Arnie Kantrowitz: Gentle and Fierce Avatar of Conscience and Kindness
by Larry Mass
Arnie’s gift, as everyone who knew him can attest, was his ability to commiserate, and thereby to console and heal.
Arnold Kantrowitz, pioneering and beloved gay activist and writer, passed away peacefully in his sleep on 1/21/22 at the Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in New York City, where he was being treated for complications of COVID.
Arnie was the author of the gay classic, Under The Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, which famously described the first Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day Parade in New York City in 1969. Together with his closest friends, legendary gay activists Vito Russo and Jim Owles, he was a leader of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and later a co-founder, with Russo, Owles and four others, of The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). He established a groundbreaking Gay Studies program at the College of Staten Island, CUNY, where he served as Professor and Chair of the Department of English. He wrote notably about his own beloved muse, the great gay American poet Walt Whitman. This body of work included an unpublished novel, Poet of the Body, and a published monograph, Walt Whitman, for a Gay Writers series. His last major activist efforts were around having Whitman’s gayness acknowledged in ongoing initiatives, such as those of the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association in Huntington Station, New York.
A self-taught student of the Holocaust and Jewish literature who remained acutely sensitive to and articulate about antisemitism, Arnie was truly a Goldene Neshamah — a golden soul. He was a wise elder and champion whose loss will be mourned by his family and by the many friends, colleagues and students whose lives he deeply touched. He is survived by his life partner, me, his brother, Barry Kantrowitz, and his niece Jordan Kantrowitz.
“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.”
― Walt Whitman
My Little Jewish Pastry
In Wagner’s opera Siegfried, the hero Siegfried slays the dragon guarding the coveted ring of gold and power. Stolen by the Nibelungs, thinly disguised metaphors for the Jews, the ring, now cursed by the Nibelungs for being stolen from them, proceeds to undermine all of creation. Having tasted the blood of the slain dragon, Siegfried is greatly enabled in his powers of perception. He can now understand the murmurings of nature. He can likewise discern the treachery of others, especially the false compliments and feigned protestations of caring and loyalty of the archvillainous Nibelung who raised him and who he proceeds to slay.
Something like what happens to Siegfried on tasting the blood of the dragon happened to me on falling in love with Arnie Kantrowitz. As a Jewish Wagnerite, I harbored what I later came to appreciate as internalized antisemitism, of which I was notably unaware and in denial. Following my first meetings with Arnie, I brought him back to my apartment, with its five pictures of Wagner my living-room wall, one of them a loving drawing by me.
Arnie had no real animosity towards Wagner. By nature he was incapable of malice, even towards implacable foes. Like Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, he loved the overture to Tannhäuser and had some Wagner discs in his CD collections. But on seeing my Wagner pictures, he couldn’t resist a quip: “Why not add one of Anita Bryant sucking an orange?”
Light-hearted humor around Wagner would become a leitmotif of our daily lives. With our terrible pitch, like Wagner parodist Florence Foster Jenkins, we’d blast each other with Brünhilde’s Battle Cry “Ho Jo To Ho” and “Isolde! Tristan! Geliebter! as we crashed into each other on coming home from work or doctor appointments. As we got older, heavier and more winded, we collectively designated these greetings as “home from the wars.”
There was another cry with which we always greeted each other. Arnie’s black cat, Sid (short for Siddhartha), was, like Arnie, good-natured, gentle, sweet. He also had a loud and incessant purr, like a chris craft. Even when he was almost beset upon by the attack geese guarding the summer place in Woodstock we took with Lucile Duberman, Sid just sat there and purred. 40 years later, I still miss that little cat.
Whenever you called Sid, he’d come running, like a dog, and always with a signature greeting — a little throaty cry: “Ah.” Soon Arnie and I adopted Sid’s little cry to greet each other. Jim Owles once intruded on this intimacy from the back seat of our rentacar by uttering his own “Ah” when Arnie, Vito, Jim and I drove to New England for the balloon ride that was on Jim’s bucket list as he languished and soon died from AIDS. We thought nobody else noticed our secret code.
