Sedra Jayne Varga, 1957-2017
"Joseph, my blonde California surfer boy, handsome as ever," she said to me, and to my wife, just then meeting her for the first time, and to the crowd at large. I am not even truly blonde, but she always saw me that way. And this time she also did not hesitate to screech: "But take off those glasses – they make you look like a goddamn faggot."
One of my most wonderful friends and one of the rarest of New York birds, Sedra Jayne Varga, who died Saturday, 4 March, at sixty years of age, of complications from breast cancer, had a great spirit and – in the vast majority of the easily intimidated minds of men and women – a highly unfortunate manner. I didn't mind it; I liked it; I've known lots of people (for some reason, they seem to die young or even younger) with a highly unfortunate manner. I have something of it myself. But Sedra's highly unfortunate manner didn't preclude her from best befriending top members of every racial, religious, sexual group under assault, and indeed typically at the exclusion of other whiter Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester County or Jersey girls.
I have to confess that though I knew her for ages even at this point, it was odd to see this kind of full frontal outburst at LA's laid back Union Station, in LA's laid back afternoon light, and in front of my laid back wife; I still don't know that Lynn quite expected that much, even after years of preparation. But there she was, my longtime friend, Sedra Jayne, making the usual ungodly, ribald racket on her only trip to the west coast in her adult life, and no setting changed her manner.
"She was an original," my friend Kathleen Travers first said when I told her the news. "If she was your friend, she was your friend for life."
True. And your friends' friend as well, which is how Kathleen knew her. Sedra was rejected by many – though tall and trim until her illness, she was not known for her pulchritude, which is likely the fact that brought her perma-snarl into being – and those of especially bourgeois stripes at Columbia and Barnard in the late '70's, where I met her, usually rejected her, often emphatically. She was something the duller suburban kids in the big city came to escape, even to flee. Always deeply conservative, always openly confrontational, and always speaking with the kind of color we might expect from an incautious midfielder on the Duke Lacrosse team, Sedra drove almost all the feinter-at-heart neo-urbanites away. I liked her because she could outrage others easily; I imagined her Maplewood, New Jersey was an east coast version the kind of place I had grown up myself. I emerged or escaped from that college with only a small handful of friends, but she was at the top of that list, while the other scattereds only hated her.
Sedra's career life was beyond prolix, over-saturated with the difficulties that owed to the way others viewed her apparently unfortunate manner and the ceaseless ammunition for contempt that she provided them. She was destined to be a stenographer and became one out of sheer force of her talents for precision and speed. Yet her personality – we do not think of stenographers and court reporters even having personalities, let alone terrorizing ones – would overwhelm this career option too. There was one notable case, well after her health problems began, where she was obliged to stand judgment for sexually harassing a fellow employee. "Look, an overweight woman, a fucking double mastectomy, and you still think I'm capable of harassing a man!" she marveled to the administrator, bailiff, and kangaroo court. Didn't matter; she was soon transferred to a geographically remote location, which undoubtedly stressed her to a limit.
Few had the chance to see her great, even her magnificently generous side, which she kept close to the vest. I saw it, routinely. When the friendship paid a dividend across the years and I asked her to edit my first novel, she wouldn't take payment. No, I was to pay a fee, all right, and it was an adequately handsome one, but I was to donate her entire fee to the Revlon Breast Cancer charity.
[About that job she did on The Plasma of Terror; I've had many editors for writings of every variety, including some known as stars. Only one, however, Sedra, berated me for months because I failed to capitalize Popsicle, a brand name. Another thing she did that I can't imagine many others doing was double-check the kind of coffins the French may have the option of shipping to America when Americans die in France and arrangements need to be made. That provoked quite a rewrite of a key scene; for Sedra, it was a conundrum to solve. And Sedra put herself at the center of all such conundrums. Decades earlier, when she learned I was working on a novel entitled Julia Valentine (which I have only recently revisited in a way that suggests completion all these years later), she could only and instantly respond, "Oh yeah? Well, what does she have in common with me–other than two of my three initials?" Regarding the former book, you can read my thanks to her in my preface, with in the sample pages – other books have been edited by far better known people, but Sedra edited this one, and on my personal tally, thus far this weird book made weirder by her has outsold all my other novels combined.]
