Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Cicely Nichols, 1937-2008

I can't remember when I first met her, except that it was some time in the late 1970s. I'm sure of where, though; the bar of the Lion's Head, a place that served mostly unmarried (in our instances, previously married) Villagers with a literary bent, as a sort of living room away from home. We may have been introduced by one of the many Head regulars we knew in common; just as likely, we may simply have found ourselves occupying adjacent stools and fallen into conversation.

Whatever was said that night, it was sufficient to establish a common desire to continue the conversation on other evenings. She was nine years my senior, and had been in the Village long enough to tell me about things that happened there when I was a college freshman in Florida thinking romantic thoughts about escaping to that fabled urban patch occupied by the likes of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. I was thrilled to hear that she had worked for Grove Press, the avant garde house that published Lady Chatterley's Lover and Tropic of Cancer, as well as works by Beckett, Ferlenghetti, Fanon, LeRoi Jones and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. More surprising was that she had led a strike against Grove and its publisher, Barney Rosset, demanding better conditions for editorial employees. Because of the strike, she had to take on freelance work, which in turn led her to become one of the founders of the Editorial Freelancers Association. At the top of the home page of the EFA website, you will find a link to a tribute to Cicely and her work in establishing and determining the character of that organization.

As the years passed, we became confidantes. She endured many a night of my maunderings about failed and longed-for romances, and I listened to such troubles as she had in the same department, hers being of a more sane and mature nature. Although I hadn't thought of it this way until now, she came to occupy a space in my psychic organizational chart, previously unfilled, marked "older sister". The night when I first brought the woman who is now my wife to meet my friends at the Head, Cicely said, with a sly smile at me, "This woman looks like trouble." She was right, of course. The "trouble" has lasted eighteen years (almost seventeen of them as spouses), and produced a daughter about to enter high school.

Marriage, work responsibilities and fatherhood combined to limit my time at the Lion's Head, and consequently my socializing with Cicely; later, illness limited her time at the Head even more. Still, she would find the strength, with some help from her daughters and friends, to put on magnificent combination Christmas and birthday (hers was December 27) parties. I last saw her this past December, during what may have been her last period of remission, bright and smiling and cut-the-crap smart as ever. That's how I'll remember her.