Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I love you madly…Goodbye Richard Merkin

Richard Merkin in his George Frazier hand-me-down jacket. Photo from RISD alum Roger Gordy.

November 3rd Update: There are many instances thus far that have reinforced to me the goodness manifest in the blogosphere. None though, was as powerful as a response I got from my post about the passing of Richard Merkin. While many of you posted comments about Richard in response to my heartfelt homage to him-a private email from one of Richard’s family was really touching.

I’ve just now received permission to share this story with you and I can’t think of a better preamble to the redux Merkin post. I received an email from a stranger with two photos attached and quite frankly-I didn’t understand the context-corollary to Richard Merkin until the sender explained.  Here are some excerpts of the emails from one of Richard’s family. I can tell you that their kind response was no less meaningful to me than my post was to them.
  I wish you could have met him. It would have blown your mind.  I am amazed that you never met him and were able to write something this warm and personal.  Your blog made me cry.  Twice. He would have loved the piece you wrote. The photos are of the Coney Island Pier.  I carved his initials after dropping his ashes off it.  I would love for people to visit him there. Those two photos are where he is now.  He grew up close to and spent a lot of time in Coney Island."
 “I hope many people go visit the spot and remember him. The pier has a cross section a ways out. If you are far to the right as possible with your back to the beach you should be able to look down and see his initials.  That is where he rests.”
 I’ll be in Gotham on Monday but won’t have time to go out to Coney Island and visit with Richard Merkin. Rest assured though-I will. And I think I’ll take LFG with me to say hello. I bet she and Richard would like that.


We've lost another dandy and this one is irreplaceable. Richard Marshal Merkin 1938-2009
New Yorker editor Chris Curry wrote about Merkin… “ “I love you madly” is how Richard Merkin always signed off on the phone. Richard, whose paintings graced our pages for twenty years, died on Saturday. He was a life force, and he brought a smile to all who knew him. I was Richard’s editor, and when he phoned the office, the whole department knew it: you could actually hear his big, wonderful voice across the room.”
I still have a big, wonderful voicemail from Richard Merkin. I’ll always have it. I’m like that-I hold on to memories and things that are meaningful to me. I’ve cached 35 voice mails from LFG that begin when she was just old enough to talk on the phone. I still have Merkin’s phone number programmed in my old cell phone.
Merkin is gone now and there are so few bon vivants and dandies remaining to carry the torch of sartorial erudition and in Merkin’s case-bohemian aplomb. My optimism wants me to believe that our best days are ahead of us but I’ll never forget Richard Merkin telling me about his departure from the Upper West Side to Croton-on-Hudson.
It went something like this….and I loosely paraphrase.. “When I first moved to the Upper West Side it was a mélange of everything New York. I knew things were in decline when the hookers were gone and TGI Fridays moved in. New York today ain’t the New York that I loved”. Merkin was the incarnate-the personification of New York-a microcosm of refinement one minute and a gritty street-wise raconteur the next... and when he declared it over, he moved to Westchester.
When Alan Flusser included Merkin in his 1993 Esquire article The 25 Best Dressed Men (Living or Dead) , he said… “Coming upon Merkin in the street is like walking into a bazaar in Marrakesh-you don’t know what to look at first”.
I first sought out Merkin in 1997. He wrote a style column for Gentleman’s Quarterly in the late 1980’s and I devoured every word he wrote. Toad and I both agreed that GQ wasn’t a favorite magazine of ours but I loved the stories-the yarns-the tales that Merkin cobbled together each month. He would have been an uber blogger. Yes he was an illustrator, a caricaturist, a New Yorker contributing artist and a teacher. But he was indeed a raconteur. Raconteur is absolutely the right word for Merkin because he was a storyteller. He described himself something other than just an artist or illustrator. Merkin was a “literary visualist”. He was also a damned good writer.
So I found his address in New York and I wrote him. I shared with him my admiration for his columns and wondered if they had ever been assembled as a collection and where might I find such. His reply is yet another reminder, just as my personal note from Merkin’s buddy Tom Wolfe proves, that we should never consider ourselves too busy or important to write someone a letter if they are deserving of our correspondence. I’ve arranged in a photograph all of the things that Merkin sent me in a packet. What a thoughtful response to a complete stranger.
His letter reflects the same jaunty style of his monthly column.
Fast forward eleven years and by now, I’ve assembled an almost complete collection of Merkin on Style articles. I took me that long to track down various copies of GQ magazine. Alan Flusser and Richard were close friends for decades so I asked Alan about Merkin’s status these days and Alan provided me his address in Westchester. I sent Richard a complete set of his articles and asked if I could come up and meet him. That’s when the phone rang. The same big, wonderful voice left a message thanking me for my letter and enclosures and invited me to call him back. He’d long since forgotten about his 1997 letter to me.
Richard Merkin was about to have knee surgery. He promised me that after he recovered I could come up to Westchester and together we would go through his cached paintings, pastels and collages and I could pick some things that I liked. It didn’t hurt that I was a friend of Flusser but Merkin was just as kind in 1997 when he was unaware of that connection.
I was riveted at the prospect of spending even a brief amount of time with this guy. Friend of Bobby Short, Eddie Hayes, Tom Wolfe and other Gotham cognoscenti. I was certain of one thing and uncertain of another. I was uncertain what to wear for a visit with Richard Merkin. One of Merkin's friends, Boston Globe columnist George Frazier would cut you to size in a heartbeat if he didn’t like how you dressed. I knew that Merkin didn’t fancy navy blazers or Gucci bit loafers so that was an easy edit. What I was certain of was that if we got on well, I’d find the balls to ask him if I could have one of his pocket squares.
Many of us through the courtesies of Merkin and Gentleman’s Quarterly got a glimpse of his Upper West Side digs about fifteen years ago. Here are some shots of casa Merkin and the sartorial goodies therein.
Merkin told a great story about running into songwriter J. Fred Coots at the New York Athletic Club. Coots most famous jingle was a little ditty called “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”. Merkin shared that Coots was frail but still dapper and that he admired Coots silk pocket handkerchief. Coots acknowledged the compliment and then stuffed the pocket square into Merkin’s breast pocket declaring that he was looking for “nice homes for my things”. I’d already settled on the Coots story as context for my request.
A younger dandy amidst his kit.
The same closet illustrated in the GQ article.
How can I not admire a guy who sports a windowpane topcoat and adorns his wall with the Walter Sickert caricature of Max Beerbohm from Vanity Fair? Maxminimus.
Alas, my visit never happened. We had several more phone conversations but he never really bounced back from two surgeries. And I certainly wouldn’t blame him for not wanting to muster the energy to accommodate a stranger who might have ended up overstaying his welcome or being a bore and I could tell that his gusto was on the wane. I’m so glad to have known him in sort of an attenuated way.
I’ll treasure the goodies that he sent me and I’ll check my voice mail every so often.


