‘We were still a family’
Jerry and Joyce Marcel at their wedding in 1965.

‘We were still a family’

The end of a marriage turned out to be the beginning of the rest of a 60-year life together

DUMMERSTON — When, in 1963, I was kicked out of Emerson College at the end of my second year (don't ask), I moved home to live with my family in Far Rockaway, N.Y. and landed at Brooklyn College. It was then free to New York residents, and my parents wouldn't pay for another high-priced school out of which I could be kicked.

Jerry Marcel was the star of the theater department at Brooklyn College, and justifiably so. He was a gifted artist - a painter studying scenic design while designing the sets for most of the school's dramas and musicals.

Since I was a student costume designer at the time, I started working with him almost as soon as I got there. He was gentle, tender, calm and kind. There wasn't a mean bone in his body. He soon became my best friend, and then, after he had broken up with his girlfriend, my lover.

Soon he was a member of my family. My mother taught him how to drive and dance the hora. My dad was bemused - I was supposed to marry a doctor, not an artist. And could someone earn a living designing stage sets? My macho younger brother teased him (and me about him), but later, after we were married, Jerry saved my brother's ass on two continents.

I was 11 months older than Jerry and graduated a year ahead of him. I went off to Indiana University to do my M.A. and got into trouble there, too. Jerry had to fly out and bring me home. That spring he won a prestigious scholarship to Stanford University - full freight for three years to do an MFA in scenic design.

He said I couldn't come along unless I married him. I did that in August of 1965.

* * *

What a time to be in Palo Alto! It was the height of the '60s. We did Owsley's acid and went to the Fillmore in San Francisco every weekend to dance. We were at the first Be-In. We swam nude in the Pacific. (I almost went under one day when the tide unexpectedly came in; Jerry grabbed hold and saved my life.) We explored our various sexual natures. We did sets and costumes for Shakespeare festivals, operas, and avant-garde plays.

The scholarship paid for a lot, but I also held a variety of jobs to support us. I was the assistant to the woman who ran the Stanford Box Office; I taught costume design at San José State, and I ended our third year by dancing topless while Jerry - with help from a woman I didn't know - wrote his thesis.

When he finished his degree, we cashed in my quarter tips, bought American Express travel checks, prepaid for a white VW convertible to be picked up in Wolfsburg, Germany, and flew over to Europe on Icelandic Airlines, armed with a copy of Arthur Frommer's Europe on 5 Dollars a Day.

You have to understand that the study of theater design is based on a study of art history. How else would we know what people in Greece or from the court of Henry VIII were wearing?

Well, Jerry and I visited almost every art museum in Europe. We wanted to see the originals of all those paintings we had studied and copied and imitated.

The Van Gogh museum had just opened in Amsterdam and left us reeling. I fell in love with Vermeer, a love which remains unrequited to this day.

We camped in Fiesole, in Italy, overlooking the city of Florence. We pulled into Athens in mid-afternoon and immediately met people who knew how to get into the Acropolis at night, after the gates were closed. We scrambled up the rocks with them that evening; it was a full moon. Barcelona had Gaudí and the greatest food market I have ever seen.

Being young and Jewish, we also took a boat from Greece down to Israel and stayed for about six months, farming on a kibbutz for some of that time, and then living in Tel Aviv, where Jerry got work as a scene designer and I worked in bars.

We left Israel and spent some time on the Greek Islands. We met some very beautiful people on those beaches, including a young woman who opened her home to us in Paris and others who introduced us to theater people in London - later on, these people were to play a huge part in Jerry's life.

We were on a beach somewhere in Greece when Brooklyn College reached out to us; a teaching position had opened up, and they were begging Jerry to come home and teach scenic design. They were offering real money - I seem to remember a salary of $15,000 a year. (See, Dad - you can make money as a scenic designer.)

We put the car on a boat and flew home. We found an apartment in Park Slope in Brooklyn and began three years of working Off-Off-Broadway while Jerry taught.

I designed costumes for all of Andy Warhol's Superstars when they tried acting on the stage, and Jerry almost won an Obie. (The playwright got into a fight with one of the critics on the awards committee and, in a snit, the critic took away the award.)

* * *

As I entered my 30s, I found myself awash in hormones, each one of them demanding that I produce and hold a baby. Jerry wanted children almost as much.

We tried. Lord, how we tried.

When we couldn't get pregnant, we went to a fertility clinic. And even before they started treating us, I found myself with child. I remember going to the clinic and all the employees stood on a circular staircase and applauded us.

I miscarried two months in. I didn't know it then, but I had inherited the body of my grandmother on my father's side. She had suffered five stillborns and miscarriages before she had her two children. Her daughter, my aunt, had four miscarriages and stopped trying after she finally delivered my cousin Ellen.

