My father, Arnold Klein, died on Friday morning, Aug 7th, a week after going into hospice at home. He was surrounded by his family and got to say goodbye to many people. He was 86 years old. He was a year and few months shy of his 50th wedding anniversary. He was dignified and gentle. He was deeply loved. The world is much lesser without him.
He asked to be cremated and he did not want a memorial service. Instead we put out the word that his end was near and we were flooded with letters from near and far that we got to read to him. We don't know how many he really heard toward the end, but they were all appreciated. Even in his last days dad taught us new vocabulary, referring to the letters from friends and family as "encomia." His last intelligible words were to my brother Arno in the middle of a long night, who wanted to know if he should read dad more encomia and dad said quietly, "That would be wonderful."
My dad was intelligent, unpredictable, funny, and sweet. He was simultaneously formal and wacky. My dad spoke French, was one of the foremost authorities on the artist James McNeill Whistler, ran an eponymous gallery with my mother in the Detroit area for 40 years, and knew more things on a wider variety of topics than one can fathom. He was charming and quirky and kind. I don't know of anyone who met my dad who didn't like him.
Dad did crossword puzzles. His record collection was always better than mine. He took an odd pride in being left-handed. His energy when in his element in a big city was unbelievable. He hated coconut. He loved The Beatles. He loved chocolate. He loved life, and it was brave of him to let it go when he did.
Arnold Klein (no middle name, he always said his mother forgot to give him one) was born in Brooklyn in 1929. He graduated from PS 206, and Erasmus Hall. His early jobs included selling the Saturday Evening Post for five cents, serving soft drinks in Prospect Park (for a time without carbonation or ice, and that didn't go well), sorting sizes C and D bras at Gimbels, and painting Latvian folk art (or his abstract interpretation thereof) on thousands of ties.
Arnold Klein attended Hamilton College and graduated in 1950 with degrees in Art (studio and history) and English Literature. He once told me he selected his college based on the high quality of paper they sent the admissions letter on.
He was drafted during the Korean War (but somehow never received an MOS during his military service), stationed at Dachau (and had to live in former SS barracks) where he loaded Howitzers and peeled potatoes.
After his Army service he worked at Columbia College while attending Teachers College where he got a Masters in French Literature. He went on to teach French at the Berkshire School, St Paul's School, Colby College, and he led high school students on tours of France in the summers. He attended University of Geneva where he studied French Literature and Connoisseurship. Yet he somehow forgot to teach me French. He was shocked to discover by the time I reached college that I didn't know anything short of the phrases he used at home such as "Le diner est servi."
In 1964 he moved to Michigan to teach French at the University of Detroit and also attended classes in Art History at Wayne State. When his wrist was broken in a car accident he had to repeat a course in etching and lithography, and that's where he met my mother. He got to know her through borrowing her supplies. When my parents recounted that story to us at one point my dad finally looked at my mom and said, "Where did everyone get those supplies?" If he'd ever turned left instead of right and found the art supply store back then I might not be here.
My parents married only a few months after they met. I asked dad once how long they dated and he said, "Let's see, there was the Dylan concert, and the Stones concert, and then we were married." One of their only official dates was when they unwittingly crashed the dinner at a Bankruptcy Ball. My dad used to make my mom laugh so hard she couldn't breathe. Until the last few days where his own breathing became a struggle he was still able to make us laugh.
For five years my dad worked as the first curatorial assistant in the department of graphic arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts. He was an expert in print identification. My father's knowledge of art was staggering. His eye and his taste were beyond compare.
My parents opened a gallery originally with friends in downtown Detroit, and the Klein Vogel Gallery moved north to Royal Oak and eventually became the Arnold Klein Gallery. I loved growing up in that gallery. It was an extension of our home, and our home was an extension of the gallery with fine art on every wall and beautiful things in every room, my mother's work being among the finest of those on display. (A fact which made my father happy every day.)
They ran that gallery for 40 years, despite the waves of economic troubles Detroit experienced for being tethered to the auto industry. The Arnold Klein Gallery hosted numerous local artists and my dad's knowledge was an important resource to the community.
But the thing about my dad and his gallery was that even in the shadow of his tremendous reputation it was welcoming rather than pretentious. My dad was always surprised when people didn't know things, like obscure historical references or phrases in Latin, but I always found it flattering that he would ever assume I might know such things to begin with. He was generous with whomever stepped through the doors. He was happy to teach, and to share what delighted him, and to engage new ideas. He was brilliant, but illogical, and he managed to project an air of stability while also never quite doing what you would expect.
My dad had a wonderful way with children. He loved his own children, he loved his grandchildren, he loved children in general. And children, particularly babies, responded to him. They recognized an open acceptance in my dad, a genuine respect for who they were and what they were up to, that made him approachable in a way that might surprise people based on his formal appearance. He was always in a suit and tie when I was growing up--even at home. He did not impress children by appearing to come down to a certain level; he elevated the level of where they already were. He used to say he and babies got along because they were interested in similar things. Both my dad and my babies liked to point out birds and passing trucks to each other from the backseat of my car. As soon as my kids were old enough they and my dad would draw and paint together, they would look through books, they would show equal enthusiasm for a snack.
Raised in a Jewish family, my dad quietly left that faith at 14, but was never able to shake the weight of his cultural identity as a Jew. He explored other religious avenues over time, but ultimately decided they weren't for him. I suspect the lessons, beauty, and truths offered by the world's great art, literature, and music were rich enough to inform his path. My dad once told me that even though he didn't believe in religion, he did believe in fate. He said he believed that my brothers and I were meant to be here, and he was meant to meet his wife Karen so that we could be in the world. I take my responsibilities seriously based in part on the certainty of my dad's belief in the necessity of my existence. I always felt I had a lot to live up to, while also enjoying the security of knowing he would be proud of me no matter what. My dad's love was never once in doubt.
My dad was a poet and an imaginative artist, but probably first and foremost he was a collector. He could not resist books or anything on paper. His interest in everything overwhelmed his ability to keep pace with his obsession to clip articles and catalog the world. In his prime he was the master of the well-timed envelope of perfectly selected information that would arrive in the mail to the delight of the many recipients on his personal mailing list. In the days before Google I relied on his files for research projects. All I had to do was ask and the appropriate file was mine. Anyone could have his files if they asked because he could always compile more.
In the days since his passing I have been weeding through boxes of clippings. Most of it is not worth keeping, but all of it is interesting. I have a greater sense of what fascinated my dad by the crazy array of information he felt compelled to save. I have always received the edited version: The envelope with pictures of animals for my kids and articles about music for me, and military history for my husband, and anything else he thought we might benefit from.
But the boxes are deep and varied, silly and profound. I sift through them and find an occasional drawing or poem. I find scraps of evidence of every place he ever visited, of every person he thought was of note (which was just about everyone). Aside from sports, frankly, everything interested him, and even then if an athlete was Jewish you could bet he or she would find a way into the files. There are dozens of boxes to sort. It will be a long-term project. But in about the fifth or sixth one this week, from deep in storage in the basement, I found this note in my dad's own hand:
"Departed with love for everyone I have known."
I don't know why it was there or when he wrote it, but I'm struck how even now my dad manages to surprise us and make us wonder, and let us know he loved us. That's the kind of man he was. I was beyond lucky to have had him as a father. There will never be another like him. I miss my dad.