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Donald Edward Gastwirth (Don)

Died: January 25, 2015

Don was born in Queens, New York and graduated from Stuyvesant High School. One of the brightest of our generation, he capitalized on all that Yale had to offer. Among his many diverse active interests were the Elizabethan Club, the Yale Political and Literary Magazines (he was chairman of the first and an editor of the second), the Political Union, and he was also a four-year member of the Hillel Foundation. He became a member of Berzelius and later attended Yale Law School. Don was a well thought-of literary agent.

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Joanne Martin remembers:

Don and I met one summer day over tea and pastries on a patio overlooking a duck pond. Don was charming and seemed to like me, so I said “yes” to going out with him. Unknown to Don, however, I was on my way to my sister’s in New Jersey to help her move to a new house. A month later when I returned to Connecticut, my answering machine was full of messages from you-know-who, the last one of which was a plaintive, “Have I offended you?” Before even unloading my car, I called him to say I was not offended, just out of town and actually looking forward to seeing him again. And that’s the beginning to our funny story about how we got together after a faltering start and soon fell in love.

When our first scheduled wedding was hastily postponed due to Don’s emergency admission to the hospital with pneumonia, I did think, “What have I gotten myself into?” Then I resolved to take such loving care of him that Don would live at least another ten years happily and as well as I could manage. I only wish we’d had that many years together. Instead of our first three years of blissful marriage, we had the last three years of his life, but together, and I know they were the best years of each of our lives.

The memorial for Don at Battell Chapel was very uplifting. A short narrative I’d written about Don and me was read to start off the dozen speakers. Different friends from different times of his life spoke about meeting him and had stories about funny things or supportive things done together. Everyone laughed at a grade school and junior high school friend’s stories about their comic routines and love for the NY Yankees. Don’s Yale roommates had fun stories, too, while his cardiologist and neurology PA told how Don quickly became a close friend. Rabbi Benjamin Blech spoke eloquently about Don’s heart and love of life, others mentioned Don’s extraordinary intellect and breadth of interests. Don’s brother Joe spoke of a shared happy childhood and Don’s ability to make so many lasting friends. At the reception afterwards in the library meeting room at Dwight Hall, I had Don’s baseball mitt and a ball, a booklet of stills from the senior year roommates’ movie Bladderball starring Don as James Bland, and a C.V. with professional accolades.

Don’s courage, patience, and resolve serve as inspiration for all who knew him. Given his extraordinary verbal and written communication skills, Parkinson’s disease was a particularly cruel affliction. Yet he somehow managed to continue to serve his literary and legal clients as well as others who depended on him.

Don’s sharp intellect, wit, and humor, his kindness and warmth brightened many lives. He will be deeply missed.

Now I must tuck away the details of Don’s slow decline and concentrate on remembering the wonderful times we talked and laughed. We had so many private little jokes and funny stories of how we met and got together. I want to remember every moment, every detail of our life together. I so loved being Don’s wife and confidant.

Clarence Davis remembers:
Don played James Bland, super sleuth hero in Bladderball. He did a terrific job, and I shall never forget working with him and other members of “Wine and Song” in making that film.
Glenn May remembers:
I remember making the movie Bladderball with Don, Denis Gray, and a dozen other classmates from Silliman during senior year. Donald was a natural. And so full of energy.

A few years before his death, I visited Don in New Haven, and his health was failing. After I left his apartment, I went back to a hotel room and cried.
Jonathan Price remembers:
Don was one of the funniest and most intriguing classmates I had. He was my “firedoor roommate” in Welch Hall and somehow managed to convince me I needed a radiator pass to turn on the radiator, and showed me official looking notices on billboards in the various entryways of Welsh. He also wrote a fairly sophisticated and irreverent satirical essay on the strategies of music critics. I also remember he was for a while at least the literary agent for another one of our classmates, Charles Poverman. I’ll miss him and his wit.
Robert Snyder remembers:
I met Don during my first week at Yale. We were both in the Directed Studies program, and immediately had in common the solution-defying “homework” questions that were assigned by the leader of our Math I seminar, who was endeavoring to have us master “New Math,” a then-innovative approach to the teaching of mathematics. Through that common adversity and other Directed Studies classes we shared, we became friends. Our paths at Yale intersected only occasionally after our freshman year, on one such occasion founding (with others) the Yale German Review.

