An article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Alzheimer’s and Other Late-in-Life Storms,” (7/23/17) is about Tina Howe and her husband, Norman Levy, who has Alzheimer’s. The article doesn’t say much about Tina and Norman’s life together, aside from a few comments on how they met and on Norman’s medical condition, which was diagnosed in 2013. There is a picture of them together in the article; they are in their apartment in the Upper West end of Manhattan; this is where my wife, Anne, and two Albany friends visited Tina and Norman in 2009.
Norman was a colleague of mine in the History department at the University at Albany for a few years, before he and Tina left Albany and moved to New York city. We never lost touch with them and we saw them several times when Tina was invited to Albany to give talks. She had written plays when she and Norman lived in Kinderhook; she showed Anne one of her plays, which Anne thought was funny but a bit bizarre; men licking whipped cream from the breasts of women; she told Tina that she didn’t think it would appeal to many playgoers. Anne was mistaken; Tina became one of New York’s best-known playwrights. She is the daughter of Quincy Howe, a well-known broadcaster and public figure; Tina grew up amidst wealth and success; she mentioned once that she recalled being in a taxi with Salvador Dali. She met Norman at a party in 1959; they went to Wisconsin, where Norman was a graduate student; he came to the University at Albany with superb recommendations; his dissertation was on the Partisan Review and some of its writers. He submitted one chapter, which was well received, but he never completed the dissertation. He and Tina left their farm house outside Kinderhook and returned to New York city in the dead of winter; Norman wrote a novel, Our Deal, which I assigned in one of my classes; I invited him to talk about his novel to my students, which he did. Norman was a superb teacher; he brought very high intelligence, wit, an engaging manner, and a keen sense of audience to the teaching enterprise. Students loved Norman’s book and they were spellbound by him. So was I.
When Anne, I, and our four kids first visited Norman and Tina in their farm house outside Kinderhook we drove down 9W until we came to a sign indicating that apples were for sale; we turned right at the sign and drove about a mile until we came to Norman and Tina’s farm house; they were standing in front of it, waiting for us. It was a scene out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic”; the scene suggested Wood’s painting of a farm house in Iowa with a farmer and his wife; Norman had a pitch fork; he and Tina looked straight ahead; Tina is 6’ tall, about the same height as Norman. They waved at us as we parked our car; we all entered their farm house; we walked into the living room and immediately Tina went to the piano, which she appeared to play; she was transported by the music that she seemed to be playing; I believe it was Bach’s Goldberg Variations; the playing was fabulous. We knew that Tina was brilliant but we didn’t know that she could play the piano like that. She wasn’t; Norman was playing a record of Glenn Gould performing Bach. The day was off to a brilliant beginning; we had other such days with Norman and Tina in their farm house outside Kinderhook. On one of our visits they rented an airplane and had a pilot take our kids and other kids for a spin. In one of our visits our oldest son James was playing ball in the front yard, hitting it with a bat; Norman and Tina arranged everything to perfection. And they visited us at our place in Albany; we saw them regularly, until they returned to New York City, I gather in a cold winter day. Life wasn’t the same without them; they enlivened our life and the life of everyone they met in Albany during their five years or so before they returned to New York City. Seeing them when they came to Albany from New York was always a joy; Tina was the attraction, other than the time when Norman came to discuss his novel, Our Deal, with my students, which they had read. He taught adjunct, I believe at NYU, and Tina became famous.
We kept in touch for years; they invited Don and Sarah Birn and Anne and me to visit them in their place in New York City in 2009. It is a day I will never forget. They ushered us into their place; they then performed for us. Norman was a brilliant actor; his role on this occasion was special even for him. He alluded to the past as if he were on stage; he recalled interviewing big-name historians when the University at Albany History department was trying to hire leading historians in the early 1970s. He spoofed the scenes as only he could have; he recalled the responses of our colleagues when we interviewed big-name historians for positions in our department; he recalled a colleague who commented that the historian we were interviewing seemed like he was smart but he wondered if he would be a good colleague. He recalled another interview; this really important historian seemed impressive, but spoofing one of his colleagues he wondered if he would be satisfied in the History department. At this point in his performance Norman reached down and tugged on his stockings, as if to make certain that they were on; when he looked up he captured the absurdity of the moment. We all broke up with laughter; Norman had taken us back in time to a moment when the History department had illusions of grandeur. What happened was a collapse of the History department and the University at Albany a couple of years later; the Ph.D. program was decertified; the History department and the University went through a painful period of adjustment until the Ph.D. program was re-certified in 1990.
After a fine lunch, Norman, Tina, Sarah and Don, and Anne and I went for a walk outside their apartment. Don, Norman, and I walked together; it is a time that I haven’t and won’t forget. Anne took pictures of us as we walked through the Upper West end outside their apartment. Norman was amusing, as only he could be; it was glorious seeing his part of the city with Norman and Tina as guides. We saw Norman one more time; it was in 2013 when Anne and I and our son Tom and his wife Wendi saw one of Tina’s plays in New York City. There was a bed on stage and a woman lay on it, having a series of dreams. She dreamed that she was doing something important; an actor on stage acted out the dream; she then had another dream; a different actor acted out the dream; then she had another dream; a third actor acted it out. Each scene came out of Tina’s creative imagination; each scene was perfect; the final scene distilled her message, which was uproariously funny and deeply touching. The play was in a small theater; when we stood up to leave we noticed that Norman was seated a few rows behind us. This was the last time I saw him. The picture of Norman and Tina in yesterday’s New York Times shows them in their apartment; they look much as they did when Anne and I last saw them; one would never know from the photograph that Norman has Alzheimer’s.