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Photo by Amie Oliver
Robert Wernick in Montparnasse, Paris. June 4, 2011.
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Wernick in his Montparnasse studio
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Photo by Amie Oliver
Wernick with "Blitzkrieg," in Malta.
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Wernick on Joseph Pilates' stomach. Pilates was 87 years old at the time. (Photo by Chuck Rapoport)
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Wernick with Amie Oliver in the Jardin du Plants. (Photo by Goxwa Borg)
About a month ago, while lingering over offerings at a Library of Virginia lobby book sale, I came across the multi-volume Time-Life history of World War II. As a youngster, I eagerly read these pages and appreciated the rich trove of photographs. One of the volumes was written by Robert Wernick, a career journalist and writer, who spent years writing for Time-Life publications and others.
When a gawky, nearsighted kid hampered by a funny name and without much in the way of social skills, I spent hours amid the book stacks and aisles of the Lori Road Branch of the Chesterfield County Public Library. I was then fated to run into Bob — not the man, himself, but his words. One I remember quite well was The Monument Builders, a title in the Time-Life series “The Emergence of Man.”
I recall keeping it out long enough to make it overdue.
Similarly, I paged through his exciting volume on The Vikings and about the German Blitzkrieg that opened World War II. I consumed his words without the knowledge he’d been quenching my curiosity about the world’s nooks and crannies all my life. Never once did I suspect that I’d go see any of these world wonders, or that I’d ever meet someone like Wernick.
I bought that Blitzkrieg volume because my partner-in-art, Amie Oliver, was leaving for a European artist’s residency and would see Bob. I wanted her to ask if he’d sign it. Back in the 1970s, I would’ve never imagined being able to meet Bob in his fifth floor walkup Paris apartment, any more than I could anticipate when buying the book that when Amie photographed him paging through it, this would likely be the last book he examined, or signed. He died soon afterward, on Saturday, Aug. 16.
I met Bob in person in 1995 through the friendship of Amie and the artist Goxwa Borg. Goxwa, a Maltesian native, lived in the atelier across the hall from Bob in the same Montparnasse building where he’d resided for more than 40 years. Bob lived part of that time with his wife, Marion, who passed away before I met him. Goxwa and Bob maintained a close and caring friendship for some 20 years.
My impression of Bob was, I wrote in my journal at the time, “one of the most accessible and fascinating exhibits in Paris. A man of great experiences and a true witness to history.”
I’d not told Bob this, but I suspect he’d get a gleam in his eye and tell me that if he was the most fascinating exhibit in Paris, then I owed him the cost of an entry fee.
He was then at what I then considered the very advanced age of 77. I was amazed that anyone that old could be known in his neighborhood as Monsieur Cent-trois Marches, because that was the number of stairs he had to trip down and up every time he went out to shop for groceries, or to have drinks with friends, or to interview one of the 200 or so famous people he had been writing lively accounts about for 40 years in Smithsonian, Life, Readers Digest, Vanity Fair, The Saturday Evening Post, Sports Illustrated and The New Republic.
Bob was more interested in what was happening in front of his eyes than in what had happened years ago, and he never dropped the name of one of those famous people into casual conversation, but if the name came up, he always had a revealing and quite unexpected anecdote to pull out of his bottomless memory tank.
For example, I happened to mention the time when Richmond’s city fathers had a notion of asking Salvador Dalí to do a work of public art for Monument Avenue, and that he had sent over the man described as his military attaché, Capt. Moore, to assess the situation.
“Oh yes,” Bob said, he knew Capt. Moore well. “He was a main character in the story I had written about Dalí, for Life magazine. Moore was known as the military attaché because it was his job to make sure that whatever Dalí chose to do in public, he would not get in trouble with the authorities. Bob recalled, “When Dalí was in New York, staying at the St Regis Hotel, it was Capt. Moore’s duty to take the master’s two pet ocelots [also called dwarf leopards] for a walk down Fifth Avenue, and he made sure to stuff his pockets with 50-dollar bills to take care of any authorities who might try to remind him that it is against the law to let dangerous animals walk the city streets.”
Moore was Irish and a “film producer” living by his wits in Rome — “as so many did,” Bob said of that period in the 1950s. He recalled how once a recently immigrated Ecuadorian elevator boy at the St. Regis Hotel reacted to the cats: “The sight of these jungle beasts from the boy’s homeland frightened him and caused him to run away.” Bob laughed. “Well, there really was no need for this anxiety. They’d been de-fanged and de-clawed, so they really could do no harm.”
I saw under the skylight of a tidy Paris studio apartment a man who’d met Moore, and Dalí and maybe the entire cast of artists and bohemians later represented in the Woody Allen film Midnight In Paris. And he spoke in an easy but readily printable manner. My notes from the discussion look like they were copied from a book.
