Friday, February 5, 2010

Deviation from sports – stories of my dad, who passed away 4 years ago today

There are a number of things I could write about this morning: How completely sick I am of snow and predictions of snow could easily keep me going for 1,000 words. Tom Watson’s comments about Tiger Woods’ on-course behavior—which are correct and have been discussed among players for years. The only reason they haven’t been talked about in public is that everyone lived in fear of angering King Eldrick. There’s also the continuing mediocrity of ACC basketball. After last night I’m beginning to think Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg and long-time announcer Dan Bonner may have it right when they say Maryland might be the league’s best team. And then there are The Washington Capitals, who have now won 12 straight games and find a different way to win every night. (Please, no comments on the Islanders who lost their sixth straight last night and would struggle to score from the slot into an empty net these days—eight goals in those six games).

But I’m going to ask for everyone’s indulgence today and veer away from all those topics to talk about someone who had very little interest in sports: my dad, Martin Feinstein.

It was four years ago today that he died at the age of 85 after a mercifully brief but horrible-to-watch bout with pancreatic cancer. He was diagnosed on January 8th and died exactly four weeks later, at home, after refusing chemotherapy that the doctors told him MIGHT give him another six-to-nine months.

My dad was, to put it mildly, a character. He lived a remarkable life: Born in Brooklyn to Ukranian immigrant parents whose education ended somewhere around the eighth grade, he loved music as a kid the way most of us love sports. His mother told stories about how he bent all her silverware keeping time to music on the radio. By the time he was 12 he was saving his money to ride the subway into Manhattan to go to The Metropolitan Opera. His grades were good enough to get into an Ivy League school but his parents didn’t have the money, so he went to City College—which, at the time, was one of the elite public colleges in the country.

He got his Masters in music history just in time to get drafted and served overseas in the Army during World War 2. When the war ended, he came home to demands from his family that he go work for his uncles in the garment district. He refused and finally landed a job working for Sol Hurok, the impresario who represented most of the great classical artists of the 20th century, including Isaac Stern, Artur Rubinstein, Marian Anderson, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolph Nureyev and just about anyone else who mattered.

Throughout my boyhood, a parade of important people in the arts came through our west side apartment. I’ve told the story before but one night Marian Anderson had given a concert and my parents threw a post-concert party for her—which they frequently did in those days. I was watching a Rangers-Black Hawks playoff game in my parents’ room (it was the only TV in the house) when Bobby Hull scored in overtime to doom the Rangers. I began screaming at the TV set in anger.

My dad burst into the room demanding to know what the hell was going on. “The Rangers just lost in overtime,” I said, figuring that was enough explanation.

“For God’s sake John, Miss Anderson is SINGING,” he said. “Keep it down.”

Dad eventually became Hurok’s No. 2 man before taking over the brand-new John F. Kennedy Center in Washington as its first executive director in 1972. That was a traumatic time in my life. I was a high school junior. My chances to get into college were tied pretty closely to swimming and my coach, Ed Brennan. Not to mention that I was finally starting to have a social life.

A friend of my mother’s had spotted me one day talking to a girl in the hallway at school.

“I think John’s discovered girls,” she reported to my mom.

“John discovered girls years ago,” my mom answered. “This year they’ve discovered him.”

Needless to say I didn’t want to move to Washington and leave my coach, my team and those girls that were discovering me. My parents worked it out so I could stay with Jerry and Sue Katz, whose two sons went to my school and who also had an extra bedroom in their apartment.

My dad never really understood my obsession with sports. People often asked how his son could be such a sports geek, given his background. I was once asked to write a magazine piece on him and the headline on the story was, “The Mets vs. The Met.” It was pretty accurate. When I was young and we’d be in the car going someplace on a Saturday, I’d say something like, “Dad, my transistor reception isn’t very good here, can you turn on the Mets?”

He’d say, “Oh, I’m glad you reminded me, it’s time for the broadcast from The Met.”

He couldn’t understand why I would choose Duke over Yale (girls in warm weather clothes most of the year and basketball plus a brand new pool) and pleaded with me to apply to law school so I could maybe get past this, “sportswriting thing.” In fact, when we had the Duke-Yale argument I finally said, “dad, I have to go to school where I want to go to school, not where YOU want me to go to school.”

“You didn’t even apply where I wanted you to go,” he said.

“WHAT? I applied to Yale. You teach at Yale (he taught a performing arts management graduate school course there) it was always Yale with you. Where did you really want me to go?”


“You never said a word about Harvard.”

“I knew you couldn’t get in THERE.”

He was a demanding father—and boss, friend, you name it. But in the end he always supported all three of his kids and, like my mother, he lived by the rule that HE could criticize his kids but YOU couldn’t. I still remember Tony Kornheiser trying to tell him that I was making a mistake leaving The Post because of a dispute with my boss and I should apologize. Dad simply turned around and walked away from him.

