Marlene VerPlanck, my friend of 50 years, was a woman of grace, talent, strength, warmth and love. She also was one of the greats of the American jazz scene. We met in 1968, and quickly became friends. Marlene introduced me to so much in life, music and art that is good, and I introduced her and Billy to the beauty of ballet.
By 1971, our friendship was solidified and when I met the man I’d share my life with, she and Billy, who remains in our hearts even after his passing in 2009, welcomed him with open arms. Together, we spent years following musicians, and bands, attending ballets, sharing events in our lives, and of course, sharing food, both in restaurants and at home – Marlene was a wonderful cook!
Marlene and Billy were among the “musicians’ musicians,” and those in the field will salute her many accomplishments and laud her remarkable talent as a singer. As friends, we shared all of that, cheering her and Billy on, attending her performances at jazz clubs and celebrating their successes, but for us the personal memories mean the most, and fifty years is a life-time of friendship; our stories could fill a book.
Some of my earliest memories are of the many times I sat in a recording studio and watched her work. Marlene often called me at my job and invited me to commercial recording sessions. I’d sit there in my nurse’s uniform and marvel at her and the other talented musicians including Bucky Pizzarelli, who recorded with her. We’d then go back to her apartment. If Billy wasn’t sequestered in his studio writing, he’d join us.
When my children were born, Marlene and Bill shared our joy. We’d take our baby to New Jersey and Marl’s mother Pauline often watched my first-born if we went to an event. One of my warmest memories is of Pauline leaning over the rail of the portable crib and singing my baby to sleep. When my figure-skating daughter did a little show Marl and Billy came and watched her skate to Red and Yellow Flowers and Me, which Marlene graciously sang at my first daughter’s wedding. (Pictured here: Marlene singing Red and Yellow Flowers and Me; Marlene and Bill talking with Colby & Steve, Marlene and Bill with Steve)
Marlene choked up as my daughter sang along while she danced with her new husband. We shared joyful tears together that day.
Last spring, on her way to a wedding in California, Marlene spent a few days with us in Austin Texas. We had a ball. She said she wanted to visit the River Walk in San Antonio, and visit we did, spending the day there. Inadvertently we committed sacrilege: in a city boasting many fine restaurants, we managed to find and eat lunch in what must be one of San Antonio’s worst. Marl and I laughed about it, Bob did not. The next day, after a visit to my daughter’s home in Lakeway, we passed a Chick-fil-A. Marlene said, “Let’s stop there. My treat.” She’d never had a Chick-fil-A and wondered what all the fuss was about and what made her sister Barbara rave about them. We ended up agreeing. As fast foods go, Chick-fil-A is pretty good.
Later, I served her a fabulous French cheese that she’d never had before. She promptly called her brother Phil and instructed him to find that brand in New Jersey. The three of us had some laughs on the phone. Phil teased me about living in Texas, asking if I had cows in my backyard. I assured him I did, (I do not) but promised that I’d let Marlene eat even if she couldn’t rope her own steer! Too soon, she left us and continued on her journey to California.
Marlene and I spoke last in October and promised to have a longer conversation at another time; we exchanged Christmas cards in December. She never told me she was ill, but that was her way. She shared her joys and tried not to burden others with her pain.
Thoughts of Marlene filled my mind for the last three days of her life, even though I had no idea she was at the end of her time on this earth. On the morning of January 18, I felt compelled to call. Her machine picked up. She’s usually home early in the morning. I thought perhaps she was away for a few days. I left an upbeat message to let her know I was thinking of her and looked forward to catching up. An hour later, having seen her obituary in a New Jersey paper, my cousin informed me of her passing.
Friends like Marlene and Billy were gifts in our lives. They never allowed changes in circumstances or distance to interfere with friendship, nor will this distance dim the feelings and love we share with them. She and her beloved Bill are now reunited. Our hearts are broken and we will miss them forever, but oh, what experiences we shared in this life and what wonderful memories of them we have to keep with us.
Even now, before the shock, grief and tears have passed I close my eyes and see their smiling faces. We are happy that they are reunited and only wish they were together here.
RIP Marlene and Bill.
Until we meet again.