In Memory of Carla Cohen - Comments by Betsy Levin

David, Aaron, Eve, Edith (who called herself my vice-mother because I spent so much time at her house), Carla’s beloved siblings, and the legions of Carla’s friends:

            It’s hard to talk briefly (hard to talk at all) about someone who has been a part of my life for ALL of my life – literally.  We were in the same playpen as babies.  At age 3, we splashed around under a backyard hose, wearing only a bathing cap.  We went to elementary school, high school, and camp together, and we remained close friends for over 74 years. 

            Carla said what little she knew about being Jewish, she learned at my house (until she met David, of course).  She would come to my house for the holidays, and my father would read to us from “What the Moon Brought” (we identified with the two little girls, Ruth and Debbie -- one blond and the other dark-haired).  As adults, it was reversed: Carla and David made sure that I was included in all of their Jewish holiday celebrations, especially after my parents died.

In our early years (age seven or eight), we would play a game Carla invented – one of us would be the wicked stepmother, and the other the princess who was ordered to chop dirt, and then made to sit in the gazebo in Carla’s backyard, pretending to be chained to the swing for failing to chop the dirt fast enough.  Heaven knows what books Carla was reading then – possibly “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” but she always had us switch roles so each of us could have a turn being the wicked stepmother (clearly the better role). 

            Carla continued to organize everything throughout her life  – our trips to Chautauqua, to Toronto for the Fringe Theater Festival, to Stratford for the Shakespeare Festival, and of course, many trips to Mexico.  And she sometimes tried to organize our lives as well. 

            As children, we often spent afternoons reading.  We once read a story about a man who convinces a dragon-like animal who ate little girls’ dolls, to eat instead a concoction called jum-jills.  We began to quote the dragon, “And very good they are – jum-jills,” whenever we ate something new that we really liked.  And I have to admit that we were still doing it in our seventies.  When a little bit older, we sometimes went to her grandmother’s house, who had us read Shakespeare plays aloud with her.

            We frequently went to the movies  – we saw “Wuthering Heights” and fell in love with Lawrence Olivier.  One doesn’t associate Carla with pin-ups, but she kept a photo of him on her bedroom wall all through high school.  Carla never was one to hide her emotions, and we teased her, saying she even cried in “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, so you can imagine how she wept when we celebrated my 16th birthday by seeing “The Red Shoes.”
If Carla’s Jewish education came from my family, much of my political education came from the Furstenbergs. I remember our going with her father to hear Senator Paul Douglas speak.  That was back in the day when there were some senatorial giants,  not the pygmies we mostly have today. After the Senator’s talk, Carla’s father introduced us to him.  When he shook our hands, we were so excited that we decided we wouldn’t wash our hands for a week (our mothers probably had something to say about that)..

            Carla and I shared an efficiency apartment in Manhattan the summer after her freshman year.  The apartment was awful – we even had to share a bathroom with the other residents on our floor, some of whom were a bit unsavory.  That was an adventure!  One weekend, we (rather, Carla) decided to go to the Bronz Zoo.   After we arrived, Carla announced that people were more interesting than the animals – so we spent the rest of the afternoon people-watching from an outdoor café near the entrance of the zoo (combining her love of sitting in the sun, drinking cappuccino, commenting on the endless variety of people, and speculating on the stories of their lives).  How she loved to do that in the zocalo in Oaxaca!

            One more early memory – Carla and David were married in her parents’ yard.  I remember the smell of the boxwood, Carla’s beautiful pale blue dress, and the brightest smile I had ever seen on her.  (What a joy to also be present at their 50th wedding anniversary party two years ago.)

            From her childhood, to her adolescence, to today, the essential Carla remained unchanged: She always had an overwhelmingly generous spirit, was a voracious reader, and had an enthusiasm that was infectious.  She was totally uninhibited about expressing her opinions – whether negative or positive. (She often expressed her views at an opera she liked with such exuberance that people would turn around.)  She even cooked with exuberance.  She loved being at the center of intellectually stimulating conversations about literature, art and architecture, and politics.  I often told her that had she lived in the 18th century, she would have been famous for hosting the leading salon of the day – as it was, her dining and living rooms functioned as a 20th century salon.  Then Politics & Prose became her salon writ large.

            Carol, another lifelong friend, commented recently that while it may be a trite thing to say in general, Carla really was a “life force,” pulling you into her orbit.  Regardless of all her fame and the accolades she received for her work, she never forgot her old friends.  She was particularly good at including her single friends.  At the same time, she was constantly making new friends and drawing them into her orbit as well.

            Carla, you have been such an important part of my life from the beginning – a world without a Carla in it just doesn’t seem possible (and certainly less interesting).  But I know she will always be with us.  Once you know her, you can’t forget her.