It was a horrible shock to be rung today by Paul Levy enquiring about writing an obituary for our dear friend, American wine writer Alexis Bespaloff.
Alex was only 71 when he died on Saturday but had been suffering from cancer for some time, having been forced to wear a back brace and having been in and out of hospital from his home in Las Cruces, New Mexico for the last few years.
The wonder was that this quintessentially urban and urbane Manhattan-dweller survived a day so far from what seemed like his natural home. But he moved because, well into his sixties, he got married, for the first time after a life as one of the most popular dates in New York I am reliably informed. Cecilia Lewis is a talented, vivacious and beautiful photographer, English by birth, and when they met in New York she was looking after her sick father who needed to live in a dry climate. So Alex and Cecilia married, bid farewell to the Times in their mailbox every morning and moved, à trois, to Las Cruces where Alex apparently worked in the house next door to their home.
In fact he was not born in New York but in Romania, but he quickly became one of the most cosmopolitan Americans with a detailed knowledge of many of the arts and particularly who was who in the worlds of food and wine.
We first met him in Venice where we had been invited to judge wines – an undemanding task that required us to spend a couple of hours filling in a form ticking boxes marked Si or Non for two or three dozen wines and were then rewarded by two or three days in that magical city. Alex was a great companion with an apparently infinite store of stories and impersonations. He had a good Robert Mondavi impression: “I’d just like to say This about That,” he would croak. He would slice his hand through the air, but then I think that was congenital Bespaloff rather than Mondavi.
Before he married he stayed with us in the Languedoc (where he was very worried about our plan to lay gravel – would we ever sleep? and he arrived straight from Ch Latour where the staff had loaded the wrong suitcase into his trunk, subsequently involving complex passport swaps) and once in London where he spent one Christmas with us, devoutly asserting that he really didn’t ‘do’ Christmas.
In his written work, most notably the frequently updated Signet Book of Wine, he was punctilious in his fact-checking but in conversation the wry smile, vaguely reminiscent of Harpo Marx, was paramount. His favourite bit of wine advice was “try not to let your lips touch the brown paper bag”. And when stlil in New York he’d say, “whenever someone says they wonder what this wine will be like in 10 years’ time, I say, just let me keep it in my apartment for a couple of days.”
He was very precise and a great planner. Woe betide a meal taken in a restaurant without due consultation of the guides and latest reviews. I’m so glad then that we managed to have both a lunch and a dinner with him last June when he brought Cecilia to Paris. (He had earlier thanked her for her stalwart nursing by treating her to a luxurious trip around the some of the world’s great sights with a small group on a private jet.)
We four had a wonderful Friday dinner Au Lyonnais and arranged to meet for Sunday lunch on a beautifully sunny day. Much discussion and comparison of locations went into the final choice of Vaudeville by the Bourse where we three sat on the pavement. He explained just how exhausted Cecilia was. I already felt sad as we drove off for the airport leaving him sitting reflectively at our table sipping the remains of our Sancerre.
I always contacted him on his birthday which I happen to remember because it used to be Beaujolais Nouveau day, November 15. His last email to me came thundering back on that day last November:
“Delighted to receive your good wishes. In fact, just released from hospital two hours ago, after ten day stay to discover (unsuccessfully) why my temperature shot up and down and why I have a dry cough. If they can't find solution, may as well be home. Also, Alan Richman is here for two days, ransacking my cellar.”
The witty and wise Richman, multi-award winning GQ epigramist, was one of Alex’s closest friends. I should have been more suspicious that no emails followed and that Alex’s thick yellow envelopes, so often sent to me or, more often, Nick stuffed with clippings from the American press, dried up completely.
Chicago wine writer Craig Goldwyn writes:
I just read your farewell to Alex. I was also a friend of his and thought you'd get a chuckle from another anecdote: I dined with him at the Ruth Street Cafe in Dallas once in the '80s (I was a wine columnist for the Washington Post at the time). They were among the first to update the wine list daily using a computer. The sommelier gave him the wine list and it read "Updated at 10 a.m." He looked at his watch, handed the list back and asked, with a straight face, "It's 7 p.m., do you have a more recent list?"
New York wine writer Howard Goldberg adds:
Your reminiscence of Alex is touching. His death has darkened, nonstop, everything I think, feel and see these days. All deaths of friends are deflating, but Alex's, especially, feels like a kick in the stomach.
Our last contact was in early March, when I wrote and urged him to come home to Manhattan: "Your departure, as I love to tell you, took the competitive heat off Jackie Mason. And that departure was the first worst thing to happen to us. The second worst happened recently: The Second Avenue Deli closed. That fact alone explains why we all need a good laugh. Bespaloff-style."
He wrote back, in part: "I'm now retired from writing and spending time listening to music (these days, string quartets) and reading biographies, mostly of artists and musicians (the latest de Kooning and Matisse bios, for example)."
That was Alex: cultivated, to the end.