Tag Archives: The National Press Club

A 7 year-old eulogy of a friend from first grade

[I miss my friend Lee. Certainly, this posting exists for remembering old friends especially one of my classmates at the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach where Lee was voted most likely to become Secretary of State. Flamboyantly arrested and taken out of Manhattan’s flagship Brooks Brothers store in handcuffs for embezzlement to support substance abuse, Lee was simultaneously one of:
  1.         My best friends
  2.         Most spiritually advanced
  3.         Most decadent
  4.        Best dressed
  5.        Most charming people I have ever met
  6.        A bemused and loving uncle to my daughters (often invoking the blessings of a moderation he rarely possessed).
[Sometimes, Lee seemed to be an incarnation of Proteus.
[Lee died shortly after a great run as a lobbyist (http://bulk.resource.org/gpo.gov/hearings/107s/78596.txt; see witness list for this Senate Judiciary Committee hearing) with two master degrees in substance abuse testifying before Congress on the importance of rehabilitation therapy. He died when each of us were experiencing spectacular reversals in our personal and professional lives. This was a time when we had little to give ourselves and therefore nothing to give each other except the remembrance that from the age of 6, we each shared lives as friends.
[As with many of my good friendships, there were many moments when each of us said the unspoken to the other, “How can I be friends with him?”
[The police found Lee’s decomposed body in his apartment in Washington, DC and had him cremated. His priest and close friend Robert Finamore located Lee after considerable effort. My name and phone number were in Lee’s wallet. Robert invited me to the memorial mass he was conducting at his parish and asked me to deliver a eulogy. Some news is so terrible I could not stop crying.
[Last weekend, I opened a box that had remained sealed for over a year. The box had been sent by my friend (and as it turns out archivist) Bonnie Blumenthal Finkelstein who proofread the original of the eulogy. Some boxes, just as some memories, are best left unopened. For everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.
[I created this blog to provide a home for the kind of questions Lee’s eulogy raises in my now 63 year-old mind about the nature of life and friendship. The forces that caused the box to be opened also reveal tales for another time.
[Suffice it to say that the magical weekend the box was opened, my elder daughter Joanna was driving an ambulance while preparing to enter nursing school, my younger daughter Amelia was running with the bulls in Pamplona, and I was preparing one of my trademark exotic celebrations—this time concerning Ernest Hemingway.
[Lee (who bequeathed to me the meaning of “spiritual calling” while simultaneously abjuring not to make too big a thing of it) would have been amused that his eulogy has appeared below as a piece of objet trouvé before summer turns to fall.
[Soon cold and darkness will require the unusual (with a moral you have to find yourself)—a story uncovering the special meaning of why Lee learned to ice skate at a hotel in Miami Beach (during the 1950s) when the temperature outside was in the 80s.]
EULOGY FOR JOHN (LEE) AVERY (APRIL, 1948–SEPTEMBER, 2004) AT HIS MEMORIAL MASS, ST IGNATIUS CHURCH, FORT, WASHINGTON, MD http://www.saint-ig.org/, OCTOBER 30, 2004, DELIVERED BY JOEL SOLKOFF, LEE’S FRIEND SINCE 1953
Good afternoon.
We are here today to celebrate Lee’s life.
I first met Lee in first grade in 1953 at the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach, Florida—a school commonly referred to as a yeshiva. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbi_Alexander_S._Gross_Hebrew_Academy and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNjrrHJnKyc
We took Hebrew and eventually Aramaic classes in the morning and English classes in the afternoon.
I was there for 8 years. Lee graduated a year later having become president of his class in the yeshiva.
In 1972, on the day Lee’s mother died, he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church in Miami Beach where he had secretly been attending religious instruction for months. A year later he regarded his conversion as complete when he legally changed his name from Lee Avery Rosenhouse to John Avery.
He chose the name John as homage to Pope John XXIII, who had inspired him.
To some of his friends and colleagues he was known as John. When I once suggested to Lee that I would call him John if he preferred, he gave me a noblesse oblige glare and said, “No; because you are an old dear friend, you can still call me Lee.”
This is a good time to pause and focus on the life of a man whose name changes require me to clarify just who it is we are mourning today. My daughter Joanna observed that the manner of Lee’s untimely death makes today especially difficult because you and I did not have the chance of saying goodbye properly.
Over the course of my life, I have seen Lee go from being a law school student to an executive at Brooks Brothers, from an alcoholic with other drug-related problems (most notably cocaine) to a recovered survivor who received two master’s degrees in his disease and ran a substance abuse clinic——eventually becoming a Congressional lobbyist on behalf of treatment professionals.
The often operatic drama of Lee’s life and the charm and talents we experienced in his presence made it difficult to know who Lee really was. Much of the time, Lee was engaged in an elaborate form of denial which he referred to as “Let’s pretend.”
It is hard to look at the reality of his death without feeling anger and sadness at the unrealized expectations we had for Lee.
If Lee had died a year earlier with a little money in his pocket, with his career as a lobbyist still intact and his HIV still under control, we could have lauded him as a success:
·        A man who had overcome alcoholism to help others afflicted with the disease
·        A man who had survived the AIDS epidemic still mindful of its consequences
·        A man who had survived with his faith in God intact
Instead, Lee died
·        broke
·        out of work and hope
·        probably drunk
·        neglecting his HIV medication
·        alone in his apartment
·        found only after his body had decomposed for several days
The issue is not that a “better” death would make it more comfortable to eulogize Lee. But the reality is that there were two Lees–the one his friends and I wanted him to be and the one he actually was.
I realize that the point will come when I can shed my anger and sorrow that the ever-changing nature of Lee’s behavior could not lead him to the life of happiness and fulfillment I would have wished.
Indeed, my intention in this eulogy is to focus on the Lee who actually was—the man we mourn today and the man I loved as a brother.
Lee’s gift to me was the opportunity to accompany him through key moments in his difficult life journey.  I will spend the rest of my time with you today listing the following six lessons I learned from Lee and discussing some of them:
1.      Anecdotes make it easier to confront reality.
2.      The rich are like you and me.
3.      Not being a homosexual, I really do not understand.  
4.      It is harder to stop drinking than you might think.
5.      Spirituality can perform miracles.
6.      Few problems cannot be solved by being dressed adequately for the occasion.
Lee could tell a story more effectively than almost anyone I knew.
One of the big difficulties Lee faced was the way Mose and Estelle Rosenhouse handled the fact that they had adopted him when he was an infant. When he was in college and the family was in the midst of a truly ugly fight about money, one of Lee’s relatives said, “You’re not really a Rosenhouse” and that’s how he found out.
Years later Lee commented he suspected he was adopted because his parents treated him “like a pet poodle.”
Lee told the story about a conversation his mother Estelle and her friends had on their experiences with childbirth.
When it was Estelle’s turn, she regaled the audience with bogus detailed descriptions of her labor pains with Lee.
When I met Lee in 1953, he seemed rich by all the standards of my childhood. His parents paid full tuition at the Hebrew Academy plus they were big contributors to our school. By comparison, my mother paid with difficulty at a deeply discounted rate.
There was considerable difference between the way teachers and fellow students treated the rich and the poor.
Shortly after we became classmates, Lee’s parents, as my mother described it, “adopted” my mother and me.
I was being raised by a single mother in the 1950s when divorce was a big taboo and my mother earned little money as a Hebrew school teacher.
Mose and Estelle established a lifelong friendship with my mother which began with our annual attendance at their house for Passover Seders.
I saw Lee’s life from the perspective of my apartment which was on the wrong side of south Miami Beach at a time when south Miami Beach was the wrong place to live.
I was soon to discover to my surprise that Lee was unhappy even though his house was in fashionable north Miami Beach. The house was large and artistically furnished—including a tasteful living room painted chocolate brown—a color Lee was to adopt effectively in adulthood when designing his drop-dead chic apartment in Roslyn, Va.
The Rosenhouse dining room contained a shockingly bad mural of Roman ruins and the dining room had enough space to accommodate all Lee’s large extended family over whom Mose presided with the genial air of a benign dictator.
Mose and his brother Dave were partners in their own highly-respected Miami law firm. Mose’s sister Sarah was his secretary. There were eccentric aunts and uncles on both Mose and Estelle’s side of the family, one of whom was always in residence in a spare bedroom with private bathroom. The room was reserved for relatives down on their luck like Uncle Mike (formerly a concert violinist) at the time working behind the counter of a delicatessen. In later years, Lee would wonder whether he had not in effect become Uncle Mike.
Lee’s aunts and uncles adopted me in a gush of Southern sentimentality— relatives whose alcohol, drug, and reality abuse Lee frequently compared to Tennessee Williams at his most decadent.
In short, when we were children, Lee had a very large family and I had a very small family. But my envy for Lee quickly changed. The fact that we were both such bad athletes that we were always the last two players chosen for kickball served as a larger image of what our rotten childhood was like and served as a bond between us.
