Tue May 8, 2012
The Secret Life Of The Other Alan Feuer
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
For years, Alan Feuer got strange phone messages: a dry cleaner telling him his tuxedo is ready, for example, when he didn't own a tuxedo - a club saying he'd forgotten his attache case. He didn't own one of those, either. The New York Times reporter soon figured out that another Alan Feuer lived in New York, looked him up in the phonebook and made a call that led him not just to a namesake, but to a secret life in a fantasy world that dresses in white tie and tails. Alan Feuer joins us now from our bureau in New York. His second story on the other Alan Feuer ran in The New York Times last month. And it's nice to have you with us today.
ALAN FEUER: It's nice to be here, Neal. How are you?
CONAN: I'm good. Thanks. That first phone call - well, just sort of out of curiosity, I assume.
FEUER: The first call that I made to Alan? Yeah, it was a funny feeling of both, obviously, curiosity and a strange sensation of being crowded in my own skin by another guy who had my same name.
CONAN: And he turned out to be - well, debonair might be the word.
FEUER: He was an amazingly debonair guy. He was a man of society, as I came to figure out. He was a guy who attended functions at The Plaza for the Soldiers, Sailors, Marine Corps and Airmen's Association, the Petroushka Ball at the Waldorf, the Russian Nobility Ball, the Viennese Waltz Ball - all of these crazy events that, frankly, I had never heard of, but he was - had long-standing involvement with.
CONAN: And he - this was his life.
FEUER: This was his life. He was the organizer of these things. He would orchestrate table settings. He was the man at the door who would greet everybody. You know, he actually invited my wife and I to one of these events one time. It was one at The Plaza. And there stood Alan, right behind the reception table as you walked in: tuxedo, tails, you know, medals on his chest. He had served in the Air Force. And he - you know, he was the host of this whole universe, really. I mean, he was involved in numerous events like this.
CONAN: And among those phone messages, you used to get messages from women named Muffy explaining what a grand, smashing time they'd had.
Which got me into quite a bit of trouble at home sometimes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: I bet it did. But he turned out to have been a confirmed bachelor.
FEUER: That's right. In fact, at the ball that Alan invited us to, I kind of realized 20 minutes into the thing that the main reason he had invited my wife and I was so that he could take her arm in arm, table to table and introduce her - accurately - as Alan Feuer's wife, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. And that's what he did. He just took her to like 20 different tables and, you know, round he went.
CONAN: And that little accent you put on and the ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, well, he had an accent, too.
FEUER: He did. When I - the first time I called him up, the conversation went like this: Hello? Alan Feuer. And I said, hey, it's Alan Feuer. And he went, oh, good man. I've been meaning to call you. And he really did talk like that. That is absolutely how he spoke.
CONAN: So something out of - well, a kind of a cross between Franklin Delano Roosevelt and London.
FEUER: Something like that. You know, the way I pictured it was those, you know, those Preston Sturges movies where, you know, it's almost like an Anglophilic-New York accent.
CONAN: Oh, we use to call it Long Island lockjaw.
FEUER: There you go. There you have it. And that's how he spoke. And he sort of had this kind of, you know, 19th-century, early-20th century, you know, English, aristocratic way about him. He had top hats in his home. He carried canes. He smoked cigarettes out of long, skinny filters. He kind of had a David Niven mustache. And he cultivated the manners of a grand gentleman. You know, he had remarkable other side-passions, but his, sort of, persona was that of this Edwardian gentleman.
CONAN: A descendent of Austrian nobility, he said.
FEUER: Well, one of the first things you do when you find out somebody who shares your name is say, oh, where's your family from? So I told him my family was Romanian and many had come over after World War II. And he told me when I asked him that his family was indeed descended from a sort of aristocratic Austrian family and that he was clearly not wealthy now. There had once been a family fortune, but as he put it, mother lived too long.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Mother lived too long.
FEUER: Mother lived too long.
CONAN: And so this acquaintance blossomed over the years, and so you got to know him a little bit.
