The world sparkles a bit less brightly this week with the passing of a true individual. Last Thursday August 4, Walter Monheit, bon vivant and man for all seasons, died. He was 85. Michael Musto of the Village Voice eulogized him this week with this tongue-in-cheek tribute, please see link below.
That homage is cute and does capture a little something of Walter’s joie de vivre. But Walter was my friend, and he was more than the funny man who did outrageous tricks in clubs. He was a survivor of persecution in World War II, a lifelong eternal optimist. Those of us privileged to know a bit about his life came to appreciate his antics and nonconformity as more than just quirkiness; they were a genuinely courageous response to the hardships life had dealt him. You see, Walter survived the Nazis and was not about to let them steal one more moment of his life – or his capacity for joy.
He was also the subject of two profiles I wrote, one for Time Out New York, and one for The New York Sun. With his open heart and great trust, he granted me access to his life and, in so doing, helped me develop as a writer.
Many knew and loved him as a party-goer; as early as the 1950’s, he would show up at trendy clubs (at that time dinner clubs) with a bevvy of beauties on his arm. No doubt it was this ability to charm the ladies, along with his his panache and sense of humor, that got him past many a “velvet rope” in a town where money and extremely youthful good looks are the currency. Mind you, Walter was indeed handsome, but he was still on the club scene into his late 70s. Paradoxically, he infused that too-often vacuous scene with depth and character. For me, he made being in a club bearable – even fun. He enjoyed and celebrated beauty in all its forms, whether admiring a woman’s physique, appreciating the arts (he was a devotee of the ballet and opera) or just celebrating the glitz and glamor. Yet always, with his loyalty and concern for others, he reminded me that without depth, character, and the capacity to appreciate individuality (including the offbeat!), beauty and glamor are empty – and boring.
Once I asked him, “Walter, why did you never get married?” He replied, “Why make one girl miserable when you can make all the girls happy?”
Smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Austria as a boy of 11 on the kindertransport, he and his two brothers were for a time separated from their mother. He told me he was in the care of a Jewish organization called Agudath Israel. Eventually, the three boys made their way to the United States. They never again saw their father, who was murdered by the Nazis. Walter’s elder brother served in the U.S. Army during World War II. While stationed in Europe, he found their mother, and brought her back to the U.S.
Walter’s niece Cimmy, who lives in Israel, recalled, “When I was growing up in the 60’s, Walter lived with his mother in an apartment in Brooklyn. As kids we all knew that Walter was out all night, ‘having fun.'”
Given his great charm as a man in his 70’s, I can only imagine the kind of fun that was going on when he was in his teens, 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Something tells me he made a lot of girls happy indeed. When I asked him what his life was like in the 1970’s, at the height of the disco craze, he said, “It was the greatest party of all time.”
Well into his 70’s, he would take the Access-a-Ride van – a city service for the elderly that most use to go to doctors’ appointments – instead to the clubs at midnight, and have them pick him up at 4 a.m.
He was not one to bow to the conventions of society. Gotta love it. What a rare and sparkling gift it was to have known this unique and fabulous man!
Rest in peace? Of course, Walter enjoyed his peace and quiet at times, sitting on the couch with a corned beef sandwich and Doctor Brown’s Cel-ray soda. I hope he has them. If there are parties in heaven (and surely there must be!) he will be at the center of the action. Down here, his sparkling smile, hysterical antics, and sweetness will be missed.