Johnny said...

Thanks for re-posting this, and for the additional notes from Mr. Merkin's family. To me, it was the biggest loss from the deletion of your original blog.

Thanks, too, for taking the time to send the copies of RM's GQ colums through the snail mail. I loved them.

Rasputin said...

Thanks for taking the time to re-post this. Merkin has always been a favorite sartorial role model.

Anonymous said...

Don't you think, generally speaking, it's easy to overlook the fact that we're all just people.
Here. There. Wherever.
With addresses.
With to-do lists.
With a couple extra minutes now and then.
And, how simple it really is making an effort/gesture to people we find interesting or something in common with.
Approached and timed correctly, kind and thoughtful gestures payoff.......(leave self interest & hidden agendas behind, smart people sniff this out a mile away...)
It makes life fun.
Good stuff, Maxminimus.
WI reader

Kathie Truitt said...

I agree with wholeheartedly agree with Anonymous.

Plus, I must salivate, I mean, comment on what I am sure are Stubbs and Wootton. I adore those shoes.

Summer is a Verb said...

K, can't say too much or I'll reveal my ignorance here but, that closet...bff's with Bobby Short...I want him at MY round table...XXOO

Toad said...

Thank you for the reprise.

Patsy said...

Did you know that if you google 'Richard Merking artist', your blog is the second entry?

I didn't realize he'd taught at RISD (among a zillion other things), being really only familiar with The New Yorker illustrations.

Brian said...

An excellent post.

Murphy said...

Somehow I missed that RM had passed. I, too, loved his old columns in GQ. I clipped and saved some of them. They're around here somewhere. I've long thought those columns should be collected and published. I remember the one when he talked about choosing an item from any movie and he thought it brilliant his wife chose the football helmet from Easy Rider. I bought many of the reissues of the Calvin Curtis braces on his mention of the originals--I no longer wear them, of course. I once looked into purchasing one of his pastels but couldn't swing it at the time....

Godwulfe said...

Great article.
Like you I have always been a fan of Richard Merkin. Unlike you I never had the good fortune to talk to or correspond with him (nor Flusser for that matter.)

You mentioned that you have an 'almost' complete set of his articles from the 80's. If you are in fact still missing a few, let me know which ones as I might have them. I have an almost complete set of GQ from the 80's (84 on), primarily for the Merkin/Flusser contributions. I'd be happy to send you copies.

Godwulfe said...

Great article.
Like you I have always been a fan of Richard Merkin. Unlike you I never had the good fortune to talk to or correspond with him (nor Flusser for that matter.)

You mentioned that you have an 'almost' complete set of his articles from the 80's. If you are in fact still missing a few, let me know which ones as I might have them. I have an almost complete set of GQ from the 80's (84 on), primarily for the Merkin/Flusser contributions. I'd be happy to send you copies.

Anonymous said...

T'would be wonderful to post the articles for others, if you are so inclined. Those old GQ issues are hard to find.

pearlywhitegirl said...

Another wonderful post, thank you.

On another note... When I read this article (, I immediately wondered what you'd say about it. Thoughts?

ELS said...

A new one for me - what a stylish guy and how lovely that you connected with him AND his family.

ADG said...

Thanks to all for the kind comments.

Specifically...yes it is easy to overlook-in the midst of all these trappings and poses and agendas and ideas that yes-we are all just people who generally respond to the same kind gestures. Stubbs and Wootton there- those are John Lobb. should read the RISD tributes to him.

All...I'll post a couple of his columns.

Easy and Elegant Life said...

I don't know why but the addendum cheered me up. Keep on keepin' on ADG.

ADG said...

Godwulfe....if you are picking these comments up-I'd love for you to email me. There are some Merkin articles from 1988 that I'd love to have if indeed you could copy them for me.

January and February 1988 would round me out.

William Schumacher said...

Is there any way I can beg or buy a copy of the "Merkin on Style" articles from GQ? I read nearly all of them in the late 80's - early 90's but - as they say - you never know what you've got 'till it's gone..." (As an incentive, if it hasn't already been done, I can scan them into the computer to make sending to future requesters easier, if you'd like.)