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Michael M. Thomas, RIP

(Photo: Gili Getz)
The longtime New York Observer columnist, who died on August 7, was an old-money WASP par excellence.

The last email I ever got from Michael M. Thomas told me he was doing all right, except for a “dicky aorta.” Only Michael could so jauntily hint that he might be dying. I kept meaning to push for one more boozy lunch with him, one more guaranteed wowza of a time in this year and a half of sorrows. But I never got around to it, and on August 7, the world lost another bon vivant. The Times reports that Michael had been in the hospital with complications from arthritis, and died of a bacterial infection. “Bullsh**, it was my dicky ticker,” I can hear him saying.

Michael was 85, 30 years older than I am. Maybe what bonded us was that I love old guys and he loved to be an old guy, to have a young(er) listener hanging on his every word. He was for many years the “Midas Watch” columnist for the New York Observer, the last real writers’ paper in New York City, which thrived in what now appears to be a uniquely carefree decade, the 1990s. Post-Cold War and pre-War on Terror — not to mention pre-smartphone, when young people actually went out looking for one another — it was for New York City an era of sunny skies and steady gain: The Wealthening.

Michael had an appropriately jaundiced view of these boom times. He wrote acerbically about the finance game, which was in his blood, and which he knew first-hand from his many years at working at Lehman Brothers. To me, he was Old New York — a gregarious, drinks-loving old-money WASP who peered down at the world, one eyebrow raised. Before moving to Lehman he was an art curator. He had a hereditary knowledge of the finer things, and a lofty disdain for many of their trappings. He was incongruously, and to me incomprehensibly, left-wing. He wanted to soak the rich and rein in the banks as badly as Elizabeth Warren. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, he was a traitor to his class. I suppose he thought I, a working-class capitalist, was a traitor to mine, too.

Yet we enjoyed each other’s writing, and shared an interest in lampooning the ever-expanding empire of political correctness, hypocrisy, and bushwa. I have an email from him written in June of 2015, after I’d published a column arguing that women just don’t appreciate Goodfellas and the world had temporarily lost its mind in response. Michael knew I enjoyed getting a rise out of people. With his typical mix of hearty good cheer, casual literary references, deep knowledge of Old New York gentry, unfair ethnic generalization, and personal gossip, he wrote:

Having a fine old time watching you and the PC crowd on “Goodfellas.” You could have enriched their resentment by adding another dimension: how Italian guys of a certain background feel about women: to be respected but in their place. OK to pu***whip in private, but in public: one step to the right, two to the rear.  When I first saw the picture, we all took for granted that it depicted a given time and culture and that was that. Ironically, Scorsese is married to an old girlfriend of mine, Helen Morris (as in “Morrisania”), whose family is as haute-WASPY as can be. He got Age of Innocence right, but I would really like to see him remake the Late George Apley. Best – M.

Marvelous! Who knew that one of the worst neighborhoods in the South Bronx takes its name from an old WASP family or that one of its descendants is Mrs. Scorsese? Michael could go on like this for hours during ridiculous lunches at the kinds of pompous French places where the waiters would reliably fawn over him. (You know what I’m talking about: the kind of restaurant where they still serve coq au vin.) Detailed memories of what transpired at these lunches are unavailable due to the quantities of alcohol consumed. We’d begin at noon with heavy cocktails, and then continue on to costly bottles of wine. Michael would tell rip-roaring stories the entire time — about his many marital misadventures, Wall Street, the art world, the mysteries of ancient Manahatta. I’d sit there fascinated. The afternoon would be blown to shards.

Still, we disagreed fundamentally on principles, and so Michael was the only person I knew from whom an email was equally likely to contain honeyed praise or flaming vitriol. The second-to-last email I got from him was an attaboy for a New Criterion column I’d written on the director Mike Nichols this spring. Last fall, par contre, he wrote to inform me that my many published attacks on Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made me a hack, a quisling, and an embarrassment to the world. (I didn’t know how to respond to that one, so I deleted it instead.)

It was comical how little we had in common: I’m a blue-collar right-winger, the first person in my family ever to go to college; he was a blue-blood leftie. Yet we intersected at odd points. We both went to Yale, 30 years apart. I was from the hard-charging new meritocracy, part of a Yale class in which, unthinkably, nearly half(!) of the students had come from public schools; he was the product of the languid ’50s, in which your headmaster would call up the Ivies and tell them which students he was sending them. Maybe that was the difference between us: He had ample reason to feel guilty about his privilege, and I had none. He must have suspected that success is randomly distributed; I knew that it could be earned.

But Michael loved to observe and mock as much as I do, and we toasted New York for supplying us with so much material. I was very glad to know him and immensely saddened to lose him. And I’d like to imagine that when death came, he met it with a suitable lack of respect. Oh, you’ve come, have you? What took you so long? Ah, well, I’ve had my innings. No use carrying on about it like an Irishman. I’ll get my stick. Let’s go.

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