Last month I went to Donald Zec’s 100th birthday party. Who’s Donald Zec? Fair question: You need to be of a good age yourself to have heard of him. In the 1950s and ’60s he was Hollywood reporter for the Daily Mirror, at the time the U.K.’s most popular newspaper, selling more than 5 million copies a day. It didn’t achieve its popularity by being a scandal sheet. Alongside the usual tabloid fare, it boasted serious reporting and strong-minded, well-written journalism. And it boasted Donald Zec, friend to the stars.
I was not an idolatrous boy. I didn’t revere sportsmen or pop stars. But I did heroize Donald Zec, not least because he cut so unheroic a figure. He was bald—as though out of a lack of the physical will to grow hair—and short. Even when he was dancing with Sophia Loren, he wore a knitted cardigan, a provincial bank manager’s tie, and thick English winter socks. Out of a beautiful woman’s arms he could turn a waspish phrase—“Who said it wasn’t going to last,” he wrote of the latest of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s marriages to end disastrously in weeks—but back in hold he always gave the impression of not being able to believe his luck. I wanted some of that luck for myself. The assurance Donald Zec implicitly gave Jewish boys my age was that this was possible. If a schmuck from North London like him could sit confidently on the edge of Kim Novaks’ chair—thus giving the impression of being taller than he was—then why not us?
For a while I had a page from the Daily Mirror pinned above my bed. It showed Donald Zec and Marilyn Monroe standing so close they could have been secretly holding hands. She was throwing her head back in appreciation of something he’d told her. A Jewish joke was my guess. Rabbi walks into a bar. But nothing suggestive. Jews didn’t do suggestive. Not English Jews, anyway. And Marilyn’s mirth had a clear innocence about it. As did my passion for Donald Zec. But it alarmed my father. Why him? “He knows how to make Marilyn Monroe laugh,” I explained. “Joe DiMaggio made her go hot all over; Arthur Miller made her read the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover; only Donald Zec makes her laugh.”
“So why don’t you just stick a photograph of your uncle Morris on your wall?” my father wanted to know. “He’s a funny man.” Funny man! I didn’t admire Donald Zec because he was a funny man. I admired him because he was a short, bald Jewish Dionysus. Not that my father would have approved me having a picture of Dionysus on my bedroom wall either. My mother’s attitude was more nuanced. “Be grateful it’s not his Aunty Estelle,” she said. In fact I kept my one and only photograph of Aunty Estelle under the mattress.
I went on wondering how the son of a tailor from Odessa could progress to keeping company with the most beautiful women in the world until I grew too old to believe it was ever going to happen to me, and Donald Zec vanished from public notice. A half a century later I met him in the flesh. It turned out that a niece of his had married an old school friend of mine and hearing of me talk of my admiration for Donald’s journalism they put us in touch. I was surprised to learn he was still alive. He was now in his late 80s and consumed with grief. His wife of more than 60 years had died and he wasn’t sure there was much left to live for. I suggested a salt-beef sandwich. You never know. We made arrangements by phone. I’ll be wearing a red carnation and spats and twirling a cane, he told me. I’ll be wearing the same, I said. He wondered in that case how we’d know each other apart. Good question, I said. And we’re still asking it. Or we would still be asking it if we thought there was any point, with our hearing, asking each other anything.
Salt-beef sandwiches became our medium. Good ones are harder to get in London than they were. London Jews all eat Israeli food now. But we wanted to honor our Eastern European heritage. There was more mordancy in a salt-beef sausage and a gherkin than in a pomegranate and quinoa salad. He was a finicky eater. He didn’t want mustard on his salt beef. He didn’t want his salt beef on rye bread that had too much rye in it. He didn’t want to wash his salt beef down with wine. It was months before I realized he didn’t really want salt beef. The salt-beef joint we frequented entailed going to a counter, engaging in detailed conversation with the cutter—“Just pile it on,” was my instruction, “and no mustard for my friend”—and then bringing a tray back to the table. As the younger man, I always did the tray part. Then began a routine that was never to vary in any particular. Donald would lower his head and begin emptying the beef out of the sandwich, put it back, cut the crusts off the bread, slice a gherkin, take out the beef again, move it about some more as though to give the impression he’d eaten it, look up at me, nod, say he’d been looking forward to the beef all week, push everything to the side of his plate, then wait for me to make my move. In order to draw attention from Donald’s subterfuge I would cram my entire sandwich whole into my mouth, spear wedges of gherkin into whatever space I could find, and moisten the lot before I choked with a glug of Nero d’Avola. It was always at this point that I’d catch Donald surveying me, through a sort of spyhole formed by holding up two slices of bread, with the profoundest pity. Even in Odessa no one made such a pig of himself.