I remember Don as very bright, extremely creative, and having an irrepressible sense of humor, exuberance for life and excitement for the project at hand. We didn’t keep in touch after Yale, but I had a chance meeting with Don on the street in New Haven years later, when I was back visiting Yale in connection with an AYA gathering. Although we had only a brief conversation, the same wit, spark and enthusiasm were still manifest.
Andrew Berkman remembers:
I knew Don much better after Yale than I did when we were both undergraduates. Don “showed up” very prominently when I was editing our 25th Reunion Book — at a time (1991) when computer use had not gained the preeminence that we accord it today. I edited by hand and gave changes to my secretary, and she retyped what I had done, and then I would fax the results to the originator. In this circumstance, Don wanted to head me off…a graduate of a distinguished law school (Yale, 1974), an author’s rep, he had no time for a reasonably competent dirt lawyer to change a word he had written. However, Don had both a terrific sense of humor and a willingness — if not great then at least a willing ear — to listen to a few comments. I asked his permission to provide him with a few edits…just a few he replied, and I reserve my right to change everything back to its original form…okay by me, I countered. The next day, with only a few edits, I seemed to have surmounted an obstacle, and we would remain friendly until he became very ill. I would see him in NYC occasionally, and we would share information about Doug Yates and discuss politics and literature… Any time spent with Don was quality time, and his death leaves a distinct tear in the fabric of the class of 1966.
John Lindburg remembers:
Don Gastwirth, Denis Gray, and I were roommates at Yale for three years. And we became life-long friends. Don and I were also at Columbia University during 1967-68, and we lived in the same dorm. Roommates get to know each other very well. Many late-night discussions, some serious and personal, some for laughs…lots of laughs. Don was larger than life. He had a big heart, great deal of courage, and an enormous brain. He was a member of the MENSA society. And of course, he had a terrific sense of humor.

Don, Denis and I met during our freshman year. On the surface we could not have been more different. Don was from the New York City area; I was from a small town in Northern Illinois, and Denis lived in Paris and had European roots. Don’s father had a strong academic background, being the principal of an excellent junior high school. His father knew Paul Weiss, the Sterling Professor of Philosophy at Yale. My father on the other hand was born and raised on a farm in Iowa, and he eventually sold automobile parts in Detroit and Chicago. Don was a fan of Broadway, and he knew Robert Goulet. Denis loved opera and classical music, and I followed rock and roll. Don was well versed in philosophy and the works of Shakespeare before arriving at Yale. Consequently, when at Yale, he joined the Yale Political Union and the Elizabethan club. He also started a humor magazine and named it Ambidextrous, which ran a few issues. Denis, also a member of the Yale Elizabethan Club also founded a publication at Yale named the German Review, which also ran for several issues. Denny noted to me not long ago that Don had helped him greatly in selling ads. Denny added, “Don was a great salesman.” Indeed he was. In contrast, in high school I had been quite active in sports. I was well versed in, well, Da Bears! Chicago’s professional football team. When Don mentioned the philosopher Nietzsche to me, I thought he was referring to Ray Nitshke, the all-pro middle linebacker of the Green Bay Packers.

Considering these considerable differences, why then, did Don, Denny and I become such good friends? Don, besides being very smart, was also down to earth, honest, warm, compassionate, and kind. He had character, a quality often in short supply today. In other words, it was the size of Don’s heart, more than his brain that brought us together. Don and I once shared a class at Yale. He could read several thousand pages in two or three days just before the exam, and he would receive one of the highest grades in the class. I on the other hand plodded through the material for weeks, for months, and received a mediocre grade at best. But, Don always gave me words of support and encouragement. He did not boast about his own achievement. I really appreciated his support and kindness. It meant a lot to me.

