October 9, 2012

Lili Crane - 1918-2012: A Work of Art

Beautiful young people are accidents of nature;
beautiful old people are works of art.

--Eleanor Roosevelt

Lili Crane was Michelangelo's Mona Lisa, Picasso's Avignon Women, and Andy Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, all rolled into one priceless work of art. I was fortunate to have her as a dear friend for 57 years.  

She died in July here in Washington, DC, after celebrating her 94th birthday with her large clan in Cape May, New Jersey. The memorial celebration of her life was held last Saturday in the large back room at Busboys and Poets Restaurant. It was a perfect venue, as you'll see below.

To fully describe her life would take a 500-page biography by David McCullough. But the program for Saturday's tribute offered this summary:

Precocious granddaughter, union organizer, theater-goer, 
proud Jewess, loving wife, bridge lover, staunch Democrat, 
great Mom, civil rights protester, literacy tutor, rebellious daughter, 
friendly neighbor, loyal friend, generous aunt, supportive boss, 
doting Grandmother, poker player, opera buff, sage adviser, 
anti-war activist, proud Great-grandmother, fun co-worker and Muse.

To which I'd add -- a role model for many on how to age with grace, dignity, and zest.

Lili was a smart, feisty, funny, outspoken, no-nonsense woman. I love smart, feisty, funny, outspoken, no-nonsense women. After all, I married one and fathered another (and my granddaughters and great-granddaughters seem to have inherited the gene.) Lili was a classic in this mold. As you can see, I adored her:

The Memorial Celebration
Busboys and Poet's private room proved a perfect venue for the gathering. Its owner, Anas "Andy" Shallal, is an Iraqi-American artist, activist and restaurateur who opened his flagship restaurant in 2005 in DC's thriving "U St. corridor." No other restaurant in the city welcomes a clientele as vibrant or mixed. Black and white, old and young, gay and straight.. the whole city mingles here.

The name Busboys and Poets refers to American poet Langston Hughes, who worked as a busboy at Washington's Wardman Park Hotel in the 1930s, before he became an acclaimed poet. Here's the restaurant's "tribal statement":
Busboys and Poets is a community where racial and cultural connections are consciously uplifted... a place to take a deliberate pause and feed your mind, body and soul... a space for art, culture and politics to intentionally collide... we believe that by creating such a space we can inspire social change and begin to transform our community and the world.
That statement describes Lili's aspirations: from her Communist Party days in the 1930s, her service in the Women's Army Corps during World War II, her participation in every DC civil rights and anti-war protest, her years as a volunteer tutor for underprivileged children, and her volunteer work in Florida before the 2008 election when she was nearly 90 years old.

Jody Crane, one of Lili's three daughters, was the celebration's moderator. Here she is against the backdrop of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi and Martin Luther King:

And here, against the backdrop of the civil rights mural are Lili's other two daughters. Bambi Kapustik sits at the right end of the banquette against the wall under the large "PEACE" sign. Daughter Deena, hands folded, is at the next table along the wall.

Here are Lili's three daughters with the fourth "sister." From age 11, Julie Jenkins was raised as part of Lili's family.

The program featured a terrific mix of reminiscences and musical selections. Martin Bestimt, a high school pal of Jody's and the son of one of Lili's best friends, sang Cabaret. I remember Lili getting a group us together to see Martin 30 years ago at the International Inn where he performed as a singing waiter. His sister Annie worked with Lili at BNA for several years. In this picture, Martin and Annie talk with Judy Springberg, a BNA retiree who frequently traveled with Lili to Atlantic City and Las Vegas, where they pursued their love of gambling.

Midway through the program, Dotty Losey, another BNA retiree who was part of the BNA bridge club with Lili (and me), led everyone in a spirited rendition of Hello, Lili! to the tune of Hello, Dolly! This send-up was first sung at a gathering of BNA friends for Lili's 65th birthday.

I'm not sure how Lili celebrated her 70th birthday, but I hosted parties for her 75th, 80th, 85th, and 90th. Here's Lili at her 90th with my daughter Ann (who worked at BNA for several years following in the footsteps of her mother and father who met and married as a result of BNA) and Kathy Gill, another BNA retiree and dear friend of Lili's (and mine). Hard to believe that Lili is 90 in this picture!

Here's a photo of Lili from 1959. She's standing in front of Melona's Restaurant in the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue, where many of us BNAers went for the blue-plate special lunch which cost about 57 cents. The Paul Newman look-alike at left is Bill Beltz, who became BNA's president. The other good-looking guy is Tom Downer, one of Bill's best friends who worked briefly for BNA.


Lili left BNA shortly after this photo was taken, when her husband Jack took a job in Baltimore. A few years later, Jack died (so young) and Bill, then managing editor, called Lili and urged her to return to BNA. Thank God she did.

I think Lili is more beautiful in her 90th birthday photo than in this one taken more than half a century earlier. 

"Bring Back Lili!"
The celebration of Lili's life on Saturday ended with an "open mic," when admirers came forward to share memories of Lili. Fearing an outbreak of sobbing, I was first reluctant, but managed to tell this story:

Lili ended her BNA career as the long-time director of the company's "research and special projects division," which had been established to answer inquiries and conduct research for subscribers. About a year after Lili retired, the newest corporate fad was "customer service audits," so companies could learn what their customers really thought. BNA jumped on the bandwagon. I chaired a committee that traveled around the country, conducting focus groups of subscribers. Our small panel sat behind a one-way window, unseen by the subscribers, to monitor the sessions... and take copious notes.

At one session, a group of law firm librarians was asked what BNA could do to improve its customer service. After a few general remarks, somebody said, "I know what BNA should do. It should bring back Lili!" Others chimed it. "Yes. Bring back Lili!"

All of us who were fortunate to be her friend would join in this chant.



John M said...

Wonderful tribute, John. Lili sounds amazing!

John said...

She was that! You would have loved her..

Kathy said...

Thanks so much, John. I so wish I could have been there with you ... but thought about Lili throughout the day from afar.

Bill said...

Like you, I've always liked tough, feisty women.

I think it comes from having lived with my grandmother, a self-educated woman (she'd quit school after the 7th grade), was divorced very young and raised my mother on her own, read constantly (including, in later years, the New York Times through a heavy magnifying glass), traveled when single women didn't, and knew her mind and, though unfailingly polite, was happy to let you know it.

During my time at BNA, I never knew Lili well. I would run into her from time to time, most often in the library. Even from a distance, I could tell I liked this funny, spirited, argumentative (and obviously Jewish) woman. What is striking to me, this many years later, is that even from a distance, all of her qualities were instantly apparent.

I got to know Lili a little better in later years, through my friendship with you, and of course had an opportunity to see all those qualities a little closer up. I never doubted why the two of you were such close friends, nor can I imagine how much you must miss her.

John said...


Liz Hofmeister said...

John. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to Lili and re-creation of last Saturday's celebration of her life. I didn't know her well, but certainly admired her feisty character. Some years ago I met her at Magruder's on Connecticut Ave., long after she retired and we chatted in the parking lot I was there to buy groceries, but she had come to resupply her liquor cabinet -- I think we may have been expecting a storm and she was stocking up.
Liz H

Jody Crane said...

Thank you John for sharing such wonderful highlights of our Saturday Lili Lovefest. But more importantly thank you for being her best friend, supporter, encourager, and all around essential presence in her life for so many years. She talked about you all the time with great love and admiration.