Roger Lacey Stevens
Lisa Blanche bought lunch at the new Philly sandwich place, one block down from my North Market Street yellow door. As usual, we talked of family matters; she mentioned a daughter was born on March 7. “Oh, a Pisces,” I responded.
Coming upon 50, Lisa didn’t know the name of Roger L. Stevens, the most famous astrological Pisces, in my long life. He was born on March 12, 1910. I spent his last years travelling to his Georgetown mansion on Saturdays to read to him, after he had a stroke at 84.
Once we visited the Washington Theatre Club’s new building near to Washington Circle, I drove, with his new executive assistant in the back seat of my old Opel. Roger declared, “Mr. Meachum, you know my mind’s an open book!”
“One fish opens it,” I replied, “right before the other fish closes it up.”
We met when he was President Lyndon B. Johnson’s arts advisor and I was consultant to the White House’s East Wing. Social Secretary Bess Abell invited us for some evening after-State Dinner. We had seen a National Theatre production; we walked together the short distance, past the Treasury Building. We began a friendship that lasted until February 2, 1998, and his death.
That was before he built the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on the Potomac River, commissioned by the president, it was named after. I did my first story on the Center with Roger, attired in raincoats, construction helmets and rubber boots. When it opened in September 1971, I wallowed too much in celebration. I missed altogether Lenny Bernstein’s performance of his Mass. At some point, founding chairman and co-sponsor Stevens joined me for Dubonnet Rouge on the rocks, his customary drink.
In the meantime, Mr. Johnson looked to Roger to work out things for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities. Brown University’s longtime president Barnaby Keene took on Humanities, while Mr. Stevens settled for the Arts Endowment chairman. His life-time productions included Tony Winners “Death of a Salesman” and “A Man for All Seasons;” nominated were “Cat on Hot Tin Roof,” “Bus Stop” and a slew of other shows. In 1971, he received a Special Tony Award for the body of his works.
Among the favorites in his last years was “The English Patient,” which I read to him. (Having spent time in Cairo, the movie remains my all-time favorite.) His library was heavily French that I never heard him speak. In the room, beneath the volumes, were displayed his several decorations, including from the Queen of England. I heard when he travelled abroad he was not infrequently addressed as “Sir Roger.”
Ronald Reagan presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988; in the same year he received the National Medal of the Arts. To a Michigan-born boy, that was not bad, particularly one who had not finished university because of the Great Depression. The money that fueled his life and career came from real estate investments. In 1951, he headed a syndicate that bought the Empire State building – made famous in the early 1930s’ film, “King Kong.”
But his name is lost to people under 50; hazily remembered by their living elders. To me, he is still a burning presence, but then, I am old.
As Nobel Prize winning poet T.S. Eliot, who first saw his play produced on stage by Roger Stevens; in Mr. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there is a quote:
“I grow old…I grow old.
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”