Besides basic values, the glue in the relationship for Denny, Don, and me was humor. We saw humor in life. Yes, even, or especially, at Yale. Originally, Don wished to be a professional comedian. But alas, it was not meant to be, and of course he became a lawyer instead. On many occasions, Don would share his dream with me of becoming a late-night talk show host like Johnny Carson. He also told me that he wanted me to become his Ed McMahon. That dream was not meant to be either. Don liked bringing joy into people’s lives by making them laugh. In fact, occasionally Denny would laugh so hard he would roll off a chair or sofa in our suite, writhing in laughter on the floor. Don used to tell people that once he had walked into our suite at Yale when he saw me playing with the dial of my shortwave radio — he said he had heard the radio announcer say, “This is radio Tel Aviv 300 on your dial for you 298.”

When at Columbia University in 1968, Don had been on the waiting list of Yale Law School for two years. He told me then there was actually no such thing as a Yale Law School, rather, it was just an office that sent out rejection notices. When he was finally admitted to Yale Law School, Don signed up for an Anti-trust course. The professor was Elias Clark, who had been the master of Silliman College and therefore had known Don when Don was an undergraduate at Yale. Don told me that during the first class, Clark picked Don out of a sea of faces in the classroom and said “Mr. Gastwirth. What is the definition of an Anti-Trust suit?” Don responded without skipping a beat, “a chastity belt, sir.” Blind dates at Yale offered up ample material for humor. Time does not permit me now to describe those many incidents. However, I do remember Don telling me once that he saw a blind date whose sweater was so tight that he couldn’t breathe.

I would be remiss if not mentioning, at least in passing, two significant bonding experiences for Denny, Don, and Me. First, a trip to Daytona Beach, Florida, and second the making of the movie Bladderball. During our sophomore year, Denny, Don, and I answered the siren call of Daytona Beach, Florida to seek adventure and romance during spring break. Our hopes were high and our hormones were running. Unlike the guys across the hall from us who traveled to Daytona in a beautiful convertible, Don, Denny, and I traveled by Trailways bus. Which frankly, well, was more our speed. When we arrived, we discovered that our reservation was with a motel located more than a mile from the beach. We therefore set out, on foot and finally discovered the Atlantis motel, right on the shore. The grizzled guy behind the front desk looked at the three of us, with our tweed jackets, pale complexions, and books under our arms and said, “our policy is not to rent to college kids, but I am going to make an exception in your cases.” With joy in our hearts we changed into our swim trunks and ran to the back of the motel only to find eighty-year-olds playing shuffleboard. The title of Connie Francis’ hit song at the time about college break in Florida, “Where the Boys Are” was quite accurate. The ratio was eight guys to every woman. Still, it was better than the 4,000 to zero ratio of men to women at Yale in 1964. The trip offered many memorable experiences, mostly not what we had expected. They included listening to the risqué band “Hot Buts” and having unusually challenging blind dates with three women from Minnesota and being picked up on the hard-sand beach while shamelessly wearing our Yale sweatshirts by several women in a car, and then being dumped unceremoniously by the same women a mile down the beach and having to walk back. And my running out of money before returning to New Haven and obtaining a $10 loan from a bank in South Carolina during an hour bus layover. The good news? The trip also offered a gift that kept on giving to Don. A treasure trove of material for stories, and jokes that lasted for many years. And we laughed every time we heard them.

By far the most significant bonding experience occurred our senior year during the filming of a silent movie we named Bladderball. The name first had been used for a nonsensical but fun game played at Yale using a large weather balloon. We also used the name because it was a take-off on the title Thunderball, a James Bond Film released in 1965. Denis Gray and Clarence Davis wrote the screenplay for this James Bond Parody. Don played the lead role of James Bland. He did a terrific job. The film shows Don in action. His effervescent personality, wit, warmth, and charisma projected onto the screen. A group of us, dubbing ourselves “wine and song” spent a great deal of time making this 35 minute silent film. An original song, composed, sung, and recorded on a separate tape, with music played by Kas Kalba’s small musical group the “Taktiles” was spliced with the theme songs from James Bond movies. Many classmates, Yale professors, and even Yale President Kingman Brewster appeared in the movie. There were also roles filled by women from Connecticut College, one of whom played the Femme Fatale “Sue Puresecks.” Denis Gray, Clarence Davis, and many others brilliantly played members of the international crime syndicate “SPHINKTER,” an acronym for “Society Promoting Heists In Negotiable Kash To Encourage Richness.” Today the film stands as a terrific memento of our days at Yale and it shows Don, and others, having fun together in a remarkably creative way.

