Gurney's Inn
July 04, 2007

Jerry's Ink


My close friend Joel Siegel died last week. I wanted to write about him today but after I heard this eulogy by my friend Andrew Bergman I realized Andy said it all and far better than I can ever say it. This is a reprint of Andy's remarks.

You could deliver 10 different eulogies of Joel Siegel and they'd all be true. You could do one about heroic Joel, about hilarious Joel, about terrible-tempered Joel, about Joel the pushover, Joel the Jewish historian and about Joel the proud father of Dylan. For me, over 35 years, he was all those people, often at the same time.

In 1972 Joel left Los Angeles to come to work for WCBS TV in New York. Three weeks later, he already knew more people in New York than I did. He also knew definitively where to get the best pastrami and corned beef, where the oldest synagogue was, and which was the better of the Pickle Kings on the Lower East Side. Joel dove into New York right at the deep end because, of course, he had been destined to live here all his life.

Joel was an instant New Yorker. As if to make up for lost time, he consumed the art, culture and folklore of the city like the most eager of refugees. His enthusiasms were boundless, starting of course, with food; during that first year at WCBS, every other story ended with Joel biting into a hot dog or a knish, or slurping down an egg cream.

Our Wednesday lunch, which began as a kind of ad hoc support group for Joel after his wife Jane died, has been for us the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York. For 25 years, the six of us – Joel, Jeff Greenfield, Jerry Imber, Jerry Della Femina, Michael Kramer and I have gone through a lot – marriages, un-marriages, deaths and births. Through all of it what held us together was our love for one another, our appreciation of each other's peculiarities and the endless, roaring laughter.

The lunch has had many locations, and Joel was a prime mover in our ever-widening search for the perfect place, for the simple reason that he effectively got us banned from a number of New York's finer dining places. The old Russian Tea Room threw us out, then Fresco threw us out.

We told Joel that his picture was being pasted on kitchens all over Manhattan as a public enemy, but he have could cared less – if he requested a simple hamburger, no cheese, no tomatoes, he expected to get it. The expression on the faces of the hapless waiters proudly bringing a tomato and cheese-covered burger to set before him, only to incur Joel's truly fabulous, flame-throwing rage was easily worth the price of admission.

A ritual was repeated over 25 years: the rest of us would order, then the waiter would stand beside Joel as he scanned the menu as it were a text of the Torah. Finally he would order something – and this far preceded his illness – he would order something and then totally deconstruct the dish, telling the waiter what exactly to leave out and what to substitute. The order would of course be totally screwed up and we would prepare to get thrown out of yet another restaurant.

Like a child, however, whenever you were ready to throttle Joel he would do something so fabulous that you would instantly forgive him. He was incredibly generous and his Christmas presents were always the best and the most thought-out, as were his fabulous holiday cards, my favorite being the one where Iron Mike Tyson had his arm around a smiling Joel, with the inscription, "From Our Home To Yours."

When he had his first surgery, many years ago in the beginning of the hundred-round bare-knuckle fight that was Joel's truly epic battle with colon cancer, at that time I visited him. He was a little woozy and he looked at me and said "Why did this happen to me?"

"Because you're a movie critic," I told him. He started laughing, of course, and then asked me not to say anything else funny, because he was still sore from the surgery, but I realized later I was wrong. He was not a movie critic; he was a movie lover, as he was a lover and enthusiast of so many, many things.

Unlike most critics, who see films as targets in a shooting gallery, Joel really, really wanted to love the movies he screened and particularly in the past few years had been increasingly disappointed, like a spurned lover. "I just saw the worst movie ever made," he would say.

"You said that last week," we would tell him.

"No, this is really the worst one." And it pained him. On the other hand, when a movie was even marginally good, he would go completely teenager nuts for it. The number of movies he described as "great" was countless, but he couldn't help it. He really, really wanted things to be great. So many things in his life were great, he had achieved a celebrity status that flabbergasted him and even if at least a third of the people who hailed him on the street would call out Gene Shalit's name, he truly loved every minute of it and truly appreciated the wonder of his success.

He certainly wasn't the handsomest man on television, he certainly wasn't the smoothest and he didn't have the most mellifluous voice. What he had was total authenticity. He was exactly what he appeared to be, which is why people greeted him like a second cousin. And maybe he was; Joel seemed to have relatives in every corner of the earth. Eight years ago, I visited Havana, about which I was very excited.

"Look up my cousin there," he told me.

"You have a cousin in Havana?"

"Look in the phone book," he said, "it's the only Siegel there."

Joel had been everywhere and met everyone. But of all the thrills in his life, Dylan Swansea Siegel was number one.

"He's reading," he would say. "It's un-believable." And when Joel said "un-believable," he meant it. Everything about his son was a miracle to him, every word he uttered, and I don't have the slightest doubt that Dylan's existence extended his own, that the reason Joel kept confounding one dire prognosis after another was Dylan's presence on this earth.

We knew this was coming some day, but it's still an enormous shock. Last Tuesday, all the doctors told us that he wouldn't last the night. But as usual they had no idea who they were dealing with. All of us who knew and loved this wonderful, impossible, hilarious, stubborn soul knew that he would defy their predictions once again. All of us knew that he was still looking at that menu and nobody was going to rush him. He didn't live nearly long enough but he made damn sure you wouldn't forget him in a million years.

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