Last night I went to a memorial service for Jesse Simons, one of the most delightful and fascinating men I’ve had the good luck to meet. Jesse, who died last year at the age of eighty-eight, was a Trotskyist turned labor arbitrator. He became sufficiently distinguished in the latter capacity to earn both a Wikipedia entry and a New York Times obituary, neither of which mentioned that he was also a bon vivant, a ladies’ man, and an unswervingly devoted balletomane.
Even in Manhattan, there aren’t all that many people interested in both George Balanchine and Leon Trotsky, so it was probably inevitable that Jesse and I should have gotten to know one another sooner or later. He reminded me of Eric Hoffer, another blue-collar man who turned himself into a intellectual by sheer force of will, though Jesse’s aesthetic streak was at least as pronounced as his interest in ideas. One of the speakers at his service mentioned his love of Robert Musil and Arthur Schnitzler, and his passion for Freud was a byword among all who knew him. Yet there was nothing pretentious about Jesse, who wore his learning lightly and was modest to a fault, though he had no earthly reason to be.
Among countless other intriguing things, Jesse was one of the founding directors of the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, the pioneering early-music group. Noah Greenberg, who started the Pro Musica, was another ex-Trotskyist, a labor organizer who subsequently turned his back on radical politics to immerse himself in the world of art. Late in life, Jesse was interviewed by James Gollin, Greenberg’s excellent biographer, to whom he made the following remark:
I knew dozens of the people who were around in those days. Politicals, labor people, intellectuals. We were all going to make the world a better place. But the only one who really left the world a better place than he found it was Noah, with his music.
I made a point of including those telling words in a piece about Greenberg that I wrote for Commentary in 2001, partly because I knew that Jesse was a faithful reader of the magazine and hoped the gesture might please him. It was the only time his name ever appeared in Commentary, and one of the few times it appeared in print during his lifetime. More’s the pity, for he could easily have written a classic autobiography. Instead his friends—of whom there were many—must rely on their memories. I know that mine will always stay bright and true.