Though salt-beef sandwiches were and remain our great favorite, I never once saw Donald swallow a single mouthful of salt beef. Sometimes a thin slice of gherkin. Occasionally two. But of salt beef itself, not a suggestion. When people asked me at his 100th birthday if I knew the secret of Donald’s longevity, I told them salt-beef sandwiches. “Why, how many does he eat?” they wanted to know. “None,” I told them.
Had they asked why I looked so ill for my age, I’d have told them salt-beef sandwiches. And had they gone on to inquire how many I ate I’d have told them “Mine and Donald’s.”
I doubt we’d have had a better time had we agreed to try to eat like normal human beings. We were both Jews for whom nothing, not even eating a sandwich, was without complications. Everything was vexed and contradictory. Everything was at the same time heartbreaking and absurd. Everything was a story that could be told a thousand ways.
I have said that he had just become a widower when we met. Dancing cheek to cheek with Hollywood beauties notwithstanding, his marriage had been by all accounts spectacularly successful. So he was suffering the cruel heartbreak that a happy marriage has in store for us. I never heard a man speak more reverently of his wife. And yet he could make sublime comedy out of his grief. This was the opposite of disrespect. He knew that if you are to bring the whole range of your emotions to remembering and describing love, then laughter is as important as sorrow. His description of going on a blind date that his friends had set up for him with a woman half his age was a masterpiece of poignant hilarity. “What’s your favorite color?” she asked him. He had to lean forward to hear. “Mozart,” he said. “And your star sign?” “Star … star… Let me see … I think Sophia Loren.”
We were both Jews for whom nothing, not even eating a sandwich, was without complications.
He gave me permission to transcribe this scene and put it in a novel I was writing. The novel went on to win a prize. “You know, strictly speaking the prize belongs to you, Donald,” I told him. “You enabled me to strike an unaccustomed chord.” He wondered what the prize was. “A sculpture and a check.” “You keep the sculpture,” he said.
“So anyway, Marilyn …” I said to him once. He shook his head. Nothing doing. “It touches me to think you remained such a good Jewish boy all those years,” I said. This time he put a hand on mine. “Let’s not make a nebbish of me altogether,” he said. Make what you will of that. Every heart, as D.H. Lawrence wrote, has its secrets.
Not eating salt-beef sandwiches has not been the only solace of his old age. Before she died his wife ordered him not to repine but to go on and do something else with his life. At nearly 90? But he took her at her word. I have watched him teach himself to draw and paint. A work he submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Show won the prestigious Hugh Casson Prize for drawing. At an age when he’d be excused not knowing what an iPad is he has learned to paint on one. As a tribute to his wife who was a pianist he took music lessons and now plays her favorite pieces by Bach and Chopin on a Yamaha. Had the Yamaha been a motorbike, no one would have been surprised.
He did not intend to give speeches at his 100th birthday, then ended up giving three. He has the fluency a man a quarter of his age would kill for. His comic timing is still perfect. But there is a weight in his words that wasn’t there in 1955. The weight of grief; of experience touched by love. If you didn’t know how he’d earned his living you’d guess teaching philosophy at Oxford, not making Marilyn laugh in Beverly Hills.
To Marilyn, the last word. Never really grasping that London and Hollywood were in different time zones, she would ring up at some crazy hour. Donald told me of his phone going off in his London apartment in the middle of the night. His wife would take the phone and in the sweetest tone of understanding pass the receiver over to Donald. “It’s Marilyn for you,” she’d say.
I hear that and all my old envious idolatry returns. I can’t decide which I covet most, the age he has reached while still accumulating accomplishments, or the fact that Marilyn Monroe rang him in his bed.
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Howard Jacobson is a novelist and critic in London. He is the author of, among other titles, J (shortlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize), Shylock Is My Name, Pussy, Live a Little, and The Finkler Question, which won the 2010 Man Booker Prize.