For a writer much celebrated for his wit, Neil Simon, who died last weekend at the age of 91 in New York, visited some very dark places.
His two memoirs, Rewrites (1996) and The Play Goes On (1999) are suffused with melancholy. Rewrites ends with the lingering death of a beloved spouse and Play winds up with an account of a divorce.
Mixed into both books are stories of million dollar investment losses, panic attacks, assorted other phobias, multiple divorces, and conflicted childhood estrangements. How many authors describe themselves as anal-retentive, claustrophobic and capable of great insensitivity?
Simon is nothing if not brutally honest: a quality that can be found in his thirty plus plays and his Hollywood scripts.
This is not to say that Simon’s autobiographies are tragedies. Both books have the cheerful tone of an accomplished man who greatly enjoyed life — but the underlying theme is bittersweet.
Those of us in the deathcare business would do well to read them. His portrayal of the 1973 passing of first wife Joan Baim includes a striking scene that took place when he picked out her casket.
While walking through the casket sample room, Simon was asked, “What do you have in mind?” — “as though I’d been thinking for years about the casket I always hoped I could find,” Simon writes.
The mourning process he went through is completely detailed, including his realization that Baim’s memory colored the texture of his following marriages. Regarding his move to Los Angeles with new wife Marsha Mason, Simon notes: “…we were living in a house three thousand miles away, with the ghost of the past (Baim) in a cemetery in Pound Ridge, New York.”
With all the personal travails, Simon still managed a singularly triumphant – unparalleled, in fact — career as a playwright and screenwriter.
His four Oscar nominations and 17 Tony nominations (winner three times) are the most for any author — total box offices grosses for his plays and films make him the most commercially successful writer these fields have ever known.
The final irony connected to Simon is that he was not always appreciated by the critics. Some called his work superficial schmaltz, sentimental, glib and formula driven.
Clive Barnes, one of those critics, famously said that “Neil Simon is destined to remain rich, successful and underrated.” There’s a great deal of truth in that comment — although we must add that such a fate is better than being poor and overrated.
This critical judgment leavened a bit with the arrival of three fine plays he wrote in the 1980’s and one superior effort in the 1990’s. The three were Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, and Broadway Bound; Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Lost in Yonkers, produced in 1991, may well be the best writing Simon ever did.
“He mixes comedy and drama, and for the most part, without either force feeding the jokes or milking the tears,” Frank Rick, drama critic of the New York Times, commented at the time.
We were lucky enough to see all four of these in New York with the original casts — seldom have we had more satisfying evenings in the theater.
While not being in the class of Tennessee Williams or a Eugene O’Neill (who is?), Simon’s body of work constitutes an excellence in its own niche, comparable to his idol George Kaufman or even Noel Coward. The latter two focused on a different social strata, but Simon wrote knowingly about the people he grew up with: his touch, when at its best, combined robust humor with penetrating insight.
Obituaries have been kind to him, although some say his work has dated. We don’t agree with that assessment: good theater can be revived, the links with time past lives a long time on the stage.
Funeral arrangements have not been announced — at one time, Simon owned a plot next to Joan Baim in Pound Ridge, but we are uncertain if that will be his final resting place.
RIP, Neil Simon.
UPDATE: We have just learned that Simon was laid to rest in the Pound Ridge Cemetery next to his beloved Joan. Apparently, he never did stop loving her.