Within seconds of meeting me for the first time, Sidney Urquhart moved in for the kill.
It was a December evening in the late 80s, a holiday party at her daughter Rachel’s apartment on West End Avenue, and I was making my debut as Rachel’s new boyfriend. (I’d met Rachel—now a novelist—while we were working at Spy.) I didn’t know that much about her parents, Sir Brian and Lady Urquhart, nor they about me, but Sidney had clearly heard who my favorite author was.
“I’m told you’re a P. G. Wodehouse fan,” she said, pleasantly, as we were introduced. “Of course, he was a Nazi collaborator.”
Classic Sidney. Wodehouse was nothing of the sort, and she knew it—that view had already been debunked in books and articles. She was testing the new beau, certainly. But as I was to learn in the years ahead, the gambit was the kind of blithely lobbed conversational hand grenade Sidney deployed to throw people off-balance and use as a protective shield. Plus it was great sport: it made things so much less boring.
Anyway, she’d winged me, but I held my own—the wisest approach with her, as it turned out—and after a little back-and-forth I veered off toward a stiff drink when a tweedy older gentleman on a sofa flagged me down. “Come sit here,” he said cheerfully, slapping his palm down next to him. I did. And before long Brian and I were sharing Wodehouse quotes.
Going into that party, I’d assumed that one of them would be formidable. But I’d assumed the wrong one.
Brian and Sidney Urquhart both died two weekends ago at their Shaker home in Tyringham, Massachusetts, a hamlet down the road from Stockbridge, separated by just a day. Brian, the extraordinary diplomat much written about in the world’s press in recent days—a founder of the United Nations, architect of its Nobel Prize–winning peacekeeping operations, etc.—went first, at 101. Sidney, who’d worked as the librarian at St. Bernard’s School, and later as a researcher at Time magazine—she was also a fine writer and a terrific editor—followed at 87. They’d been married 57 years, the second time for both, and although their health had declined recently, this virtually simultaneous departure was hardly anticipated yet somehow fitting. Life for either one without the other would have been insupportable. They adored each other.
I knew them 33 years, nearly 7 of those in the capacity of son-in-law. But even after I relinquished that title, it was easy and natural for us to remain close: my son, Theo, was their grandson, and anyway I loved them both.
Life for either one without the other would have been insupportable. They adored each other.
They came from vastly different backgrounds but saw the world the same way. Brian’s roots in Dorset, England, were modest. Sidney was a daughter of the playwright and screenwriter Sidney Howard (They Knew What They Wanted, Dodsworth, Gone with the Wind), and a granddaughter of the conductor Walter Damrosch (who brought George Gershwin to Carnegie Hall, among other things). As a young woman she was photographed by Richard Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar. Her world was Manhattan, Stockbridge, Bar Harbor. For a time she was Lee Radziwill’s sister-in-law, and for a time Samuel Goldwyn Jr.’s. Much of this she set down in an unpublished and, as I remember it, rather melancholy memoir.
Yet the two of them arrived at the same place, philosophically: irreverent, witty, unpretentious, more interested in others than in themselves. And they found each other—most importantly.
Each had suffered a traumatic loss early on. Brian’s father, an unsuccessful but not untalented painter, pedaled away from the family on his bicycle when Brian was seven, never to return, leaving his mother to raise two boys. Sidney’s father was killed in a freak farming accident in Tyringham when she was six, leaving her mother to raise Sidney, her brother and sister, and a half-sister.
Both consequently developed toughness. During Brian’s long life, he determinedly recovered from a fall from an airplane—his parachute failed to open completely—torture, and a stroke, drawing on a resilient core beneath a layer of real kindness and almost unreal charm. Also an effortless, ever present sense of humor. I remember him muttering disconsolately in his garden as he tried in vain to revive some uncooperative hollyhocks (“Nature is laughing at us, George”), a diffident Lord Emsworth–ish figure but with gray matter on a Jeevesian level. Another time, when he was about to fly off to speak at some global confab, I asked him what it was about.
“It’s a conference about the future.”
“The future of what?”
“Everything. You. The environment. Men and women. Doggies. Moths.”
Sidney’s toughness was a barrier against the world, though I always thought she was a softy deep down, capable of being just as warm and generous as her husband, beloved by her many friends and family. She was, technically, Upper East Side—but that world, Brian once told me with discernible pride, held no appeal for her. Naturally elegant, she still genuinely seemed to prefer some horrible knockoff leather jacket she’d bought at a stall in the Port Authority bus terminal to a gown. Her interests were eclectic. She scoured antiques stores and flea markets for tramp art, hand mannequins, and creepy Victorian baby portraits; insisted on getting her hair cut and colored at a hole-in-the-wall subway salon; and engineered a bold move to a loft in the flower district long before the area was branded NoMad. An early Eddie Izzard groupie, she also loved traditional theater, and with her dear sister Maggie (who died last summer) especially enjoyed going to musicals, until that became logistically difficult for both of them.
Sidney and Brian read constantly. Their friends were writers, painters, editors, musicians, intellectuals—as well as their neighbors of all stripes in rural Massachusetts. The typical family-dinner conversation, fueled by copious amounts of “plonk”—no fine wines for them—was smart, raucous, funny, and often unprintable. Sidney loved to shock people by saying the things they’d never say, maybe hadn’t even dared think.
They were a couple, and so, naturally, from one corner there might be a certain amount of exasperated oh-bloody-hell-Sidney-ing, from the other the occasional acerbic “Well, if Sir Brian would only take out the garbage … ” (Sidney did admit to using “Lady Urquhart” for the odd restaurant reservation, as needed.) But their mutual love and devotion was absolute. The fact that they chose the same moment to—as Wodehouse would have put it—fall off the perch is heartbreaking, but also somehow exactly right. I prefer to think of them as having gently flown off that perch, and just wheeled away, together.
George Kalogerakis is a Writer at Large for air mail