Thursday, April 21, 2011

50 years ago today...

It was a cold and gray late April day in 1961, with a chill wind blowing off the Hudson River.  Every one of the 3,500 seats in Riverside Church was taken, with hundreds of mourners waiting outside.  Dr. Robert McCracken officiated.  Virgil Thompson played the organ.  Metropolitan Opera baritone Robert Merrill sang, filling the giant cathedral with the ringing tones of Alfred Hay Malott’s setting of The Lord’s Prayer.

Despite the fact that at fifteen, I knew I’d not led the life of an ordinary child, it was the funeral, with all those people—all those famous people—paying tribute to my father that brought home to me just how far reaching was his fame. People like radio commentator Lowell Thomas, Connecticut neighbor Thomas Watson Jr. of IBM, actor Lee Bowman, Metropolitan opera colleague Francis Robinson, TV personality Bud Collyer, radio pals and television co-workers, as well as hundreds of fans, who came to pay their respects. 

 For the memorial service at Riverside Church in New York, my mother chose the music they’d loved—music that was a part of him, a part of their life.  The tenor aria from Tosca was one of them, “E Lucevan le Stelle.”  In the last act, Mario, the painter, patriot and lover of Tosca, waits in the yard of the prison for the dawn that will bring his execution.  By the light of the stars, he, who has so much to live for, awaits the rays of the sun for the last time... 

She took my father to Ocala, Florida for the burial.  There, on his headstone are the words of another song he sang and she loved: Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song.”


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