A EULOGY FOR CHARLES J. STEPHENS
On behalf of our family -- my mother Xenia, my sister Gabrielle, my brother Mark, my wife Corinna, Gaby's husband Tibor -- I'd like to thank all of you for coming here this evening to remember the wonderful man who was my father.
I know some of you have come a long way to be with us – from Europe and California and New Mexico and the Midwest -- and we want to thank you so much for making the journey. All of you knew and loved my father.
On the other hand, many of you in this room didn't know my father at all, or knew him only slightly.
So I'd like to take a few minutes to tell you about him. And the way I’d like to do it is to highlight five aspects of his character that, taken together, really summed up the man in full. I think if my dad were giving me advice about this eulogy, he’d tell me to riff my lines and not read the speech. But I hope all of you understand that I want to get today’s words exactly right.
The first aspect was my dad’s generosity.
This past Saturday, just a couple of days after my father died, my mother and I were drinking coffee in her kitchen when a lawn crew showed up with their blowers to clear the fallen leaves off the yard. The head guy is a stoutly-built Hispanic fellow named Jaime Quijada, and he and his team have been mowing and clearing my parents' lawn, both in their homes in Somers and in Greenwich, for several years. Over the years, too, my dad did Mr. Quijada various kinds of favors, like letting him store his equipment in my parents' barn free of charge and things like that -- the kinds of small but rare favors that make a big difference in the lives of people who mow lawns and blow leaves for a living.
At any rate, when my mother told Mr. Quijada that my dad had passed away, he looked absolutely stunned, like the wind had been kicked out of him. He said, Don Carlos was "un hombre tan fino, tan generoso" -- a man so fine, so generous. And then he began to cry. That was the kind of effect my father had on the life of Mr. Quijada, the man who mowed the lawn.
And it wasn't just Mr. Quijada. To his dying day, my dad financially supported the widow of our old driver in Mexico City. He helped put people who worked for him through school. He put their kids through college. He supported the nanny who raised him till about the age of nine for her entire life, and she lived past 90. He helped support the nanny's entire family spanning three or four generations. When I was about 11 years old I saw him tuck three $10,000 peso notes into the pockets of a trio of sleeping street urchins in Mexico City. On a trip to the Ganges in India he was literally mobbed by beggars after he had given away every last rupee he had on him.
My dad even went as far as to feed the deer he feared were otherwise going to starve during a harsh winter about 15 years ago. He went to a lumber store, bought some 2x4s and some plywood, nailed together a little covered structure, and supplied it with regular quantities of horse feed. I tried to convince him that his scheme was a violation of conservative principles, that he was creating a class of ruminant Welfare Bambis, that the survival of the unfittest was the death of the species. But he would have none of it. And, in fact, not only did the deer make it through the winter but they also managed to eat most of the shrubbery my parents had carefully planted around the house. It was the same deal with a bird feeder my dad put up, which ended up unintentionally feeding a lot of squirrels. So even the undomesticated animals of northern Westchester knew my dad was a soft touch.
Anyway, I can think of a dozen other instances, large and small, when my father committed some totally unexpected and extraordinary act of generosity. I'm sure my mother can think of a dozen more. He was simply the most generous man I have ever met. And the generosity wasn't a function of his wealth or about the amount of his giving, though philanthropically he gave a lot. It wasn't about noblesse oblige, either, or a guilty conscience. It wasn’t even about honoring his father’s injunction, which he used to repeat to me over and over, to “give with a warm hand.”
My father’s generosity was a function of his heart. He took pleasure in being generous in the same way he took pleasure in life, and not just his own but in the lives of others. He didn’t just give because he could give. He gave because that’s what made life rich and meaningful to him.
The second thing you need to know about my father was his extraordinary energy. An old classmate of my dad’s from the Verde Valley School put it well when he described my dad as “a tornado of positive energy.”