Because I had only been pregnant for two months, and because it was the dark ages of women's medicine, no one believed I was miscarrying. I went to doctor after doctor, only to be told by each one that I was delusional and it was only a delayed menstrual cycle.

Eventually, I found a kindly physician who did a D and C. Afterward, sitting on my hospital bed, he told me I had been pregnant, and the fetus had fiercely clung to my uterine wall.

Jerry believed the other doctors, not me and not the kindly physician. The marriage foundered.

In keeping with the times, I wondered, could I stand alone? Or would I always be living Jerry's life in Jerry's world -him having the career, me working in bars?

I told him I had to leave the marriage; he was broken-hearted, but he supported me in my Quixotic quest. He went off to London with the understanding that I could have a year to myself. Then he would come back and we would see if our marriage could survive.

Remember those beautiful people in London? Well, they introduced him to Tessa Davies, and when he dutifully came back a year later, he told me we couldn't get back together because she was pregnant. He hadn't even waited a year!

The Brooklyn College girlfriend? I was waiting in the wings. I was busy supporting us? He had another woman to help him write his thesis. I couldn't get pregnant? He quickly found someone who could.

I find myself wondering as I write this: Was Jerry a player? The description doesn't suit him. I think he was just a stumbling wanderer who would always seek the thing he needed most.

* * *

You'd think that would have been the end of me and Jerry, wouldn't you? You'd be wrong.

By the end of that year, I was on the road in South America. He and Tessa tracked me down to La Paz, Bolivia, to get the divorce papers signed so they could bring their two daughters to America.

Fourteen years later, when I finished traveling, I found that we were still a family.

Jerry took another M.A., this time in social work, and became a therapist. And when Tessa died, way too young, leaving two distraught daughters behind, I was one of the many friends who stepped in to play a part in their young lives.

Jerry ended up living in Boston, and since I was in Vermont, soon we were spending weekends together. I was with my husband, Randy, then, who was as bemused as my father had been about this relationship, but we all got along, skiing and hiking and hanging out. Jerry was doing stained glass by then.

One day Jerry and I were walking down my road when a neighbor hailed us. I introduced her to Jerry, and damn if I didn't see a light - like a bulb, I swear it! - go off above their heads in broad daylight.

Next thing I knew, Jerry called to tell me he was in Vermont - down the road, in fact, staying with Barbara. They were married soon after that.

My cousin Joan, whom I knew since birth and who was my maid of honor at my wedding to Jerry, would come up from New York to visit, and we would go up north to visit Barbara and Jerry. Once, when she was visiting from Florida, I brought my mother up to visit them.

Once Jerry was at my place when my mother was visiting, and she re-taught him the hora so he could dance it at his elder daughter's wedding. I have the video, if you want to see it. They were both laughing so hard they could hardly stand, much less dance.

When my mother was dying in Florida, Jerry called her and they reminisced for almost an hour. It made her very happy.

Jerry retired and he and Barbara settled on a hill in a hill town in Massachusetts, about a 45-minute drive from our home, and we saw them often. They meditated and gardened and built a new life.

* * *

Three years ago, Jerry was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, a diagnosis which he accepted with calmness and grace.

He was still a loving friend and companion.

For respite, one year when the disease was still a slow thing, Barbara used some of her air miles to send me to Florida with Jerry. We stayed with his younger sister and her husband, both of whom I have known since our Brooklyn College days, and spent the time sightseeing, talking, swimming, and meeting friends.

Several weeks ago, Randy and I went down to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass., to visit Jerry on his deathbed. Randy waited downstairs while I went up.

Jerry's daughters were at his bedside, and so was Barbara, and although he had long ago lost his language, he could still say “I love you.” I believe he knew who I was. I know he loved me. We had been Hansel and Gretel together for so many, many years.

“If it wasn't for you, this” - said his younger daughter, her arm sweeping over the family - “wouldn't exist.”

If I hadn't left Jerry, he wouldn't have met Tessa, and his daughters wouldn't exist.

If I hadn't introduced him to Barbara, their 24-year marriage wouldn't exist.

All of us - Jerry's women! - sat and talked and held his hand. We caught up. It was a party. There was a lot of laughter. Jerry was very happy. And then it was time for me to go.

Jerry died on the morning of July 27.

* * *

My life is made of stories, and my cousin Joan and Jerry were their repository. She died three years ago; now he is gone as well. And now, I am bereft and unmoored, adrift.

The world has lost a gentle, generous, loving, kind, and gifted man. OK - exasperating sometimes. Maybe too gentle sometimes. But as a friend of his said while he lay dying, there is much to be said for Jerry's way in the world.

§Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,

§That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

§And then is heard no more.

Goodbye, Jer, my poor player. Our friendship was so deep it lasted for 60 years.

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