FEUER: You know, yeah, I would never say that - I would never, sort of, deign to say that we are friends. We were acquaintances. Every six months or so, there would be a drink, there would be dinner. There was this ball that they invited us to. I got invited to the Super Bowl party one year. We would catch up on the phone every now and then, and it was just the most pleasant, remarkable, unusual relationship that, sort of, coincidentally sprung out of a shared name. It was, you know, it was just this little sort of side corner of my life that I always like to touch base with. And he was a fantastic guy. And, you know, we were so different that whenever we got together it was just - it was hilarious to sit and talk. So, yeah.
CONAN: And then he decides to let you write his story. You're a reporter for The New York Times and, well, that's what reporters do.
FEUER: I had been after him for a long time to write this story just because I thought here's, you know, here's one of these great New York things, right? He - like I said, we had nothing in common. He lived on the East Side. I lived on the West Side. He was involved in these, you know, sort of magnificent displays of old world splendor. And at that time that I had met him, I was working out of the Newark office of the Times and was more than likely to be writing about corrupt cops or prostitutes and, you know, bad sections of Newark.
And so, yeah, you know, it was just - I encouraged him. Let me do it. Let me write about us. It's hilarious. And what he told me was, you know, it can't be done. You know, my kind of people - and he didn't say this with any trace of, you know, arrogance. He just said, my kind of people appear in the newspaper on only three occasions, and those would be births, deaths and weddings. And so, you know, none of those applied. So he really wouldn't let me do it for a long time. He developed cancer, sort of, this must have been a year and change ago. And whether that played into his decision to let me write about him, I really don't know. I didn't ask, but he changed his mind and he allowed me to write about his story - our story.
CONAN: This town is big enough for both us, you wrote. And it's a charming piece. Then cancer finally claims him and you go attend his funeral.
No. Actually, I never, unfortunately, made the funeral.
Oh, I apologize.
FEUER: No, no. It's no problem. I actually found out about his death by email. I was on vacation, and I was in this little town where there was no wireless service unless you pedal into a little cafe in the middle of the town. And one day, as I did every day, to get breakfast, I went in and I check my emails when I could. And there was 20 emails in my inbox, you know, most of them from Alan's friends who had seen the story that I wrote about us last year. And they were writing to inform me that the he had passed away. And, in fact, you know, the funeral was going to be in a couple days, and I wasn't able to make it.
But, you know, among the emails that I got with these incredible links to his Facebook page because we were Facebook friends, you know, and there were literally hundreds of remembrances of him as, you know, the grand man of New York society and, you know, the ballrooms of Manhattan. We'll never see the likes of Alan Feuer. You know, one guy said the Oscar Wilde of our time has died.
FEUER: That's straight off this, you know, people from - and photographs. I think it's just an incredible outpouring of love and memory and emotion. I was amazed, you know? It was beautiful.
CONAN: And one more email.
FEUER: And one more email, yeah. And it was quite literally the last email that I opened. And the email said, basically, Dear, Mr. Feuer. Ever since I saw your story on the other Alan Feuer one year ago, I've been meaning to get in touch with you. I didn't want to do so while Alan was alive. Now, that he has passed away, would you like to know the truth about his background?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FEUER: Well, you know, she - this woman who was, in fact, Alan's step niece. So, you know, imagine a, you know, a niece coming in by second marriage essentially. She went on to kind of flash out the family relationships, and she told me that while this life of grand society that I, in fact, had witnessed myself was absolutely true, the sort of back story that Alan had held up - Austrian blue blood, you know, mother live too long - all these stuff was, in fact, not true. And she said that, you know, if I wanted to get in touch with her, she would tell me, in fact, what the truth was. So I got in touch with her.
CONAN: And this is a story of a man not from Austria but, in fact, born in Brooklyn and raised in Westchester?
FEUER: Yeah. You know, the Brooklyn part - so the documentary evidence that I was able to get hold of with the amazing help of the Times' research department suggested Brooklyn. And so I said that in the story. It seems that way, but clearly, he had really been raised in Mount Vernon, which is the first town in Westchester, north of the Bronx. And he grown up in sort of middle class, you know, maybe even lower middle-class circumstances. His mom was a secretary at Mount Vernon City Hall. His dad was a lawyer of a sort, though his family told me that he really made his money through owning a liquor store. And we were able to uncover a 1910 census report that suggested that his father's father, his paternal grandfather, did indeed come from Austria, though not in any sense as a blue blood.
