Stories, photos, and videos by and about the Soter family: George, Effie, Nick, Tom, and Peter.
You are born into families but that doesn't make you a family. In the pages that follow, you will find stories and thoughts about the Soter family – parents George (1924-2009) and Effie (1921-2011) and three sons Nick (b. 1955), Tom (b. 1956), and Peter (b. 1961) and their various wives, girlfriends, in-laws, and friends – in an attempt to explain what makes the Soters both typical and typically unique.
COULD I PLEASE BLOT YOUR ESCUTCHEON?
A memoir, by GEORGE SOTER
When I stop to consider what I was like as a child I shudder to think of what my children are going to be if the old adage, "Like father, like son," holds true. Not that I was venomous or ferocious – just a little too energetic. When I was about seven years old my family and I had quite a difficult time contending with "tryouts" of the professions that I might some day honor with my name. My professional choices bad been narrowed down to the point where I had but two left – both appealing, both equally preposterous. These two choices were: (a) being a gangster or (b) being a doctor.
The incident which changed my mind about being a gangster occurred soon after my parents had set me loose on the world to wreak havoc in the external regions. I bad exhausted all the havoc-wreaking possibilities of our little four-room apartment. With my usual finesse and savoir faire I immediately selected as my bosom friend and confident the most disreputable, ferocious, and moronic little individual in the neighborhood. We were still living in the era of gangdom glory and gory, and my little Mephistophelean companion had somehow got the notion into his horned head that destiny had written his name as the one which was to succeed Capone's. So off we set: he, the leader, and I, the mob (also alternating for the moll, which we pronounced mole and without which we considered any gang a dismal failure).
Our first job was to be making the janitor of the apartment building in which we lived pay us protection money a la the example set by George Raft and Edward G. Robinson. If he refused to pay, we would threaten to throw a bomb at his building or at least break a window. The first hitch in the proceedings came when we tried to decide how we would explain to the janitor that we wanted protection money; however, I hit upon the happy idea of breaking a window first and asking for payment later. My partner, Butch (or maybe we had decided to call him Slug, and I was Butch), amended the idea so that the final plan was to be carried out thus: Butch would wait around the corner, on the lookout for "cops." If any came, the signal would be "Cheese it, the cops!" In the meantime I would saunter rapidly around the building, loaded down with enough rock to build a house, and quietly proceed to break every other window in the basement of the building. After the third window, I somehow lost all taste for the undertaking, and more so when I noticed that my boss and, incidentally, look-out had "double-crossed" me and disappeared. The distaste turned to absolute revulsion when I felt the long arm of the law or, at most, the short arm of the janitor clasping my pink neck.
My mother, an exceedingly patient woman, after doling out the necessary money to cover the damages, took me to one side and tried to show me the error of my ways, the inadvisability of my following the path of degradation that would bring shame and a heavy blot on our family's escutcheon. My mother, however, was not entirely the ten-volumes-on-child-psychology type; therefore, she warned me, "You'll go unpunished this time, but if this ever occurs again...," and the tone of her voice and the glint in her eyes told me strongly enough the hell that would await me were I to forget her admonition.
But her warnings were the warnings of a Cassandra, and sadly enough, it happened again, only this time with much more vehemence. Upon finding me "sprung from the pen," Butch convinced me that we had to carry out our plans to their completion, only now we would have to break a few windows in the upper stories as retribution for my public disgrace. The idea appealed to my young and innocent mind to such a degree that I completely forgot to question Butch on the particulars of his invisibility act, or why he said “we” when it was invariably was "I." Onward I went, carried forward by my lofty ambition and retarded somewhat by my weighty rocks. This time, I was no longer the inexperienced novice; I lost not the taste for my work until it was masterfully completed; and I felt somewhat like a Saracen-captured crusader when the janitor led me for a second time before my poor, astonished mother whose astonishment soon turned into a terrific anger. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and I was in a position to offer valid testimony. That night I slept on an empty stomach with a tear-stained face; and I reached the conclusion that being a gangster was definitely inadvisable for anyone, unless he did not have a mother.
MY EARLY CAREER AS A SINGER
By Tom Soter
For years, the tape existed in obscurity. Apparently, when I was three years old, my parents took my brother Nick and me on a summer vacation visiting friends in Connecticut. The couple we visited was apparently technologically very advanced for 1959 because they had a bulky, reel-to-reel tape-recorder, with which they would tape everything, including unsuspecting children.
To back up: my father, George, never much liked children's songs, or children's books. He abhored the simple-minded, sing-song rhymes of Dr. Seuss. No green eggs and ham for him; he preferred to sing us to sleep with his favorite Frank Sinatra tunes (very much in vogue in the late '50s, with his swinging jazz Capitol LPs).
So when our host brought out his tape-recorder, we did one rendition of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," before falling into our own unique duet of "I Get a Kick Out of You." If the recording hadn't been lost for 20 years, my dad and I may have had completely different careers.
Or maybe not.
INTERVIEW WITH GEORGE SOTER (1997)
By Tom Soter
Q What were we like as kids?
A You were absolutely adorable and I was thinking the other day… You were absolutely sweet and lovable. I really liked you when you were a kid. You evoke such pleasant memories and such a nostalgia for the time, more than of the other two kids. In a way, I sort of related to you as a child.
Q: In what way? What were you thinking of?
A: I don’t know, I sort of identified with you because you were very sweet. Although you were also very willful.
Q: Um-hmm, what are you thinking of?
A: Specific things?
Q: Yeah, I mean something must (inaudible)…
A: Well, you know, you wouldn’t try certain kinds of food if you thought you didn’t like them. You were just like very stubborn about certain things. And well, later when it got to television, you were obsessive about seeing certain things and any interruption would make you furious (laughs). Like going to the theater was like pulling teeth. What night is it or what time will we be out? One night I think there was somebody I’d seen when we’d gone to the theater and I think Carol zoomed up in a taxi with you almost before the curtain was down so you could see whatever it was you liked to see.
Q: But what about me little did you identify with? I mean I don’t know if you identified with the willfulness, but…
A: No, I identified with the sweetness.
Q: But I mean was it just the manner or was it things I would do?
A: It was the manner and I can’t… I’ll have to think about it, I can’t articulate it quite well, it’s just the memory of it (inaudible). Well, it’s like on that record where I asked you to sing something and you said, “I can’t do that, daddy, I can’t do that,” there was something nice about it. At any rate…
Q: And I said, “Sing with me,” and you were asking all the story about the snake and all that stuff.
A: Yeah, right. But there was a lot of competition; Nicky felt usurped because he had been there first for a while, suddenly there was this other guy that everybody was paying attention to.
Q: When did he start hitting me?
A: (laughs) From day one. Oh, I don’t know, not when you were an infant. It was when you started playing together. You and he had different tastes; he didn’t like all that theater, playing with soldiers and forts. I don’t know if he didn’t like it, but he didn’t do it.
Q: What did he do? How did he play? What did he play with?
A: I don’t know, I don’t remember. But he wasn’t… you had all these little scenarios with your forts and your soldiers and all this stuff and you were always doing that. I don’t remember him doing any of that. He was more athletic from an early age, when they’d go into the park.
Q: Like baseball and stuff.
A: Yeah, throwing balls and baseball and doing stuff like that rather than… He wasn’t in his head so much the way you were. You were sort of… You played with yourself, in a way, you did things… Now there may have been times when you did war games together, they just don’t stand out in my head. My memories of you moving all those little soldiers and trucks and stuff, having whole plots based on… you know, it was improve.
Q: Right, whole little villages of people.
A: Yeah, right and you had plots concocted and I don’t remember Nick doing that sort of thing, using his imagination. He wasn’t imaginative the way you were.
Q: And then Peter, when peter came on the scene? That was four years after I was born.
A: Yeah, and very quickly, within the first year, you became Peter’s caretaker. When he started going to school, you would help dress him and walk him. You were very paternal towards him even before that, when you played games with him and stuff like that. But it was fun, I enjoyed having kids around. Better than dogs.
By TOM SOTER
My father, George, has always been unpredictable. Every night, after dinner, my mother would bring out a cake she had prepared. My father would always ask one of his three sons to bring out a knife and fork to slice it up. Every night, the routine was the same. She'd bring out the cake, my father would say, "What am I to cut it with?" And we would suddenly remember to get the knife and fork. Well, one night, the cake was brought out and, as usual, the three brothers sat there, oblivious to all except our hunger for dessert. My father waited.
And then, reaching for the cake, my father used his bare hands to rip off a piece and dump it onto my plate. Then he took another rip and put one on my brother Peter's plate. My mother started laughing. We never forgot the utensils again.
George had always been spontaneously creative. In 1996, he told me about an experience from his Depression-era youth in Chicago, where he lived: "There was a movie theater and they’d try all kind of schemes to promote business. On Saturdays, for instance, they’d have raffles. When I was nine, I won a pair of skis at one of these raffles. I was a nine-year-old kid and I had skis, and, because we lived in Chicago, nobody quite knew what skis were. And we put them under my parents' bed. They fit length-wise under the bed but the front stuck out. So you always had to walk over them. But the way we used them was unusual: my cousin, Dick, would come over and we’d pull them out and one of us would strap ourselves into the skis. Then the other one would go to the front and slowly raise the two front ends of the skis as high as he could get them, and then drop them. We’d take turns doing that. It was ridiculous. But I was proud I had won them.
That spontaneous unpredictability would eventually be channeled into creative arenas. My dad used it to write award-winning advertising campaigns as an award-winning copywriter. But I saw his creativity closer to home, when he starred in an improvised audio drama made on a reel-to-reel tape-recorder in 1968, when I was 12. Called THE LETHAL CAMERA, it features detective Sam Pappas investigating the strange deaths of Gloria Glow and Henrietta Cosindas, who are murdered one stormy night while taking pictures in the tennis court.
One night, when we had some guests over, my dad thought it would be fun to stage a murder mystery, with all the real-life guests as suspects. The gimmick to the game was that everyone was kept in the dark as to the plot, so that when my father – as Inspector Pappas – queried them, they often had no clue as to what he was talking about. But they were good sports and didn’t let on, although it did make for some confusing moments (my mother, playing Mrs. Frisbee, relates the actual events of a past weekend when we saw some “seagulls and eggs,” which brings my father’s rejoinder, “I wanted the events of this weekend, not some weekend in Chekhov”). I don’t think I’ll spoil anything by saying that the butler did it. Of course.
My dad, who has attended nearly every Sunday Night Improv show for the last ten years (improviser Tom Carrozza once said to me, "It's nice of you to stage this show to give your father something to do on Sunday nights") is still spontaneous. One night, after a show, he stood up and made an announcement: "I have seen 400 of these shows, and this is the best one I've ever seen." The following week, when we did a subpar show, I half-expected him to stand up and say, "I have seen 400 of these shows, and this is the worst one I've ever seen." He didn't, but he did tell me in private that we had done better.
So, whenever someone asks, "Where did you learn to improvise?" I say, "My father made me do it." Thanks, dad!
The Lethal Camera
The Ch. 92 Movie Taped: 1968
Inspector Pappas (George Soter) investigates the double murder of movie star Gloria Glow and photographer Henrietta Cosindas, who died mysteriously during a photo shoot on a rainy tennis court. Mrs. Frisbee: Effie Soter. Gloria: Carol Gardiner.
The Christmas Theft at Frisbee Manor
In this sequel to The Lethal Camera, Inspector Pappas returns to Frisbee Manor after 15 years to investigate the theft of a fabulous brooch. Pappas: George Soter. Grand Duchess: Maria Hart.
A WORD ABOUT THE VIDEO
It was nearly 20 years ago when George appeared in this video, a project created and directed by my then-girlfriend Michele Senecal. It was a clever idea: deliver a comic monologue in just a minute/ We shot a handful of them, which lay hidden away, unedited and unseen on a deteriorating VHS videotape in one of my closets. I had forgotten that my father had taken part in the project; he did two takes and both are included here, including the one where I forgot to give him a countdown to the end of the minute so he'd know when to stop talking. Of course, he wryly comments on that oversight in pure George fashion.
A CRISIS JOURNAL, 1999
By TOM SOTER
Saturday, January 16, 1999. George has had the flu all week. He has stayed home. He calls Peter and me to say that he is concerned about Effie. She is sleeping all the time and won’t get out of bed. Peter feels her head and says, “She’s burning up.” She refuses to take any medicine or drink.
Sunday, January 17. George has grown more concerned about Effie. “She hasn’t had anything to eat or drink in two days,” he says. I call the doctor, who suggests taking Effie to the emergency room. George solves the problem by suggesting the family play a game of cards. Effie comes from her bed, money in hand. Peter crushes up four aspirin in a cup of water, which she drinks during the game. She plays the worst game ever: nearly 500 points (“a Carol Gardiner score,” someone says).
Sunday, January 17. Evening. George, looking pale, comes to the Sunday Night Improv show with Effie. “Here are the two corpses,” he announces as they arrive.
Monday, January 18. 4:00-5:00 A.M. George calls me, complaining of back pains. “I’ve been trying to sleep since 2:30,” he says. “I can’t.” I bring George to the Emergency Room at St. Luke’s in a cab. George seems dazed. We wait for a nurse to register them. I insist on not waiting, that we go straight to a doctor. “You should have told me it was urgent,” says the guard. “I’ve never done this before,” I reply.
Monday, January 18. 5:00-5:15 A.M. George is examined by a heavyset Jamaican doctor. She tells him his aorta is very large and that his blood circulation is slow. She leaves him. She comes back and tells him they’re going to do a CAT scan. She leaves him. George tells a nurse he feels nauseous. She looks him over, she calls another doctor over. They examine him. They confer. They wheel him off in a hurry, looking concerned. The Jamaican doctor comes to me with George’s ring, watch, and other belongings in a bag, saying, “This is very serious.” George has had an aneurysm and has been taken into emergency surgery.
Monday, January 18. 5:15-10 A.M. I call Peter and Nick. Peter and I meet later and go to hospital. George is still in surgery. We are told he could be there for hours. After 4 1/2 hours in surgery, George is out. The surgeon tells Peter and me that George has been very lucky. “Two out of three patients don’t survive the surgery. Half don’t even make it to the hospital.” What happened: his aorta ruptured in the rear but was supported by his back. If it had ruptured any other way, he would have bled to death. As it was, he was very lucky to survive.
Monday, January 18. Evening. Peter, Amelia, and I go visit Effie for dinner. During a card game, we tell her. “That was unexpected,” she says. “Poor George. When will he be coming back?” I have been to the hospital and seen an unconscious George. The doctors say his prognosis is good.
Tuesday, January 19. George is hooked up to tubes in the intensive care unit (ICU). Peter and Phillipe Cheng go to see him. Both are concerned. Peter calls Nick and suggests he fly in...
Wednesday, January 20. George is up and alert, and aware. Effie qnd I come by. Effie jokes, “Where’s my camera? We should take a picture.” George vigorously shakes his head and rolls his eyes. He cannot talk because feeding tubes are in his throat. He writes a message. “Get her address,” he says about the nurse. “Maybe he wants a date!” smiles the nurse. Nick says he will be coming in on Sunday morning.
Thursday, January 21. The doctors had hoped to have George out of the ICU by today, but because of smoking, he is having trouble with his breathing. “His lung capacity is not great,” explains Dr. Chu. Jimmy Davis, Effie's cousin, arrives today. He and Effie go see George. He writes a cryptic message to Peter about the president of Iraq, Nick, and “Zeon.”
Friday, January 22. George seems much better and is able to talk, at last. He seems very tired. He is still in the ICU. The Soter family holds a quiet birthday party for Peter. Effie and Jimmy play cards constantly.
Saturday, January 23. There are plans to move George out of the ICU today. He is very animated, almost agitated, talking to nephew Tom Hart and his wife Regina and me about the clocks, which he claims were all made in Turkey or Iraq. In the evening, he is moved out of the ICU.
Sunday, January 24. Jimmy leaves early in the morning. Nick arrives. George is back in the ICU. He was having problems breathing and also became violently delusional so they brought him back. A number of doctors say he is exhibiting normal signs of “ICU Psychosis” after being cooped up for too long in the windowless space. Nick thinks that George is also having an adverse reaction to the drugs (this theory is also offered by another doctor). George says odd things: “Get me some fruitcake when the fruitcake tray comes around” and when he wants the straps holding him down removed: “Take these off! I order you. This is your commanding officer speaking!” He is also very suspicious of the doctors. Nick stays with him most of the day.
