Sunday, January 07, 2024

Thomas Curtiss, Jr., 1941-2023

The photo is of one of the the last times Tom Curtiss and I were together, some years ago, when he and his husband, Charles Neeley, visited New York from L.A., and Martha and I had lunch with them at a Midtown restauruant.

Tom and I were classmates at Harvard Law School from 1967 to 1970.  He stood out in the photo book given to entering students because he was wearing a dress Marine Corps officer's uniform. It showed his home as Novelty, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. We didn't have much contact during our first or second years. The third year we both joined a club for law students called Lincoln's Inn, named for one of the London Inns of Court. After we had been together there during meals and parties, he invited me to join a group that met in his large corner dorm room on Friday evenings to drink beer or cheap Scotch, socialize, and listen to tapes on his Akai reel-to-reel deck. These included Joan Baez's Farewell Angelina, Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home,and a collection of Wagner orchestral pieces, including the overture to Die Meistersinger

The gatherings at "Club 222," as we called it after Tom's dorm room number, were typically all male. Tom was known to date women from time to time. One, a fellow Clevelander, became known by the sobriquet "Long Suffering Kate." There was a proposal to open membership in Lincoln's Inn, which had been male only, to women. I was in favor. Tom said, "A woman should be a date on your arm, not a competitor for a seat at a table." Tom lost; women were admitted. 

Tom had the sort of background that, before I arrived in Cambridge, I feared most of my classmates would have, and that would make them consider me, a public school and state university graduate from the South, something of a yokel. He was a corporate executive's son with impeccable prep and Ivy credentials: Exeter and Yale. The friends he chose for Club 222 didn't conform to those specifications.  They were more like our class as a whole, except for the absence of women or Blacks, both of which groups were under-represented in our class.  They were almost all non-Ivy graduates, about half from state schools, and from middle class families with homes in various parts of the country.

As Tom and I spent more time together we found common interests beyond drinking and music. I was from a military family, and was in Army ROTC during law school as draft deferments for graduate students had ended the year I entered. Tom had deferred law school to join the Marines. He told me he had been accepted by both the Harvard and University of Virginia law schools during his senior year at Yale. When his four year Marine Corps tour of duty was almost over, he wrote to both schools, noting that he had been accepted before going on active duty, and asking if he could now attend. Virginia turned him down, saying their admission standards had increased, but Harvard said he was still welcome. Tom gave me some advice on what to expect during my active duty term. We also found a common passion in running. One time, after the party at 222 went later than usual, I collapsed on his couch. In the morning he said he was going for a run and invited me to join him. We ran down to the Cambridge bank of the Charles River, went about half a mile downstream, crossed to the Boston side, then ran back. We repeated this several times before graduation. 

I found a law firm in New York that was willing to take me on knowing I would have to leave for a possible two year Army commitment a year after graduation. Tom chose a firm in Los Angeles, a city he had come to love during his active duty Marine years. In October of 1970 I took my first vacation from my law firm and visited Tom in L.A., a city with which I was then unfamiliar. Tom was sharing an apartment with Joe, another Marine, Tom told me there's no such thing as an "ex-Marine"; one is a Marine for life. He suggested dinner at a Mexican restaurant. We got in his car and went a mile or so on the freeway, exited, and foud the restaurant closed. He said, "There's another not too far away." We got back on the freeway and went what seemed like three or four miles in the direction opposite from which we'd come. We had a delicious Mexican meal, and I gained an appreciation of what "not too far" means in L.A. terms.

The rest of our short visit Tom showed me the Santa Monica Pier and some things off the usual tourist trail. One of these was a sprawling outdoor farmers' market. Several years later he told me he had walked by a live poultry stand and spotted an unusual looking rooster. Intrigued, Tom bought him and took him to the backyard of the house he'd bought on Micheltorena Street, where he made a coop. Hearing his staccato crowing the next morning, Tom gave him the ironic name Chanticleer.

Over the succeeding years Tom and I got together in L.A. and New York several times, and once at a Law School reunion. After a succession of housemates, Charles Neeley became a constant. I began to suspect that Charles was more than a housemate when Tom called and said both of them would be staying in New York for a few days before leaving on a trip to Europe.  During that visit Martha had a commitment one afternoon, so Tom, Charles, and I took Cordelia (then known as Liz) in her stroller on a tour of SoHo and the Village. Martha developed an immediate liking for both Tom and Charles.

Their last visit to New York was about fifteen years ago. They went with Martha, Cordelia, and me to mass at Grace Church, and after to brunch at Jack the Horse Tavern, a favorite neighborhood spot named for a lake in Minnesota, the owner's native state. During brunch, I asked Tom if, during our law school years, he'd been so far in the closet he didn't know he was there. He said , "No"; he had known he was gay since his teens. He also said he'd had a discreet affair with one of the Club 222 members.

After brunch I invited Tom and Charles to join me on a walk down to Brooklyn Bridge Park. Tom regretted that he couldn't; he was bothred by neuropathy. After that his health went into decline, and our communications became, apart from Christmas cards, exclusively electronic. It came as no surprise when Charles announced his death on December 23.

Tom's and my friendship lasted over fifty years. We came from different backgrounds and had some differing views, but it was a friendship from which I believe we both benefited. I will miss him.


  1. Karl Junkersfeld2:15 PM

    Very enjoyable read. A beautiful tribute to your friend.