He landed on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He lived in a tenement on Sheriff Street and eventually told the census that the language spoken at home before arriving in the United States was Yiddish. You know, I had never even thought to ask Alan whether he was Jewish or not. Frankly, I didn't care one way or the other. It just - it was - he's so effortlessly communicated a non-Jewishness. He, you know, he had this kind of Episcopalian aura about him, that was utterly unspoken yet wholly convincing.
And it just, you know, there was no doubt that this was, you know, who he was, in some sense. You know, I didn't see him every day and saw him once every six months, so I had no reason to doubt this persona that he adopted.
CONAN: We're talking with The New York Times reporter Alan Feuer about the other Alan Feuer. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And a key piece of information you uncovered is that, yes, he did he served in Air Force. He did have that medal legitimately. He served in England.
FEUER: He did. During the Vietnam War, he enlisted in the Air Force, and he was stationed overseas at a base in England. And, you know, it was, at some point, I'm imagining, during his stay in England that he kind of found his way into this persona. Because when he returned in 1968, to his family in Mount Vernon, he did so with an English accent that I knew so well and that others of his friends knew, with an ascot around his neck, a walking cane in his hand and that ubiquitous, you know, long, skinny cigarette filter between his lips.
And this was something that wasn't just sort of carried out on the street. He - I was told by his family that he would do this at family dinner, sort of unbroken character.
CONAN: And did you ever find out why?
FEUER: After the story came, I never - let's - I should back up. I never found out in time to publish this story. There was a woman who would post it on his Facebook page that she had fond memories of Alan in England. I tried several times to contact her through Facebook. She never got back. The Air Force was unwilling to tell me what English base Alan served at, because I'm not a relative. His own family did not know. There was no way to track down, you know, former military colleagues or anything like that, so no. No, I did not find out precisely why he did it. Our research department was able to locate Alan's twin brother, and Alan's twin brother was, at that time, and is now, living in the family home...
CONAN: Hmm, Mount Vernon?
FEUER: ...where they - yeah, where they grew up. I called his brother, and I had known in advance and had been warned in advance, that he was a rough guy and just - they were estranged, he and his brother. And, indeed, you know, the first thing out of his mouth when I called was, what do you want? And so I told him, I said, curious as to why your brother felt compelled to sort of reinvent this pass for himself. And he said, I know exactly why he did it and I'm not saying anything and it's going to me with the grave.
And I thought, well, OK, that's an impressive thing to say. And so I did one of those, sort of, truthful reporter things where I told him, accurately, but also hoping to convince him further that, you know, I felt a little responsible that I had helped perpetuate a story that wasn't true. And he said, listen to me. He said, you didn't perpetuate nothing that wasn't true in my brother's eyes. And I thought that was a very powerful thought that suggested that he understood his brother and, you know, it didn't make a difference to him.
CONAN: That his brother had somehow discovered a self, a real identity.
FEUER: A real identity. That was one of the things that, you know, I begin to understand as I moved this to the circuit Alan's friends and his society colleagues that - one man in particular explained to me that it was his belief that Alan did not create anything, that, in fact, whatever moment occurred in England, whatever he saw or experienced there, allowed him, to a sense, discover what he already was. And, in fact, following the article, I was deluged by literally hundreds of emails from people who grew up next door to him, who went to high school with him, who were his fraternity brothers, who were receptionists at places that we would frequent, every corner of his life reaching every stage of his life.
And it was remarkable to find these little details that people had. Oh, yes, when he was in college, you know, he belonged to this - some society. I'm forgetting the name right now. But the idea of it was to perfect one's dancing and etiquette. And the next door neighbor said he was always very interested in, you know, in correct speech and in, sort of, you know, elegantly holding himself out and that this was something that just went back, back, back, back, back.
CONAN: Alan Feuer tells Alan Feuer's story in two articles in The New York Times, the most recent, "The Secret Life of a Society Maven." You could find a link to that on our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And, Alan Feuer, thank you so much for sharing your story.
FEUER: Oh, my pleasure.
CONAN: Alan Feuer is a reporter for The New York Times. Tomorrow, after a gun battle outside the prime minister's house in Tripoli, we'll talk about progress and pitfalls and the ripples of revolution in Libya. Join for us that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.