Monday, January 25. George seems better. More rational. Still in the ICU.
Tuesday, January 26. George is moved to a room with another man who coughs, wheezes, and watches a lot of game shows. George seems tired. Nick, Effie, and Peter have been with him much of the day. Dr. Barnard visits.
Wednesday, January 27. George is moved to a private room, at Nick’s instigation. It is much more relaxed; like a hotel. George plays cards with Effie and Nick.
Thursday, January 28. Nick shaves George.
Friday, January 29. Dora arrives. George gets a little testy. But his doctors say this is a good sign. It means he is getting better.
Saturday, January 30. The doctors say George may leave on Sunday. Nick and Dora get George a new mattress. Effie and I stay with George, playing cards and watching home movies.
Sunday, January 31. Nick, Dora, Peter, and I replace the old mattress in George and Effie’s bed. It crumbles in their hands because it is nearly 50 years old. George comes home. “Good to see you, fella,” says Effie.
NOT ME, KID
By TOM SOTER
“I miss mom. Don’t you?” said my younger brother, Peter, one day soon after Christmas. "I think about her a lot.”
“I try not to think about her at all,” I lied. I wanted to change the subject. “What’s the point?”
In fact, I was unconsciously repeating one of my mother’s favorite phrases: “What’s the point?” she would often say, though not in any existential fashion. She would say it as she would say any other number of peculiar catchphrases that were so uniquely hers: “Not me, kid,” “He looks dead,” “That’s stupid,” “I haven’t seen you in 10,000 years” (which she might say to a friend she hadn’t seen in a while, not caring how old that would make them both), and my father the grammarian’s particular bete noir: “She’s a prick.”
“You can’t say, ‘She’s a prick,’ Effie,” he would say to her.
“Because a she can’t be a prick. A prick is male.”
“Well, she’s still a prick,” she would say, grammar be damned.
My father, George, who married my mother on Valentine’s Day, 1949, was continually exasperated by my mother’s stubbornness. When we were growing up in New York City, a blind man and his wife happened to live in our building. My mother would constantly refer to him as “the blind guy,” which bothered my father, probably because it defined the man by his ailment.
“Don’t call him the blind guy,” my father would say. “He’s got a name. It’s John.”
“The blind guy!” said my father, falling into her trap.
“There, you see,” she said, triumphantly.
My mother hated pomposity and never let my father, a brilliant wordsmith and award-winning advertising copywriter, get too full of himself (the family jokingly referred to him as “The Puppet King”). Effie (her full name, Efftihia, means “happiness” in Greek) had herself come from humble beginnings. She was born in Greece in 1921, the first child of Thomas and Mary Hartocollis, but she spent the first five years of her life with her grandparents in the countryside outside of Athens. That was because her parents had gone to Brooklyn, New York, where Thomas managed real estate and Mary managed him. If Effie felt abandoned, she never said so directly, though she hinted at her feelings when she would retell the story of her youthful years with her maternal grandparents, and how her mother was shocked, on returning from America, to discover that Effie had adopted her grandparent’s surname in place of her own. “I had forgotten my parents,” she would explain.
My mother came to America in 1939, where her three siblings had all been born. “In the early ’30s,” George recalled in 2008, “her father had deposited his wife and four children in Greece (to preserve their Greekness of language and morals) while he worked away in Brooklyn, sending checks and showing up for short periodic visits at their outpost in Athens.”
It was while attending Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, that she met my father, a Chicago-born Greek-American attending classes at the college as part of his army training. As he said to me years later, “I had heard there was a Greek girl at Clark, so I went up to her at a college dance and asked her to dance. She thought I was interested in her because her uncle [with whom she was living] owned a restaurant and was ‘wealthy,’ so she tuned me down. Again and again. And the cooler she got, the more interested I became.”
My mother’s resistance apparently didn’t last long. Soon after that, they were dating, for as my father said in a 2008 memoir: “To the Greek-American me (almost all Greek-Americans had village roots), a ‘girl from Athens’ had a bit of the aura that ‘a girl from Paris’ held for almost anyone else: sophisticated, worldly, soigné, wow! When I was shipped off to my relatively un-bellicose tour in Europe, our romance continued by mail.” Although they rarely talked about it, their’s seemed to have been a romantic, passionate love. Once, my mother showed me a shoebox full of letters from my father during the war. I looked at one: it was covered with handwriting on both sides, but the writing was only three words, a phrase repeated dozens of times: “I love you.”
I often think of that shoebox full of letters when I think of my mother. She was so fond of her memories, of recalling the happy moments from her past. She was a collector of keepsakes, her desk a rat’s nest of odds and ends – a program from a show I had been in, a grade-school notebook from my older brother now in San Francisco, a bookmark from my younger brother’s bookstore. But her greatest memory trove was the collection of photo albums. My mother would spend hours assembling photos of trips, dinner parties, birthdays, and other special events into albums. “Have you seen the latest album?” she would say with pride, and then present it: photos under plastic sheets, with captions and commentary by Effie.
She was an obsessive chronicler of memories. I always knew that, but it came home to me when I was recently helping my father clean up his apartment. In the process, we came across a thick, stiff-backed stenographer’s pad, with my mother’s distinct handwriting on the cover: “From 9.28.89 to 9.08.99.” I flipped open the book and saw two columns of writing. The first entry said: “9.28.89 (Audi) Beets. Salad. Cranberry Pie.” The next entry was “10.1.89 Chris’s birthday. Egg lemon soup. Leg of Lamb. Potatoes. Broccoli. Corn. Salad. Cake. Baklava.” The next: “10.12.89. Poker. Addie, John. Fish Soup. Guinea Hens. Broccoli. Rice. Salad. Apple Pie.” And on and on, an almost daily log, for pages and pages of what she had served and to whom she had served it – an amazing book of its kind, a memory book of memories no one should care about, so typical of its writer, so sad in retrospect.
Sad because my mother, though she is still alive, is barely recognizable as the feisty woman who would say things like, “If I were you, I’d jump out the window” and “That’s stupid.” In the early ‘90s, she developed Alzheimer’s and the illness slowly and mercilessly erased the personality she had spent so many years perfecting. A scholarship student, a former social worker, a shopkeeper, a talented needlepoint “artist” (she made dozens of pillows out of old fabric, which she would give to family and friends), a wonderful cook, a great storyteller, a constant reader of fiction and non-fiction alike (her harshest charge against someone once was, “He doesn’t read, can you believe it?”), and a devoted mother and wife – all of that was eventually taken from her, as she became a ghost of herself. It took a long time – I always believed it was my mother’s stubborn willfulness that kept her cognizant for so long – and the last thing to go was her card playing.
My mother loved to play cards. It was ingrained in her from youth. She often told the story from her early teenage years, when her mother needed a fourth person to fill out a card game. “Come down and play, Effie,” Mary called to her daughter.
“I can’t, mother. I’m studying.”
“You can study anytime. Come play cards, now.”
It was always a good time to play cards in Effie’s world – and she clung onto it for such a long time that even her doctors were amazed. When she couldn’t read or write anymore, and her cooking skills were gone, she could still whip you at cards. My poor father often would sit for hours on end, condemned to non-stop games of Onze, a kind of gin rummy game, until he would finally say “enough,” or be relieved at his post by a family member or friend.
But even that, too, finally was taken away. Her powerful will was broken, her ability to continue the battle, gone. The memories, so precious to her, were now only preserved in books or in the memories of others. When I see her these days, stooped and vacant, being led around by a nurse, I often want to cry or cry out, “Where did you go, mom? Why did you go like that?”
But then I’ll take her hand and lead her around the room myself. And she’ll smile a vacant but pleasant smile, and somewhere inside her I have to believe that a part of her still knows me, or at least knows my feelings. And sometimes, all too rarely, there is a glimmer of acknowledgment if not recognition. “You’re a nice boy,” she will say, suddenly. “I like you.”
I miss you, mom.
THE WHOLE CATASTROPHE
When my father died in January 2009, he left behind a wealth of filmed performances, primarily in home movies shot in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '90s, and the 2000s (I think the only era we missed was the '80s, which is sort of a haze to me, as well). For his memorial party on March 8, I wanted to prepare a short video presentation that would give a suggestion of this complex, remarkable man. I had hours of material to go through, and I used strict criteria: it had to be George and not people talking about George, it had to be accessible to the general public, and it had to capture some aspect of my father's personality. I was pleased by the response and hope that this video helps you remember him and perhaps be with him again for one last time.
NO MORE GEORGE
By Tom Soter
“My father died today.” I said it matter-of-factly and was surprised at how calm I was. Within moments, however, like some sort of delayed action tornado, the full force of those words hit me. “My father died today.” No more quick calls to check out a word or phrase that seemed odd or misused; no more last-minute invitations to have dinner and see a movie; no more jokes; no more twinkle in the eye; no more George.
I remember sitting opposite him, a few months ago, at a diner to which he liked to go after seeing me every week in my improv comedy show. It was a funny little place, and I always wondered why George liked it. The food was generally greasy and not very good, the place was loud and my dad’s hearing was bad, and it seemed so out-of-character for a man of such style, a man who loved and appreciated good food.
But he loved life more. Life to him was more than breathing or existing – it was about the people, about the vitality of the situation, about friendship. To be in a place like this was to be in the center of life, to be in a place “where everybody knows your name.” They didn’t know his name at that little coffee shop, but they certainly knew George: they greeted him heartily when he came in every week, he bantered with the waiters and flirted with the waitresses, and they always had his scotch ready for him. Ah, George and his scotch.
Everyone who met George found it hard to forget him. The outpouring of love and shock from those who hardly knew him both touched and overwhelmed me. Noel Katz, one of my piano players at Sunday Night Improv whom I always felt was aloof towards my dad, surprised and moved me with an anecdotal note revealing he had ridden the bus with George on many occasions and spent that time talking to him, “I don't think you're aware how much I learned from him, how much I enjoyed him, how much I'll miss him,” he wrote. Others talked about his ready smile, the twinkle in his eye, the joie-de-vivre that was so much a part of him. “Though I'd had word of George's impending death, it was nevertheless shocking to hear of its arrival,” wrote Stu Hample, a writer and long-time colleague of my father’s. “For George, as everyone whose path he crossed is well aware, gave off the dazzling essence of life in everything he did or said or thought or imagined. In a word, a look, a smile, a flick of his cigarette ashes.”
Carole Bugge, an improviser at my show who had seen George at performances and parties over the last 20 years, even wrote a poem about him, “On Hearing of the Death of George,” which said, in part: “No, that’s not right – death’s not for you…death seems to be for some people - sad, yes, but a natural passing , but not for you . You were not young, or well, but some people just aren't the dying kind.”
Indeed, that was a common refrain: how could a man who so loved life leave it behind? He didn’t go willingly, but he did go with style. From the beginning of his illness until the end, he kept his trademark wit. After he was diagnosed with lung cancer, he had news of two other people he knew being stricken with the same disease and quipped, “Everybody’s doing it.” Near the end, he pointed to a sign on the television set in his hospital room that said, “Inquire how you can rent this color television.” He turned to me and – intentionally placing the emphasis on the word color – said: “Why would anyone want a TV set that color?”
Indeed, his wit was part of his ever-present optimism. Although he knew he was going to die, he still talked hopefully of the future. When I visited him in the hospital one day, he was going a little loopy from being confined in bed. But he smiled defiantly and said, “They’re writing my obituary for tomorrow’s paper. Not yet. Not yet.”
Although no obituary ever appeared, my father’s life was certainly worth one. The only son of Greek immigrants, he grew up in poverty during the Great Depression, never graduated college, but rose to the top of the advertising world with humor, intelligence, and panache, as one of the original "Mad Men" (a show he hated, saying it only happened that way in a Hollywood screenwriter's mind). He started in the mailroom, and within a few years, was the man behind the "Le Car Hot" campaign for Renault, selling a French car at a time when foreign car sales were a rarity in the U.S. He used an unusually literate approach – until then, car ads were simply functional, bragging about horsepower, steering capabilities, etc. – and was a pioneer in "image advertising."
The award-winning campaign made George's name on Madison Avenue (and was even parodied in Mad magazine as "Der Kar Kraut" and the Yale Record as "Le Magazine Cool"). He went on to create other award-winning (and highly successful) campaigns for Helena Rubenstein, Donald Trump, Air France, the Central Park Conservancy ("You Gotta Have Park" was his invention), and many others.
He was always an optimist. At the height of his success, his boss thought he was getting too full of himself ("I thought I was hot stuff," George ruefully admitted years later), and he was summarily fired. Rather than look for work and confident in his future prospects, George took the opportunity to take the family on a boat trip to his parents' homeland, Greece, a country with which he had a life-long love affair. His confidence paid off; once he arrived (after a 14-day boat trip), he received a call from the U.S. Another agency wanted to hire him.
That kind-of-impetuousness was George’s hallmark. He liked living on the edge, always trusting that the cards would fall his way, and if they didn’t, he’d make the most of what he had. On talking with my cousin Anemona, who housed him in the basement apartment of her brownstone for the last three months of his life, we agreed on one point: George had no problem starting things; he had difficulty ending them. “The only thing he finished was his life,” I said sadly.
But what a life. He was also the co-founder and long-time owner of Greek Island, a fashionable and well-known boutique on East 49th Street, which catered to such celebrities as Katherine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Theoni V. Aldredge, among others, and which provided him with reason (if he needed it) to return to Greece time and again. It also provided him with a wealth of stories.
For above all else, George was a raconteur, a wonderful teller of tales. For instance, he loved to tell the story of my sick cat, Sally, and how my mother told me one night that animals don’t need to go to the doctor because they get better on their own. Sally died the next day. And – so the story goes – later that year, the Soter family was driving some winding roads in Greece, and I got nauseous. I vomited, and then asked my mother if I should see the doctor. “No, you’ll get better on your own.” My father would always pause at that moment, ready with the punch line: “And Tommy said, ‘That’s just what you said about Sally.’”
My father was just as particular about punctuation and grammar (he once sent a long letter to a book editor, cataloguing all the grammatical errors and typos in a book he had), and loved composing letters skewering pomposity and what he saw as the misuse of the language. When working at my brother’s first bookstore in Chelsea, for instance, a customer asked him if the bookstore had any gay books. “No, but we have some slightly amused ones,” he replied.
Not surprisingly, my father could also be the most frustrating of men. I remember telling him about a movie I had just seen and enjoyed, The Great Debaters. “I don’t want to see it,” he said. “I know what it’s about. I’ve read about it.”
“But you haven’t seen it,” I insisted. “I have.”
Undeterred, my father said, “It’s just like To Sir, With Love, except set in the 1930s.”
“It’s not like To Sir, With Love at all,” I argued. Pointlessly, for my father had the last word: “Well, I wouldn’t know. I’ve never seen To Sir, With Love.” The conversation ended.
In fact, he always wanted the last word. On an emergency room visit to the hospital, I overheard this exchange between a nurse and a groggy George: “Mr. Soter, you have a temperature.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“You do. I just took your temperature.”
“Well, if you knew why did you ask me?”
He could be frustrating in another way, too. He was often impractical, always thinking of things in grandiose terms. When I suggested he visit a Greek art gallery in Chelsea to see if they’d be interested in buying some of his Greek paintings or artifacts, he went to the gallery and came back with a new idea: he would ask them to give over a room to exhibit “The Soter Collection.” Nothing ever came of it – except that he created a “Soter Collection” showcase of his own in his last apartment.
How he loved remaking that place! He called it his “last hurrah,” the opportunity to transform what had been a rundown basement unit in my cousin’s century-old brownstone into something special. When she and I discussed its use for him, my cousin and I envisioned a touch-up, not a major renovation; George saw it in grander terms. And, although he was dying, he crafted a space that most everyone who saw it thought was amazing. It was a reflection of the man.
George was a genius at interior design. Once, not long after he had moved in to that last apartment, Luanne, his nurse, found him sitting, staring into space, “What are you doing?” she asked. “I’m picturing the room,” he said. And one could imagine him crafting the place in his mind. He had lived in three different apartments over the last decade (and before that, had been in one magnificent ten-room unit for 33 years). Each bore his distinctive stamp of organized clutter.
As much as my father loved his activities, he loved his family more. In September 2004, George, who had recently passed his 80th birthday, focused his never-flagging energy on a new endeavor: helping generate interest in Morningside Books, the bookstore owned by his youngest son, Peter, and his daughter-in-law, Amelia. To that end, he came up with a publicity gimmick that employed his favorite device – words – about one of his favorite habits – reading. George was a voracious reader; he finished at least two books a week, as well as countless magazines, The New York Times, and, of course, The New Yorker (which he read cover to cover, even in the dark days of Tina Brown). He regularly passed books on to his sons with the comment, "I think you'll enjoy this," although no one enjoyed those books half as much as George.
