Before throat cancer took his voice and eventually his life, Damon Runyon, most famous for the stories immortalized in “Guys and Dolls,” was asked what kind of a remembrance he wanted. “You can keep your things of bronze and stone,” he said, “and give me one man to remember me just once a year.”
My dad, like Runyon, died before his time at 65. He had beaten the big “C” before, but in early 2001, he got sucker-punched.
A lot of people are described as larger than life. Dad was larger than life, and he lived that life large. He only ate the freshest produce and the juiciest meats. He wore the softest shirts. He smoked only the finest cigars, rolled upon the tanned and nubile thighs of laughing Dominican virgins, or so he said.
When I was a small, shy child in grade school on the Upper East Side, occasionally the door to my classroom would open and a half-dozen tuxedoed waiters would burst forth, carrying silver-covered platters of hot dogs and hamburgers still hot from the ovens at Maxwell’s Plum for me and my astonished classmates.
His avoirdupois only solidified his standing as the largest person in the room. When he appeared at some highbrow event in a gold lamé suit, he was described in a Manhattan gossip column as a “shiny butterball.”
Dad lived up to his Hollywood glam roots. The son of Mervyn LeRoy, who produced “The Wizard of Oz,” and the grandson of Harry Warner, the mogul who started Warner Brothers, he was pretty much doomed to be over the top from the very beginning.
He was born to astound.
But what I miss most is when the gilded paint would chip a little, and the real Dad would shine through.
“We’re nothing but ants on this planet,” he would tell me. “You just have to be the best ant you can.” Or, “Have a dream. Make it come true. Then move on to the next dream.” Those are the jewels I remember best. Those, and the feel of his shirt on my cheek.
I was in Hawaii when I had my last conversation with Dad. He was in the hospital, heavily medicated, and somewhat manic.
“How are you, Dad?” I asked.
“Busy,” he replied, sounding distracted. “Busy, busy, busy.”
“Oh, you know . . . hospital shit,” he answered, annoyed, making it sound as if he had taken over the entire oncology department and had dozens of patients to see before the end of the day.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh, I’m having a big party in my room tonight. Big,” he emphasized. “You should come. Bacce is coming, and Rita is coming, Buddy and Greer, Judy Garland . . .” He continued to rattle off the names of people who had been dead for years. His stepfather, Charles Vidor, the director, he called Bacce. Rita was Rita Hayworth.
“It’s going to be fabulous. Fabulous!” he said. “I’ve just ordered 12 chickens from Eli’s, and a bunch of other stuff. I found the reddest peonies in New York City. No kidding. The reddest! You really should be here.”
“I’m in Hawaii,” I said lamely.
“Oh,” he said. “Well, a big kiss for you and for Eric and for Georgia and for Joelie and for Bing and a big kiss for you!”
“You already gave me one at the beginning,” I told him.
“Well, you get two ’cause I love you so much,” he said with a laugh, and then said the words I had heard thousands of times. “I’m really busy, Bridgie. I gotta get going. I love you.”
“Okay, Dad. I love you too. Have fun tonight.”
Three days later he was dead.
I’m so glad he went out with a big party, lots of friends, and lots of food.
Since I’ve moved back to the East End, at least once a week someone asks, “Are you related to Warner LeRoy?”
“Yeah,” I say, never knowing what to expect. “He was my dad.”
Then they smile to themselves and all say the same thing: “There will never be another Warner.”
Tom Twomey, the attorney, grabbed my hand at a library meeting last week and looked into my eyes.
“Your dad was one of my heroes,” he said with all sincerity, and I know he meant it.
“Me too,” I answered, choking up a little, amazed that I still do.
If Runyon’s quote means anything, Warner will be around as long as there’s someone out there who will remember him, with fondness, just once a year.
Which just goes to show Dad’s even larger than “larger than life.”
He’s larger than death.
Happy Father’s Day to all.
Bridget LeRoy is a reporter at The Star.