Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Jay Furman, 1942-2015

My old friend Jason's beloved father Jay died this weekend. I went to the funeral yesterday; there was not an empty seat in the house as people gathered to honor the memory of a great friend and benefactor.

It is difficult to describe how important the Furman family were to me during the crucial years of transition from adolescence to adulthood. From my first year of college, the Furman house at 170 Sullivan Street was my home away from home: at times I was actually living there, but even in my late 20s it was still the place to retreat to as a refuge when I needed a New York bolthole (I particularly remember holing up there for some days during a summer heatwave c. 1999 - I had no air-conditioning in my New Haven apartment during grad school years!), and when I walk by that corner it feels like home.

The Furmans among other things gave me my first glimpse into a world of hospitality that was only partly enabled by wealth. Money was an underlying condition that made possible the spare bedrooms, the amazing supply of theater tickets and restaurant meals, the weekends in the Hamptons - I grew up in a culturally rich milieu, but not one where the whole family regularly going out for dinner and a movie would have been casually affordable, and it was an eye-opener to me that such a thing was even possible. Money alone doesn't do this, though, and the Furman hospitality was really facilitated by the depth and quality of the generosity that both Jay and Gail brought to life in such exceptional measure. It has stayed with me as a vision of what one might aspire to in the matter of helping people of all ages find their way in the world.

Jay was an unforgettable character. Manic, intellectual, a disconcerting trickster figure, he was full of boundless energy, with interests in all sorts of unexpected topics and activities (I obviously didn't know him at this stage of life, but I believe that when Gail first met him, Jay kept a pet monkey in the bathroom of his New York apartment!). Jay was one of the greatest readers I've ever met, partly because he was curious about everything, and he never met a movie he didn't like (he probably saw one almost every day during some periods of his life). At the funeral, he was quoted as having said that his favorite movie was Snakes on a Plane; given that he must have seen every movie ever screened at the Angelika, the New York Film Festival etc., and was immensely knowledgeable about all contemporary art cinema (Korean, Iranian, etc.), this gives a nice flavor of his ecumenical tastes and his ability to surprise (also of the way you never quite knew how serious he was about anything he said). Jay was possibly the least snobbish person I ever met: everything was interesting and deserved his attention in equal measure.

Jay gave me a clerical job at RD Management during a year I needed work (that was where I learned to type from dictation and do a good job at least pretending to be a corporate secretary, though I remember getting called up on the carpet by Jay's brother-in-law once for wearing tights with holes in them!). Jay was an unusual businessman. He was a fast and associative thinker who often left other people behind, but this was of course what made him such fun to be around. His impatience was tempered by a deep temperamental kindness that stopped him from becoming the slightly nerve-racking boss he might have been otherwise!

At one point that year there was an embezzlement scandal at the office, and I remember the conversion of Jay's office and associated boardroom into a massive investigative archive, with boxes of papers spread over the tables. Amy Davidson was called in to work at that point too, it was perhaps our first extended acquaintanceship with the forensic pleasures of delving into archives (I still remember the day when Amy realized that many of the suspect checks bore vertical creases because they had been folded into three and slipped into a breast pocket), and the workplace had the sort of frenetic fun energy that you associate with a newspaper or magazine on production day: Jay's curiosity lent charisma even to an unglamorous kind of investigation.

When I was admitted to the PhD program at Yale with only partial funding for the first two years (they were in transition to a model of full funding for all students, but it hadn't yet been implemented, and I did not have the spotless undergraduate record that would have pushed me up to the top of their list), Jay made up the difference between my fellowship and the standard stipend: I suggested that it should be a loan, but he was adamant that it was a gift, and that the only thing I needed to do in return was to help others at some place down the road. I remember meeting him once to get that year's check from him at his fitness club in midtown before work. He was the most vibrant, physically energetic person you could imagine (his physical qualities to an unusual degree matched his intellectual ones): he had a towel around his neck and announced, with glee, "I just did a twelve-hundred-calorie workout!"

The stories I most loved hearing at the funeral yesterday all involved Jay reading a book in slightly unexpected circumstances. This is exactly how I remember him: reading a book as he walked down the street to the movie theater, reading a book as he waited in the elevator for the lobby back up to the office. Jay liked to go out and play a round of golf on his own, toting his clubs and reading a book all the while; in eminent company (John Sexton, Rudy Giuliani, etc.), in the owner's box at Fenway Park for a playoff game, Jay, who did not care for baseball, took out a book at the end of the first inning and calmly read for the rest of the game!

Jay loved many things, but one of my favorite things about him was how proud he was of his sons Jason and Jesse. He lit up when he talked about them; he loved it that they both were able to excel in so many different ways in the world, and he rejoiced in their remarkable accomplishments (Jesse is a federal judge and Jason is the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors) but he would have loved it if they were elementary-school teachers or jugglers or indeed anything else worthwhile and interesting, which in his book would have meant just about anything, so long as it was done with love and conviction.

I can't pin down this anecdote with enough specificity to tell it really well, but one thing Jay particularly enjoyed in the mid-90s was taking the shuttle from LaGuardia to Boston or Washington for the day to visit with one or the other of his sons, and I particularly remember one occasion (I cannot say which way round it was) when he was so used to the Boston option that he absent-mindedly strolled onto the Boston shuttle instead of the Washington one, even though Jason was at that point living in Washington! He roared with laughter when he told this story - he only realized he'd made the mistake when he landed in the wrong city (it is the hazard of reading a book everywhere you go, and it was in any case an easy mistake to make), and the comic nature of the confusion made it a source of pleasure rather than irritation.

On Monday, Jason sent me this picture of one of Jay's bookshelves. It means a lot to me that my book is there. It couldn't have been written without the support of the Furmans (the same thing goes for my first academic book), and I will continue to hold up Jay in my mind as an extraordinary example of what it really means to be a friend and benefactor. I have made a modest donation to Lungevity in his memory, and encourage others who knew him to do the same; most of all, though, we should all aspire to follow his example in our own small ways. He was a remarkable person. He will be much missed.

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