The new publicity device would be called Booknotes and it would turn out to be a duty he loved. Although the newsletter was only four pages, he turned it into something special, a kind of "Talk of the Town" for Morningside Books. There were announcements, mini-reviews of quirky books, author birthdates (with quotations), political commentary, and even his memoirs. Every month, George designed it, brought it over personally to Village Copier on 118th Street ("They're terrific," he used to say, in his typically enthusiastic manner), and doted over it like a parent with a special child. It's no wonder that he was pleased to receive a letter and photograph from a Booknotes fan. The letter was one of praise, which he was happy to receive, but it was the photo that particularly tickled him: it was a picture the writer had taken of her assembled collection of Booknotes, George's last major writing project.
Through most of his life, he was accompanied on his journey by Effie, his one and only true love. He was a Chicago-born Greek-American attending classes at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts as part of his army training. As he said to me years later, “I had heard there was a Greek girl at Clark, so I went up to her at a college dance and asked her to dance. She thought I was interested in her because her uncle [with whom she was living] owned a restaurant and was ‘wealthy,’ so she tuned me down. Again and again. And the cooler she got, the more interested I became.”
My mother’s resistance apparently didn’t last long. Soon after that, they were dating. Although they rarely talked about it, theirs seemed to have been a romantic, passionate love. Once, my mother showed me a shoebox full of letters from my father during the war. I looked at one: it was covered with handwriting on both sides, but the writing was only three words, a phrase repeated dozens of times: “I love you.”
When Effie contracted Alzheimer’s in the early 1990s, no one was more protective of her – or more frustrated. Before the illness, they always had a wonderful bantering, affectionate relationship. As the disease slowly stripped away her personality, however, you could see him cling lovingly, desperately, furiously to what was left. One reason he continued to play cards with her was because, as he himself admitted, that was the time when her old personality still asserted itself.
For each of them, the other was primary. When George was in the hospital once, all he asked about was Effie’s care; for her part, all she wanted to do was see him. When they met, however, none of this concern was evident. My father, with tubes in his mouth and nose, couldn’t talk; my mother, ever the chronicler of our lives, said, “Oh look at you. Let me take a picture.” George, ever conscious of his image, frantically waved his hands, “No!!!” After Effie and I left, she was more expressive of her true feelings: “It should have been me in there instead of him.”
I always believed that my father didn’t want to finish tasks because having new projects kept him young, kept him going. When – because his own failing health made him unable to give Effie the care she needed – he finally managed to place her in a top-notch rest home, his greatest responsibility was over. He then completed the new apartment and, not long after that, became bedridden. He lingered there for about a month, welcoming friends and family that came to say goodbye, the charming host until the last. Then, on the evening of January 8, 2009, he died. He was 84 years old, although he once noted, “I have always been 37 even when I eye that old man in my shaving mirror each morning.”
But I still cannot get one image out of my mind. It was not too long ago, in that coffee shop we sat in so many times after my show. He was sitting opposite me, eating the chicken soup he always recommended (and which I always declined). And I sat there, knowing he was going to die soon and trying my hardest to memorize every line of his face, to remember that smile and that twinkle that seemed to define his essence. He noticed me staring at him and smiled that unforgettable smile. “I love you,” he said quietly, as though he had read my thoughts. It’s going to be all right, he seemed to be saying. You’re all going to be all right.
I love you, dad.
THE "D.A." WHO CAME TO DINNER
BY TOM SOTER
My dad always loved to tell the story of the D.A. who (almost) came to dinner.
The D.A. in question was Frank Hogan, known for years as the crusading, incorruptible “Mr. District Attorney.” During the 1960s, when I was growing up in New York, my family lived in a Riverside Drive building that also was the home of Mr. Hogan (he was always referred to as “Mr. Hogan,” never Frank). Mr. Hogan was, as far as I could tell, a nondescript fellow, pleasant but nothing special. He was always polite to our family, and on hearing that my younger brother Peter was a baseball fan, took him to a few Yankee games (he had box seats).
He also stood out in my mind at the time because he had around-the-clock police protection. The Columbia University campus upheaval was going on at about this time, and there had apparently been threats against Mr. Hogan’s life, so there was always a police car with two cops parked outside our building. It was somewhat comforting to know that the men-in-blue were there, even though in the early morning hours you would frequently find them asleep at the wheel.
Mr. Hogan wasn’t the only celebrity law-and-order type that we knew. My family was also friendly with Gerald Gardiner, in the 1960s known for being involved in the defense in England’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover case (when the unexpurgated edition of D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel was published by Penguin Books in Britain in 1960, Penguin was unsuccessfully prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959). In 1964, that notoriety led to Gardiner’s appointment as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, the equivalent of the attorney general in the U.S. (he was later made a peer of the realm).
My parents knew Gardiner because my mother worked with his daughter, Carol, who had come to live in America in the late 1950s, and who became friends with my family after passing what my mother used to describe as something like a test. My mom, a social worker, had two favored friends at the job, Helen and Carol. She brought Helen over for dinner one night, and things apparently did not go well. As my mother often recounted it, my father didn’t like Helen, so she was banned from the household. “Then I invited Carol,” she would say, “and I was very nervous because I really liked Carol, and I was worried that your father would disapprove.” But he didn’t, apparently giving her “a big thumbs up. And that’s why we still know Carol.”
Whether my father had such absolute power over my mother is a story for another time (some would argue that the opposite was true), but by 1966-67, we were close friends with Carol. As Christmas approached, Carol told us her father was coming to visit and my parents invited over both Gardiners to celebrate the holiday and have dinner with us. As an added treat, they invited District Attorney Hogan over for the meal so the two could swap legal stories.
Events moved along, Christmas approached, and at the last minute, Mr. Hogan had to cancel, with regrets. To fill out the dinner party, my father substituted a colleague of his from work, an advertising executive named Leo Kelmenson. Unfortunately, when introductions were made, Gerald Gardiner got it into his head that Leo was Frank Hogan. Seated side by side at dinner, Gardiner kept asking Kelmenson pointed legal questions about recent, noteworthy U.S. lawsuits that the Englishman had followed with great interest, to which Leo would reply, “I don’t know,” “I’ve never heard of that,” and “I have no opinion.” By the time Carol and Gerald were on their way home, Gerald was thoroughly disillusioned. “You know, that district attorney chap didn’t know very much about the law,” he said with some disdain.
Although Carol explained it all to him, I get the impression – at least from my dad’s telling of the story – that Gerald Gardiner was not completely convinced. About a year after the Christmas dinner, my father and Leo Kelmenson were in London together on business, and they dropped in on Gerald at his offices. They had a pleasant chat and later, Gardiner talked to his daughter by phone. “You know,” said Gerald, “George was here today. And he brought that district attorney fellow with him. He still didn’t know much about the law.”
April 9, 2010
OF THE DEATH OF EFFIE SOTER
By Nick Soter
I am saddened to announce the death of our mother Effie today, about an hour ago, in New York at the Amsterdam House, where she has been living since October, 2008. She died peacefully, without any trauma or stress, after a few weeks of reduced food intake and general system shut down. As you know, she had not been well for quite some time, and so it is hoped that she can finally find some peace. I am not able to reach all of you by telephone, and so with my apologies please accept this email.
My brothers Tom and Peter attended to our mother, and visited her very often in her last months, and made sure she was comfortable and well cared for. I was last able to visit her in January, and I spoke to her in Greek, which she may have understood.
And so it is for all of us, the circle of life completes itself. Our mother had a wonderful life, lived it fully, was married to a fabulous man, left three boys to carry on, and will be remembered for her wit, smile, strength of character, fortitude. She was a true Maniatissa in all meanings of the term.
We plan to have a gathering in her honor in New York the weekend of September 9. Further details will be sent when we have the plans in place. My family and I will be in New York that weekend and will be at this gathering.
May she rest in peace.
EFFIE SOTER: MEMORIES, COMMENTS, VIEWS
My mother was was smart, and funny, and ready to have a good time as well as work hard. She put in so many hours at Greek Island, I was always amazed at her stamina and fortitude. And she always had time for us kids, particularly when we were younger.
Of course she had her troubles, and the alcohol took the place of work when we no longer had Greek Island, which was hard for us all. And after that, the terrible disease she suffered from, although you could always tell that she fought it as best she could, trying to keep whatever part of herself alive and available, even if it was only to play cards with George and family. Our last trip to Greece together with her was in the Olympic year of 2004, and I still remember vividly sitting with her under an umbrella at the beach in Athens at Faliron, at Alimos Beach, and we were commenting on the various people around us, and the boats in the water, and swimmers, and how some people were so fat (she didn't like fat people, as you know), and I remember thinking this may be the last time I ever have a fresh conversation with her, where we were actually speaking of things in the moment, and not just answering her endless questions about where we were going, what we were going to do, etc. And I think that was the last time I did that. And she also asked the waiter at the nearby pizza restaurant "how come you speak Greek so well?" To which he replied, "because I am Greek," and she said, "really, are we in Greece?"
Though we may expect bad news, is is hard when it happens.
Effie! Yes she was quite a person, indeed a real maniatissa, she loved and hated with equal strength, sweet but unforgiving at the same time, but, oh yes, she was a good person. She loved her family, the immediate and the extended and showed it in her own way; yes she had a full life with a lot of people around and I am sure she will remembered by all.
For me she was a friend that I accepted with all her idiosyncrasies for her good mind, her straightforwardness, her hospitality, her humor; and she will remain liKe that in my mind and in my heart. We are all faced with the end of the road but to have had a full life as she did and leave behind decent loving people is an accomplishment. You had a good mother and a good father. Na esaste esiS kala na tous themosaste. With all my love to all of you.
Stephen Green-Armytage & Judy Kinnersley
Yes, indeed, the end of a long era, and all our sympathies for the loss of your mother. We know that there had already been a semi-good-bye a while ago, and that the death of George was then the loss that made you no longer sons, but it must be very emotional knowing that you will never see your mother again.
Fortunately our most persistent memories of Effie are of the cheerful hostess, cook and card-player of many great evenings on Riverside Drive. And of course Effie in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s was a wonderful person, with her own style of humor and her famous forthright personality. She and George were as close as we could get to having New York parents, with you guys as our younger brothers.. Now we are all orphans.
We would like you to know how much we admired the way the four male Soters dealt with the gradual loss of the wife and mother that you had loved for so many years. So thank you for that lesson in patience, grace and understanding as you dealt with having this changing and ultimately different person in your family.
And thanks for the advance notice of the family gathering in September. We will certainly aim to be there for the event, and we look forward to seeing the latest versions of Effie’s four granddaughters.
Phillip Keithley Syers
Thanks for sending, I particularly enjoyed what you wrote the day she passed. Wish I could have met her earlier, marvelous lady.
Childhood friend of Tom's
The passing of a great lady: My best friend Tom Soter's mom, Effie, died yesterday, at the age of 90. She was a great matriarch of a wonderful Greek-American family. Here's to you, Effie.
She was an amazing woman and I have such wonderful memories of her.
Paul and I are so sorry to hear about your mother''s passing. We know how close you had been, and how she and you father had supported and enjoyed you and your crazy friends (I count myself here) in everything. Your mother and father were some of the most gracious, welcoming people I've ever met. I always thought she was very beautiful. I wish you and your family the comfort of having each other and your sweet memories.
Childhood friend of Tom's
I am terribly sorry to hear this. Hang in there. And take it easy for a bit, these things take time.
We are all so sorry about your loss. I empathize deeply having lost my mother last September. She had developed dementia during the last months. It was like losing her twice.
Effie's spirit is finally free.
I was heartbroken to hear about your mom.
Friend of Nick’s
Nick: Oh Nick - Ann and I saddened to read of your mother's death I remember her from her many visits to SF and even staying in our flat with your father when we were away. I even saw her once in New York when your brother had that bookstore in Chelsea. She sold me a book. You had a long vigil, as her last years were difficult for all. We send you and your family love and all condolences in the days ahead. Sometime tell us what Maniatissa means.
Tom: I was most moved by the stories of your mother written after her recent death. Then I read the one about your Dad. I remember them both though we met only fleetingly when they visited Nick and Dora, Eva and Zoe. You came out to Zoe's HS graduation a few weeks ago. Ann and I send you and your family our condolences. We will remember them in the Prayers of the People at our church on Sunday.
Tom: Thinking of you and your brothers so much. I have known you all for so long...what, 36 years? Holy mackerel! You have always amazed me, your wit, your creativity, your talent and how you have created a place for them to flourish. I know your parents were so proud and delighted with you. You all were lucky:)
I loved your Mom and fortunately never married Nick so she loved me!!! (just kidding, I know she loved Dora!)
Anyway, I send you my love and you are in my thoughts. Please extend my love to Pete, as I have no way of contacting him. I just called the Congdons, too. I will see you in September at her celebration. I will have to work on my Effie impression!
Hey Nick, So sorry to hear about your mom. I have only been able to keep up with you guys through my parents, which was a big mistake on my part, as they, even in better and clearer days, have never been known as the kings of communication. Your folks were like visiting royalty when they came to town and were always a delight. Your mom so regal and your dad, full of hilarious stories like some Greek Mark Twain. When I think back on that whole generation of aunts and uncles from George and Effie to Alex, Chrissie, Ellie, Dick and my dad and mom...It was so beautiful to be witness to such a hip and modern bunch of people. To be around such funny and talented people all drinking and smoking and playing the piano and dancing and never censoring us kids from their conversations or fun like so many of my friends non-Greek and much, well, whiter families were. I feel so lucky to have been a part of it and although its sad to hear of your moms passing it reminds me of how lucky we all were to have such good, kind and highly evolved people to grow up with. Much luck and love to you and your family, Nick.
Don't make me cry in the middle of the day. Wonderful piece. Funny, on target (from what I know), and moving.
Childhood friend of Tom’s[[wysiwyg_imageupload:488:]]
I'd like to express my sincere condolences to you and your entire family; May she rest in peace.
Alta Ann Parkins Morris
It is an honor to be notified by whatever means. Nick, your addition of photos was a nice surprise and softened, not what could be called the surprise of hearing that Effie had died, but the unavoidable startle of the news with its mix of memory and sadness and also amusement, brought on by the way you fitted Maniatissa into the sentence.
For an explicable but not important reason I was thinking of Gytheon and those submerged buildings in the harbor when I found the message.
I knew the shop and George and Effie from about 1963 when a weaver-acquaintance said they were having a party and we should go. It was just after my first trip to Greece where I had learned that endearing Greek items, which could make good gifts, existed only in the spot where I first saw them. Who knew that if I didn't decide then and there to buy the brass bell or the horn?)-Handled knife, I would never find it again in any other part of the country. After '63 I could usually find it at Greek Island but I had to wear my disguise (really) of undisturbed calm to face Effie.
For almost ten years I was a customer off and on and introduced friends and relatives to the shop. I never knew how to respond to her but that was not a deterrent to visiting there. In 1971 came my Mani book and selling it at the shop and then came Allan and my deciding to ask Effie and George to dinner. Having some of her "shyness" myself I needed another couple, Allan's partner and his wife, I always felt I could use help through dinner's conversation, (I didn't know them well, later the partnership began to sour and they were never here again). Allan changed over the years but in 1974 he mostly balked at having company and was happy about it afterward. This time was no exception and he loved George and Effie. They stayed behind when the others left and as they departed Effie said to me, "You really are nice, after all." At the time I still didn't know what a badge of honor it was to hear those words.
I know these notes are supposed to be short, but saying more is also a way of remaining connected to Effie and to both and to all of you a little while longer.
The pictures were a surprise. Even though I knew about Worcester, I still had never seen or thought of them in a New England?) setting. It felt incongruous! I suppose the Meteora? Mystra? Crete?) picture was sometime in the '60s but I almost couldn't recognize Effie and it seemed that those added years of living with George and with you had made her much more beautiful-- the pictures in the Greek Island catalog, the snapshots of parties....
Thanks very much for writing, I love and admire you all and your values and send you syllipitiria and sympathy and agapi.
Tom-- Your Memories of Effie, like a documentary with pictures, was just what I wanted to see. This writing seemed more eloquent, whether true or not, than what we read of her in 2009, maybe because last week was the exact time when it needed to be read. Or maybe you had polished it for the occasion. Allan should have read it. You and Peter and Nick are an improbable social work reversal, comforting us when you were bereft.
