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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Dapper Irishman (on the death of Ronan O'Casey)

On April 12, 2012 our friend Ronan O'Casey (known to his close friends simply as Case) was playing poker at one of the small gambling parlors south of Los Angeles. He was, evidently, an extraordinary poker player, and that day he had just won $300, about which he called to report to his wife, Carol Tavris; "I'm on my way home," he announced. Our friend Roz Leader, through whom we had long ago met Case and Carol, reported that she could just see him proudly driving away in a bright blue blazer, perhaps a purple or dark blue handkerchief sprouting from his coat pocket; Case was, with regard to dress, somewhat of a dandy.

     A few minutes later, he called Carol again to report that he had suddenly begun to feel strange, quite awful in fact. She advised him, since he was already on the freeway, to pull over to the side. The phone went dead. She attempted to call the police, but since she didn't know his precise whereabouts, a search was near impossible. A short time later, however, the police called back. A car had been spotted on one of the freeways, half on and half on the shoulder, with a body slumped over in the front seat. Having freed Case from the car and into the hands of a local hospital, rescuers flew him by helicopter to UCLA hospital; he was pronounced dead upon arrival. So, at the age of 89 ended the life of Ronan O'Casey.

     One cannot say that his death at that age was exactly a surprise. Case had been suffering the indignities of small strokes and other ailments for some time. But, as author Murray Pomerance—to whom I'd introduced Case and Carol a few years back—observed: "He seemed in some way, for all his fragility, immortal as perhaps all Irishmen are."

     By the time Howard and I had been introduced to Case at one of Roz's numerous dinner and holiday celebrations a number of years ago, he was, in some respects, a "man of the past," lovingly retelling his numerous stories of working with Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow Up (he played the dead body, a role which I describe in detail in My Year 2007: To the Dogs). But Case could also spin dozens of other stories, new and old, regarding his rich past as an actor (on the London stage in Kiss Me, Kate, The Odd Couple, and Detective Story; on TV as the well known character of Jeff Rogers in The Larkins from 1958-1963 and in films such as Nicholas Ray's Bitter Victory, with Richard Burton and Christopher Lee) as well as new events. Besides his acting career, Case had had an incredible life, was a marvelous cook, and could boast one of the most intelligent and perceptive wives, author and social psychologist Carol, anyone had ever met; she remains one of my very favorite of acquaintances.

    Beyond this, Case had "style," which many described in at his memorial service on April 22, 2012, as "grace." Case was a dynamic individual—no one can deny him that—loyal to friends, vociferously outspoken against whatever he saw as pretention—which sometimes, one must admit, could be directed at things simply outside his imagination. He was gloriously melodious of voice, charming and handsome, stubborn and, on rare occasion, plain irritating. Anything said against anything Irish—despite the fact that Case, himself, was born in Montreal—was met with a flurry of abuse. I have already reported his outburst over my dislike of the Irish Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney! Yet, when I later approached him for an interview about his experiences with Antonioni, Case came to lunch fluttering like a peacock,  sweet and appreciative of my attentions, filled with knowledge and engaging tales.

     Moreover, Case never stopped making new friends. Pomerance, who met him when he was writing a book on Antonioni, reported "I felt close to him." That was the way with Case, if one liked the man, one felt embraced.

     As Jay Perry described it at the memorial ceremony for Case at a private home on Rising Glen Road, he was for many not just a friend, but a great friend, one for whom people went out of their way, as attested to by Martha Bluming's long and charmingly written testimonial letter to Case's superb cherry pie. A lover of jazz, Case was celebrated at his memorial with a beautiful rendition of "Our Love Is Here to Stay" by the duo of Terry Trotter and Chuck Berghofer. Actor Theodore Bikel reminisced about his and Case's close friendship (more like brothers than just friends) in their early days in London and read, almost channeling Case's euphonious voice, Yeats' "Song of the Wandering Aengus." Carol read one of Case's favorite poems, ee cummings' "the great advantage of being alive," and Case's son Matt, read letters from relatives and friends unable to attend the ceremony.

     Everyone was moved to tears. And, ultimately, when we looked around the room, seeking out the ghost of the man we knew would always hover over our lives, but would no longer be a living part of them, many of us muttered to ourselves, in a language characteristic to the man, "fuck." The dapper Irishman had died.

Los Angles, April 23, 2012

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