Lee’s father died when he was in college. His mother died when he was in his mid-20s. By the time Lee was 30, Aunts Sara and Dora were dead and Lee spent a large chunk of his small inheritance going from funeral to funeral of more and more distant relatives.
Lee’s cousin Bobbie, who is in attendance this afternoon, can tell you the shock Lee experienced as the large all-embracing family of his youth was virtually extinguished.
As a child Lee thought he was rich. His father drove a new Cadillac every year. Lee had whatever material possessions he wanted including ice skating lessons—Lee became an excellent ice skater at the rink of a luxury hotel in Miami Beach, Florida. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6amr5ecQJWw&feature=related
One way the observers of Lee’s family measured their wealth was air conditioning. In the 1950s, air conditioning was not ubiquitous in Miami Beach. Only a few private individuals could afford the cost of keeping their houses cold——and the colder it was the bigger the status symbol. Lee’s parents constantly kept the house at 55 degrees when the temperature outside was in the 80s and 90s. You had to wear, a sweater when you went to Lee’s house. One of the secret parlor games of family friends was to guess the monthly air conditioning bill.
When Lee died, he had a cell phone because he could not afford a standard phone. He told a friend that he could be reached only at night because he had counted up the minutes and he could no longer afford the cost of talking before 9 at night.
Indeed, Lee was raised in a house of privilege and prestige. When his father died, for example, the funeral notice was on page one of The Miami Herald, hundreds attended the service. The mayors of Miami and Miami Beach attended as did Mose’s representative in Congress.
During his childhood Lee hated himself. His biggest challenge was achieving self-esteem. To Lee’s credit from childhood on he understood that the goal that matters most in life is not material, but spiritual. He later expressed his goal in such terms as the love of God, the forgiveness of Jesus, or (as I was always quick to add to his assent) Enlightenment.
The fact Lee was only partially successful does not diminish the heroic nature of his spiritual goal and the difficulty life gave him to meet it.
This brings me to the subject of Lee’s homosexuality. Our society may be approaching a day when the issue of a person’s sexual identity will be as irrelevant as hair color. However, Lee hated the fact that he was gay. His alcoholism helped lead him to a life of promiscuity that was as intense as the remorse he expressed the following day. The lesson Lee drew from his homosexuality, alcoholism, poor self-esteem was the conclusion that he had a call from God to become a Roman Catholic priest. Lee believed that his call would make it possible for him to transform his self-loathing to benefit others like himself. Lee believed he had G0d’s call to minister to gay men who felt they had been abandoned by God because of their sexual orientation. This belief became clearest to Lee in New York when the AIDS epidemic was at its worst. In the 1970s, Lee had become a novitiate for a Jesuit order in Philadelphia (http://www.jesuitcenter.org/grounds.htm) but he needed to return to the secular world for a while. When he emerged from the AIDS epidemic (which exacerbated his alcoholism), he was HIV positive. When he applied to join a holy order in Boston, the order rejected him (after serious consideration) because it could not afford the insurance risk. I believe that decision was a tragedy. Lee would have been a great priest and the satisfaction that comes from heeding the call of God and successfully ministering to his flock would have nourished him to the point where he would be with us today. .
No eulogy of Lee’s life would be complete with a discussion of clothing and style. Clothing served many functions for Lee. He could have written Dress for Success, which he once recommended to me with a long list of seriously considered exceptions. When Walter Mondale was vice president and Lee was an executive at Brooks Brothers, Lee accompanied the tailor to the Office of the Vice President and for months regaled friends with the story of how he saw the Vice President in his underwear. Powerful men from both political parties stopped by Brooks to ask Lee’s advice on what to wear.
There were times when his self-contempt got the better of him and he would sit on his Door Store chair in the chocolate-brown living room in Virginia and list just how much it had cost for him to dress himself—designer suit, shoes, tie, shirt plus watch and other jewelry “$2500 plus.”
Then, he would compare how he looked to how he felt about his value. “It cost me $2500 to walk across the street, but I don’t feel like I’m worth 2 cents.”
But there were other times—times when getting dressed became like some Japanese tea ceremony, when Lee effortlessly put himself together, getting the tie just right, attending to the crease in his trousers, smoothing out his shirt collar, when Lee achieved his own self-realized style that transcended form—a style whose admirability nobody could deny. I choose to believe that Lee is now in a place where he no longer feels the necessity to deny his own worth or to change his name again.
–30–

Lee and I at my bachelors’ party, October, 1981, National Press Club, Washington, DC