Friend of Alta Ann Parkins
After reading "Big Deal: Memories of My Mother"
Thanks, Alta Ann. I just read the second two (and your contribution to the first one) and looked at the pictures. What a lovely woman she was when she was younger, what a gallery of images from beautiful, joyous youth to toothless age. And what wonderful writing. Thanks again.
David C. Anderson
Friend of Alta Ann Parkins
After reading "Big Deal: Memories of My Mother"
So what is Maniatissa? A woman of the Mani? My Mother's phrase that described a Swedish friend, Hillie "she would not hold to a word"? I remember the catalogues coming. Jane had some clothing, jewelery and drinking glasses, scent in a bottle. There was a shop on Arlington Place on the north side of Chicago. A kind of strange location for a shop -- off the beaten path yet a neighborhood place. I loved reading about Effie.
Friend of Alta Ann Parkins
After reading "Big Deal: Memories of My Mother"
Thanks for sending me the link. It was so moving to read all the writings and see the photos. I remember meeting Effie and thinking she was quite formidable, even in her Alzheimer's state. I read Tom's memories of his mother. He writes so beautifully really bringing her to life. His description stayed with me and I know I'll be thinking of her, along with my mother in the weeks to come.
I am so very sad to hear that Effie has died. From what you said she died quietly and, as you also said, one's hope is that after such a long illness she finds some peace. You must be really thankful Effie was well cared for at Amsterdam House. The sorrow is for those left behind, and in a way we can now fully mourn her loss. Effie was a terrific friend, our friendship meant so much to me and she and your family brought me joy throughout my years in New York. I will miss Effie so much.
Brother of Dora, Effie’s daughter-in-law
Thank you Nick to have the blessing of having you and your wonderful family in our lives, we have many unforgettable memories shared with your loving family and we will be forever grateful. May God bless and look after your parents!
Cousin of Dora, Effie’s daughter-in-law
Hey Nick. With love and respect for you and your sweet family I send you Peace for a life well lived:} Thank you for letting me know your Mother and father they where one of a kind!! I shall always remember those diners at your mom and dad's in NYC they where great! Please let me know if there is anything I can do for you and your family at this time you are all in my prayers.
I wish peace and love to you and your family. That's a beautiful passage. She sounded like a pretty terrific lady.
I'll never forget the wonderful parties your parents had at their magnificent place - your mom's delicious cooking, the poker games with your dad, the beautiful apartment. Effie was a gracious hostess, a great cook, and a delight to be with. SNI will never be the same without your parents' smiling faces in the front row. Truly, it's the end of an era. I'll be thinking of you and your family this week - what a great thing to have such a close and loving family as the Soters! My very best to both of your brothers.
I was so sad when I heard the news. Effie was so great. Feisty yet very sweet. I treasure the times she pinched or kissed my cheek after a show and would say, "You're a good boy." Jen and I send love and condolences to you and your family during this difficult time.
I wanted to send my deepest sympathies and condolences. I know that if she was anything like you, she was an amazing person.
I knew from Robert that Effie was not well. This news is, as you expressed, the completion of the circle. My memories of Effie are rich with images of her smile, her wit and the ice cubes she put in her beer. My condolences to you and Peter and Tom.
Friend of Nick’s
So sorry to hear about your mother passing. Although she, as you said, has found peace, for you I know this is going to be somewhat painful. I remember when my mom died, and I don't like to think about how much that hurt. It's good that you have a big and wonderful family around you to support you. So let them. Zoe se'mas as we say, and have said it for centuries -- well, millennia, actually -- because it is a truth that has kept our people together through rough times. As always, anything you need me to do that will help, please let me know.
I just got the news from Tom C. that your mom passed away. I'm so sorry to hear that. She was an indelible personality in my mind from the days when I used to hang with you on Riverside Drive. My dad remembers her (and your dad) fondly from his visit and the famous "may I take a picture from your window" incident. I'm sure this is going to be a difficult time for you. Just know that I'll be thinking of you. I'm sure we all will.[[wysiwyg_imageupload:498:]]
Thank you for letting me know. Effie looks so young and chic in the photos (George too). I am glad she died peacefully. I knew how ill she was, but still I didn't expect your email and was sad to hear the news. Effie was my mother's only family here in New York, and I know how sad Alkmini would be if she understood. I feel as if a piece of Alkmini, her world, is gone too. My heartfelt condolences to you and your family. I look forward to seeing you Sept. 9.
I am so sorry for the passing away of Effie, she was in fact a remarkable woman. I know that in the past couple of years you no longer had her consciously present and that in some way you had said goodbye to the Effie that traveled, cooked fabulous meals, played cards with her grandchildren, and asked Jacqueline Onasis what had taken her so long to visit the shop .but the loss of ones mother is a profound event no matter how it comes to us. I am glad that I was able to know her and share some "who is she" time with Effiem for whatever reason I truly enjoyed her. I feel privileged to have been invited to be present with your family and I know that this marks a new cycle for you, Tommy and Peter. Nick, you are now the Patriarch,.
Yesterday on our walk Dora and I talked at length of Effie's condition and her passing and what that may mean to you in particular and to your brothers. It was a beautiful day, clear, without clouds, the water was still and brilliant I wish this new chapter in your life embody this day.
I’m really sad to hear this news but glad that Effie went peacefully. This sad moment and the photos you sent bring back a lifetime of memories at 404 as children and later when I was working in NYC and staying at your parents place… as sooo many people did over the years. Effie had a warm smile but she was a tough lady and she could be quite cutting with her lightning fast mind and keen wit. She always gave me the smile and saved the cut for others… J I have such wonderful, loving memories of her fabulous cooking, the amazing dinners together with all of the classic Soter stories and of all of the other parties, events and just hanging out playing boggle – which was no easy trick with your incredibly well-educated/high IQ parents.
I was sad to hear about your Mom. Cliché maybe, but it really does feel like the end of an era. Effie was always very kind to me, and all of the Soter clan occupy big swaths of my childhood memories. I remember staying with you all on our way to Greece, in your labyrinthine way cool apartment…with Effie cooking these giant hamburgers and ruffling our heads and saying, “how you doing kid?”, and later, showing me the photo albums of family trips she’d carefully put together with her funny narratives all through. I remember her buying me little gifts...my favorite was a ring with a secret compartment…perfect for a little girl who loved rings and spy games. I’m glad we’ll be able to be together in September, Peter, Tommy, Nick. Meanwhile my love to each of you.
Val and Hugh de Quetteville
Word of your mother’s passing comes to me at a time in which much thoughts are being given to the question of what makes a good parent. It’s clear to me you have a far stronger than most appreciation of your parents, and I take that as a reflection on Effie’s great mothering. In thinking of what I know of her, my mind instantly went to the many late October jams in which she baked you a birthday cake. “I liked her cake” were the first words that came to my mind, and I started to think of the word “cake” as emblematic of all the wonderful, loving things a mother does. Attending the jam week after week – CAKE Keeping a tschoke-filled house – CAKE. Warmly smiling, encouraging a brood of improvisers – CAKE. And I liked her cake.
I know that in some ways, it seems like you lost your mother long ago…still, this final parting is difficult. I picture your parents together now, pain free and at peace, perhaps sipping wine and talking improv! Hey, you never know!
Maitland and I belatedly heard about your beloved mother. Know that her presence, especially hose times in the audience, brightened lives.
Robert and Pirjo Gardiner
Pirjo and I have just heard from carol the sad news of the death of dear Effie. You and Peter and Nick and all your family are so very much in our thoughts. We Gardiners all remember Effie as such a warm and caring person and, above all, as the mother of your family. We send you all our love and deepest sympathy.
I am sorry for the loss of your mother. I will always remember her and George at the improv shows. She loved you all and had a rich, love-filled life.
The Jacob Family
The Jacob family at 404 Riverside Drive loved the Soter family and miss Effie and George very much. Heir parties were always great fun. Thanks to you, we met our neighbors.
I was very saddened by the news of Effie’s demise. When I saw her last, she looked peaceful. Effie was a great hostess, friend, and wonderful companion. We with George and my husband Vachel spent many wonderful times exchanging meals, going to movies and enjoying lively conversations. I miss those times and will miss Effie very much.
Thanks for sending me the card about Effie. I was so sorry in many ways to receive it. For me, the end of a great friendship – Effie and George – whom I shall never forget – all those wonderful years living and working and being together.
The Greek Island shop, the trips to Greece, the wonderful dinners in that remarkable apartment on the west side (404). How can I forget? You have all been my family away from Boston, and part of my life. Indeed, Effie and George were in my home. Sitting at that guest table at one of those Greek dinners and watching Effie with that smile as she watched us with such love and feelings of affection. And that music. What fun.
Working with George on several assignments was a joy. How could I have been so lucky? And all you guys wandering in and out pf my life so well. I didn’t want it to ever end.
How sorry that I won’t be able to be in New york City on Saturday, but my thoughts will be with you. I raise my glass to you all.
thanks for having me at your remembrance of effie. i was a little under the weather, been having back problems, but i'm so glad i came. amazing turn-out. awesome film, tom. bouzouki brilliance. that so many turned out to pay homage to memories in many cases 20, 30, 40 or more years old is testament to her magnetism, yes, but also, & most movingly, to the values you all continue to espouse and enact, the value of family of all kinds, big tent, open door, and of trust and keeping in touch and remembering and observing and eating and drinking and being together. the sacred value of a good party. chris' roar speaks for itself and speaks volumes and echoes down the ages. i'm sure she heard it ten thousand times already. i'm only sorry mara was unable to be there. she actually instinctively throws a pretty decent 'soter party' (i do believe it deserves a dictionary entry). and me, well, i try and pull my weight. thanks for the invite and the ouzo and what we hebrews call ruach, spirit. the queen is dead. long may she reign. & king george too of course.
Childhood friend of Nick’s
Sorry to hear and safe journeys and blessings to her.
Please accept our heartfelt condolences. In no small way we feel as if we have lost a much beloved member of our family.
Joe & Mikel Witte
Our prayers go out to you and your families on the passing of dear Effie. We remember so well her wonderful hospitality and fabulous. Greek food at the Soter home. You were certainly all blessed to have had such caring and wonderful parents.
With my father dead in the other room, I could feel the moistness on my palms as the police officer asked us: “If he died at 8:25, why did you wait until midnight to report his death?”
It had all seemed perfectly logical at the time, but as the lieutenant’s eyes bore into mine – that unwavering, unnerving stare that cops must be taught at the academy – I felt like I should confess to something, anything, just to break that stare. Sure, there was something fishy going on, but it had nothing to do with my father’s death. Well, not directly.
It had all started about seven hours before. It was the night of January 8, 2009, and my father, George, was in the last stages of his battle with cancer. It had been alternately inspiring, depressing, amusing, and challenging as my two brothers and I coped with the deterioration of a once-vibrant man.
It was especially wearing on my older brother, Nick, who lived in San Francisco. After my father was diagnosed with the illness, Nick seemed to be here every other month to help George (and the rest of us) cope. Most of the time, he came with his wife, Dora, and their presence and help were invaluable. This must have been a financial hardship on them; both were self-employed and they had to take time off from work to be there. But they never complained. It was simply something that had to be done.
George, though bedridden and very gaunt, still had a twinkle in his eye and took delight in entertaining visitors. Many came calling with long faces, and my father would quickly admonish them, saying, “No sad faces here!” To one young man who seemed particularly morose, George said, “Look at this!” and held up his bony arm and let his watch slide down it. “Isn’t that amazing! See how thin I’ve gotten.”
Some people cope with the imminent arrival of death by retreating from the public eye. Not George. He was an entertainer till the end. And on January 8, we could sense that the end was near. Even though Nick and Dora had gone back to California five days before – the prognosis then was that George could last weeks – he suddenly, unexpectedly got worse. Nick and Dora boarded a plane as soon as they heard, but, alas, they arrived an hour too late. Their plane was due in at 9:30, but, at 8:25, George died.
I had heard that death could be a beautiful thing; in Camille, Greta Garbo just closes her eyes and she passes away without her lover even noticing. The real thing was quite horrible. I was standing in the room outside George’s bedroom, waiting to go in; I didn’t want to crowd them – Peter had been assisting the nurse for a few moments but he called me into the room. George gripped Peter and me by the arms, and as he stared wild-eyed at us, I could feel the life draining out of him – although he seemed to be fighting until the very end. Whoever said, “He did not go gently into that good night” could have been talking about George.
He was gone. But then there was one final spasm – and then he really was gone, his mouth and eyes wide open as though he were auditioning for a ghastly horror movie. The home care worker closed his eyes – which was a relief – but nothing could be done about his mouth. I didn’t want to look at him. I didn’t want to remember him this way. So unmoving, so cold, so unlike George. So dead.
We wept over his body, partly relieved by the end of the ordeal, not yet fully aware of our loss (that would only come years later as we lived a life without George.)
Now the waiting began. The wait for Nick and Dora. The wait for the coroner. The long night was just beginning.
Nick and Dora arrived at about 10:30. They wanted to perform a ritual over George’s body; he was oiled down and we all joined hands around him and began a chant, with different people saying a few words over him, wishing him goodbye in their own way. It was surreal. I wondered what George would have thought of it.
By the time we had finished, it was about 11:30. We talked a little; we had to call the coroner. Matters were complicated; George had said at different times that he had wanted to leave his brain to science, so doctors could use it in their research into the causes and possible cures for Alzheimer’s, the disease which had so ravaged my mother. The problem was George hadn’t signed the consent form to donate his brain.
“Well,” said Nick, the lawyer, “his not signing would be considered a clear indication of his intentions.”
“Look,” argued Peter, with passion, “I talked to George about this many times, and I know he wanted to do this.”
We went back and forth on it, but to me it seemed like an academic question. George was gone now; whatever he wanted was trumped by the fact that he wasn’t signing anything.
Well, that didn’t prove insurmountable. After the discussion ended, Nick said, “Okay. We’ll sign it.”
Nick did a fair imitation of George’s signature; Peter and I signed on as witnesses, dating it.
We then called the funeral home. It was about midnight now and the man on the other end said that they couldn’t pick up the body until the coroner and the police signed off on it. The coroner? The police? What did they have to do with it? “Because it was a home death, you have to have a statement from your father’s doctor saying it was expected,” explained the man at the funeral home. “Then the police and the coroner have to sign off that the death was legitimate.” In other words, that there was no foul play.
As instructed, we called “911,” and explained the situation to them. Faster than you could say “Barney Miller” (or so it seemed to my sleep-addled self), there was a group of blue-suited cops in the apartment, checking out George’s body, poking around in corners, asking us questions.
“What time did he die?” asked a serious-looking man who was addressed by everyone as “lieutenant.”
“At about 8:25,” Peter volunteered.
The lieutenant paused and looked up from his notepad. “But this 911 report says you called in the death at midnight. “If he died at 8:25, why did you wait until midnight to report his death? Why did you wait so long?”
“Ah, well that’s easy to explain,” I said.
The lieutenant stood silently.
“We were waiting for my brother and sister-in-law to arrive.”
“When did they get here?”
“At about 10:30.”
The lieutenant looked up again from his notepad. “10:30 you say?”
“That still leaves about an hour and a half hours before you called 911.”
How could we explain what had happened? It all seemed so simple at the time. Now we looked like we were hiding something.
“He died from cancer, you said?”
The lieutenant’s eyes were unwavering. “Why wasn’t he in the hospital?”
“He wanted to die at home,” said Nick.
The cop turned and addressed Nick. “So, you flew in from San Francisco. If he was so sick, why weren’t you here with him?”
“I was. They told us he was doing better, so we went back to San Francisco five days ago. I had been here for a month. I had to get back to work.”
“It’s simple, officer,” I said. “We were talking to the funeral home. Our dad’s body has to go to NYU Medical School first; our dad donated his brain to science and they have to remove it before he goes to the funeral home. We have a form,” I ended lamely.
“For his brain donation.”
“Let me see that,” he said, taking the form from my hand.
He looked at it, studying it intently. “It says the witnesses are Tom Soter and Peter Soter,” he said thoughtfully. “That’s you,” he said, looking at me with that unblinking stare that cops must learn in basic training, “and you,” he said, turning to Peter. He paused, then said, “It’s dated tonight.” He looked up. “Your father signed this tonight?”
