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June 3, 2003

A Postscript to the Life of a Writer


THE files being in their usual state, which is to say disorder veering toward chaos, it is impossible now to say when the first letter from Lloyd L. Brown arrived. It has vanished. But it probably landed in 1996 or 1997.

What remains etched in memory from that letter is a single word. Mr. Brown referred to the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was up to something or another, as a mountebank.

It wasn't so much the opinion that caught the eye as the word. How many people could effortlessly find so lofty a way to call someone a charlatan? Hmm, I remember thinking, this guy can write.

Of course, he could write. That's what Lloyd Brown did for most of his 89 years.

In the 1950's, he helped Paul Robeson write his autobiography, "Here I Stand." Many years later he wrote a biography himself, "The Young Paul Robeson: `On My Journey Now.' " He wrote a novel, "Iron City." He edited a leftist journal called Masses and Mainstream. He wrote for magazines and for newspapers, on everything from racial inequality in America to the failings of a new type of bus running along New York City streets.

Mr. Brown felt that, just maybe, he had another novel in him. This was a work that he had begun in 1953, set aside and then decided a couple of years ago to take up again.

That book is not to be. On April 1, Mr. Brown died in his apartment on the southern edge of Washington Heights. He had pulmonary fibrosis, he wrote months before his death. It is, he said almost cavalierly, "a most undesirable `osis' to have."

On Sunday, 90 of his neighbors and friends gathered in his apartment building to talk about his life. It was a short reminiscence, which is what he wanted. "My father was precise about everything," said a daughter, Linda Brown. He had written down his wishes in notes to her, referring to himself as if he were already past tense. "Your late father," he said, "detested long-winded memorials."

This recollection will be brief, too of a man never met, but who became known a bit through dozens of letters exchanged over a few years.

Usually, Mr. Brown wrote in reaction to columns. Sometimes the issues were large. "As you must know, police brutality is an old story in New York," he said after the unarmed Patrick M. Dorismond was killed by an undercover detective in 2000.

The hounding of President Bill Clinton over his fling with an intern led him to recall this, by the writer Dorothy L. Sayers: "As I grow older and older/And totter toward the tomb,/I find that I care less and less/Who goes to bed with whom."

More often than not, though, Mr. Brown wrote about life's smaller intrigues.

It drove him crazy that people declared 2000 the dawn of the new millennium, when any fool who could count knew the real start was 2001. He disliked the proliferation of holidays on which parking rules are suspended and streets are left unswept. He hated the supersize billboards blighting the cityscape.

HE could be reflective. After a column on a high school reunion, Mr. Brown wrote that it "called to mind this observation: `We neither grow better nor worse as we get older, only more like ourselves.' " He wrote tenderly of his wife, Lily, a neighborhood activist; she died in 1996 and later a playground in Washington Heights was named for her. They had met so very long ago. "I was painfully in love that winter of 1935," he recalled.

His last letter arrived on March 15. He wasn't in good shape, he said, not that anything could be done about it. "As the kids say, Whatever," he wrote.

What's the point here? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Except perhaps that exchanges of real letters still matter, a great deal, even in an age of e-mail.

The correspondence included a postcard that Mr. Brown sent after Timothy McVeigh was executed in 2001 for the Oklahoma City bombing. The wretched McVeigh left behind a handwritten copy of a 19th-century poem, "Invictus." That led to a column about what works some poets might choose if they knew that death was at hand.

Mr. Brown said in the card that he favored a passage from Swinburne's "Garden of Proserpine:"

From too much love of living,

From hope and fear set free,

We thank with brief thanksgiving

Whatever gods may be

That no life lives for ever;

That dead men rise up never;

That even the weariest river

Winds somewhere safe to sea.

Reading it at his memorial seemed right.

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