While sipping whiskey, he described the obstreperous novelist/memoirist Henry Miller as a pleasant fellow, a great conversationalist, quite fun to sit with and have a beer. “He was a regular Joe from New York,” Bob said one evening as shadows grew long. “He’d come to Paris like so many did to thumb their collective nose at the puritanical ways of their homeland. Henry thought of himself as a great writer – and occasionally announced this to any and all present. He never really had a job.”
In his books, Miller moans about not having money and constant debt, although he was always getting support from those who found him charming, especially women. “In a way, he missed out on the rites of love,” Bob said. “By that I mean, the disappointments and the heartbreak we all suffer. When women are throwing themselves at you, what is one to do?” he chortled. “He wasn’t a bad fellow and was really one of the most pleasant persons to sit down with for a succession of drinks that I have ever met.”
Soon enough, though, he was telling me about fleeing Paris on a bicycle the day before the Germans marched into the city and how he met William Faulkner in Los Angeles — “A polite fellow, natty dresser,” he said. There were few luminaries of the past half-century and more that he’d not at least bumped into in a bar in Paris, Venice or Manhattan, including Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. During one visit with Bob, Amie asked, as she has done of many writers, which he preferred between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. He didn’t pause. “Neither. I prefer Faulkner,” he said, and chuckled. “He's a writer.”
Bob once interviewed Marilyn Monroe while eating ice cream and riding a Ferris wheel. He tells this, and many other such great stories, on his website,
He had a picture in his apartment of himself standing on the stomach of Joseph Pilates. Bob interviewed Pilates for Sports Illustrated when he was teaching his method of “contrology” in a small New York City studio. His students included the great ballerina Martha Graham and acclaimed actor Laurence Olivier. Bob practiced what is now known as “Pilates” throughout his life. Here’s the interview that ran in the Sports Illustated issue of February 12, 1962 – a month after I was born.
This quote is priceless: “Looking down from the walls of the gym are paintings, photographs sculptures of Joe, naked or loinclothed: spearfishing at 56, representing the Spirit of Air on the floor of the Nebraska state capitol at 60, skiing at 78. There are also photographs with admiring testimonials ("To the greatest,""to the one and immortal Joe" from distinguished alumni, and photostats of articles from American newspapers documenting the horrors of American posture. Through sweat-filled eyes, as you are upside down on one machine, you might see a famous publisher or producer or anchorperson bent double on another. They are all receiving the full lash of Pilatean philosophy.”
One morning, Bob gave me directions to the house of the great modern sculptor Alberto Giacometti. I didn’t know then how well Bob had known him and his brother Diego, and just a few years ago, he composed a monograph about his friendship with them. Giacometti was of Swiss origin, and from a mountainous corner of the country that might correspond to our West Virginia — at least from outsider perception. That a major shaper of modern art should come from there surprised people.
Bob later conveyed this remarkable story: “It is the 13th of June 1940, 24 hours before the German army will start to occupy Paris, My girlfriend and I are bicycling through empty streets to the boulevard St. Germain, which is crammed with stalled cars, six abreast, filled with trunks and boxes and children, which are trying to get out of Paris. But there has been a traffic accident a mile or so ahead, and not one of those cars can move an inch.
We maneuver our bikes around them, and arrive in time at the Café de Flore to keep our rendezvous with Alberto Giacometti and his brother Diego – we are all going to bicycle hundreds of miles to escape the Germans. All is quiet in front of the café. Except for one mighty burst of swear-words, in French and Italian and German, coming from Alberto, whose bike has a flat tire, and he is pumping away furiously, but his tire stays flat, and he gets more and more furious that at this great historical moment, he should be held up by something so vulgar as a pump.
No one else is moving, at the café tables or in the cars. No one but my practical little girlfriend, who gets off her bike, leans it against a tree and then walks over to Alberto’s bike, looks it over coolly and then leans down to unscrew the valve that lets air out of the pump and into the tire. And the tire swells right up, and Alberto, without a word of thanks or anything else, jumps on to his saddle and goes riding away into history.”
And now Bob has gone into history on the ancient island of Malta. He leaves behind a daughter, grandchildren, books and stories. Toward late September, I'll visit Paris, and intend to go into Harry’s New York Bar, where Amie and I and friends will raise glasses of his preferred Jack Daniels in his honor.
We are sorrowful when a person dies young, due to the potential that vanishes. But the passing of a memory and mind like Bob’s is occasion for reflection, too, for with his going over the horizon — as with all those of certain long age — a direct link to another though real world is gone except for what is preserved in hundreds of scattered magazine articles and books.
Bob kept going, and his work in words continues traveling to bookshelves, bound volumes of magazines and now across the Internet. A few years ago he composed a memoir monograph titled “Life Begins At 90” and asked me, of all people, to write the preface.
In some library or on a website, I hope that a kid is reading of megaliths and wondering about their mysteries and if he’ll ever get to see them. Bob is telling that young man or woman to go look at them up close. Don’t hesitate. Life is for living as long as you can.