Before we could reply there was a commotion at the door. Two shortish men – one black, one white, in ankle-length trenchcoats, wearing snap-brim fedoras like characters out of Guys and Dolls – breezed into the room. The lieutenant looked up as the pair flashed badges and hustled into the bedroom where my father’s body was lying. They were in there for what seemed like only minutes, and then they were out again. “That’s OK then,” one of them said to the lieutenant, and they slid into the night.
“Who were they?” I asked after a moment.
“Homicide,” said the lieutenant. He didn’t explain further, but he seemed to have lost interest in the tale of George’s brain. “You have a doctor I can call to confirm this?”
We gave him our doctor’s name. Although it was well past 2 A.M., the officer called the doctor. He explained the situation and then listened as the doctor talked. “Uh-huh,” said the cop. “Uh-huh.” Pause, as the doctor replied. “You don’t say?” Pause. “And he said what?” Pause. “I see.” Pause. “Homicide was just here.” Pause. “Well, it’s a home death, so we had to be sure.” Pause. “Thank you, doctor.”
He hung up and turned to face us. “We’ll be going now. I’m leaving these two officers behind to wait for the coroner to come by and sign off on it.” He paused. “I’m sorry for your loss.” He turned and left abruptly.
The two cops who were left behind stood guard awkwardly by the door, ensuring that no unauthorized person could get in (who would want to?). I was exhausted; it was late (or early, depending on how you cut it). But I felt sorry for the police officers, young men who seemed fresh-faced and new to the job.
“Would you like to sit down?” I asked.
“No, thank you, sir. The lieutenant wouldn’t like that.”
They stood silently. I felt uncomfortable and tried to make small talk. “Those two guys in trench coats were characters, weren’t they?”
“Homicide detectives,” said one cop.
“Oh, really.” Silence. “Do you ever watch Homicide: Life on the Streets? It’s supposed to be the most realistic of the cop shows.”
“I never watch police shows on TV,” said one. “They never get it right.”
“There’s one show that got it,” said the other. “What was it called...?” He tried to remember.
“Hill Street Blues? NYPD Blue?” I asked.
“No, no -- it was, yeah, it was Barney Miller.”
Nick spoke up, indicating my brother, Peter, who was sleeping on the couch. “He’s married to Barney Miller’s daughter.”
“Really?” said the cop, showing interest.
“Yeah, Amelia Linden. Her father is Hal Linden.”
The cops sat down. It struck me then that the whole situation had become quite bizarre, surreal even. With our father lying dead in the other room, we were talking about Peter’s father-in-law’s role as a comedic policeman with two rookie cops who were standing watch in our father’s living room. It was a situation that would have appealed to George.
The coroner eventually came, and he was followed by the funeral home folks, who finally arrived at 5:30. Although Peter had slept a bit, Nick, Dora, and I stayed up through the long night. The rest is a blur to me, but they eventually wheeled George’s body out, and I never saw him again.
Well, that’s not quite true. Some time later, Peter brought me a little ceramic jar with some of George’s cremated remains in it. “That’s George?” asked five-year-old Helena, his granddaughter. “Goodbye, George,” she said, in the accepting way children have with death and loss. “Goodbye.”
We all said our final goodbyes that summer in Greece, on a family trip that George had paid for as a going away present. It was nighttime, and Peter, Nick, Dora, Amelia, their children, and I stood on Likavitos (Mount Lycabettus), a church on a mountain overlooking Athens. Dora said a prayer of farewell to George and each of us took a handful of his ashes and cast them off the side of the mountain into the open air. And, without missing a beat, the strong winds blew the ashes right back at us – and into the faces of the dozens of tourists who were admiring the view.
George was, as always irrepressible, a prima donna to the end – and beyond.
So long, dad. You’re the tops.
March 28, 2013
GEORGE SOTER, 84, husband of Effie; father of Nick, Tom, and Peter; father-in-law of Dora and Amelia; grandfather of Eva, Zoe, Xanthe, and Helena; and friend and mentor to countless others; said goodbye to the “whole catastrophe” and died peacefully on January 8. George was an award-winning advertising copywriter and creative director at most of the major agencies in the 1950s through the 1980s, and from 1963 to 1986 ran the Greek Island boutique at Amster Yard on East 49th Street, part of his lifelong love for all things Greek. Adios, Yiorgo.
FROM THE FAMILY
On January 8, 2009, at 8:20 p.m. New York time, George Soter died peacefully at his home after a year-long battle with lung cancer. Although bedridden for a month, his humor and cheerful smile were with him throughout, as he played the good host to well-wishers who had come to see him and say goodbye. A little over a week before he died, he joined friends and family in a rendition of the song with which he used to sing his children to sleep, "I Get No Kick from Champagne.''
Although he felt fairly well at the beginning of the week, on Thursday, January 8, he became non-communicative, except to refuse food and water, which the nurse identified as a sign of the beginning of the end. "He's tired of this great experiment," she said, referring to his life. Tom and Peter, two of his three sons, were with him when he died. Nick and Dora, his eldest son and his daughter-in-law, were flying in from San Francisco at the time of his death, arriving at 9:30 p.m.
Thank you all for your thoughts and prayers over the last few months. George loved your letters, visits, phone calls, and conversation, and even insisted on having a sign-in book so he could have a record of those who had called. He was peaceful and content while moving on, did not seem to suffer, and enjoyed many good moments with family and friends all the way to the end. There are plans for a memorial service and party (George always loved a party) on Sunday, March 8, at George's apartment (further information will be posted on this site). He took great pride in showing off his "last hurrah" (as he called his masterful redesign of a small basement space), and it was among his final wishes that people see it, have a good time, and celebrate his life rather than mourn his passing. While we cannot help but note his absence, we can certainly remember him with humor, joy, and much love.
Indeed, all who knew him will never forget him, as evidenced by the many lovely reminiscences below. For an epitaph, we quote the Greek poem, "Ithaka," by Constantine Cavafy, George's favorite poet. The final lines are especially apt, as they accurately describe this remarkable man's view of life: "Don't hurry the journey at all. Better if it goes on for years/so you're old by the time you reach the island, wealthy with all you've gained on the way,/not expecting Ithaka to make you rich./ Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you wouldn't have set out. She hasn't anything else to give./ And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. Wise as you'll have become, and so experienced, you'll have Understood by then what an Ithaka means."
But there is also a quote that is equally appropriate, Marlene Dietrich's famous, brief comment at the conclusion of Touch of Evil: "What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of man."
MEMORIES OF GEORGE
Pianist, Sunday Night Improv
What a wonderful man he was!!!
I thought George was about the coolest dad a guy could have, and the way he was there for his son at every one of his improv shows, and the easygoing, respectful nature the two of you shared, was a bit of a role model for my own being a dad. I liked and respected George immensely.
Ad Director, Habitat
George was a good man and it was my pleasure and honor to have made his acquaintance. He lived a full life.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
I am very sorry to hear of the passing of George. He was a kind, gentle, inspired and giving man with wit and intelligence. I will remember his devotion to his family and his smiling face at every Sunday Night Improv show (whether he felt it or not). He always had a kind word of encouragement for me, and that meant a lot. Your care of him at the end of his life was a real labor of love. It was a testament to how he raised you. I remember the last time I saw him, at home in his bed with his family in the next room enjoying a meal. It was as the old cliché from The Lion King says, the circle of life completing itself. As Tom Carozza says, he was a father to us all, or the father we would have picked for ourselves if we could.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
I was very saddened to hear that George had passed last evening. He was such a bright light in this world. Inquisitive, engaged and so very supportive. It was a pleasure to do the Jam and to have him toss out fantastic suggestions and then give his notes and thoughts after each show. And sharing a bite or a drink with him afterward was even more fun. He loved a good laugh like he loved a good scotch. A true gentleman to his fingertips. My wife Jennifer and I were honored to get to visit him one last time on Christmas Eve. We were there to share champagne and oysters at his bedside. We also shared jokes and stories when he wasn't busy shamelessly flirting with Jen. (I wouldn't have had it any other way) We both want to thank the family for offering us the privilege to see him. You made us feel so welcome. While I'm glad he's out of pain I'm much more saddened that he is out of pleasure. My experience of George was that he enjoyed so many of life's delicacies and delights. He had an artist's eye, a poet's soul and a fabulous sense of humor. Doing the Jam will never be the same without his presence.
Improviser, Chicago City Limits
Paul and I are so sorry to hear about your dad's passing. He was a lovely, funny, handsome, appreciative gentleman, and we will remember him with great warmth. We know how difficult a time this is, and hope that you will find comfort in the circle of your family, your friends, and your memories.
Carl Kissin,Improviser, N.Y. Improv Squad
Your Dad may be gone, but when I speak loudly, he can still hear me. [A reference to his inability to hear anyone at a bedside visit except for Carl, who had to interpret for others with less sonorous voices.] Hope that isn't too inappropriate -- I thought it might give you a laugh on this sad day. Your Dad was a wonderful man and I will miss him.
George attended a comedy show called Sunday Night Improv -- produced by his son Tom -- every week for nearly a decade. That he was so devoted to his son's passion made him in my eyes a great father. As an occasional participant in the show, I often think I was there just to make George laugh. He was like a comedy muse, reveling in the wit of others and supplying a hearty supply of his own. How can you not love a man like that? I know I did.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
Every moment I spent with your father was a pleasure, including our final visit. He will be sorely missed.
I can't tell you how shitty the news of George's passing isto me. I know there is and can never be another man like George. He was one hell of a guy! Super generous,talented,gifted, kind,loving....I could just go on and on...AND I know everyone would agree with me...There will never be such a wonderful guy as your dad--hands down. George was the glue that put us all together...whether it was his endlesly funny entertaining stories to his funny antics (lighting the newspaper on fire at the kitchen table or throwing the spaghetti at the wall) to his adverting agency creativity writing and presenting skills to make products sing to his endless gregarious nature tohis talent fpor making all feel comfortable at family functions to standing up for me as best man at my first wedding to...I aint shitting you I could go on and on...It just blows me away how much he meant to me and others..He took me in years ago and treated me as a 4th son...The 2nd day I was in NYC and he helped comfort me from my robbery in Riverside park across from 404 by just telling me it would be ok...he just had this way...the George Soterriffic way, that let you know..you are welcome here...break bread, drink, eat...it will all be good..endless enthusiasm, possitivity and creative wackiness...not to mention shear brilliance and book smarts...movies he knew actors he remembered---and his eye...
Artistic eye...unreal talent for decorating and collecting beautiful artifacts and plants..boy, I know, I watered those plants,20it took a good hour to get them all,.....what a guy,an uncle, adad,..a freind......I'm sooo, soo sad..but very glad that you've chosen to celebrate his life in a party and not in a wake or a funeral...I don't think that was George...The way he would want us to remember him...He simply was the most possitive kind man I ever met...I'm so sorry to see him go. George Soteriffic! One Stylish guy! Fella! Right Effie? What a good,boy...fella...I'm sorry....really. If I can come over and share stories with you it would be great...Let me know what's a good time...good night...He's in a better place, I'm sure---Here's a Scotch on the rocks to George!! my favorite...everyones fave..I love you all....sorry...didn't mean to blather on...
Words...What are words when describing a man and his life? Do words make a man? or are they worth any more than the paper they are written on? Words, in the hands of the right man, The Write Man,George Soter,made all the difference. George's words spoke to you. Georges acrtions spoke even louder.He was a man of all means.Words and actions. Words cannot describe this man we all know as Yorgos Soteropolis. The saint George of Dragon slayers..,..Indeed Georges words were mightier than the sword. His actions spoke volumes on how to live our lives to the fullest extent. George not only imagined a better world he set out in his actions to help change it. He was a man ahead of the bell curve,a man who was the bell curve..he set the example on how we live life to the fullest.
Don't ever feel sorry for Georges dying.He celebrated Zoe,..the word Life,in Greek..He embodied it. He embraced it. He lead the way. The center,The Nucleus,the One who was inclussive to all around him. His genorosity extended to all he met. He exuded possitive energy to all. George was my Uncle, not to claim, but to learn from. He was for all. An equal opportunity friend,pal, feelos,guy...Uncle...My uncle..My Theos Yorgos...unofficial title...but literal title...He was known as George to all..He was bigger than life.to me he was So Terriffic...Soteriffic! ll There will never be another like him. We were all very fortunate to has been surrounded by Georges inspiration,kindness, knowledge of all things,laffter, humour..We are all a part of him. George goes on and on even in his name, Geor...ge orgeorgeorge...never ending infinite name...never really leaves us..George is cosmic,,..in the Cosmos! He spreadshis genorosity to the universe.His words live on in us all. Atoast to my super uncle,slayer of life!Right on,Write on,George!!He was a man beyond words..in other words..."Out Of This world!"..I am inspired by George everyday as a rare example of how to live life...A role model..mentor, hero..I love you all...Live it the way George did...A Party every day! love Tom Hart,first cousin,Effies side,Billys son,Billy brother to Effie.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
Your father was a wonderful man, and it was my pleasure to know him.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
Your father was such a bright, positive person who always lit up the room – I honestly can't remember seeing him when he didn't have a smile on his face. I feel lucky to have basked a little bit in his sunny presence over the years.
He was one man I wish I knew young. Photos of him standing next to Effie on the streets of New York as a successful and brilliant ad man always intensified that wish. I looked forward to the times that he visited San Francisco so that I could drink scotch with him. I was lucky enough to share a few over the years along with some stories. Once you brought him to my parents house in Redwood City with the swimming pool and the view of the peninsula. He was delighted with such a place to entertain family. He requested coffee and my father who was no connoisseur produced a cup of hot water and Sanka. I remember his reaction and I recoiled with shame. I am sure he died peacefully, a man of the world and proud to have had three beautiful sons. Sad to see him go.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
I'm on a train to Edinburgh after a night flight to London - your dad has been much on my mind these past days, and I regret so much not being there to celebrate his life with others who loved him. So I wrote a poem to him, and I hope you don't mind my sharing it with you.
"On Hearing of the Death of George"
No, I thought, that's not right - death's not for you
for others, perhaps - casualties of war or famine, disease or accident
murder victims, the old, the newspaper headlines blaring up at us from sidewalk kiosks
the other day a worker was crushed by a crane
I tried to imagine his family, getting the news
of the singular and bizarre accident
no comfort there
I tried to imagine you
there, and then not there
but I couldn't make it stick
denial they say is the first step
you wind through the dark maze of your emotions, until you're finally ready to greet acceptance
like an old friend
oh, to hell with acceptance
death just isn't for you, and there's an end to it
I had gone through others - friends, family, dearly beloved all - my father's own death, for one
and yet, here my first thought was:
no, not for you
death seems to be for some people - sad, yes, but a natural passing
but not for you
you were not young, or well, but some people just aren't the dying kind
you turned the eating of chicken soup into a ritual, adding the lemon just so
your pleasure in showing us this trick was pure, like a child's joy on seeing a new red bicycle
if anything, the years had increased your capacity for delight
I imagine death sniffing around you as you stroll up Broadway,
hoping to deposit his evil stink,
then, discouraged, slinking away,his tail between his legs
realizing that you just weren't his type
the thought made me smile
Writer, Entertainment Weekly
The last time I saw George was a month or so ago in Roosevelt Hospital. From his bed, he graciously introduced me, Tom Soter, and Tom's cousin, Anemona Hartocollis, to a nurse by saying, "They're all writers." It made me think--hardly for the first time--that my becoming a writer was in large part due to George's influence. It was he who introduced Tom and me to the delights of Edgar Rice Burroughs when we were 5th graders, setting in motion a love of telling tales and working with words that still endures. In fact, for many more years than I could have imagined, I was able to make a (rather good) living as a professional writer. For that gift I say: Thank you, George.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
I just loved seeing his face in the audience whenever I did the Jam with you. It always made me feel so good to know that, if anything in life, I had a fan in George Soter. And I loved how his requests for me on "Can You Sing This?"...as if he was challenging me with songs he wanted to see me sing. Reggae Ethel Merman! Punk Rock Barbara Streisand! He was so great. And you could just tell how smokin' proud he was of you by his beaming face and presence. I was so happy to know him, happy to be in a show with someone like him out there rooting for all of us.
