Gene Genovese passed away today. I was lucky to share a part of Gene’s last years with him and his wife, Elizabeth Fox Genovese, in their home. I worked for Betsey until her brave death in 2007. I therefore was witness to one of the great intellectual love stories of our age.
Betsey and Gene started out as prominent Marxist intellectuals and ended their journey as passionate spokespeople for the rebirth of Catholic conservatism. A perfectly natural path. Betsey, of course, was the one who led Gene back after “fifty years in the wilderness,” as he wrote in Miss Betsey, his memoir of their marriage.
At the end of that book, Gene wrote:
What everlasting life means I have no idea. At the risk of contradicting these words, I pray that Betsey and I will be blended spiritually, much as our ashes will be blended in that urn. We are told that in Heaven we shall see the face of God. If allowed to enter Heaven, I shall see Him in her smile.
I’ll leave it to others to recount Gene and Betsey’s significance as intellectuals. I got the delightful parts: watching Gene slip into expensive Italian leather loafers to somewhat uncomplainingly walk the inaccurately named Labradors, Patience and Prudence; watching the two of them spend the morning writing together, then share lunch of good wine, bread, cheese, and salami, then write some more . . . watching in bewilderment as two of the smartest people in the world mistakenly rooted for the wrong New York baseball team.
I also saw the extraordinary passion that carried the two of them through Betsey’s years of suffering at the end of her life. Gene worried so much, and she worried about him worrying: it was an object lesson in endearment. He brought the T.S. Eliot book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to read to her at the hospital: the smartest people in the world with the exception of their choice of baseball team found simple joy in cat cartoons after inspiring the intellectual exodus from Stalinism.
Gene and Betsey’s friends will remember evenings at Nino’s being regaled with Sinatra and martinis, pickled eggplant and stories of their first date. Some of us will also remember lunches at Roxx Tavern, where the men out front marveled at Betsey’s persistence and the sight of two people so perfectly in love.
What Gene and Betsey taught me was that you can, you must, stop your life and take a different path once you realize you have been traveling the wrong one. They were smart enough to be grateful. We should all have such faith.