them warmth and welcome with such generosity in her home, gave them a positive practical encouragement in their life’s work through passing on her good fortune as an unforgettable gift to others.

As she did to me in ways I’ll never forget.

The world is a poorer place.

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