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Memories of My Father


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.”George in the 1950s.George in the 1950s.

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.

George, 2006George, 2006For 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. George's 10-room apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.George's 10-room apartment at 404 Riverside Drive.

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.
Effie, with TomEffie, with Nick
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.”George Soter and Tom Soter, December 2008.George and Tom, December 2008.

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.

January 2009