Nancy and I met seventeen months before she died. I was interviewing her for the New York Daily News, and we realized on the spot that we liked one another very much. I took her to a performance of George Balanchine’s ballet version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few weeks later, and we went to dinner together after the show, talking until the restaurant closed. From then on we were the best of friends, exchanging regular phone calls in which we heedlessly shared the most intimate of confidences. I can still hear in my mind’s ear her warm alto voice on my answering machine, always starting off with a cheery “Hi, LaMottski here!” (Nancy was the kind of person who spoke in exclamation points.)
I wrote about her many times, but never succeeded in fully conveying her sheer goodness, though I tried hard to capture it on paper. Not that it mattered, for you didn’t have to know Nancy to hear in her radiant singing the kind of woman she was. She called herself “a major-chord singer,” which was exactly right: for all the sophistication of her art, she was still a small-town girl at heart, sweet and generous and uncomplicated, and she knew how to be happy.
As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal when Live at Tavern on the Green, the album of her last opening-night performance there, was released in 2005:
I won’t pretend to be objective about Nancy—we were too close for that—but I was hardly the only critic to know her for what she was. John Simon, one of the toughest customers in New York, said that “she fully fathoms what a song is about, and then, rather than merely singing it, lives it.” Stephen Holden put it a different way in her New York Times obituary: “She brought to everything she sang a clean, clear sense of line, impeccable enunciation and a deep understanding of how a good song could convey a lifetime’s experience.” All this is on Live at Tavern on the Green, along with a special quality I tried to put in words when I wrote in the New York Daily News that she sounded “sincere and sensuous at the same time, as if the girl next door had snuck out at two a.m. to make a little whoopee with her steady boyfriend.”
Nancy and I felt from the start as though we’d always been friends. We loved one another deeply and devotedly, though never in a romantic way. She met Peter Zapp, a gifted stage actor, in San Francisco in May of 1995, and I knew as soon as she told me about him that she had found the man of her dreams. I rejoiced with her, and became good friends with Pete once we finally met. (Nancy and I both found it wildly funny that she saw him for the first time when he was playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America.) Theirs, alas, was destined to be a brief love, for her long-precarious health—in addition to metastatic cancer, she had Crohn’s disease and wore an ileostomy bag—crumbled in December. Pete flew back to New York at once, but it was clear by then that she was dying, and I rushed to the hospital to keep vigil with him and a few of her closest friends.
Late that night, the doctors told Nancy that she was near death and offered her opiates to relieve her agonizing pain, explaining that they would send her into a coma from which she would not awaken. Pete had proposed to her the day before, and now she told him that she wanted the morphine—but that she wanted to marry him first. I fed quarters to the pay phone in the corridor outside her room in order to find a priest who could come right over, then stood by her bedside as she and Pete said their vows. She died an hour and a half later.
Losing Nancy was the worst thing that had ever happened to me, and it was not until I lost my Hilary under similar circumstances last March that I experienced anything that surpassed it. As a result, years went by before I could bear to listen to Nancy’s records again. Even now I don’t play them as much as I ought to, something that would have saddened her, though she would, as always, have understood.I did, however, make a point of playing her records for Hilary, who loved them, and on the terrible night that my own life’s companion died, I posted a link to a medley of two songs from Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that Nancy had recorded in 1993, knowing that the lyrics summed up everything I was feeling: Not a day goes by,
Not a single day
But you’re somewhere part of my life,
And it looks like you’ll stay.
Where’s the day I’ll have started forgetting? Beth sings in the same song, knowing all too well that there is no forgetting such people. To be sure, I no longer think about Nancy every single day, and I suppose it is possible that a time may also come when I no longer think about Hilary every day, either. But I know that each time I do, I will remember them both with tender gratitude for the blessing of their having been part of my life. That is true love.
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Nancy LaMott sings “Moon River,” by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini, accompanied by Christopher Marlowe. This was the last song she ever sang, on Charles Grodin’s TV show a week before her death: