Grateful to all things past. Service for all things present. Embrace of all things future.by Phong Bui
If it wasn’t for my relationship with Meyer and Lillian Schapiro, who had adopted me as their surrogate Jewish grandson, I wouldn’t have had the vision and the stamina to work to shape and sustain the Rail since its founding in October 2000. In May 1986, I was a student at the New York Studio School. The program director, Ophrah Shemesh, asked me to go to the Schapiro’s home on West 4th Street to pick up a painting by Meyer for a group exhibition. I was told the pick-up should be simple and punctual. Obediently, I rang the doorbell. Meyer came to the door with the painting already wrapped in his hands. After a brief introduction, he inquired about my background, becoming especially interested in my growing up in the imperial city of Huế during the Tet Offensive. To my great surprise, Meyer was attentive and curious about my story. He said that he had been very much against the war, though he wasn’t as politically active as he had been in the 1930s and ’40s. We spoke for nearly ten minutes. As I was about to thank him and say goodbye, for fear of taking too much of the great man’s sacred time, Meyer went on, “I detect a gravity in your presence. You seem serious but sad?” “No, sir!” I said, “It began with my father’s disapproval of my life as an artist. But not to worry, I am reading Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, which I think is helping me understand my relationship with him.” “Oh, I too love that book and all of his writings. Could you wait here for a second?” He became even more enthusiastic, retreating into the small hallway lined with bookcases from floor to ceiling. With the door still open, I could hear him from afar as he called to his wife from upstairs: “Lillian, could we invite this young Vietnamese painter in for tea?” Minutes later, they both came to the door. I learned later that Lillian had come to inspect me: she was always very protective of Meyer’s time and social engagements. After a brief assessment, I was invited into their home.
I was led through the vestibule with more bookcases of various sizes, stacked up one over another, which occupied all available wall space, the rest of which was occupied by a woodcut by Dürer, an etching by Salvator Rosa, a large drawing by his friends Josef íma, a lithograph by Barnet Newman, paintings by Gandy Brodie, Hyde Solomon, and a few of Meyer’s own works. As I waited for the Schapiros to take the escalating chair down the stairs (even then, both were quite advanced in age), I glanced quickly into the dining room, in which hung a handsome triptych by Jan Müller, two Forrest Bess paintings, and more bookcases and filing cabinets, which appeared to have been unused for quite some time. We finally all sat down at a small table with only three chairs in the kitchen where Lillian offered us tea and graham crackers. Our conversations covered a great deal of Meyer’s early political activities and his relationship with artists. Although I never had the great fortune of hearing him lecture—he retired from teaching in 1973—I could, even by listening to him in this personal and intimate setting, easily identify him as a great humanist whose generosity and brilliance went beyond his written words and intellect. In his deliberate and gentle tone of voice, he spoke with great clarity and inclusiveness, though on some occasions Lillian would politely interrupt our conversation to supply Meyer with exact names of people or dates of specific events. (Lillian possessed a photographic memory equal to Meyer’s, and after her retirement in 1977 from pediatrics as an expert in childhood bone complications and promizole treatment of miliary tuberculosis, she became Meyer’s archivist; in the last ten years of her life she was able to posthumously publish his bibliography and four other volumes of his writings.) I felt as if I was there with both of them in the distant past. My mind was busy at work reconstructing the visuals so I could take them home with me in order to relish and relive the experience when needed for inspiration.
My first visit with the Schapiros lasted nearly two hours. By the time I left, Meyer had lent me four books of Kierkegaard. They were on loan under one condition: to be returned in two weeks time at 4:30 pm on Wednesday afternoon. It would be difficult to forget Meyer’s un-amused expression when I unwisely quoted Anatole France: “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folk have lent me.” I knew that I had foolishly put more weight and pressure on myself than anticipated. Nevertheless, it was a great task, and it provided another opportunity for me to see the Schapiros. So for the next weeks, I disciplined myself with a strict schedule of reading and tried to read all the books as thoroughly as I could.
Sure enough, when I returned to give back his books, Meyer began, without wasting a second, to inquire about the content of the texts. The next book he lent me was World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe, whom I had the privilege to meet the following year. When I returned Russian Thinkers by Sir Isaiah Berlin on a Wednesday at 4:30 pm in May 1989, I met the venerable philosopher himself; Meyer had asked him to sign the book for me. By 1990, this had become our weekly ritual, and it remained so until Meyer’s passing in March 1996. I’d come every Wednesday at 4:30 pm, walking with Meyer for a half hour in their neighborhood before returning for Lillian’s infamous dinner at 5:00 sharp. (Lillian prepared the whole day’s meal only once in the morning: she steamed all sorts of frozen vegetables and lentils, and occasionally added three small cubes of beef—regarded as a special treat for guests—then served them cold for lunch and dinner.) This was indeed how my education began—reading was a way of life. This was how I met friends from their generation. Saul Bellow, Lionel Abel, Nicolas Calas, Diana Trilling, Leon and Barbara White, Ilse Mattick (and her son Paul Mattick, who is the editor of the Rail’s Field Notes), Wolf Kahn and his wife Emily Mason, Allan Kaprow, David Shapiro, Louis Asekoff, Joseph Masheck were among many I met during my weekly visits.
Another I admired is my mother, for her relentless work ethic and humility, but at her death in December 1999, I felt strangely liberated from my desire to appease her concern for my wellbeing. Meyer’s passing, on the other hand, left an impossible void. Every day, images derived from his stories would appear and haunt me. What I realized, later, was that the only way I could pay homage to him while relieving my nostalgia for his past was to create my own. When I thought of the more exciting periods of American intellectual life, especially in the 1930s and ’40s as being coincident with the rise of bohemia, the very idea of bringing artists and writers together in their struggle with and for the world became identical to my own longing for an extended family, one that would include individuals who shared the same aspiration.
As André Gide wrote in his preface to Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight, “Man’s happiness lies not in freedom but in his acceptance of duty.” I can happily say that my duty with the Rail has given me a privilege to live a life that I had longed for. Lying in bed the day before her death on September 6, 2006, at the age of 104, Lillian said, “If Meyer was alive today, he would be proud of you and the Rail, dear. I’ll be seeing him soon.”
PHONG BUI is the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Rail.