Irma Lazarus — patron of the arts, grande dame, visionary and one of Cincinnati's most notable women — counted celebrities like Beverly Sills and Carol Channing among her friends, along with a host of politicians, musicians and artists. "Where she was, the action was, the party was, the fun was," Sarah Kahn said to me once.
It was true. When I went to house-sit for her once, I was assigned to the twin beds in the children's wing. The mattresses, which must have been stuffed with corn shucks, were hard on the back. The next morning when I went down for coffee, I told Mary, Irma's longtime housekeeper, that I just couldn't handle that mattress another night.
"That's the same thing Ms. Celeste Holm said when she stayed here," Mary said apologetically and moved me into the master bedroom.
Irma was particularly fond of symphony conductors. It was her theory that they were long-lived because they kept their upper bodies moving, their arms waving in the air.
She also loved Pincus Zuckerman, whom she called "Pinky."
She had bought a car from Pinky when her beloved and ancient 1971 convertible was stolen. Months later, when the police found her convertible, she sold the car back to Pinky, who then sold it to Isaac Stern — or "perhaps it was the other way 'round, darling," she said. "I can't say for sure."
In the late 1960s, my old friend Sally Moore was one of the committee in charge of the fund-raiser to benefit the building of the Contemporary Arts Center at its old location on Fifth Street. Participants had parties in their downtown offices, dressed to the nines.
The main party was held on the old walkway into the back of Pogue's department store. The one guest everyone wanted was Andy Warhol.
"He didn't come," Sally said, "but he sent bunches of his trademark silver balloons. I have a memory of Irma and (her husband) Fred out on the dance floor doing the twist in the midst of clouds of floating Mylar, which was Andy's gesture, his tribute. It was heady."
Irma was athletic, too. She was a member of the Camargo Hunt Club, and between riding to the hunt, skiing at Vail and playing a vigorous game of tennis nearly every morning on her own courts, she had broken or injured a great many parts of her body. Confining her to bed was impossible. Jimmy Allen used to tell a story about seeing Irma sneaking down the back stairs past Fred for a Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra meeting only a few hours after she'd broken her coccyx.
Everyone loved her swimming pool. It was like the Riviera — the turquoise pool, the blue-striped cabana, the giant bougainvillea plants beside the water. Lying on a float in the pool, you could see a hill of wildflowers and the great trees that surrounded her house and afforded her privacy.
You never knew who would be at the pool. One summer I drove up to swim, and Mikhail Barishnikov's ballet troupe was there. The tiny ballerinas stitching their pink, satin toe shoes looked like fairies with gauze wings. Mikhail, meanwhile, was poised to dive off the board, wearing nothing but a leopard-skin Speedo.
She had Sen. Howard Metzenbaum one night, and the governor, too, but the stars of the evening were the actor Anthony Quinn and his wife. Quinn was sublime in tie and tails, and his wife — I think she spoke Italian — wore a silk evening gown. It must have been winter, because the fireplaces had been carefully laid and lit, and the vases on the Steinway grand piano were full of branches of orange bittersweet.
We drank cocktails in the living room and then moved to the dining room. Mary had made pop-overs, an old-fashioned delight, a lot like Yorkshire pudding. You pulled the huge, airy contraption apart and ate it with butter and Mary's homemade tomato jam. Each dish was served separately, and the time at the dinner table sipping Fred's good wine and talking to intelligent people about intelligent topics lengthened pleasantly into an entertainment of its own.
In 1987, Enjoy the Arts planned a tribute to Irma, inviting some of her out-of-town friends to perform or speak. It was called "To Irma, With Love," and it was absolutely first class: black tie, wonderful food, magic flying around the room.
Carol Channing did a funny send-up of Irma driving around town in her convertible with the vanity license plate that read "IRMA." One guest after another saluted her role in the arts and in their lives and told stories about her travels to small towns in Ohio to stump for the Ohio Arts Council.
At the climax of the evening, Irma's favorite friend, Leonard Bernstein, breezed in, his cashmere topcoat over his shoulders, his collar up around his handsome face. He'd composed a poem for her birthday, an "acrostic," where the first letter of each word on each line spelled out "Irma Lazarus" from top to bottom.
He had written it on the plane that brought him specially to her side on her triumphant night. His timing was perfect. We were stunned, and everyone became a part of that luminous world for one night.
Sometimes I drop by the Irma Lazarus Center for Enjoy the Arts/START, which Lisa Mullins, another Irma fan, runs. She has the Jim Borgman caricature of Irma, false eyelashes and all, hung on the wall. It was signed by at least 100 of her biggest fans, and each time I see it I miss her.
We all stuck together in those days, bound by a mutual commitment to the hope that art would triumph, that music would transcend and that excellence was the standard by which we judged each other.
CONTACT KATIE LAUR: Her column appears here the first issue of each month.