The last refrain Arnie and I sang together was from the heyday of Walt Whitman: “Fee, fie, fiddly-i-o-o-o-o Fee, fie, fiddly-i-o Strummin’ on the old banjo.”
As for the fatigue that would increasingly challenge us as we aged and which eventually overtook Arnie’s heroic efforts to rally from illness, he was characteristically upbeat and dismissive. “Activity is over-rated,” he’d deadpan from the couch that was increasingly home base. Meanwhile, there was only one word he forbade me to use at home: proactive. Catching each other slacking off gave us two other refrains of our vernacular: “It’s not what it looks like.” And “OK, ready for the quiz?”
Poor guy knows nothing about the greatness of Wagner and high art, I remember initially thinking of Arnie’s humor about Wagner. Clearly, he was not an opera person. In fact, none of my closest gay friends/extended family from the world of gay activism — Arnie, Vito Russo, Jim Owles and Larry Kramer — were opera people. Sad, I thought, because what could be more important than one of the greatest artists of all time, even if he was one of history’s most notorious anti-Semites and there was that unpleasant and inconvenient detour of Hitler and Nazism?
But then something magical happened. That moment of change is still vivid for me. Arnie said something about a “rugelach.” So ignorant was I regarding Jewish culture and vernacular that I didn’t even know what a rugelach was. With modesty and sweetness he looked into my eyes, as he patiently explained, “It’s a little Jewish pastry.” Like Siegfried tasting the blood of the dragon, I could literally feel a great transformational swelling within me. Returning his gaze, I realized I was falling in love.
In that moment, my love for Arnie — for my “roogy,” as I nicknamed him — became the springboard of everything that followed. Our ensuing 40 years together, my own writing and gay and AIDS activism became bound up with my touchstone reappraisal of Wagnerism — my own, among Jews and in the world. With Arnie as my guide, I developed a more mature and genuine appreciation of Jewishness, my own and in the world.
In falling so in love with another Jew, in my mind’s eye I could now replace all those Jewish victims of historical oppression, especially of the Holocaust, with Arnie and experience levels of identification and compassion heretofore inaccessible to me. It was a transformative experience of developing empathy for one’s own kind, paradoxically the principal theme of Wagner’s last opera, Parsifal.
This story of my emerging relationship with Arnie is told in my memoir, Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite: Being Gay and Jewish in America, which is dedicated to Arnie, and its sequel, On The Future of Wagnerism: Art, Intoxication, Addiction, Codependence and Recovery, which is dedicated to Gottfried Wagner, great grandson of the composer.
In our earliest dialogues about identity and politics, about being gay and Jewish, and against the backdrop of the early unfolding of the AIDS epidemic, Arnie told me about a book very dear to his heart: Last of the Just, a Holocaust novel from 1959 by André Schwartz-Bart.
As he tells his personal story of losing his Polish Jewish family, all of whom were murdered at Auschwitz, Schwartz-Bart chronicles the greater history of the Jews, in tandem with that of slavery in the New World. It’s a story of relentless eruptions of violent, racist and genocidal oppression.
According to a very old Jewish mystical tradition, at all times in history there are 36 righteous men, the Just, who wander the earth unknown to everyone else, including one another. These are the Lamed-Vav. They are critical to the survival of the human race, for so long as they continue to exist, the anger of almighty God for our sins is held back.
Though I’ve never said so to anyone before now, and though Arnie would certainly have balked at being designated as such, I immediately understood Arnie to be one of these divine mystical spiritual souls, one of the Just, one of the righteous. As Allen Ellenzweig put it, beneath his more superficially endearing role of “court jester,” one could glean in Arnie “a deep well of seriousness and perhaps even sorrow shadowing his smile.”
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness”— The Talmud
His gift, as everyone who knew him even passingly can attest, was his ability to hear and interpret, to commiserate and thereby to console and heal, the sorrows and souls of the world — the unhappy, the wounded, the hurt, the stigmatized, the oppressed, the maimed, the bereft, the betrayed, the abused, the heartbroken, the suffering. For all of us, and for all creatures, Arnie was a wise elder, a guardian angel whose beneficence was all about kindness. Though he was thoroughly human in his faults and limitations, his spirit was of this sacred other realm that none of us could define precisely but that we all recognized, were drawn to and healed by.
