He Was My Closest Friend


Several Men

The second of five vignettes.


Photo: Larry Moyer

He lived alone in various houses, and moved from one to the next in response to no discernible stimulus. I assumed that, at some point, he felt it was just “time to move.”

He had lost his first wife, and their young daughter to cancer. And he told me that the terrible thing was not that they were dead, but that they stayed dead. I thought of it often, and think of it oftener since his death.

I’d had a cold and was sleeping in the little guest cubby in the eaves of the attic, and I woke up with an intolerable pain in my chest.

I knew I was dying, and thought, Well, this is a heart attack. It subsided, and I went back to sleep, only to be struck, again, some time later. The next morning a mutual friend called to tell me that Shel had died the night before of a heart attack—in fact, of two heart attacks, some minutes apart.

My wife sent me to have my heart checked out, and its only defect was that it was broken.

I’d first met Shel one night at a theater company dinner in Chicago, and we closed the restaurant together, and walked on Oak Street Beach till dawn quoting Kipling to each other.

He was an autodidact of pristine purity. His wide reading, knowledge, and interests were guided only by his desire to know everything.

A poor kid from the West Side of Chicago, he went into the Army after World War II and served in the Occupation of Japan. He learned to speak Japanese sufficiently to amuse himself, and started drawing cartoons for Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper. After the war he worked in Chicago as a mail carrier until his cartoons caught up with him, and he was hired by Hugh Hefner.

His cartoons became one of Playboy’s hallmarks. He branched out into children’s books.

Before the Harry Potter series, his were the most widely published children’s books in history. The Giving Tree was number one on the New York Times bestseller list for three years. In 1950s Chicago he was asked to write a song for Bob Gibson and Bob Camp.

He’d never written a song before, but he, like many a Chicagoan, was not loathe to try his hand at a poem, and, I believe, he reasoned, How difficult could it be? He had three songs on their Gate of Horn album, the best album of the folk era, and then he went to Nashville and wrote for Johnny Cash et al.: “A Boy Named Sue,” “The Unicorn,” “Sylvia’s Mother,” and so on.

He began writing plays, one of which was performed on a triple bill with one of mine and one of Elaine May’s: “Three Plays by Chicagoans.” That’s where we met.

We saw him most often at his gingerbread house in the Tabernacle at Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. He lived alone, when he chose to, and with various young amicable women transiently. Two weeks before he died my wife and I had been with him when a very young girl picked him up at a café in Oak Bluffs. He called us later that night to report that they’d gone back to his place, and she had, at one point, risen to leave. “Wait,” he said, “When we met I thought you ‘felt’ something. Didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Well,” he said, “what did you think?”

“I thought, What a nice old man.”

My wife and I joked that that’s what killed him.

I know he would have enjoyed the joke.

David Mamet is a stage and film director as well as the author of numerous acclaimed plays, books, and screenplays. His latest book is Three War Stories.