Memorial Remarks for Beverly Sills
September 16, 2007
I adored Beverly. When we lunched, we used to tell anyone we ran into – if necessary, even the headwaiters – that we were one of the great love stories of the city and that we kept it secret by flaunting it.
In an ultimate sense, this had the advantage of being true. Beverly was brilliant and sensitive, witty and caring. She was a solace to her friends by evoking a sense – without any great rhetoric – that she would always be there if needed even if, and especially if, the fates turned unkind.
Beverly and I had a marvelous time with one another. We served on two boards together. To avoid being intimidated by the economic jargon all around us, we combined forces. Whenever either of us spoke, it was also on behalf of the other. So when Beverly had a question, she would say, “Henry and I don't understand this,” or I would say, “Beverly and I want to make an observation.”
Our birthdays were only two days apart, and we usually celebrated them together – the last one three weeks before her death. On one important birthday, Beverly was asked to sing “Happy Birthday” to me. Though when she retired she had announced a decision never to sing in public again, she bent her rule, imitating Marilyn Monroe's husky rendition of the song.
A literal guest from abroad not familiar with American folklore approached Beverly afterwards and said, “What courage you showed in singing when you have clearly lost your voice.” It made Beverly's day.
Nancy said to her once, “You always seem so happy.” Beverly replied, “I am not always happy. But I always try to be cheerful.”
Beverly had had a difficult life. But she never spoke about it, except by an occasional, indirect, wry comment to close friends. She never told me about her illness. We met for lunch about once a month. Beverly could be gregarious, but she was also very private; to her friends, she gave away some of the intimate parts of herself, almost never all of them. She sustained those close to her; she never wanted to be a burden to them. Still, I had the impression that, in recent years, Beverly found herself with a certain melancholy which I ascribed to an attempt to define a new role but which I now know was her embarking on a journey whose end she – only she – knew only too well.
There was one profound emotion, however, about which she reserved no corner of her inner self – her love and devotion to her daughter, Muffy. She would talk about Muffy not as if she were another person but as an integral part of herself. At our last lunch, she told me that she had made sure that Muffy would always be taken care of.
Two weeks later, Beverly was in the hospital for the final time. Muffy did me the honor of permitting me to visit her mother in the hospital. Beverly lay there with her eyes closed and tubes all over her body. The nurse did not recognize me and thought I might be Walter Cronkite. Beverly, indomitable as ever, opened her eyes and set the record straight: “Walter Cronkite is older and does not have an accent.” I sat next to the bed and held Beverly's hand. I could not bring myself to say all I had come to say because I could not face that I would not see her again.
So I am grateful for this occasion. And to all the speakers and artists who have relived why Beverly was so loved. What a hole she leaves in our lives and how much better the world is for her all-too-brief sojourn here.