“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
During our trip to Hawaii for a milestone anniversary, when Saddam Hussein began bombing Israel, Arnie was in tears. His commitment to the survival and endurance of the Jewish people in its crucible of hope for the future, Israel, was among his life’s deepest sentiments, even as we lived with the ever-worsening cognitive dissonance of Israeli occupation and not being able to divine any easy solutions. Together, we accepted that we held contradictory feelings simultaneously.
“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Though Arnie would be the first to put down any sanctifying of him or anyone else, we couldn’t resist. With Vito leading the charge, we’d tease Arnie for being what we all knew him to be — “the good one.” Meanwhile, Arnie was justly proud of his wicked sense of humor, an endless source of delight for everyone. He could easily have done stand-up comedy and flirted with doing so.
With his blazing intelligence and wide-ranging knowledge, he was an encyclopedic resource. Though his deteriorating eyesight limited his ability to write and edit, he remained a living lexicon of word and phrase meanings and syntax. He always won at Trivial Pursuit and was a natural for his favorite game show, Jeopardy, which he once auditioned for. As King Creon in a college production of Antigone, his royal bearing seemed natural. If he were to read what I just wrote about how saintly great he was, his response would be one of his most frequent Yiddish expressions: “Feh!”
When I’d get on my high horse, he’d look at me with earnest concern, take my hand and say, “Thank you for sharing, Dear, but I do think you need one of your meetings.”
Regarding the endlessly recurrent, and ever-worsening global authoritarian turns to and from the right and left that increasingly threaten us all, especially the most repeatedly scapegoated minorities and collectives such as women, gays, Jews, people of color and immigrants, Arnie was perspicacious and cleared-eyed. He was the first person in my experience to speak of the present “populist” movements of recent years, here and abroad, using the words Hitler, Nazism and fascism.
But he was suspicious and intolerant of unbridled anger and resentment, no matter how seemingly “justified.” Spite and vindictiveness were repugnant to him. When I would pour my heart out about how bad it keeps getting out there, as I constantly did, he would often recoil, however secretly proud he was of my passion for the concerns we shared.
You don’t have to be apoplectic with rage to have your opinion, he’d admonish. You can maintain your integrity and your viewpoints their power without losing self-possession, without being mean. Even when you choose to act against decorum, to take a stand, never be vicious or vindictive. That was Arnie’s message to us for the present dangers as well as to me personally.
Very much in sync with principles of recovery, and as well with the thrust of the Civil Rights movement, what Arnie was expressing was in the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt’s famous exhortation, also embraced by recovery and as well by ACT UP. As captured by Sarah Schulman in speaking of her history of this great activist movement: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
When the outing of anti-gay politicians who were secretly gay or bisexual was a hot controversy, Arnie and I debated the issue. As a writer and activist, I felt that outing was about serving truth, and that no value was more important. Arnie then told me the story of a moment of awareness he had with a student. “So, Professor Kantrowitz,” she asked him, “what do you think of my new dress?” He decided to tell her “the truth.” The dress seemed wrong. In response to which her demeanor went from beaming with pride to crestfallen. “Oh,” she said. “I made it myself.” That was one of those moments, Arnie said, when he realized that in fact there was something that can be more important than truth — kindness.
So did such reserve, self-possession and values mean Arnie had become a softy? Hardly. Those who knew him well would certainly agree that in matters of courage and conviction, Arnie never lost his edge. At his core, he remained characteristically both “gentle and fierce,” as Marcia Pally has described him.
Arnie’s last activist endeavor was as heroic as those from the pioneer days of gay liberation. In helping to organize and carry out protests at the establishment of Walt Whitman’s birthplace in Huntington, Long Island, he was once again going against the grain of mainstreams in academe and society at large.