Unfortunately, Don’s life after college often was a lot less fun. He did find his niche as a literary agent. And, I am told that his intelligence, honesty, creativity, and enthusiasm were especially appreciated by both authors and publishers alike. Don gave all his all for his clients, some of whom might have never been published without his hard work. He was recognized for his legal work by becoming a member of the executive committee on intellectual property of the Connecticut bar. However, his interests in entertainment never wavered and he also became a member of the board of directors of the Shubert Theatre in New Haven (1980-85).

Unfortunately, all of Don’s professional efforts yielded relatively little income. And so in addition to his medical issues, he struggled with finances most of his life. The last few years of Don’s life presented challenges that would have reduced most of us to shambles. Given his outstanding verbal and written communication skills, Parkinson’s Disease was a particularly cruel fate. Yet, unbelievably, he somehow manage to soldier on without complaint and even with humor. His courage in the face of such challenges was heroic. I am informed that the doctors and nurses as well as his friends and colleagues took note of his remarkable demeanor and courage. Of course, he was helped immensely by the tireless support of his loving wife, Joanne, because of her extraordinary self-sacrifice and unfailing devotion to Don. Joanne has described to me how Don amazingly continued to serve his clients until weeks before his death.

Don’s long illness and eventual death has had the unexpected result of bringing together once again and reinforcing the bonds among many of us who knew him at Yale. I am particularly grateful for the wonderful friendship that has emerged this year with Robert Van Leeuwen in Washington.

Don’s life reminds us of what truly matters. Don never had much money, but he died a very rich man. He was rich in what matters most and what meant the most to him. The love and support of family and friends. I told Don so on the day he died and I pray he heard me. Don understood, and lived in accordance with the sentiment expressed in this brief poem:

Life is mostly froth and bubble

But two things stand like stone,

Kindness in another’s trouble

Courage in your own.

I have little doubt that Don has entered through the pearly gates of heaven. Why? There are a couple of good reasons. First, the enormous size of his heart virtually guarantees admission. The second reason is also compelling, considering the relentless march of human folly surely seen from above by the Almighty as well as the incessant bubbling up 24/7 to the ethereal domain of prayers undoubtedly filled with complaints. The supreme being, and all celestial beings, must be more than ready for some real good laughs. Enter Don: problem solved.

In the meantime, for those of us here who continue to tilt at windmills every day, we can count our blessings and shall always be grateful to Don, who so profoundly touched our lives. He, and yes, his humor too will remain forever a big part of our hearts, souls and lives. His spirit lives on.

Indeed, Don’s legacy, a bright light to illuminate our paths forward is captured in an excerpt from the Poem “The Dash” which represents the time between the date of our birth and death, in other words, our lives. I Quote:

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For it matters not how much we own;

The cars, the house, the cash.

What matters is how we live and love

And how we spend our Dash.

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If We could just slow down enough

To consider what’s true and real,

And always try to understand

The way other people feel,

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And be less quick to anger

Show appreciation more

and love the people in our lives

Like we’ve never loved before,

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If we treat each other with respect,

And more often wear a smile

Remembering that this special dash

Might only last a while.

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Thank you Don, for conferring on us such wonderful blessings. And may God bestow on you the blessing you earned in life.
Robert Van Leeuwen remembers:
Each of us here today, physically or in spirit, knew and loved Don in our own way. Whatever I can say here as we celebrate Don’s life, can paint only a small part of what he meant to all of us.

Donnie, as I called him, became my first friend at Yale on the first evening we spent here, back in September 1962. Don has died but our friendship continues to live on.

When I saw him that evening, he was doing what he loved most: providing witty, comedic entertainment to an audience gathered around him. In all the years that followed, I never forgot the words I heard him speak. In his poem, “Birches,” Robert Frost had written: “When I see birches bend from left to right.” Don declaimed: “When I see Birchers bend from right to right.” That was Don.