Dad went from The Kennedy Center to The Washington Opera, which was really the job he had always craved. He wanted to run an Opera company the way I would have loved to have run a baseball team. When he took over, the company was doing three productions a year and a total of 16 performances. By the time he retired in 1996, the numbers were 12 productions and 96 performances. He made it a world class company.

In the end, he was very proud of what I did even if he never completely understood the national fascination with sports. He enjoyed telling stories about how he was often introduced as “John Feinstein’s dad,” and he often knew more about what kind of reviews my books were getting than I did. He never lost his sense of humor even when he was dying.

In fact, a week before he died he was in Georgetown hospital. It was a Sunday and I was there with my sister and dad’s wife, Marcia. (My mom died in 1993). We were sitting around the bed and Margaret, who (sorry Margaret) did not inherit his talent as a storyteller, was going on at great length about her then six-year-old son Ethan’s basketball game that morning, which had been a 6-4 donnybrook. Margaret was doing play-by-play—not basket-by-basket, PLAY-BY-PLAY.

Finally, just as Ethan broke into the clear yet again only not to be thrown the ball, dad sat up in bed and grabbed my arm. “I’m begging you,” he said. “I’m dying—MAKE HER STOP.”

I made her stop.

Two days before he died, my pal Jackson Diehl, who is the No. 2 person on The Post’s editorial board, suggested I write an op-ed piece on dad’s amazing life to run as a eulogy. I wrote it and took it to the house to read to him because I thought he’d enjoy hearing it.

He was completely lucid. He also made corrections—perhaps the only person to ever get to edit his own eulogy.

At the funeral, I remembered many, many nights sitting with him in a darkened theater watching “his,” performers wow an audience. Whenever the curtain came down, his was also the first, “Bravo!” you would hear because he wanted to be sure everyone else knew how great the performance they had just seen had been. Then he would race backstage to congratulate the artists. (He could run faster than any 5-foot-9 person I ever met when he wanted to).

He would always wait though to make sure there was a standing ovation. That’s what he always wanted to see. And so, at the end of my eulogy I asked everyone to give dad a standing ovation.

I can honestly say he truly deserved it. He lived an extraordinary life. Everyday I think about how lucky I was to have him and my mom as my parents. Every single day.


case said...

thank you , John for that beautiful piece
may your dad rest in peace

Anonymous said...

John you are indeed very lucky to have had a real mensch for a father! Gary Williams is the best bench coach in the ACC, and the Rat and his clones could learn a lot about making adjustments during a game from the head turtle.

Tim said...

John - some of your best writing is about emotional should think of doing more tough (meaning emotional, in the mold of 'Caddy for Life') topics in the future, even non-sports.

Love the blog. Thanks.

Coach said...

Beautifully done, made my day!

Rich said...

Beautiful piece, John. A great remembrance of your father.

I remember reading your eulogy in the Post after hearing about what had happen on Tony Kornheiser's radio show.

I'm sure your Father was quite proud of you.

Anonymous said...


Gordon said...

What a beautiful tribute to your father.

Fathers are a strange breed. We do not appreciate them fully until be become one ourselves. We only completely understand them when it is later in life; theirs and ours. In the end,personalities aside we as men strive to be worthy in their eyes.

Thank you for using your public forum to express the feelings that we all have about fathers. You can take solace in the fact that your father left this would better than he found it.

You can also be proud to say "I am my fathers son"

Anonymous said...

Nicely done...thank you.
Now, we still want to hear your thoughts on the Watson-Tiger thing. Maybe next week???

Mark said...

John, that was a wonderful tribute. I am sure your dad is in a better place now (along with your mother) and is looking down proudly on you.

Anonymous said...


I worked for you father... as a percussionist in the opera house orchestra... he was quite a character... and made the place so much better in terms of the quality of the productions.

I remember a war and peace (prokofiev/bolshoy ballet) the first few honors concerts, the royal sweedish ballet's run of the place, not to mention things like jesus chirist superstar and the bomb that was 1600 penn. ave. (How could Meredith Wilson and Bernstein fail?)

He was pure class...

gene sittenfeld

PS: buy xm/sirius for your car... and for your home, you'll never want for good radio again! (which is a lot better than bad TV).

Jim said...

Like you I'm a grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the son of a late WWII warrior. I found it striking that your dad resisted family pressure toward a "proper" career path in much the same way you did.

Good for each of you -- and all of us -- that
you both were/are able to do something you love, and do it so very, very well.

On another topic, I can't get over how Tony Kornheiser, of all people, had the temerity to lecture you about proper behavior in regard to "disputes" with bosses. As my dad would have said, "What a putz".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this column. I'm a little late reading it, because my own Dad died this past Thursday, 2/4. He died suddenly at 67.