9:52 pm, March 24, 2005
When Arthur Miller died, I noticed that his biography, Timebends, was cited a lot in the New York Times feature on his life. I ordered it from Amazon, and have just started reading it. This little excerpt about his grandfather's last act of diligent self-protection is really funny:
His death, while not quite exemplary, has always thrown a certain poetic light on his nature. In his late eighties, believing he was close to his end, he one morning summoned his little wife to his bedside and told her to bring the young rabbi. And indeed he looked to her as he had never looked in their seventy years together. As soon as she could, she brought the rabbi, apparently a new one to the 114th Street synagogue, who sat with the old man and accompanied him in prayers until he fell asleep, whereupon the rabbi left. Hours passed while my distraught greatgrandmother summoned her children to the Harlem apartment two stories up in a brownstone. The old man slept and slept. The doctor who was brought in examined him without waking him and could only confirm what everybody knew, that like everybody else, but sooner than most, he was on his way to Abraham's bosom. The doctor left, and so did the children, who all had their lives to attend to. As the sun was setting, the old man awoke. His wife asked him how he felt, and he lay there trying to understand, apparently, why his head seemed lower than it had before. He slowly turned on his side, massive fellow that he still was, felt under his pillow and felt again, sat up and lifted the pillow and the bedclothes, and finally faced his uncomprehending wife, asking, ”Who took them?“
Following custom in those roughriding years, Great-grandfather kept much of his assets in the form of diamonds, which took less space than cash and were easier to hide. He was apparently in that large minority who did not consider any financial institution a hundred percent honest or safe, along with W. C. Fields, another turn-of-the-century man who made no bones about his cold-eyed view in many a quip and script motif, as well as in his near paranoid distribution of his own money in an enormous number of banks across the country, against the inevitable day when some of them would abscond or plead a fake bankruptcy. In point of fact, just at the time Great-grandpa was reaching under his pillow for his life's savings, colorful or absurd as it may seem, Richard Whitney, head of the New York Stock Exchange and widely esteemed leader of the financial community, was quietly stealing enough to earn him a sentence in Sing Sing-he would not lack for colleagues thereonce the Great Crash had confirmed the suspicions of my greatgrandfather and Fields and exploded the illusions of the trusting majority.
Ill as he was, Great-grandpa definitely remembered stashing his whole little fortune under his pillow and now demanded to know who had been to visit him. His trembling wife reeled off the list, plus, of course, the new rabbi. Commanding her, despite her protests, to help him dress, he took his oak walking stick and, refusing her touch on his elbow, plodded up Madison Avenue from 112th to 114th and into the synagogue, where he found the rabbi seated at a table writing. He said to the rabbi that he would like to have his jewelry back. The rabbi looked up and with a blank expression repeated, ”Your jewelry?" With which the old man raised his stick and brought it down on the rabbi's neck before the poor man could dodge out of the way. Bedlam. But new life had sprung into the old man's sinews as he pursued the rabbi around the room with people trying to grab his flailing rod of righteousness. At last the rabbi faced him, both of them gasping for breath, and with hands raised he backed to the coat draped over his chair, reached into a pocket, and produced a knotted linen cloth. The old man unknotted it with his bent fingers and after a glancing count stuffed it into his own coat and walked out. He got home but barely made it back upstairs through the narrow brown-painted hallway and into his bed. The news had flown, and my mother and her father and a whole troop of heirs quickly assembled and watched as from his pillow he distributed his life among them, then sighed and closed his eyes, never to wake again.