Val and Hugh de Quetteville
We were so sad to hear from Carol that George had died and we send our deep sympathy to you and all the family. George was - is - memorable for a remarkable and rare combination of qualities - charm, conviviality and wit, all rooted in a very strong character, a great perception and sympathy for the feelings and chracter of others and always that marvellous glow of warmth and affection. No wonder that we, like all his friends, feel lucky to have known him and that our memories of happy times stretching over more than 40 years - George dancing in Greece, visiting in New York, long lunches in Paris and in the garden here - are as fresh and golden as ever. But, if we were to need reminding, the photographs and tributes on your website bring him most vividly to life.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
Your Dad was always a great addition to any Jam, whether we played for one or 100. I don't know if I've ever seen a greater example of a father supporting his son in my life. He was always there, and could always been counted on making a great suggestion. Making him laugh was always a pleasure of mine (one I did not get to enjoy nearly as much as I would have liked, but that says a hell of a lot more about me than it does your father.) I know that the next time I do the Jam, your Dad will be there in spirit, fueling the suggestions of all the audience members.
Robert and Ann Cromey
Nick and Dora's landlords
We met George a number of times when he and Effie visited Nick and Dora, Eva and Zoe in San Francisco. We remember is warmth, friendliness and quiet dignity. His ready smile and warm manner let us feel his interest in us.
Joan Morse Gordon
Back in 1962? we Morses and the Soters shared a ship's voyage to Greece. What fun we had.
The Soter home was always my second, if not first, home while growing up. My memories are long and full of all the senses - of meals, cards, hide & seek, Greek Island, late night meals, conversation, pudding, and on and on...
George & Effie were the most generous & forgiving people I known. Generous in so many ways, especially in making everyone feel welcome. Forgiving in so many ways, especially in making everyone feel welcome. Yes, one and same and importantly, combined with a quality of wit and humor.
Many of us landed on the doorstep, the wooden kitchen table, and rooms of 404 Riverside Drive at various times of our lives. Some of us just needing a moment, a night or days rest passing through New York or a meal. And some of us passed through, at one of those times of our lives, when one needed a safe, warm and non-judgemental place to reset the emotional and physical clock. And, yes, the food was always good as Effie was famous for her many dishes.
Bastienne and I had the fortune of having a wedding party at 404 RSD. Everyone should be lucky to begin their marriage surrounded by the ambience of the Soter living rooms with abundant green leaves, floating turtles, plates giving you the history of the world, sofas with embroidered pillows, and of course, the marble card table with long memories of sets and runs.
There is so much more, the mind wavers. As a child growing up and fortunate enough to come of age in the midst of the family of Effie & George, I simply wanted to thank them for helping us all live in ways that well....have made us all better.
I will always remember George as an Angel in my life. Thank you! I pray that you are healthy and at peace now.
I still see George sitting around my pool reading some hugely cerebral book, talking politics and trying to decide what is an appropriate cocktail time! I loved and love you - George...I will see you again!
Blessings and peace to you, George. I always remember how gracious you were.
I will always remember George laughing while eating carpusi in the Mani.
We sat on his room balcony soaking in the sun - as he so loved to do - looking out over the Mediterranean. He would share quips and details of places we could go in our daily adventures over the many days we would spend together travelling with his son Nick, and his family in a van. How he enjoyed sharing his country, culture and food with us during our visit to Greece in September of 07. George made sure that we ate, breathed and danced like Greeks. "Calimera" we would exclaim as we passed people on the street. But be sure to keep up with him. He moved quickly! We had to go back to a museum alone, my husband Carlos and I, because George moved too quickly for us. He was an amazing man who gave us a true love of his country whether sitting with his cousins on their private porch eating grapes off the home vine, eating mezedes (appetizers) and drinking shots of ouzo, or sitting in a coffee shop in some remote town. Although many times we didn’t understand a word of the conversation, we felt very much a part of everything we did. George would make sure of it! I feel so fortunate to have been able to share that time with him. He will forever be in my heart. You will be sorely missed George!
I walked into George's store one day three years ago, and was immediately struck by the elegant, learned, engaging man who greeted me and who then took me on a "tour" of the various objects in the place: jewelry, fabrics, paintings, figurines. George brought things to life — those objects were surely alive with his love of art and travel. I was so inspired that I wrote a short piece on George and the shop for Columbia magazine. George and I then became lunch buddies — he was fond of Henry's on Broadway and 105th. We talked about books, movies, articles, politics. The man really knew something about how to live — a great gift that he so selflessly, so gracefully shared. Thank you, George!
Having known George since I was six years old I must say he was a fantastic influence on me, introducing me to living large in the New York celebrity scene, living small locally by connecting to ones simpler roots and combining art and commerce into a stylistic whole. I deeply appreciate his teachings, even if perhaps he didn't know he was doing any teaching. Safe journeys and keep the style high!
Good grief, George was simply larger-than-life. He had a great laugh, and that big smile; he was so smart, so handsome, so articulate; his expressive hands would gently hold a pair of worry beads or unhook a piece of silver that was casually - but perfectly - draped over the corner of a piece of furniture, and he’d turn it over, explaining its history, it purpose. He loved that apartment – the Garden Room WAS George. He loved his work, his books, Greece, Amster Yard - he loved to throw a party. And he really, really loved his boys. It was my great good fortune to grow up with Peter, and as Philippe has already said, George & Effie made a home that was a refuge for us, a motley crew of kids. They talked to us like we mattered, they accepted who we were, and they found some thread of worthiness in us all. Gracious, loving, kind, warm – watching George helped teach me how to really live life.
Dear George epitomized what we have always called the "Soter Spirit," with that bright twinkle in his eye! Please know how very much we admired him.
Pianist, Sunday Night Improv
Back when it was warm, in the past couple of years, I took a walk up to Grant's tomb. Heading back, I saw your father at a bus stop, and we waited together, and conversed. The conversation went from my quest to accurately depict the McCarthy era in Such Good Friends to inaccuracies he 'd identified in the early-'60s-set series Mad Men. It struck me then, and it strikes me now, upon learning he's no longer with us, your father was a treasure-trove, a witness to a fascinating era in America, who remembered details, the fine points that make up the ethos of the time. It wasn't the only time we rode that bus together. There were other reminiscence-filled conversations while careening down Riverside. I don't think you're aware how much I learned from him, how much I enjoyed him, how much I'll miss him.
You, Tom, made me aware that, for a span of time,, I was his favorite pianist. Putting these thoughts together, it was an honor and a thrill for me to be appreciated by a fellow who'd lived through so many of the years my music attempts to depict. Since he recalled the niceties so fully, it meant that the little things I do – choice of chords, how they're voiced, etc. – that nobody else notices, he noticed. There's something hollow about sending sounds out into a house where the audience is deaf to certain intricacies. Of course, there are so many of us who'll miss him for so many reasons, but I wanted you to know ways your father is missed that are peculiar to me.
Author, Children's Letters to God
Though I'd had word from Peter of George's impending death, it was nevertheless shocking to hear of its arrival. For George, as everyone whose path he crossed is well aware, gave off the dazzling essence of life in everything he did or said or thought or imagined. In a word, a look, a flick of his cigarette ashes. Greek Island, of course, was drenched in his soul, his Eden. Naomi and I still cherish items from there, particularly an ancient, lopsided Greek coin framed in gold on a chain that never fails to elicit oh's and ah's from whoever sees it, a perfect cue for us to describe the place in Amster Yard. All of the family apartments, too, bespoke George's artistic bent - a decorator in mufti. I was always amazed at his incredible artistic sense as a young army fellow in Europe, evidenced by his purchase of a drawing by Paul Klee; it's impossible among the many people I know, to name another so sensitive to glorious artifacts.
George was singular as well in the duality of his attitude toward his writing; on the one hand, he was a marvelous stylist - his words on paper exuded wit and intelligence and joy in living; one fully expected him to produce not merely exquisite advertising, but novels and essays for the New Yorker as well. Yet it seems that the written word came so easily to him, he valued his talent less than did others. (I fancy myself a writer, being extensively published, but have never considered that I could even hold George's pencil in comparison.
It's arguable that being a merchant, czar of his own bazaar, was his true love aside from Effie and his sons. The buying trips to Greece, stiocking the store, charming customers - that was his theatre. Ask Joe LaRosa to tell you about the time George bemoaned the fact that Joe's thick-soled shoes were gauche, and so took him shoe shopping to improve his footwear image; it's hilarious. One of George's gifts to me was introducing me to Joe. Another, of course, was his informal seminars on everything Greek. Aristotle couldn't have been prouder of his heritage. I love Greek Easter with the egg in the bread. Did he take you to Jimmy's Greek - the restaurant at the foot of Manhattan, where you entered through the kitchen, and on the way past the stove, pointed to the foods you wanted for lunch? Confession: I'd never heard of feta til George, nor taramasalat or floyera or a host of other dishes that are now a staple of my George diet.
At George's 80th birthday party on the roof I related the tale of the stolen spoon at the last World's Fair in which George was my interlocutor to the offended staff of the Spanish pavilion from whom I attempted to purloin the item. We laughed about that for years after. He was surely a fabulous father to have had, lucky you! He was for me a great colleague, charming friend, wise advisor. He had class. And oh, he was fun! My thoughts are with all of you, and I offer thanks that he touched my life and enriched it with his own.
I learned about George passing away peacefully and smiling to the very end. He was one of the most generous people I have known, spreading happiness around him, what in the old times people called a blessed man. You've been lucky to have had George for a father and also Anemona as cousin and neighbor to offer shelter and warmth in the last months of his life. We had dinner with George, Peter and Amelia at the Barbanell's house in February last year, and had a great time together. George was making sure everyone was enjoying the evening. A happy souvenir.
Amelia Linden Soter
George never suffered fools, but if he liked you he was your biggest advocate. Every Sunday night he would trek the long flight of stairs to Tom's show. Every event we had at our store, he was there-rain or snow-even if he was the only one. He would encourage all of his friends to go as well and support anyone he thought worthy. A man of many talents. A Metro sexual or Renaissance Man with unparalleled visual style and panache. Thank you George for accepting me into your family with such open arms. Thank you for loving your children and grandchildren such. You will be missed.
Mi querido George, padre de un hijo del cual soy orgulloso de ser cuñado - Nick. Gracias por comparir su vida, su familia y su pais conmigo y con mi familia. Descanse en paz!
Author, Somebody: The Reckless Life and Remarkable Career of Marlon Brando
Well, I knew George when he was young--not very young, but a young father with a fine career, a great apartment, a beautiful wife and children. My daughter Lili was Peter's first girl friend, and she still remembers the lyrical days in the sandboxes of Riverside Park, when Effie and her cronies watched the kids at play, and when there were parties at the Soter apartment with a thousand things to admire on the walls and in the conversation. I remember that in the hall was a bookshelf with the works of Proust, a great chronicler of society. If George had been so inclined, he would have been a novelist de nos jours, because no one had a keener eye, or a more tolerant nature. I am blessed for having known him, and am delighted to see his intellectual tradition carried on in the bookstore of which he was so proud. Ave Atque Vale
Pammie Congdon Walker
I was a lucky girl to be loved by Peter and his family. As my friends have noted, the Soter House was welcoming and wonderful to all us kids who were close with the Soter Brothers. Wow, I have so many amazing memories of such special and meaningful moments of my youth spent at 404 RSD. I was embraced by Effie and George. And I embraced them back--they were easy to love. I felt especially close to Effie. She was so kind and loving to me in her quiet but distinct way. I loved and looked forward to helping her clear and clean up in the kitchen after a magnificent feast--be it around the kitchen table or in the most beautiful dining room in the city. To this day, i consider her a genuine and major influence on me. Her dark beauty, her particular style, and her strong character were more than worthy of my utmost admiration. And I remember noticing how much George loved her. You could see it and feel it. Even as a teenager, i was struck by their relationship. George adored his wife and his sons, and he was warm and loving to all who shared this love. George and my dad, who were friendly and i think admired each other, passed away within a couple of weeks time. They were both charismatic, creative intellectual men who appreciated "outside-the-box" thoughts and ways. I know my dad would send his love and prayers to the Soter Family, as do I, my mom (Connie) and sister (Lizzie). Our family loved your family. With Peace, Love, and Beautiful Memories...
Member, Alzheimers Support Group
I wish to extend my sincere sympathy to the Soter family. George was a great source of comfort and will be much missed by our support group. His glowing smile will always remain in my heart with much love.
I have know George for almost 45 years and have stayed many times at 404 RSD. My earliest memory is when my brother Doniphan and I stayed there during the NYC black out of 1965. For us it was all just great fun. I must have eaten a half dozen servings of Effie's great rice pudding over those few days.
What was really most remarkable about George was his unbridled enthusiasm about so many things. He always had something new and interesting to show me, be it a book, a flexible vase with slots for 12 flowers, an article by his niece, or even just an interesting anecdote. His enthusiasm never stopped even when he was quite ill. Just a couple of weeks ago I watching him sing "I get no kick from Champagne" in a duet with Tommy while barely able to move in his bed. His enthusiasm for life was tremendous.
Whenever I used the kids bathroom at the Soter house at 404 I was always intrigued by the small framed poster above the toilet. It featured a couple being born and happily going through the 10 decades of their life together while visually aging in the process until they were stooped over with canes. Now I see that as George and Effie, passing through so many decades together. I can't believe the story is finally over. now it is our turn to lead the parade.
404 Riverside Drive
Death Notice at George's Long-Time Home
GEORGE SOTER 1924 – 2009
We mourn the death of our good friend who lived at 404 from 1966 to 2003 with his wife, Effie, and three sons, Nick, Peter and Tom. George was a devoted citizen of 404, whose green thumb kept our tree gardens flourishing for many years. His other accomplishments were many and may be found at www.tomsoter.com
Theodore and Iro Theodoridis
In our lives we had many friends, some – a few – left a deep imprint with their generosity, their wit, their "joie de vivre." George was one of these. He made us love New York, his friends, his family. We thank him & love him all the more.
I remember the times when I was a guest at their wonderful apartment, with your mother and father being such gracious hosts. Your father was such a warm-hearted, lovable man, interesting, with a twinkle in his eye. The last time I saw him in his "bazaar" I knew he was already ill, but it didn't show – we had a good talk. It isnow my and his generation's time to go – I am losing friends all the time. Well, that's how it is...
Meg Sweeney Lawless
Improvisor, Sunday Night Improv
I was sad to learn your father had died; it was sad news, even if expected. He is missed. I will miss having him in the audience at the improv jam and running into him at readings. The world is a little less smart and a little less funny; the rest of us will have to step up our game now.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
His bright imagination and support will be missed.
Art director, Habitat
I wanted to let you know how important George was to me. I feel privileged to have spent such quality time with him. I was so fortunate to see his vision of the creative process and apply that passion to life itself. He's such a wonderful man.
Improviser, Chicago City Limits
He was a terrific guy.
Many thanks for your mail who make me very sad and at the same time peaceful to know than I left with all of you around and drinking champagne. I not seeing you often from many years but I was really happy to spend some time with George the last time I went to NY. And I always have in my mind like I tell Him at this time my life at River side drive who was for me warm nice and a lot of help in a pretty hard moment of my youth. I never will forget... I am with you with all my heart and with Effie ... Sorry for my English still bad.
Improviser, Sunday Night Improv
Although I did not know your father well, I was deeply saddened to learn of his passing. He seemed to me to possess some kind of magical spark. I will always remember his gentle nature and that jolly, uplifting glint in his eye that always made me smile.
We became acquainted at the Alzheimer's Group and, tho' it was only for a few years, he came across as a special man with a great love for his family. I knew he will be greatly missed by all who knew him.
I was 17 when I met Georgie in his shop, Greek Island. He had a twinkle in his eye when I asked him where was that cute guy that worked here, " Oh, you mean my son, Nick." I spent many nights at the Soters, eating fabulous Effie meals while George kept us all in hysterics. Especially Tommy. Sometimes listening to Tom Lehrer and sometimes just the banter between George and the ubiquitous interesting guest. We would later raid the fridge for the ever-present munchie quenching, Effie Rice Pudding. When I needed a place to live, the Soters always opened their home to me without question. When I was hungry for some good food and great conversation, I could always find it at 404. As Phillippe says, the Soters were so generous and so gracious.George always kept me guessing. His mind could turn some dull statement I would make into a funny line. His ads were always so provocative and made you think and say, "Wow, how did he come up with that?"Two weeks ago Pammie Congdon said, "Tell George that the last time I saw him was in a Speedo at the beach!" That was three years ago. Pretty happening dude wearing a Speedo in his 80's. He had, what they call, panache. Georgie-we all adore you and will never forget you. You were one of the best.. I love you...