She fell for men barely within reach and not at all within reach. Back-to-back crushes were Mets players Sid Fernandez and Keith Hernandez. After ditching the former, she said, "It turned out I want Hernandez; Fernandez was a mere typo."
None as far as I could see had any reason to hate her. Some did, because ... Sedra wasn't merely obsessive, she obsessed on the second tier of obsessions too, the obsessions that supported her real obsessions. Early on, I knew as a writer that these people always brought you halfway home to wherever you wanted to go. If you wanted opinions, she had them before others may have heard of what the issue was. If you were among her favored set and mentioned to her – as my mother once did when incidentally ironing a shirt of mine as she picked up the phone – that you were interested in, say, pleats on shirts, the next time you talked to Sedra, she would tell you exactly how long a pleat should extend up from the cuff, why it was thought that this was best, the virtue of three pleats over two, the counter-arguments for two-pleats over three, the way they thinking evolved on this after the nineteenth century, the best iron settings for different cotton weaves, and the hopelessness of pleating certain fabrics.
My mother loved her; so did a lot of my friends who had never met her, and so even did one of my high school teachers, whom she had tracked down too.
She rarely left New York. In the time of answering machines, when you played back a message of Sedra's, New York suddenly walked into your house, took your favorite chair, and owned the place for the next half hour. We played her messages over and over; they were as good as a vacation.
That she was eccentric and that her eccentricities were not at all affected were never questions. In college, when we had an annual journalism dinner, she stalked the Features Editor for a date; it didn't matter whom it was, but it had to be the Features Editor. Some years she celebrated her birthday in July rather than January because the January date was always a bad weather day in New York. For a few months in a late-nineties summer, she felt compelled to construct sailor's valentine boxes of Long Island seashells, and then she left them with anonymous notes on subway trains immediately after completion. (I do know that she was hoping they might be featured in media – as far as I could see, they weren't). And all her life, she didn't merely write song parodies – she didn't merely sing them to you over the phone – she told you intimate details about the people on which they were based, details you wondered how she may have culled, until you learned how she had similarly stalked her quarry's periphery the way she had stalked your own.
Though she rarely left New York, she did take a long trip in the early zeroes, and it included the stop in LA I've described above, where she finally met my wife after the usual hundred or so phone experiences. We picked her up and asked her what kind of things she wanted to do. "Just drive me all around town. I want the real LA deal. I don't want to get out of the car at all. " We drove her all around town six hours, never getting out once. She found Mulholland Drive the top moment of the trek. Later, a thank you note came; it said, "Thank you so much for Driving Miss Crazy."
She was also engagingly ribald. I don't have the stomach to quote much of it. Except, maybe this ... she once sent me a postcard from the Met, some painting of a well-endowed male. Only message: Ben Franklin's famous quote, taken wildly out of context: "If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately."
° ° ° ° °
I made a trip to New York City at the very end of 1979. Sedra made a deal with me: if I took her to dinner, she would take me to Sweeney Todd on New Year's Eve. Then we would stay out in Times Square and watch the ball drop – probably the only time in either of our lives that we might do this.
The restaurant I chose was Backstage. I knew it was a top theater restaurant but I didn't really know it or its history. There were a dozen or so theater people at the tables. There were tables on either side of us that were barely distinguishable from our own.
I offered Sedra the seat against the wall as I always offer everyone the seat against the wall. Sedra took it and I saw behind her a couple rows of Hirschfeld drawings of theater people; some were on Playbills, other were originals. (Indeed, the theater next door to Backstage, at that time the Martin Beck, is now called the Hirschfeld – I don't know the connection but there must be one).
We were both twenty-two – weren't we something. It was New Year's Eve; her hair was tamed to theater – she wore a fine black evening dress. Slender and crazily yakking entirely loudly the way old New Yorker's did. I thought, this is who she is: a Hirschfeld drawing, hanging eternally in a theater restaurant, rara avis Novi Eboraci.
When I heard she had died, my dear dear rare New York bird and crazy Jersey friend, that was the way I remembered her, and will likely choose to remember her always: in a very sporting theater restaurant, sitting comfily against cushions and the wainscot and the Hirschfelds, as grand as anyone in any drawing, loud, courageous, and ... sure ... feeling pleasurably pretty on a New Year's Eve, with a date for the big evening, a big show to come, and all of that unforeseeable life ahead.