My father couldn't see a mountain without wanting to climb it. He couldn't look down a path without wanting to run it. If we went to a beach resort and the water was above 60 degrees or so, you could be sure he was going to swim a mile before the rest of us got up in the morning. First thing he did when we got to Israel 30 years ago was run a few laps around the old city of Jerusalem. When I was 27 and he was 64, we climbed a 14,000 foot peak in the Alps, the kind of thing for which you need ropes and crampons and an experienced Swiss guide. I spent three months getting into shape for the climb. I lost 20 lbs. Yet even then he basically bounded up it while I panted behind. When he ran the New York City marathon in his 40s he covered the first two miles in 11 minutes flat, which is to say, he was running 5:30 minutes a mile. And years later he confessed to me that it burned him when, a few miles later, he was passed -- by a woman! A woman whose name, I believe, was Grete Weitz.
So my dad was a real macho man. He was really good-looking. He was a fantastic dancer. Women were always after him. Yet what was really remarkable about my father is that he had no vanity. He was totally unpretentious. Some of his best stories were of how, in meeting some important personage, not only had he stuck his foot in his mouth but had actually twisted it sideways so that it wouldn't come out. He loved a laugh, especially if it was at his own expense. If he had heard a good joke, he could hardly wait to share it. The punchlines of some of my dad's jokes, revolving around high-minded themes the perils of geriatric courtship among the hard-of-hearing or the effects of excessive laxative use are a second language in our family. “Super sex? Super sex? I’ll have the soup.”
The third thing you need to know about my dad – and I don’t think this is come as a surprise to anyone— is that he cared deeply about politics.
In fact, they largely defined his life. He was literally born into the ideological feuds of the 20th century. My grandmother Annette was an acquaintance of Leon Trotsky, a friend of Anais Nin and Diego Rivera. Her third husband was the communist composer Conlon Nancarrow. My grandfather Stevie worshipped Winston Churchill, believed in free enterprise and a strong defense, hated communism. My grandparents divorced when my father was eight, and you could say my father wasn't neutral between his parents’ points of view.
In the late 1950s my dad visited the Soviet Union with the insane idea of passing out copies of George Orwell's 1984 disguised under the covers of Louis L'Amour Westerns. Fortunately he thought better of his scheme, which probably saved him—as well as the would-be recipients of his literary largesse—from an extended visit to the Gulag.
In the late 1960s he became one of the very few people to actually protest in favor of the Vietnam War. Now that took self-confidence. As a graduate student at UCLA he got the Students for a Democratic Society kicked out after they tore down some of his posters depicting Vietcong atrocities. He met Richard Nixon in the Oval Office and advised him to mine Haiphong Harbor and resume the bombing of North Vietnam – which in fact is exactly what Nixon wound up doing. He campaigned for Congress in 1974 on a platform opposing the decriminalization of pot and supporting the government of South Vietnam. He told an astonished young reporter named Connie Chung that if the Khmer Rouge came to power not only would the killing not end, but that there would be a bloodbath in Cambodia to rival the Holocaust. (She didn't believe him.)
After our family moved to Mexico City, my father started writing a weekly column for The News as a sideline to his business career. That's how I learned what an editorial page was; that's how I learned how to turn a phrase; that’s how I learned to place a political argument in a historical context and a philosophical frame. In fact, whenever I think of my dad the memories that stand out most vividly are of him driving me to school or taking me out to lunch or going on a hike while discussing the Cuban Missile Crisis or the lessons of Munich or debating whether Grant or Lee was the better general. To this day, every column I write is written with my dad’s voice sounding in my ears.
What kind of influence did my father’s columns have? Let me read you an excerpt from what is probably Ronald Reagan’s most famous speech, the one he gave at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in June, 1987:
"There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"
Now let me read you an excerpt from a column titled “Your Move, Mikhail,” which my father wrote nine months earlier, in October 1986:
"The president,” my dad wrote, “should turn the propaganda tables on the Soviets by making them an offer that puts them on the moral defensive: Open communist borders in exchange for the concessions they demand on Star Wars. "Mr. Secretary," Reagan might say, 'tear down the Berlin Wall and raise the Iron Curtain! Live up to the Helsinki Agreement! Give the people within the Soviet Empire the freedom to emigrate and we will give you what you want on SDI.' That's an offer Gorbachev must refuse because the resulting human exodus would collapse the communist system."