“If this guy can do that,” I thought, “I have a lot to learn.” And I did.

Our friendship did not come without two costs.

The first was what he himself, four decades later, called his “legendary insomnia.” In practice that meant regular knocks on my door. “Robby, he would say — whether he had woken me up or not — I can’t sleep. Let’s talk. Are you hungry? Dutch treat.”

It was one heck of an invitation, but I never turned it down. And I never had the heart to tell him I really didn’t like to be called “Robby.” To balance that, he became “Donnie.”

More often than not, these invitations took us to the splendor of the White Tower hamburger joint, a little white brick box just off the Green. Believe me, “Dutch treat” at this establishment was nothing to write home about, though both of us survived their burgers.

And so we walked around the Green and sat at the White Tower, talking about now and eternity, the meaning of life, music, and always literature from which Don quoted at every drop of a hat neither of us wore. I don’t know how I made it through freshman year with so little sleep.

The second cost was that Don seemed happiest when he had a straight man for his jokes. His flashing wit and humor were, for me, always at my expense. The trips to the White Tower eventually ended. Don’s jokes at my expense, too many for me to remember, never did. Through the years, a phone call from Don would start with: “Hi handsome.” Then: “Sorry. Must have the wrong number.”

I was more than happy to pay these costs of our friendship. Because I saw in Don much, much more than an extraordinary mind. He was never afraid to show the full extent of his humanity — his caring about others, his loves and joys and sadnesses, his enthusiasms, pains and disappointments.

He would rarely show anger, and then only about injustice or cruelty or indifference. Sometimes he would cry about them and make me hope they would not touch his life too much. He was vulnerable.

Don got to know my parents who quickly became very fond of him. They would take the two of us to New York’s Henry Stampler’s Filet Mignon Restaurant in the old Mayflower Hotel where they lived for a while. Don liked the filet mignon — a welcome change from White Tower burgers. He also liked the tall African American waiter who served us. Don sensed the man’s dignity. He came to call him “the Count” and never forgot him.

Don made us laugh more times than I can count. And he made his many dreams so real that you could touch them. In our Yale class book you will find that Don was chairman of the Yale Political Magazine and that I was its “Circulation and Public Relations Director.” I don’t have the slightest memory of what that meant. All I know is that I was there because it was one of Don’s enterprising dreams.

That is the way it was with Don. He drew people into his dreams and ventures. One of those I do remember. In 1963 Don told me about an off-off-Broadway play for which he had high hopes. It was Burn Me to Ashes! from the work of Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote Zorba the Greek. Don talked me into contributing 50 bucks I didn’t have to this promising venture. “You’ll be an angel,” he beamed at me. I won’t go into the reviews of the production. Four days after it opened, all that was erased by President Kennedy’s assassination.

Don lifted people up and opened doors for us, not only in our thinking and our caring, but doors into that magical world of entertainment of which he was a part.

One night early on here at Yale he took me to The Blue Angel, a famous New York nightclub. “You’ll love this!” he told me. There on the stage appeared Woody Allen doing his dead-pan Brooklyn stand-up comedy. When it was over Don disappeared. To my complete amazement, he returned with Woody Allen in tow. The three of us sat down and Don ordered beers. The truth is that off-stage Woody Allen put on an introspective, sullen air. Don was the entertainer.

But the real angel came into Don’s life much later. He started to talk more and more often about this wonderful woman named Joanne he had met. “I want you to meet her,” he told me. And so I found myself waiting for them at the door to his apartment at the old Taft Hotel. I heard the elevator door open. And there was Don in a wheelchair with Joanne by his side, guiding him. From that very moment, watching the two of them, I felt the love they had for each other. “Finally, finally the love has come to him,” I thought.

Some time after that, Richenda and I saw Don and Joanne radiant with happiness at their wedding. Their love carried them through Don’s declining health, which he faced with rare courage in the all-too-short years that followed. We all wish they could have shared it longer.

Except in his jokes, Don never used superlatives about himself, always about others. That is something we can do for him. To me, Don was the most caring and most loyal friend I had. He was family.