A personal and unconventional obituary for one of America’s great biographers.
Joan Schenkar once offered to steal champagne for me from the Plaza Hotel, after I had declared it to be my favorite drink.
I reassured her that while I am passionate and adventurous, I have always operated within the law. She then confided to me that she had not. Furthermore, she had broken the law and gotten away with it. I had no idea what she was referring to as we sat there at the after party for a movie premiere at the nearby Paris cinema, and I had no intention of encouraging transgression for a fermented beverage. This is a Patricia Highsmith hangover, I thought to myself. But I took note that here was a creature with a different morality perhaps to me. And yet oh how I admired her.
A New York Times-acclaimed author, a Lambda Literary Award Winner, an Edgar Award Nominee, an Agatha Award Nominee, a Publishers Weekly Pick, Joan Schenkar was one of my closest friends of a certain age at a certain time. The last promise I made to her was to buy a cassette recorder on eBay so that we could play back the interview I did with her more than a decade ago about her brilliant biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, so that we could listen to the younger queer journalist talking to the elder author who would one day become fast friends, and see if we could hear affinity across time’s wrinkle. She loved the idea of it. She was an excavator of lives after all.
We first met at a New York dinner party and I can’t recall if I was informed in advance that she would be there, but the moment I walked in the door it was like a magnet had drawn us and although she was a fussy eater and I am an omnivore, we were both omnivores in conversation. I was flattered when, the day after, her emails revealed she had not thought me a fool and for three fabulous years we kept up a conversation on every topic under the sun. Over time, I was alternately entertained and alarmed by some of her views. She had every appetite for avant-garde art but no patience for political correctness and sometimes I had no patience for her lack thereof. But I understood a few things about her: She was an egocentric double Leo; a Jew from Seattle; an urbanista who had grown her roots on a farm in Vermont; a fame-hungry playwright who made audiences and critics uncomfortable; a lesbian who was attractive to men; a high culture cynic whose eyes misted over at the sound of a klezmer. She was a basket of contradictions and harmony sometimes hung in the balance until she emailed me with solicitations such as My Dearest Merryn, have you heard… have you seen…did you read…what did you think of…
Sitting in a restaurant with her one night on the Upper East Side I was thrilled to see the menu had a special of fresh langoustines. “Oh Joan,” I said. “Straight from the Mediterranean. We must!” She smiled, a trifled frightened, and shook her head, then took her forefingers and put them to her forehead as little horns. “Traife!” she said. “Traife!” And then even beyond kosher for which I have the utmost respect—dumb shiksa from Down Under that I am—I saw this was also Joan, finding the devil in many things.
During our friendship she recited some lessons about love and death. These were received by me as we walked up Seventh Avenue in the West Village together, near her apartment on Cornelia Street, Joan wearing black and smoking a cigarillo as I listened to her voice, as penetrating and as euphonious as a fine instrument; Joan and I watching the latest black and white international arthouse film at IFC; Joan and I sitting in her tiny rent-controlled studio apartment in Greenwich Village, sipping red wine in the afternoon surrounded by her many books and literary mementoes; Joan and I talking on a crackling phone line from her studio apartment in Paris where she had chosen to wait out the pandemic—every now and then she would regale me with stories of a Catherine Deneuve or Isabelle Huppert sighting.
And always, these moments came with a feeling that we knew each other from another time. We recognized each other as two serious ladies. As simple and as rare as that.
When my former wife was angling for a way back in, it was Joan who told me not to acquiesce and absolutely not to invite her to “wound” me again. Thereafter she would ask, My Dearest Merryn, how is your heart…?
Joan Schenkar was found dead in her Paris apartment in the summer of the second year of the coronavirus pandemic. The French coroner never revealed the cause of death to her American friends. Some say it was her heart. Whatever it was, it was sudden. I had only spoken to Joan two weeks prior and we had a date: to drive in her little Fiat which had been custom painted to a farm in Vermont, the state in which she had spent her childhood.
Joan was 68, according to Wikipedia, but she was really 78, the discrepancy based on strategy rather than vanity. It took a long time to write the kind of quality biographies Joan produced, and time is not kind to women. But had I known she was a decade older than she presented, I would not have tarried in our acquaintance. I would have accepted that invitation to visit her on the Rue St-Sulpice. I might have even accepted the offered purloined Champagne. I certainly would have nudged her for that promised signed copy of her biography of Dolly Wilde.
Now, who will write Joan’s biography?
Joan was a living work, both true and fictive, always in process, a chimera, appearing at will. For me she was Chiron the wounded healer; she had wounded others, had been wounded herself. “The Doctor is effective only when he himself is affected. Only the Wounded Healer heals,” wrote Jung. The last book she was writing was about “love” she told me, when I pressed her on the subject. The last great project she was working on was to petition New York City to place historical markers throughout her beloved West Village commemorating Manhattan’s lesbian literary legends.
After the dinner in which she had identified one of my favorite crustaceans as the work of the devil, she put on her sunglasses, lit up a cigarillo and walked out into the night, alone.
Joan was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, in good company.