Carmen, Michael, and Adam Davis
May His peace be with you and your whole family at this time . Thank you for letting us know him even if it was short He was a gift:} God Bless
"why do we celebrate a birth and mourn a funeral? because we are not the ones involved" -mark twain
this quote has rang clear in my heart for so many years. to be comfortable with death. to understand it. and what is life but a great preparation for death? i have been close with the soter family my entire life. from day one literally, i cant remember a time that i was not treated as one of their own. growing up as one of the kids and grandkids running around i remember feeling visually humbled everytime i set foot in 404 rsd. there was so much to look at and to think about. so many colors. and one distinct winter day i recall sitting on the window seat (also the heater) and staring out into the jersey shore feeling like a i was a part of a george suerat painting. and george, laughing from the nearby room, reading something hilarious. and it felt at once calming and familiar....
i was in mali with eva in the middle of the sahara desert when we got the news. we travelled 1000 kilometers by land to reach timbuktu and then we went even farther than that. into the desert of the unknown. our faceless feelings against the slow sand of time. of course i knew he was sick but i was still surprised to find out. with the mark twain quote always in my heart i shed not tears for george, but tears in understanding that death is a little more cozy now.....george. i will remember you always. you are a neverending depth of soul. a reclamation of laughter and a humble father. thank you so i ask you.... anyone can die, who will truly live?
George Soter was unfailingly courteous and polite, yet bracingly direct. It was really a noble quality, when you get down to it. I rarely saw him angry, and that is because I was a friend, an acquaintance, a guest. The one time I remember him getting mad was when my friends and I, teenagers at the time, playing around in his capacious livingroom so beautifully decked with art, broke a sculpture valued in the tens of thousands of dollars. A flash of real anger, and we quickly cleared out. It was over quickly, the storm passed, and the sun of George came out again. A great and gracious host, a man who gave 100% when it came to conviviality, the love of discourse, good food and good companions. I always noticed the plaque in the living room, which said something like "simple pleasures are the last refuge of the complex." Those pleasures were abundant at the Soter house. I will remember them and they continue to warm my own life.
Joan and Tom Geismar
It was a shock to learn, belatedly to be sure, that George had died. The world is now a sadder place. Certainly, we are sadder. We know few, if any, who could match his warmth, charm, creativity, and ebullience, nor are there many as dear. He is missed, but he has left us all with lovely memories. Our hearts go out to Nick, Tom, and Peter and their families, but what a wonderful legacy they have.
To say that we will miss your Dad is, of course, trivial in light of the rewarding gifts he passed along to whomever was lucky enough to know him. I am so glad that I had some time with George on my last trip to NYC in November. We will carry a treasure of memories reflecting his wisdom, insight, inspiration, humor and good fun. These last; his spirit does not depart. Thoughts and memories of George, and of all the family, and of my NYC days, have been much on my mind. We miss him so, yet every memory is a celebration of the amazing soul and spirit that forever he is.
Improvisor, Sunday Night Improv
I was so sorry to hear about the passing of your father. Of course you know he held a special place in my heart because of his freedom with encouragement. It is always good to hear that someone enjoys what you do and that it came from someone as genuinely as it did your dad, was always appreciated. I will think of him every time I do the movie reviewer game.
Reaching back and thinking about George, I never see him in my mind's eye as a solitary figure. There are always people around, but by far the strongest image I have is of your family, the five of you together, growing up, and those extraordinarily strong bonds of family that you all share. Looking at Facebook, I came to your site, Tom, and dove right in. Those pictures and stories grabbed me in a very profound way. I was of course doing this at work (doesn't everyone?) and before I knew it an hour had gone by. It was the best hour of my day, all those memories of George and growing up, the park, baseball, all of it. Your father was an extraordinary man, full of energy, very clever, a great wit, and fun. I will always remember him with a smile on his facce, surrounded by his friends and family.
George Soter was kind, generous and a lot of fun to be around. He took special interest in his sons' friends - something that I didn't understand until I had children of my own. He lived life large, had incredible energy and created, with his wife Effie a real home that made the neighborhood and growing up in NYC really special. He was totally supportive of my friendship with his youngest son Peter, un-phased by our ongoing shenanigans. I will never forget how he and Effie provided so much positive support for me, a kid that was kind of lost and looking for direction. 404 was the center of the universe. Their couch was more comfortable than a bed to me and I don’t think my experience was unique. It doesn’t get much better than driving around Greece in a min-van with the whole Soter clan - something I got to experience because they invited me there one summer - probably one of the nicest things ever done for me by anyone. As an adventure, I have not been able to improve on it to this day. Nick, Tom and Peter had more influence on me than probably anyone else I have ever known - each in different ways - and it was easy to see where it came from. I am sad I didn't get to spend more time with the Soters having left NYC a long time ago but am comforted by stories of George and his dedication to the regular activities of his sons. It was a wonder to see the post-404 apartment on Riverside Dr. the last time I briefly came to NY, and how George had recreated 404 on a smaller scale - and he even had a little room that he offered for me to stay in (like he used to back at 404). He handed me one of his signature Amstel Light beers and we went through some photos he had when I was still around the neighborhood. He asked about my Dad who he called my "adolescent father" (he still is) and we had a good laugh at that. I’m thankful for having one last time of Soter magic with Peter and George. I hold a lifetime of great memories thanks to George, Effie, Nick, Tom, Peter and the extended Soter family.
We feel enormous sympathy for Nick, Tommy, Peter and all the grandchildren and their mothers. George was such a wonderful father and grandfather to them, but also he meant a great deal to so many other people, and we certainly feel we have lost a much-loved family member. The Soter apartment was always Family Central. Here are some thoughts and memories:
Age. To say that George was like a favorite uncle would suggest that he was of an older generation. We never felt this, and I don’t think he did either. Of course he had seen more movies, read more books and certainly read more pages of the New York Times; he had lived in different places, spent time in different countries, raised a family, done lots of interesting work, and lived a full life. But he didn’t act to us like a parent or a teacher. He was a contemporary, indignant about Bush, optimistic about Obama, up to the minute with the new movies. So he was a friend, just a friend whose age and experience had stocked his mind with plenty of interesting material, much of it thoughtful, and much of it funny. Still, when you get into your eighties, you are liable to be the oldest person in the room; or the oldest person on the roof if it’s you birthday party. When he moved into 468 Riverside Drive, with a help from Judy (J.J.) in the real estate search, he said he had a five-year lease. I asked him what would happen after five years. He replied cheerfully, “Oh, I’ll be dead by then.” Well, he didn’t get that quite right, but close. He said he would go with no regrets, feeling he had lived a fine life, raised a wonderful family with a beloved wife, enjoyed many friendships, had great experiences, and in general had been a happy person. Anyway, favorite uncle, favorite brother, favorite friend and more, he was part of our lives for well over three decades. We will miss him enormously.
The Apartments. When the family helped him move from 468 to the apartment in Anemona’s house on 141st Street, he was very eager that J.J. and I should come and see the place. Well, it was what the British would call a “lower ground floor flat”: no spacious lobby, of course no doorman, no view over the trees to the Hudson River and the sunset; it was down stone steps towards barred windows, thorns grabbing at winter hats, and through two locked doors. But you could see why George was proud – it had become his own. There were the paintings, the books, all sorts of personal items on walls and surfaces, and there must have been a hundred small photographs on a wall next to the kitchen. Family and friends and their histories were all there. In many ways the apartment, like the others, was a history of George, his life, his memories; it was his art gallery, his library, a great big scrapbook, a 3-D autobiography.
Of course, the Riverside Drive apartments were amazing, great places for lively parties or family dinners, and for card games that never seemed to have a moment of silence. Maybe the interim apartment at 404 was too small for parties, but it was all Soter. As Dora said, it was as though the big apartment had been miniaturized but was still somehow the same place. 468 Riverside Drive was physically more like the big family apartment at 404, with all those windows facing west, but without the back bedrooms used by the boys and their friends when they were younger. I have photographs of 468 because there was possible interest from a magazine and a newspaper, but for the other places we only have mental images, mental pictures of a distinct style of interior design that no professional could duplicate. Parts of 404 were recorded in a magazine spread celebrating an exuberant Greek Easter party, as well as being the backgrounds for many of the shots in the Greek Islands store catalogues. Tony Ynocencio took the photographs. Rosemary, J.J. and Maggie had starring roles in the annual catalogues, cheerfully and elegantly posing in the store’s clothes, sometimes along with the Soter boys, who were also cheerful, though perhaps not quite as elegant. And there was a surprising moment of instant recognition when the movie You’ve Got Mail had a scene in a room that was supposed to be in the home of the character played by Jean Stapleton. Nice to think how many people have had this glimpse of the Soter style, and will continue to see that scene as the films of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan live on at Blockbuster, Netflix , HBO etc. etc.
Books. So George never wrote a book. Like Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, he mastered the words and the rhythms of another language, and he used them beautifully and wittily in ad copy, in letters, later in e-mails, and of course in conversation. Perhaps he lived too much in the moment to commit himself to spending the time needed for writing a whole book. However, he briefly considered a book on Chelsea, a guide, a history, an appreciation. He and I spent a Sunday morning criss crossing the streets taking reference photographs. He had become interested in the area when Peter had the Verso Bookstore there. But the idea was dropped when the bookstore closed, perhaps killed by the big Barnes & Noble that opened on 6th.Ave. and 21st.St., a store that itself closed last year.
When I showed George an early version of Dudley, my children’s book about our Jack Russell Terrier, he immediately embraced it and started doing bold layout proposals and writing text suggestions. I ended up using some of his words: “He was smaller than your sneakers, yes YOUR sneakers” and “Other dogs looked down on him, and big other dogs REALLY looked down on him.” Contributions acknowledged with thanks at the end of the book. Perhaps George could have found the time for doing children’s books, maybe lots of children’s books. Or something episodic like Gerald Durrell’s Corfu books, My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. Or maybe George could have written something like the books of David Sedaris, who was also from of a Greek family. Of course Tommy wrote books, and I have a dim memory of Nick writing poetry when he was at Bard. And Peter has been surrounded by books all his professional life. His Morningside Bookstore communicated with friends and customers via George’s splendid monthly Booknotes, which managed to be friendly, informative, entertaining and scholarly all at the same time – pretty much like their author.
Stories. I think George would have been happy to be described as a “raconteur.” The word is more adult than “story-teller,” more urbane. But he didn’t tell stories because he wanted the limelight, wanted to be the center of attention. If they were funny or interesting, and they always were, he wanted to share them with others, wanted people to enjoy them. The stories were part of conversation, connecting with friends. The anecdotes will not die, but no one else will tell them so well, with so much relish.
Random Memories. There was a fish tank at 404, and for a while it was home to an ugly but fascinating turtle. He or she looked like something out of a science fiction horror movie, and it had a scrawny neck that telescoped in and out. Little fishes that swam within range were liable to be snatched and swallowed. Fascinating... We admired the many leafy plants that basked in the great western daylight that flooded into the apartments from New Jersey and beyond. J.J. once asked him how he maintained them in such good condition. “Simple,” George said, “when a plant doesn't look good any more, I just replace it.”... Although the Amster Yard location for the Greek Island store was the one we remember, there was a brief period when the store was located in a smaller space on Eat 60th Street, just a few doors from Serendipity between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Classy little place, but not the same atmosphere. We remember a fine party at the Yard, but don’t remember the occasion. Perhaps it was Marc Pompuzac’s birthday? I keep finding myself calling the place Amstel Yard, like the Dutch beer. Not very Greek, but at least European.
When George and Effie came for a weekend in Woodstock, George threw tennis balls out on the lawn for eager little Dudley to retrieve. In the middle of the night George got up to use the bathroom, and the next day he told us that before he had finished, Dudley had seen him, found a ball, and was hopefully inviting a game by nosing the ball up against his ankles... George liked the bus. I guess the subway was not part of New York City life that suited him. And his preference for the bus came long before his age would have made subway stairs difficult. He could sit on the bus, look at Riverside Park and the city streets, read the paper, take his time. More civilized. Take a taxi if time was short... And there he was with Effie every Sunday evening at Tommy’s improv comedy shows. And this wasn’t just to support his son and the other performers. He was having a good time, always part of the evening, throwing out imaginative suggestions when the audience was invited to participate, offering mischievous movie titles and song themes, then enjoying the often delightful scenes he set in motion, appreciating the quick and crazy wit of the men and women on the stage.
As we know, when Effie was fully into her tragic illness, she would sometimes repeat the same things annoyingly. George confessed that once in a while he would get exasperated and snap at her. Immediately he would feel terribly guilty, and then a moment later feel relieved to realize that the incident was already forgotten... Though in chemo therapy and probably in pain, George attended my surprise birthday party last year. He was happily chatting with the attractive teenage Yale student sitting next to him. No apparent generation difference, and she happened to be partly Greek and was studying the language. Also George told a couple of entertaining stories to the entire room... When our son James, home for Christmas and New Year, came with us to visit George in the last couple of weeks of his life, James was struck by the way the familiar personality was living in this very different body. James, for the first time in his life, was literally seeing a man on his deathbed. George looked up and immediately urged him not to look so serious and solemn – “lighten up, James.”
Judy, a.k.a. “J.J.” My wife had already entered the Soter orbit before she met me; she has known the family longer than she has known me. Introduced to them via Rosemary Howard via Leo Kelmenson, she was a willing recruit to model for the annual Greek Island catalogues. We still have some of these, and they project the relaxed but handsome character of the store. The two young models once took a vacation in Greece, and spent plenty of time in the company of the Soters, who were also there that summer. The girls had some vague notion of meeting charismatic jet-setting Greek ship-owners, but instead were happy to visit with the Soters, and compete for the attention of the good-looking Nick Soter, even though he was only 15. George is no longer here to tell the saga of the stolen Athens hotel ash trays, but most of you have heard the story. Since J.J. had no family within 2,000 miles, the Soters became her New York family. A good choice.
Are there any words to describe uncle George (barba Giorgo)? Are there any words to describe a life 'full of life'? Are there any words to describe the feelings for him and from him? Are there any words to say good-bye or wellcome him to a new life? No, such words do not exist. However, the memories, the feelings, his 'life', his example, his smile, everything related to uncle George is ALIVE - inside us - for ever. Although we were not his 'blood' relatives we share the same 'blood', the same 'heart', the same feelings. We always felt that we are one 'family', HIS FAMILY.
When I fisrt came to New York, a limousine was waiting for me at the airport because you wanted me to feel special - you took me to so different places and restaurants to show me the New York various faces. You also had lobster, specially prepared for me, during this first Christmas in NY. I have a small secret to confess - I hate lobster!! but you were so kind that I never had the opportunity to tell you!! Thanks George but I did not need the limousine, the lobster or the restaurants - the only thing I needed and I usually had it 'in tons' was your SMILE, your OPTIMISM, and your LOVE to show the way - to guide me. I always remember and keep these three elements of your character in my character trying to absord your life and change my life accordingly. I am not going to say good bye as you are still here in Athens by my side, preparing a joke and arranging to eat out in a greek 'taverna'. Istead of good bye I would only like to say 'thank you; for being in my life - THANK YOU FOR BEING IN OUR LIVES.
Where do I begin? What can I say that hasn't already been said about George. There are so many wonderful memories that I will cherish.Being honored when asked to christen Peter....being part of Greek Island Lmt. ( as a branch) on Cape Cod......My first trip to Greece with george as our guide along with his charm, his wit, his love, and an energy that was so exhilirating. In 10 days we covered so much ground..Ruins, museums, relatives, mykonos, meeting Vienoula, santorini,crete... I think I slept for a week on our return home before the opening of Greek Island on the Cape...George leaves a big void in my life, but, too strong a force to ever forget. I have such an urge to call him right now.
"Some people come into our lives and quietly go..
Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never the same"
Georges' memory will be everlasting.
Your father was an inspiration to us all. He had immense charm and charisma that carried over to us all. Poetic license would be carried away of some lost soul and sandman, but your father seemed to know where the empathy led. Sometimes, we cry over some lost milk or some wonderful poetry. I cried again for the beauty of his soul. His soul is now lost. Where do we go from here? We can't go anywhere, really, without the love he gave us. And when we do find love, we will find it again with the who man cried for us, the love of George Soter.
I was saddened to hear of your father's death. I have the fondest memories of him from my younger days – indefatiggable good cheer, incisive humor, radiant hospitality, enlightening conversation...the list goes on and on! (Not coincidentally, one of my closest friends here in DC is a Greek-American with remarkably similar qualities.)
Good bye Georgie, I miss you already. People like you should never die. I'll be seeing you.
I had the great fortune of meeting your father on several occasions, the first time for professional reasons and after that in more personal settings. Each time I appreciated his culture, warmth, humor and interest in others.