This protest went on to declaim:
Stop Insulting America’s Intelligence. Give us the real Walt Whitman in all his glory. How would you feel if no one mentioned that
Walt was an American because his poetry belongs to the world?
It’s time to tell the truth. Walt Whitman was gay.
WE DEMAND that the new installation at this New York
State historical site be revised to represent the truth of
Whitman’s gay life. This must be done in consultation with lesbian/gay scholars.
To place Arnie and his gay activism in broader perspective, think not of Michel Foucault and queer theory so much as of Walt Whitman and Gay Liberation. Towards the end of his life, Arnie became evermore “short-spoken,” as I called it. Though still trenchant in observation and opinion, he spoke less and less. But when he did speak, he was as he had always been — plain-spoken, still something of an anomaly in intellectual discourses.
It’s Arnie and Gay Liberation a younger generation should look to to deal with ongoing bigotry such as that of the Staten Island Hibernians who, alone among regional municipalities, and as we speak, continues to ban LGBTQ participation from its St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
As for Arnie’s achievements in academe, The College of Staten Island (CSI), where he served as professor and chair of the Department of English, will hold its own tribute to Arnie March 18 for his trailblazing achievements in LGBTQ literature and film studies.
At his desk at home, he was surrounded by countless chotchkas, little treasures he amassed over the course of his life. Behind his computer was a wall of images meaningful to him, a vast artwork he kept creating over decades, as Whitman did with Leaves of Grass. Amidst the clutter on his desk, he gave special place to a fortune cookie saying from one of his Chinese dinner evenings with his close friend, Maryann Feola. It read:
“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”
On a table top is a tile given to Arnie by one of his unofficial students, me, that reads: “To teach is to touch a life forever.”
It’s no surprise that at the end of the semester, Arnie would return home with a handful of letters of appreciation from his students, any one of which could have served as a career capstone.
Overlooking our one-person-at-a-time breakfast nook at home is a trophy Arnie was awarded by his students. It’s a bronze shining star, beneath which is a caption: “Professor Kantrowitz — A Rainbow of Inspiration.”
As Arnie’s eyesight increasingly failed him — a consequence of diabetic retinopathy — we embarked on a final literary journey together. Arnie read aloud to me the entirety of his personally annotated version of Leaves of Grass. One painstaking page at a time, it took weeks.
Around that time, David France’s film, Welcome to Chechnya, began streaming. Arnie could no longer read the subtitles. So I read them out loud, every one in the nearly 2 hour film. At that moment in time it was what we could do in response to the new normal of state-sanctioned anti-gay oppression and authoritarianism in Russia and its subservient autocracies.
Doing what we could with what we had where we were was likewise our response to the widespread science disinformation around masks and vaccinations that heightened the COVID risks for Arnie, elderly and vulnerable with multiple serious health problems, and who died from complications of COVID. “Murderers” is what Larry Kramer famously indicted us all for being for not doing more and better to prevent, protect and save.
Caring for Arnie was my most personal, and also in many ways my greatest learning experience in medicine. When he passed away on 1/21/22, he was in his 53rd hospitalization in our 40 years together. Though he suffered enormously from a complex of ailments and conditions, he was never self-pitying. His resilience was awesome. He knew first-hand the truth famously attributed to his beloved Bette Davis, who he eventually met and who had written him a fan letter after reading his tribute to her in The Advocate:
“Getting older ain’t for sissies.”
Arnie’s love for Davis never waned as we watched reruns of her films, including his special favorite, Now Voyager, which so captures the nobility of spirit not only of Davis and the author of that phrase, Walt Whitman, but as well of Arnie Kantrowitz.
The film concludes with Davis gazing upwards at the night sky:
“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”
And there now, with Davis, and with Vito and Jim, is Walt Whitman welcoming Arnie to join them in the long afterlife he so richly earned and which will be his unsolicited reward.
“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.”
― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
RIP Arnie Kantrowitz (1940–2022): Gentle and Fierce Avatar of Conscience and Kindness.
Presented by Larry Mass at a zoom Memorial Service for Arnie Kantrowitz, March 15, 2022