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Intimations of mortality

By Lawrence Henry
web posted February 18, 2002

We had just gotten settled in Boston when a big envelope arrived from my mother in California, stuffed with pages from the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. My friend Rick, a reporter for the Outlook, had died. Without pausing to read the stories - which were voluminous, because Rick was much-known and much-loved - I called Rick's wife Joan, and she told me what had happened.

She and Rick and their two children, Stephanie and August, had taken a trip to Miami, to visit Rick's parents. Rick stayed behind for a couple of extra days with the kids while Joan flew back to California to return to work.

"Apparently, Rick's Mom and Dad had gone to bed," Joan told me. "Rick was staying up, watching TV. Then about midnight, Rick went into the bedroom and woke his Dad up and told him to come out to the living room. And as soon as Rick and his Dad got back to the living room, Rick fell."

It was a heart attack, massive and final. Rick was 43. His kids were five and a half and eight.

I met Rick when I returned to Los Angeles from San Francisco in 1975. I dropped in at the Great American Food & Beverage Co., the flossy rock and roll restaurant where I had once worked. Rick was working there as a bartender, and we started talking. Turned out he was an aspiring journalist.

As it happened, I had just talked myself into a regular music review column (paying only free records and concerts) for the Santa Monica Independent-Journal (the "IJ"), which had offices right around the corner from Great American.

Rick didn't let any grass grow under his feet. He talked himself into a job there, too, a regular job where he soon made a name for himself with a column covering Santa Monica's City Hall. He had landed in clover. In those days, the Jane Fonda-Tom Hayden revolution was sweeping into local power, creating what we would soon call The People's Republic of Santa Monica. There was plenty to write about.

Rick looked like everybody's idea of a newspaper reporter. He had the lean, black-haired, slightly bowlegged urban Jewish charm - Eastern accent included - that everybody associates with a newsman. In an earlier day, he could have worn a fedora and carried a Speed Graphic. Instead, he was the modern-day version, hauling ass around town in a clapped-out Toyota Tercel coupe that seemed to sag at one corner, its ashtray always full of filter-tip ends, and always primed with a partly-smoked joint on which he nipped gently throughout the day.

I'm not sure of the exact sequence of events, but I moved my column to the Culver City News, and Rick soon moved there, too. That's where he met his wife Joan. Joan reminds me that she and Rick arrived at the Culver City papers at about the same time, and fell fast for one another - and that Rick was chagrined to find out she was being paid more than he was, $300 a week versus $240. Rick promptly marched into the editor's office and talked himself into a raise.

There's a black and white photo from that time, showing Joan sitting on Rick's lap at a desk in the newsroom. They're both wearing big glasses and big smiles. Joan's a doll, and Rick deserves her.

Rick and Joan married, found a house on one of Venice's "walk streets," and started having children. And Rick shortly took his final steps up, through the City News Serice to the job he had always wanted at the Evening Outlook, Santa Monica's venerable hometown daily.. He earned the magnificent salary of $33,000. Even back when he told me, in about 1985, it did not seem like much.

But he fit. He had found his home, his range, and his voice.

His job and his family kept Rick busy. We got together for lunch once. I had just married my second wife, and I complained to Rick that I no longer had any time alone. "When you have children," Rick laughed, "you give up ever being alone for the rest of your life."

I miss those talks, because all that remains now are the vignettes of memory. We both loved Roseanna Arquette in Baby, It's You. We both loved Bruce Brown's Endless Summer, which Rick said reminded him of "My first car, Bass loafers, and my first real good girlfriend, Sandy." I remember the giant poster sized blowup of a picture of Rick, bundled in mountaineering gear, relieving himself on the slopes of Mount Everest. I miss being able to ask Rick about how siblings behave when they're in the little boy and toddler stages, where my children are now. Do all older kids interpret attention as pressure, and yet resent it when little brother comes along and they don't get as much of it as they used to? Rick would know.

When John Gregory Dunne's niece was murdered in Venice, Rick was one of the first reporters to interview him. His first question? "How do you spell your niece's last name?" Rick's politics, so far as I could tell at the time, were typical of a newsman: A mistrust of the powerful, and a wide-ranging cynicism. Rick died when things were still innocent, before the Internet, and before the Clintons. I like to think that nowadays, his main opinion would be a question: "What the hell happened?" Then he'd light up another cigarette and laugh.

I always tried to persuade Rick to write a book called "The Rise and Fall of the People's Republic of Santa Monica." No one saw it better, or wrote about it longer. He never seemed to think much of the idea. I think Rick considered himself a daily reporter, a creature of the daily news. Yes, he had buddies in show biz, and a screenplay in a desk drawer - everybody does in L.A. But he would have laughed, I think, rather than describe himself as a writer.

I wasn't Rick's best friend. That was August, his buddy from his school days at New York Military Academy, after whom he named his son. But there's hardly been a day since I haven't thought of him. The day Joan reminded me of the anniversary of Rick's death, Bravo broadcast The Big Chill, a movie Rick had liked. Describing himself, he once quoted me some lines from the Kevin Kline character: "I live here. I have a feel for this place. I'm dug in."

The Independent-Journal is gone. The Great American Food & Beverage Co. is gone. Even the Santa Monica Evening Outlook is gone. And now Rick has been gone ten years, and it's still hard to believe. We were exactly the same age.

Lawrence Henry is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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