Yesterday morning, the world lost a true gentleman…and we lost a good friend.
I knew of Jimmy long before I ever met him. Whenever I would visit my friends Mark and Elizabeth in their upper east side apartment, Elizabeth would inevitably have to go upstairs to look in on her father who lived in the apartment directly above. Sometimes it would be to make certain he had something to eat, but more often than not it was to make certain he had his copies of the NY Times, the Post and the Daily News. My impression was that he was an elderly socialite who was too prim and proper to be bothered interacting with some recent college graduates. I always got the impression that Elizabeth was protecting him from us as well.
Jimmy and Dorothy at Elizabeth’s 40th Birthday Party
After time, there was actually occasion to meet the great man. We had heard stories of how his family had been survivors of the Titanic and that he had been an actor who had appeared on Broadway. (A poster from “Very Good Eddie” was in Elizabeth’s apartment. It took me years to understand why. It was Jimmy’s play. It wasn’t until tonight that I found out he has been nominated for a Drama Desk award for his role) At the time, he lived up to his mysterious personna. It was seen as a priviledge to be allowed to meet Mr. Harder. It felt like only a small circle of friends were allowed upstairs.
It was quite incongruous to later find out that some of Mr. Harder’s more profitable (and famous) roles has been as the Butterball Turkey Pilgrim and voice of Scotch Tape ads…and of all things…the dancing man dressed as a piece of fruit. No, not one of the Fruit of the Loom boys…but the Big Fig, the famous spokesman for Nabisco’s Fig Newton cookies.
(click to download quicktime video)
Later, we would develop a friendship with Elizabeth’s mother, Dorothy thanks to numerous visits to he home on the Cape. While Dorothy spent most of her time on the Cape, Mr. Harder was still working so he spent most of his time in New York. So even though we were now spending a lot of time with Dorothy, Mr. Harder remained a mystery.
When Mr. Harder would come to the Cape, he would spend his days mostly in the solitude of his bedroom…reading his newspapers and watching soap operas. It seemed like we would never get to know the man. But apparently, we had become adults and we were allowed to participate in another of his rituals. He would come out just before dinner to prepare cocktails.
As Jimmy’s health degraded over the years, he had to give up drinking. But that didn’t stop him from the ritual. You see, Jimmy was nothing if not a gentleman…and a creature of habit. He wouldn’t be comfortable if his guests went without a drink. He would share an O’Doulls. (I started to think he actually enjoyed them at some point.)
Jimmy has long since stopped being “Mr. Harder”. Our visits to the Cape continued but his time in Manhattan drew to an end. He retired a couple of years ago and move to the Cape full time. He never really stopped working. His work consisted mostly of voice-overs and he could do that remotely. But again, his health was declining, so even this was limited.
In September 2007, a radio station rediscovered the “Big Fig” and interviewed him on air. I was able to record the show. You can listen to what I think would have been his last interview below:
I never heard Jimmy complain about his health. You knew he was sick, but he always was happy to see you, loved to see our kids and wanted to make sure you were comfortable…and had your cocktail.
Jimmy with Tristan (April 2006)
Jimmy with William (September 2007)
We all knew the time would come when he couldn’t continue the fight. Just before Christmas, both Jimmy and Dorothy were in the hospital. Dorothy was out by Christmas and sent us a picture. My understanding is that he had a heart attack and subsequently refused his dialysis and died from renal failure.
Jimmy was one of the sweetest men I have ever known. He had a heart of gold, old school charm and an style that made you long for a more elegant time.