Now whether someone in the Reagan Administration passed along my father's column to the president or one of his speechwriters, I can only suspect. But I do know that when Reagan spoke those words most people considered it provocative and vaguely ridiculous and now it's remembered as courageous and eloquent and prophetic. And so it was with the political stands my father took in his life; they didn't always make him popular and it took guts to make them at the time and in the way that he did. But I think it’s fair to say that they were vindicated by history.
This brings me to the fourth of my dad’s qualities. In politics, he might have been a hawk. In life, he was a dove.
I never met anyone so devoid of malice; so incapable of holding a grudge; so eager to forgive; so prepared to write off an argument as a misunderstanding or a character flaw as an idiosyncrasy. The other day I read that the definition of gossip was “hearing something you like about somebody you don’t.” Which I thought was interesting because my dad had no gossip.
My dad was kindest with the people he loved the most: His wife; his children; our families. His love was the constant sun in our lives: always a perfect 80 degrees, low humidity, a refreshing breeze, a cloud here and there only to paint the sky. When he gave advice, you could be sure it was totally sound. If he had a criticism, it was never ill-intended and it clearly pained him to give it. If I was afraid of something -- and as a kid I was afraid of just about everything -- he would never fail to comfort me. And he did it all so seemingly effortlessly that it was only after I became a father that I realized it wasn't effortless at all.
I sometimes suspect that some people who knew my father only superficially thought that his entire life came down to good luck: First-born son, born to a wealthy father, naturally good looking, that kind of thing. Yet my father also had his share of bad luck, including a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 53 that very nearly killed him and from which it took two years to recover. The truth of my father's life is that the good things that happened to him happened mainly on account of the choices he made. The wealth he leaves behind isn't the wealth he inherited. The beautiful homes he lived in are ones he and my mother built. Even his looks took no small amount of routine maintenance. My dad made his own luck.
The last thing you should know about my father was his sense of loyalty.
Of all the choices he made in his life, two were supremely important. The first was to be a faithful and true father to Mark, despite always living thousands of miles apart, and despite a few other difficulties and obstacles and complications. And here now is this incredible man and wonderful father in his own right, my brother Mark. And every time we’re together I see our father’s eyes and feel his skin and am reminded of my dad’s heart and its huge capacity for love.
The second choice was to woo and to marry my mother. It took me a long time to realize what an extraordinary choice this was for my father, to marry this exotic and unusual woman with a determined character and to take upon himself the responsibility of raising her beautiful little girl as his very own daughter. I think most men would have said: too complicated; too much baggage; too much risk. Not my father. He embraced it. And the result was a love so wide and deep that all of its squalls and tempests were like frothing little whitecaps on the surface of the almost-bottomless Pacific. That was my parents' marriage, a love story of 41 years and eleven months.
As all of you know, these last 14 months have been very hard for our family. I don't know how my mother has managed all this time, but she has. Everything that a dying man could want from his partner, my mother gave him. He died as comfortably and as peacefully as is possible for a man with his very cruel kind of cancer. That's all because of my mother.
But what’s also true is that my father also gave everything a dying man can give his family. He knew what he was facing, as he had seen his beloved sister Elizabeth struggling with a brain tumor just a few weeks before his own diagnosis. Yet he didn't complain once. He didn't sink his family into the terror he surely must have felt. For as long as he could, he maintained an active and joyful interest in our lives. For as long as he could, he listened attentively as I read my columns to him and told me they were just great. The sight of his grandchildren made his face light up with joy, and it gave them that same deep reassurance he had given me when I was a little boy.
Now my kids ask me: Where did grandpa go? My cousin Ezra sent me some lines by the Oxford don Henry Scott Holland that I think have the answer:
“Death is nothing at all, I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I, and you are you; Whatever we were to each other, that, we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way which you always used, put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we shared together. Let my name ever be the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just around the corner. All is well.”
May my father’s memory be for a blessing. Thank you all so much for coming. And please feel free to stay as long as you'd like.
Bret Stephens, December 8, 2011, New York City