‘Are you Jewish?” Nina asked me. This was more the kind of question I tended to get from shabbos candle-toting Lubavitchers, not the great Miss Simone. But there she was, sitting close to me in her suite, getting personal.
I answered with the truth, “Yes.”
She leaned over the couch, and in a low conspiratorial voice asked, “Have you been to Israel?”
I had indeed. It was just after graduating from college when I took off with my backpack and my fiddle. My mother had hoped that I, an ex-Yeshiva girl would find the seemingly unattainable there — the nice Jewish boy of her dreams. Instead I couldn’t wait to leave the strong sun and continue the trip to England where I’d hunt folk festivals, adventure, and Ploughman’s Lunches. “Yes,” I said.
“Perfect,” she said. “I need an assistant who speaks Hebrew. You must come with me to see my best friend, Teddy Kollek. Do you know him?”
Jewish geography aside, the mayor of Jerusalem was not in my Rolodex. And though I spent twelve years speaking Hebrew for half the day, I was far more fluent in French. I wasn’t sure if she was testing, teasing or mad.
It was 1986 and I had been working as a dance therapist. I landed on this little known profession as a compromise since I was too busty for the ballet and far inferior to my writing hero, Philip Roth. So, I threw myself into working with the criminally insane and addicted. But after almost a decade in Boston I longed to return home to my shtetl, New York City.
Thrown into the soup was a too charged pull towards a handsome photographer named Herb. He was Jewish. Lest you think my mother would have been calling the caterers, he had twenty-two years on me, three wives behind him and from what I could sniff, plenty of conflict in front of us. But when he posed a flashy proposal for a first date my resistance melted. He was going to shoot his old friend Nina Simone for the JVC Jazz Festival. Would I come with?
That afternoon at the Copley Hotel, when Nina Simone opened the door for us, I felt dazed and small. Her hair was swaddled-up in a towel turban, a long fur coat worn as a robe swung open to reveal her ample body poured into an envy-green, one-piece bathing suit. Fresh from the hotel pool, she had a huge ceramic jug of tea in the crook of her arm.
I was mesmerized by her eye flutterings and queenly composure. Sitting in her lounge area the photographer and Nina caught up on the past. Yet I was tongue-tied. I worked with the insane, not with celebrities and thanks to my mother, hadn’t ever learned the art of flattery. I sat, smiled, nodded and watched. Perhaps it was my reticence, but suddenly she turned her attention to me and asked about my religion.
Interrupting her interrogation of me, Herb said, “Nina, we should get going,” the photographer said noticing the time. Curtain was in ten minutes. “You have to show up. Don’t worry. I’ll be there with you.”
Nina declared she was not going.
Herb had photographs to shoot, and would not be thwarted. I had a chance to be useful. I was used to working with difficult patients so, I deployed every shred of skill I had as a therapist.
“I’d love go with you to Israel,” I lied.
The bribe was a miracle. Her mood adjusted. She removed her terry turban. She donned a cheesy gold lamé top. We got her in the limo. We pushed her into Boston’s venerable Symphony Hall. I coaxed her onto the stage. My cheek on the velvet curtains, I watched, mesmerized as she powered through what I saw as sweat-dripping stage fright.
My photographer kept shooting as Nina’s disconnection slipped out. She rambled. She spoke so low it was hard to hear. She stomped off the proscenium. She returned to confused applause. She walked off again. She came back. The crowd went wild. Then she insulted them.
I only found out years later that she had just been released from an institution. A genius, though, unable to give throwaways, unable to sing without feeling every note. She hurt through the songs and the loves. I imagined she was trying to send me a warning: He might have been the only Jewish man you’ve ever gone out with, but beware.
At the triumphant post-show party in her suite, her warm-up act, horn player Freddie Hubbard tried to corner me in the bathroom. When I told Herb about it he said, “That’s the jazz world, it’s nothing.” On the way home he was furious. “Nina was off. Terrible performance. Arrogant woman. I was embarrassed at her behavior.” I was stunned at his lack of compassion for an old friend, but I suspended judgment; after all it was the best first date ever. He kissed me in the early morning hours and I forgot Nina’s warning.
But she didn’t forget me. In a few weeks I received a card from Dr. Nina Simone from the Versailles Apartments in Los Angeles. In frantic handwriting which an art therapist would have had fun with, she told me that her assistant Alberta had just abandoned her. Would I, instead of heading to Israel, take care of her business and do her accounting? She poetically added, “My left foot is getting cold from people’s promises.”
Back then I easily picked up trouble, wounded birds and the like, but I had enough sanity to write back, thank you, no. A year later I also had the sanity to break up with Herb, move back to New York and do what you’re supposed to do in my hometown — get brave and get on with it.
Nina Simone died in 2003, but my memory of her only gets stronger. After all, hanging on my living room is a photograph that Herb finally sent to me after twenty years of nagging him for it. It’s of Nina in Philadelphia in 1959. There she is, teetering back on a chair, optimism blooming on her face when she was only a little bit younger than the age I was when we met in Boston, the night she taught me a little bit about love and risk.
Alice Feiring, a wine writer, publishes a natural and organic wine newsletter, The Feiring Line.