Monday, April 28, 2008


I did not know Leonard Rosenman, who died earlier this year at the age of 83. I did, however, by reason of our family connection, join the throng of friends and family who gathered yesterday afternoon at the Eastwood Sound Stage at Warner Brothers Studio to honor him and celebrate his life.

An extraordinary life it was. A composer of note who turned his primary attention to scores for film and television, he was "discovered" by the young James Dean in the 1950s and composed the music for both Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, along with an innumerable list of other movies; drank beer with Dylan Thomas and bummed around with Leonard Bernstein; joined Albert Einstein (who by then, according to the account we heard, had become somewhat hilariously tone deaf) in a chamber concert; studied with Arnold Schoenberg; made more friends than could possibly be imagined; won Oscars and Emmys; and of course, with his music, reached the ears of countless millions of those who did not know him.

All of which would be impressive enough in itself--a rich, luminous life, lived to the full, and an important contribution to the history of both music and film; and, on the personal front, a wonderful, loving and mutually supportive family, many of whom were there on this occasion to offer their own tributes. Almost more impressive, though, was the twilight of his life. Diagnosed in his 70s with frontal temporal dementia , a degenerative brain disorder, he lost certain capacities of his formidable brain but, as one of his daughters put it in her tribute--and here I paraphrase--found a way to live, instead, more fully in his heart. He lived those last years of his life, I heard reiterated many times as those who loved him spoke, exclusively "in the moment." Last to take the stage in his honor was the group of young, creative people known as "Leonard's posse," care-givers who discovered in his energy and joie de vivre, and in a capacity to love that transcended his disease, a source of inspiration that changed their lives.

There was the opportunity, of course, as is inevitable on such occasions, to reflect on the fragility of life and the advance of years. Particularly moving, for me, was the moment when the octogenarian actor, Robert Brown, a contemporary of Leonard's, spoke with personal intensity about the experience of watching the body in the process of its inevitable changes as it ages--something I myself am keenly aware of. And toward the end, the presiding rabbi spoke of memories--"the only thing we truly have," he said. I see what he means. Our own memories, and the ones that others form of us, exist on a plane that is quite different from that of material reality.

Still, in my understanding of the Buddhist teachings, I find myself in disagreement with the rabbi on this point. Memories, like everything else, are illusory and fleeting; they come and go seemingly as they will, often in conflict with our own needs and desires. We each have our different ways of remembering: Ellie has an incredible memory for faces, but searches in vain for names; I can often supply the names, but fail to recognize the faces. Like everything else, our memories fade and disappear. Leonard's short-term memory was pilfered from him by the peculiarities of his disease; but, not long before his death, we heard, in the comfortable home to which his family had entrusted him for his health and safety, he sat down at the piano one day and played, beautifully and to everyone's surprise, the theme he had composed decades before for "East of Eden."

One thing, of course, is certain: that Leonard is more fortunate than most of us in that his memory will live on in his music. Those listening to it, years from now, will have no living "memory" of the man who wrote it; but they will have the evidence of the music itself to identify and communicate with the human spirit from which came into the world. The impression I was left with was that this Leonard was a truly happy man, who spent his life devoted to what he loved the most--whether his art, or the people who supported him in his practice of it. May we all find such happiness in our lives.

1 comment:

MandT said...

Beautiful memorial---thoughtful!