Bittersweet Symphony

The last couple of weeks have brought a couple of painful bereavements. Though each died of cancer, their lives could not have been more different. But let me celebrate their lives in the same post.

My Aunt Rita passed away at the age of 80. Though not a blood relative, she was immediate family from the day I knew her – which was, I understand, two days after I was born. She and her husband, Alexander (my mother’s brother) were unable to have children, and so they took a particular interest in his three – just three – nephews (no nieces); their presence in my childhood and youth was constant, and constantly entertaining. Rita, like her husband Alexander, was from the Shetland Isles, and she was astoundingly good-looking; everyone knew my uncle had “scored” big-time, and no one more than himself. He positively doted over her, and the love was duly reciprocated throughout their happy marriage. They were part of the war generation – Alex served at sea, and was fished out of the water more than once – and, like Keith Moon’s parents, lived quietly in the suburbs of Wembley, after moving there in the 1960s, seemingly grateful for life’s continued small mercies. Alexander passed away in 1999 and, though family members closer than myself encouraged Rita to return to the Shetland Isles – she never lost her gorgeous accent, and she would have been surrounded by her own extensive family – she stuck it out in the flat, for reasons I could never quite understand, unless it was to remain surrounded by the mementos of her happy marriage.

Alexander was a character: a jazz pianist, a comedian, a mischief-maker, a story-teller. Rita was his calm and collected – and infinitely patient – foil. She knitted from Shetland wool like it was going out of fashion (as indeed, it was), and we will always be able to remember her by the meticulously crafted mittens, shawls, blankets and hats she crafted for us well into her seventies. She was an absolute whiz with words; any time I visited, she’d have that day’s Times crossword out in front of her, and rare was the occasion she didn’t complete it by bedtime. No wonder, then, that she was a master at Scrabble: she’s the only person I ever knew to score 200 points with one word. (I forget the word, except that I know it wasn’t obvious – that being part of her skill – and that it bridged two triple word scores, and brought a bonus 50 points for using all seven letters.) She was the kind of person of whom nobody ever had a bad word; indeed, she was the kind of person who didn’t seem to have a bad word for anybody else – including the local scum who routinely mugged her when she visited her ailing husband in hospital by foot, their funds not extending to taxis. Wembley changed considerably during the many years she lived there. She did not. Hers was a quiet life – and a good one.

ritas.jpg When it was ’64: my Aunt Rita holds me tight.

Arthur Weinstein, on the other hand, who died last week at age 60… Arthur was neither quiet nor, most of the time and by most people’s definitions of the word, was he good. He was much more than that: he was great. He was a legend, a titan, one of the liveliest characters I have ever come across – and though he could be bad to the bone, he was also one of the world’s great sweethearts, an absolutely softy underneath his tough exterior, as kind-hearted and caring as they came.

Reading some of the emotional tributes posted about Arthur at Brooklyn Vegan and the Hotel Chelsea blog, I see that several note his use of the “Do you know who I am?” refrain as their introduction. Arthur never tried that one on me, though he certainly could have done. I met him when I was DJing and promoting at the Limelight; he showed up one night as the Lighting Designer, and though I thought he was a little old for the job, I didn’t question his legitimacy – and nor, to his credit, did he question mine, for he was over-qualified whereas I barely knew the ropes. I did wonder what gave him the authority to lean over and turn up my volume controls, to welcome and ban people from the booth according to his own whims, to occasionally instruct me to kick the groups off stage so we could get on with the dance party, but Arthur’s ego was not that large he needed to share his resumé with me. Besides, his lighting designs were spectacular, part of the reason people came to the club, and he was the greatest company you could ask for. I was happy to just share him in the moment.

I learned about his past, instead, from others. Arthur had opened and owned Hurrah, and then the World, two of the greatest clubs in New York nightlife – and surely that’s enough for any one life. But Arthur did more than that: he opened club after club after club after club – including a couple in his own apartment – and though he was shaken down by the police, the fire departments, the Mob and even the feds, he never backed down from any of them. By the laws of New York nightlife, Arthur should have been jailed, bumped off or at least beaten down – outcomes that befell most of the other major figures I worked with in New York nightlife – yet he managed to stay above all that. As this truly epic tale of Arthur’s battles, written by Anthony Hayden-Guest for the Guardian four years ago, reveals, even an unconscionable front-page revelation by the New York Times in 1983 that Weinstein, a club-owner at the time, was wearing a wire for the FBI failed to prevent him going out every night. That’s how big his balls were. And that’s why he was a survivor – until he got caught by cancer, just when he was excelling as a visual artist. I guess a quiet old age was never on the cards for him.

arthurweinstein.jpg Arthur Weinstein at home with his art: “There’s all these assholes out there trying to give you orders, and the only one I want to take orders from is me.” Photo from the Hotel Chelsea blog.

For, let’s be honest, Arthur lived the life most of us could only dream of: I mean, the guy even resided at the Chelsea Hotel these last 20-plus years. And I wouldn’t be doing him justice if I didn’t mention that he was always on the make: he was the kind of guy you routinely “lent” $20 because you knew he’d earned it earlier and elsewhere in life. (This, I’m sure, is partly why Peter Gatien employed Weinstein as LD during his reign as the King of Clubs – the other reason being his unquestionable talent for visuals – and I have fond memories of watching Weinstein tap Gatien for an advance on his wages on something like a daily basis. There were few could get away with this – and both men knew it.) In an interview for my current book, another legendary New York club promoter told me how Arthur Weinstein stole the mailing list from Studio 54 and sold it “exclusively” to rival promoters, several times over. In New York clubland, that’s considered brilliance. I don’t believe I’m talking out of line: check this interview with Arthur from only last year for an insight into his character. But I digress… Somehow, in the midst of it all, he managed to remain a solid husband and become a proud father, and I suspect that’s what held him together when others around him from the 70s/80s clubland heyday started falling to pieces. And maybe it’s because he was a family guy at heart that he remained so kind and caring long after he gave up owning clubs, running clubs, and even designing the lighting for clubs.

Anytime I saw Arthur, he was smiling; it was a mischievous smile, a wicked smile, and you hesitated to wonder where the conversation might lead if you gave it long enough, but when he asked about your health and happiness, you knew that he meant it. Posie saw more of him than I did when I quit the Limelight; for several years in the early 90s, she worked not far from the Chelsea Hotel and was continuously running into him on the street. He was always asking after me, telling me to drop on by, to come to some art opening or club night or other. My attitude to such general invitations is that we’ll inevitably cross paths again when fate determines. But it didn’t seem to happen much with Arthur. I saw a lot less of him this past 15 years than I would like to – but I did model one of my characters in Hedonism upon him, and pretty much unadulterated. He was one of a handful of characters who you couldn’t invent if you tried. I just hope I did him justice. Arthur is survived by wife and daughter (sadly, his brother and father also passed away this year, leaving his mother particularly bereft), and hundreds upon hundreds – make that thousands – of friends.

arthur3.jpg Arthur Weinstein’s famous smile, photo taken from Brooklyn Vegan.

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