George may well turn out to have been my last "new friend." Having a lifetime of others to judge him by, I can paraphrase one of his favorite lyrics and say "He was the tops."
I have just learned of your Dad's passing, and I am very, very sad, indeed. It is a great loss. I will always remember your parents for their kindnesses and wonderful high spirits - I was introduced to them in 1966 by Tom Wellington, with whom I was working at the time - That summer my parents were making their first trip to Greece - to visit Athens and the Island of Skopelos, where my maternal grandfather was born and raised. You all were going to be in Athens at the same time. Your parents arranged to meet my parents there and to spent a day at the beach together - We have the old 8mm films of that day. George and Effie also introduced my parents to Costa Damascos, your Dad's uncle. My mother had inherited some property on Skopelos and we needed the help of a Greek lawyer to settle her claim; and Costa was that lawyer. We all, in my family, became such good friends with Costa - He had the same intense love of life and nature that your Dad had - it had to be in the genes! Both were great story tellers and interesting companions.
Over the years, we were guests at your home on Riverside Drive and you came to visit my parents on Long Island - For years, one of my great pleasures was to visit Greek Island, Ltd. on East 49th Street - what a beautiful place that was! - You all have been dealing with the great health problems of your parents this past year and more - This has not been easy - You have done well! - I know that your parents have always been so proud of you and of your family unit - Justifiably so - Soters! I always shall remember your Dad's bright smiling face.
Alta Ann Parkins
George at Last
Attempts at writing down thoughts after calling George’s apartment and talking with Dora on 9 January 2008—
On 17 February 2009 I started again. If I do not send this now, I’ll always be wondering why I have it instead of you.
then and still, a wonderful approving presence, relaxed precision
Profusion, Order in Profusion, Literary, Literate poems within the beauty, lavish lush kind of excess that could never be too much unless…endless. He was the catalogue and history of all those things…george meeting his grandfather…[he talked about it when I last visited and didn’t find a way to get the sound of my voice into his hearing; I carried various things in from the other room and he told me stories about them.] The profusion was inclusive [in the homes and in the parties] …of course the parties, more profusion – joy of friends. His complete pleasure in family, his making art and life back and forth out of the people and the artifacts all out of each other till the last moment. The kaleidoscope of the shops parties apartments rooms your “ordinary” homes. His parenting – the rich extent of his life. Of course I am crying [because of the word parenting] but the sense of George’s full expanse, full reach, rich offerings just continue to create joy and having the great 2008 New Year photos of all of you is a blessing.
Nick, Dora, Eva & Zoe; Tom; and Peter, Amelia, Xanthe & Helena and Anemona—
Thinking about George makes me smile, his approving spirit puts me in a good mood. Appreciation was a wide ranging art of his and just being aware of a few of his interests could have been an entire education. In all that dazzling profusion, in the apartments, the shops, th e display held everything I had ever wanted to look at or study or buy in Greece, and even though no inch was empty there was never confusion. The treasures were placed under exact, nearly-invisible rules of order so that it was easy to be comfortable in all that richness. And of course those artifacts are part of a background set that holds other profusions of books and words and story telling and dancing and music, photographs, architecture, history, travel, movies, card games and gatherings of all sorts with family and friends, your heritage— FAMILY.
When I called to try to arrange with George a time when I could at last get up to see his new apartment and found Eva answering the phone, I was calmed, even cheered by her way of telling me that George was in the hospital; she seemed to know I was floundering with that20information alone, that I needed to know more but was still hunting around for what to say next, when she said that he was not doing very well. She was so present in our brief conversation that I thought about how good she is with other people; she was direct and honest and intuitive in the very few words that we said and it seemed to me then that it was an attitude that could have started with George but after the last visits to the last beautiful apartment, I could realize that it is an attitude intensely present on each side of her immediate family.
I met George and Effie at Greek Island in 1963 just after my first visit to Greece and after having a reaction to it [Greece] bearing some relation to the one George describes in the memoir. For me it was like going back in time to visiting the relatives in the towns and smaller towns of northern Illinois.
You were/are all very moving in your love and care-giving even though I understand that you were doing what you wanted to do, there was something about it so unified and cheering and of course well deserved, or you couldn’t have done it as you did, that it is another memory that makes me smile. You are/were creating, and made by, George’s life well lived. I can’t think of a better one.
17 February, 2009
Dear Nick, Dora, Eva & Zoe;
Peter, Amelia, Xanthe & Helena;
All my attempts to write something down about George since early January got into a stilted, effortful mode. Maybe if I start again and say that from the moment a friend took me to a party at Greek Island, I think it was in 1963 after my first trip to Greece, I was doubly hooked. There it was in New York, a place that somehow managed to concentrate and communicate all the qualities of Greece that I had fallen in love with. And when I read in the January booknotes, George talking about the 1937 (USA) time warp I remembered that in 1963 I thought—this is like visiting the relatives in small Illinois towns north-west of Aurora when I was a child.
Greece gave a quintessential welcome. And there it was again at Greek Island Ltd. and there it was again when, shortly after I married Allan in 1974 and George and Effie had come here to dinner on a blistering summer evening, they first invited us into to your home.
Feeling welcomed comes back whenever I think about George and all of you—some of you were born welcoming! And I have the same pleasure remembering the feeling that pervaded George’s apartment at Anemona’s this December and January. Byzantine eikones icons could be painted about George and all of you in that loving exchange. It seemed exactly right. Thanks for letting us all be there, too. I can’t think of any kind of remembrance for George better than giving a small contribution toward something you love, which was his priority. Love and sympathy on this day of celebration
23 April 2009
All day I was planning to write you, waiting till home was free of the sometimes cleaning housekeeper and without the handyman and the super working on the heating/air conditioning units, without having to write a schedule for the next Feldenkrais workshops, or waiting until I got home from taking a Feldenkrais class. But those things lasted all day and now it is no longer Agios Georgios, but never mind. I can still tell you that the work and thought all of you put into George's memorable party was for me the most wonderful part of the party, along with George. When I thought afterward about all the attention each of you devoted to every portion of the day--to arranging for the mounting of those gorgeous photographic interiors and Tom's "movie" of perfect timings and juxtapositions, to the menu, to a way to arrange everything so that visiting his wonderful space and last hurrah - with scrapbooks - returned us to the feeling of welcome that pervaded George and the spaces around him. You were all incredibly generous and welcoming in making room for friends at the close of George's life. And at this moment in May, reading over the last sentence I see more clearly than ever before how people get into beliefs of afterlives because when there is such a constant, emphatic, intense involvement in life, such as his, something continues on for the rest of us--a kind of relic of love and imagination and memory.
This is also for Chris who who brought another eloquent, heartfelt, indelible portrait of George to add to the one of five years ago - Nick's beautiful letter, read on the night of George's 80th birthday-celebrated, because you had all come to Allan's
memorial gathering the day before, which was for me a very touching, supportive, cheering gesture. These telling pictures of George now stand alongside the painful, loving anguished poetry of the likeness that Peter almost tore from amongst his feelings in February at the Bookshop and next to Tom's thoughtful, generous-of-time-interviews and those moving moving images put together with a timing that was perfect--that improved and was improved by the dancing. And what really brought you all emphatically into my mind this evening was that walking home and turning from Irving Place to Gramercy Park I came upon a drum and two bagpipers playing the attendees into the National Arts Club for a wedding and then in the park another wedding party was assembled for photos and something about the light and the festivity reminded me of the rooftop with bazooki music instead of bagpipes to turn twilight to night in 2004 and I wanted to rush home and send this note to you all even though there are only four names here.
Love, Alta Ann
Genie Capowski Girault
I never met a more devoted, loving and generous man.
I have so many fond memories of your parents at the improv shows. Your dad had a great sense of humor...especially since he laughed so much when I was on stage! After the shows, he would always make it a point to converse with us. What a witty and smart guy. I am sure you know how blessed you are to have terrific parents.
A collection of dazzling photos by George Soter.
WHO IS THAT GUY?
I am fascinated by pictures of people as they were and as they are.
Can that dashing young man really be my father in 1955?
And that beautiful, laughing woman is it really my mother at 35?
It's true, what my father once said, "I wake up in the morning feeling all of 25, and then I look in the mirror and say, 'Who is that guy?'"
In 1996, I embarked on a journey into my father’s past. I knew he had led an interesting life – rising from very humble beginnings in Chicago to the top of the advertising world as one of the original “Mad Men” (a term he hated), with a 20-year side-trip as a shopkeeper at a fashionable boutique – with funny stories, crazy characters, romance, tragedy, the “whole catastrophe,” as he liked to put it. (He was quoting Zorba the Greek, though in most translations from the Greek it comes out as “the full catastrophe.”) I thought that if I tape-recorded his memories in chronological order, it would give him the raw material to edit into bona fide memoirs. My father was interested, and so we began a series of taped conversations between 1996 and 1997 in which George recalled his life from the 1920s until the 1960s.
After about eight hours of recordings had been amassed, we stopped. Like many projects about which my father was enthusiastic, this one got put on the backburner as life’s responsibilities pressed in. (I later found an outline he had done in 1993 for a book about his boutique, Greek Island Ltd., along with the first and only chapter. That, too, apparently, had been put on hold.)
In 2007, when my father became sick with cancer, he began writing short memory pieces for the Booknotes newsletter that he proudly produced for my brother Peter’s Manhattan bookstore. Those brief memories – which repeated some of the recorded recollections he had shared in the 1990s – inspired me to revive our old project.
Alas, I had left it too late. I showed my father the transcripts of the previous interviews and he, typically, commented first on the typos and misspellings that littered the unedited material. Although he expressed interest, by the time we had geared up, the cancer had gotten worse and his memories had become haphazard and unreliable – and he now had little energy left to devote to recalling the past.
Luckily, my father was represented in other venues – in letters to family, friends, and colleagues, in speeches he gave at parties and other events, and in unpublished writings that he kept among his papers. I have used material from these sources to finish the story as best I can.
The collection, called The Whole Catastrophe, is available now from Amazon, still serves to offer a glimpse at one remarkable man’s journey through life. As mentioned, George often liked to quote the character Zorba, from the novel Zorba the Greek, in which Zorba replies to a query about his marital state: “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man. So I married. Wife, children, house, everything. The whole catastrophe.” I have added that exchange to the beginning of these memories because George’s life was all about the joys (and burdens) of families. But, when I think of my dad (a big movie buff), I also think of Marlene Dietrich’s famous, brief comment at the conclusion of Touch of Evil: “What does it matter what you say about people? He was some kind of man.”
THE WARTHOG RETURNS
You should also watch out for another volume, coming soon from Apar Books: The Memoirs of a Wandering Warthog. The Warthog is the creation of Tom Sinclair and he appeared in roughly two dozen stories between 1970 and 1975. A sort of combination Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage, the wart is an erudite adventurer who travels to and from Phobos (where he encounters the horrifying Giant Bees of Phobos), returns to battle poachers on earth, solves "The Mystery of the Peridot Emerald," and meets the magical and mysterious Fabulous Twins from another dimension. Sinclair, who started writing these stories when he was barely 14, is putting them out in this collection from Apar Books. It has great illustrations by E.C. "Corky" Miller, and some introductory remarks by yours truly. I highly recommend this book!
April 10, 2015
I am particularly fond of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs because they were introduced to me by my father. I remember the moment well. We were in Taylor's Bookstore on 114th Street and Broadway browsing around. It was 1966 and I was in my Daniel Boone obsessive stage -- i.e., I was only reading books and magazines about the famous frontiersman who was depicted by Fess Parker in the TV series Daniel Boone. Hoping to wean me away from Boone, he bought me the first volume in the 24-volume Tarzan of the Apes series and -- no sooner than you could say Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure -- one obsession was traded in for another. I soon was reading a Tarzan book a week and then went on to ERB's numerous other adventures. My father certainly knew his audience. Thanks, dad!
More from my Tarzan collection. I am particularly fond of the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs because my father introduced them to me. I remember the moment well. We were in Taylor's Bookstore on 114th Street and Broadway browsing around. It was 1966 and I was in my Daniel Boone obsessive stage -- i.e., I was only reading books and magazines about the famous frontiersman who was depicted by Fess Parker in the TV series Daniel Boone. Hoping to wean me away from Boone, he bought me the first volume in the 24-volume Tarzan of the Apes series and -- no sooner than you could say Edgar Rice Burroughs, Master of Adventure -- one obsession was traded in for another. I soon was reading a Tarzan book a week and then went on to ERB's numerous other adventures. My father certainly knew his audience. Thanks, dad!
It was 1955 or so, and I was working at a large Chicago agency, Needham, Louis, and Brorby, when my boss transferred me to New York where I was the chief copywriter on the most famous campaign of my career, the groundbreaking “Le Car Hot” ads for Renault.
In New York, I met a man at the office named Bill Bager, who was the copy chief. He was an old-time employee at Needham and had been transferred to New York when the office opened. Bill must have been in his fifties or sixties when I was there. He was a senior employee, but, unfortunately, he was also an alcoholic.
Bill didn’t drink during the day. In fact, he was a workaholic and was very serious to a fault. But then, at five or six o’clock, he’d go out and get sauced. He was a bachelor, so he didn’t have to go home at any particular time, and when he drank, he always liked to have someone with him.
Since I was alone in New York – my wife, Effie, and son, Nick, had not yet moved there from Chicago – he’d say to me in the morning, “How about dinner tonight?” He was my superior, so I’d say, “Okay.” His favorite place was an Italian restaurant on 53rd Street called Mercurio’s. His favorite meal was linguini with clam sauce.
I didn’t drink much – I would have a Scotch, maybe – but he would drink about three or four martinis before dinner. As a result, by the time the food came, he was inarticulate. The evening would then be very painful because there was no conversation, it was just sort of blubbery, slobbery talk about nothing.
The first three or four weeks I was in New York, I spent much of my free time looking for a place for Effie, Nicky, and me to live, and Bill Bager’s drunken dinners became a nightmare for me. After the meal, he could hardly walk, and he’d usually say, “Well, let’s go have a stinger or something someplace else.” And half the time I’d say no, but under the circumstances, I couldn’t be absolutely rude, and I would end up having another drink and taking him to his home in a taxi.
It got to the point where I dreaded seeing him in the morning. Two or three times a week he’d come in and say, “How about dinner?” He was very dependent on somebody because he was lonely. He didn’t know many people in New York. God, it was terrible.
A few years later, he had moved back to Chicago. But then, once a year, he and his twin brother would come to New York to attend the theater and go to restaurants. They would have a “New York week.” When they would arrive, he’d call and say, “Let’s have dinner with you one night.” We would alternate: one year, they’d come to our house for dinner and the following year, he’d ask me to pick out the newest, best restaurant and he would take us out. One year when he arrived in New York, Lutece had just opened and received rave reviews. It was widely considered the ultimate in New York dining.
I told Bill, and he quickly agreed, saying, “Let’s go there. You are my guests.” So I called the restaurant and, without giving it a thought, made the reservation in my name. The four of us went and we were given the menus. Now, in some very fancy restaurants at that time, only the host would be given a menu with prices on it; the rest of the party would be given menus without prices because otherwise that would be considered gauche. Of course, the host would pay. Because I had made the reservation, the maître d’ assumed I was the host, so I was given the menu with the prices. Not realizing that only I knew the costs, I made a little joke at the time that fell flat. I said, “Hey, this is a menu you have to read from right to left,” meaning you should check out the price first. They looked at me blankly.
Effie looked at the menu and she said, “Well I’ll have the so-and-so soup, and then I’ll have the such-and-such appetizer, and then I’ll have this, and I’ll have that.” She ran through the whole thing. Bill and his brother each said, in effect, “Well, that looks good. I’ll have the so and so as well.” I was looking at the prices, adding them up to myself, and it looked like $100 per person – an unusually costly dinner at the time.
But I didn’t say anything, and I eventually said to myself, “What the hell!” and, regardless of the price, ordered an equally pricey meal: soup, an appetizer, a main course, and salad – the whole thing. And then we all had dessert and coffee.
When the check came – and this was before the era of credit cards – Bill turned pale. He didn’t have enough money. He and his brother were whispering to each other anxiously, looking in their wallets and their pockets, frantically counting dollar bills.
After sitting politely – and rather awkwardly – for a few minutes, I said, “Do you need some money?” They had to borrow from me to take us to this fancy restaurant. It must have been a $400 or $500 meal for the four of us. For the 1950s, that was huge. I don’t think we ever went to a restaurant with them again.