The Amazing Grace of Leonard Nimoy
I often called him Leib, his Yiddish name, picking up on the term of endearment used by his wife, Susan. We were friends for more than 25 years, the trailing spouses of the even longer friendship between our wives. I was not a Trekkie (or Trekker, to use the term Leonard preferred). I didn’t watch the original “Star Trek” series on television in the 1960s and I saw only one of the movies. We were just friends.
I did have conversations with him from time to time about the character of Mr. Spock, the pointy-eared half-human, half-Vulcan, who was a relentlessly logical alien who denied all emotion but fell in love with an earthling. I sensed he identified with the otherness of Spock, the ultimate outsider, so much so that he was conflicted about the character and Spock’s hold on him — themes he explored in his two dichotomously titled books, “I am Not Spock,” then 20 years later, “I am Spock.”
Leonard did see himself as an outsider. First as the Jewish kid in Irish-tough Boston. Then as the gangly youth who didn’t much care for school while his older brother aced everything and went on to MIT. Then as the determined but flat-broke 18-year old who defied his immigrant parents and got on a train bound for Hollywood. And finally as the young character actor who mastered his craft playing roles not meant for leading men, from zombies to gangsters. Oh, yes, he was also Tevye in “Fiddler on The Roof” — and what could be more fun than playing a shtetl-dwelling peasant who railed at God?
But our friendship rested on other things. Photography, for one. I’ve long been interested in photography, and my wife, Lynn Povich, and I collect vintage prints. Leonard was an enormously talented photographer who has exhibited his photos and published several books of his work. Not the usual landscapes or portraits, but thematically rich works. There was an undertaking called, “The Full Body Project,” in which he photographed — how to put this — fat women in all their bountiful nakedness. The idea was to glorify the body images of plus-size women neglected in fashion shoots and widely disparaged by the culture at large. Yes, he was sending a message, but he created a work of beauty and elegance. Then there was “Secret Selves,” a project in which Leonard invited ordinary people to dress up as a character in their fantasy lives to be photographed as they wished to be seen – the insider as outsider. Finally, I should mention “Shekhina,” his controversial series of photographs of the female side of God in Kabalah legend — many of them as nudes.
Leonard and I also shared an interest in Jewish-American writers. On his 80th birthday cruise, I led a discussion of Philip Roth’s last book, “Nemesis,” an under-rated novel about a schoolyard coach in Newark during World War 2, when the city was threatened by a fictional polio epidemic. Later, vacationing together in St. Barth’s, we had a session to discuss “The Ghost Writer,” the Roth novel that, among other things, dared to imagine what might have happened if Anne Frank had survived. Leonard was a close reader, a shrewd observer of character.
Then there was Isaac Bashevis Singer, our Yiddish Nobel Laureate. Years ago, I remember listening to Leonard read, in that magnificent voice of his, from a famous and enigmatic Singer short story, “Gimpel the Fool.” It was mesmerizing. Last year, when I was auditing a course on Singer at the City College of New York, which included reading a biography by UCLA scholar Janet Hadda, I talked to Leib about Singer’s work. He had read most of it. And, just for good measure, it turned out that Janet Hadda had been Leonard’s Yiddish tutor some years earlier. Had Leonard read any of Singer in the original Yiddish? I asked. No, he said with sadness, his Yiddish just wasn’t good enough.
When I was considering an offer to be the founding dean of a brand new graduate school of journalism at the City University of New York, one of the people I turned to for advice was Leonard. I was 65, just finishing a long career in journalism as a senior editor at Newsweek and editor-in-chief of Business Week. Over dinner, I told Leonard about the possibility of the new job at CUNY and my concern that perhaps I was too old to take on such an enormous task. Leonard was then 74, semi-retired as an actor and director but developing his wonderful new career as a photographer. He got right to the heart of the matter:
“How old are you?”
“How long would you stay in this job?”
“Probably five or six years,”
So, came the punch line, “ You’ll be younger when you finish than I am now.”
A few years later, in 2008, when the CUNY Journalism School was off to a strong start, Leonard and Susan asked if they could sit in on a seminar I was teaching called “Journalistic Judgment.” Leonard and I had often talked politics and how the news media covered the stories he cared about — not show biz, but serious stuff like the declining prospects for peace in the Middle East or whether Barack Obama was a disappointing president. So I wasn’t surprised that they wanted to see what I was up to at this new journalism school they had heard so much about. But I was a bit concerned that some of the students might get stars in their eyes and act, shall we say, less than professional. But I said yes, obviously flattered, and told the students the Nimoys were coming for a visit, finishing with a reminder about proper decorum. It all went well until the end when one of the students, a Trekker named Danny, couldn’t contain himself.
Here’s what happened, according to a Facebook post on the day Leonard died by one of the other students in the class, Eliot Caroom, now a reporter at Bloomberg:
Danny: “Mr. Nimoy!! I’m very sorry…but I’m a huge nerd and I could never forgive
Dean Shepard: “Danny, no!”
Danny: “…if I was in the same room with you and didn’t ask you to sign this …book”
Leonard Nimoy: “…It’s OK, Steve–I’d be happy to…”
Eliot concluded his Facebook post by saying, “ That memory still makes me smile.”
Me, too. Leonard carried his fame with amazing grace. And when you were with him as a friend, he was, well, a mensch. We all loved the guy.
Stephen B. Shepard is the founding dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. He served as senior editor at Newsweek and as editor-in-chief of BusinessWeek.