Wednesday, January 19, 2011

RIP Jay Lewis: I Don't Know Any Other Way To Say Goodbye

I wrote this post back in the spring of 2005. Yesterday, I learned that the subject of this piece was killed in a car accident. Although I haven't seen him since shortly after high school, I've thought of him often over the years and hoped that I'd have a chance to see him again one day.

Jay Lewis (and Eugene O'Neill)
There have been many times when I've been able to take my wild and unmanagable emotions and turn them into book lust. One of the earliest and most memorable examples of this happened when I was a high school senior.

I was taking a speech class called Oral Interpretation. We would perform scenes from plays or do dramatic readings of short stories. There was a guy in my class named Jay Lewis. He, too, was a senior, and a pretty damn good actor. He was also easy on the eyes, but not so perfectly handsome that he didn't seem accessible. He had a slight quality of ruggedness, even at 18 years old. He had just excited my admiration by playing Starbuck in our high school's production of The Rainmaker. I saw every performance.

One spring day, maybe in the third quarter of the year, several people in the class were taking turns performing scenes from plays. I think a speech contest was coming up later that month. Jay Lewis chose to do a monologue from A Long Day's Journey Into Night. He was Edmund, the younger tubercular son in a wildly dysfunctional family. This Eugene O'Neill play is extremely intense and autobiographical, and Jay played it to the hilt. He even coughed convincingly, looking flushed and bright-eyed.

When he was finished, we all clapped for him. I was sitting there, sweating. I couldn't take my eyes off of Jay, even when he sat back down. I had talked to him easily all year, but now I felt intimidated. I was in a fever. I felt so strange that I had to do *something* to alleviate my symptoms. People couldn't go around feeling like THIS all the time, could they?

I did the only thing I could do to cool myself off: I waited until after class then asked the teacher innocently what the name of that play was that Jay Lewis had done the scene from? (Of course I knew the name of the play! It was burned on my brain!)

She replied, "A Long Day's Journey Into Night by Eugene O'Neill."

I was very clever. The woman was a bitch (it was her first year of teaching, and she had every right. A student broke her toe the year before when she was the 'nice sub'. It was an accident, but still...) and there was no way that I was going to let her know that my request had anything to do with my sudden feelings about Jay Lewis. Besides, she was too old (23) to understand such grand passion!

I furrowed my brow and asked if that play would count as "literature or something?" She said that it would count. Her stern visage brightened slightly. I furrowed my brow a little more and said that I'd like to borrow a copy of the play because since I was going to college next year, I thought I needed to read more literature.

She checked out a copy of the play to me, and I began reading it behind my math book that afternoon in math class. I went into a Reading Coma, staying up late that night, then reading on the bus the next day. After that, my fever still burned, so I did the only thing I could do: I went to the school library to hunt up more O'Neill plays. The trip there was fruitless, so I went to the local library and found a copy of O'Neill's collected plays. After 8 plays or so, I finally calmed down. I was in the middle of reading The Hairy Ape when my fever finally broke.

I finished the play, took the book back to the library, and when I next saw Jay Lewis in class, I found that I could breathe more normally. Most of the time. When I thought of him as Starbuck, my throat still got a little tight. I was able to speak to him again, which was a relief.

I don't know what Jay Lewis did after we graduated. I went on to be an English major, and about three years later in Shakespeare class, when we were reading the historical plays, I saw Jay Lewis as Hotspur. I heard Jay Lewis' voice in my mind's ear, reading Hotspur's lines. I went a little crazy with the yellow marker, highlighting every time in the play that Hotspur opened his mouth.

A few years later, I saw the movie version of The Rainmaker with Burt Lancaster.
I pitied Burt.
He just couldn't compare to Jay Lewis.


jenclair said...

What a lovely tribute to Jay, Eugene O'Neill, to literature in general.

We never know what circumstances reading can rescue us from, cure us of...

Becka Barker said...

Agreed. Great tribute, Susan. I'm sorry for your loss.

Nan said...

Oh, so very sad.

Unruly Reader said...

This is enough to break a person's heart.

Susan said...

I love the connection of Jay the high-school crush with your love of literature and Eugene O'Neill! Crushes, loves, flings, lead us to unexpected places. I wish you had met Jay again, one more time, before he passed away. I want to think of something clever to say but I can't because no one ever figured in my literary career like Jay did in yours! I'm just sorry he's gone, my friend.

Carrie#K said...

I'm sure Burt was haunted by that all his career.