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From The Vault Of Art Shay: Forever My Florence

By Art Shay in News on Sep 5, 2012 6:00PM

The most joyous and joy-bringing person I ever knew.

(Legendary Chicago-based photographer Art Shay has taken photos of kings, queens, celebrities and the common man in a 60-year career. In this week's look at his photography archives, Art pays tribute to his late wife Florence.)

My brilliant and beautiful rare book dealer wife, Florence, a much-admired sometimes hostess of the famous North Shore Pun Club, is now gone two weeks. Each day that passes is a bittersweet reminder that she's now free of the pain that wracked her diminishing 108-pound body for the last terrible month of her life, and for that I am thankful. No more listening at her door during the night to determine if she's still breathing. No more four times a night look-ins by the all-night nurse and me to see if her flooding lungs needed yet another shot of morphine to calm her into a fitful sleep. No more holding her hand for the nine stertorous minutes it took for the morphine to hit and bring sleep.

How does a husband share his wife's ardent desire to die and not walk around in conflicted tears all day? Here is an excerpt of a letter from her beloved oncologist, Dr. Adi Gidron:

"Florence was one of the most amazing persons I ever met. Her vitality, intellect, humor and independence were an inspiration to those of us lucky enough to meet her. (I certainly was.) She never gave up her will to live her life and was amazing in her ability to focus on life despite her illness and never defined herself as having cancer. In doing that she prevailed over this tough illness."

He came to the house to say goodbye to her.

Florence was my companion, best friend, mother of our five children, and personal cheerleader for the past 68 years; a gifted blogger with 30,000 followers; a substitute Jewish mother for, of all book-lovers and rockers, Billy Corgan, who eulogized Florence and her Highland Park book shop Titles,Inc. in his sprightly recent article for Ravinia's summer program. Billy celebrated his birthday, then ours, with us at our table. Florence taught him to love lox and bagels here on Sunday mornings. Before she lost her coordination to her disease, Billy wrote a dance tune for her on his harpsichord. He hired me for a long photo project and began to collect my photographs. (He owns Man Ray and Kertesz, too.) Florence was about ready to help edit Billy's new book manuscript. (He tweeted her from his tours and sang a Gershwin song at her funeral in Highland Park.)

She edited some 30 of my books and was as tough as our Maryland niece Sara Shay, who worked as an editor on one of those “...for Idiots” books. "How many times did you want to call your father 'beloved'?" Florence scolded me reading a proof. She loved to work as my assistant on Mafia stories for Life. It was she who nailed Cleveland crime boss Moe Dalitz with a robot camera hidden in her purse at the Sands in Vegas, and who coolly secreted (in a potted lobby plant) a crucial roll of film that I casually removed from a camera a guard confiscated. I learned long afterwards from one of my kids, that "Mom used to start your car in the morning before you did because she felt if the Mafia blew you up, you wouldn't be able to function without legs... but she would."

Weeks ago the famous Lincoln scholar Dan Weinberg invited my waning Florence to be filmed in a documentary for his vaunted American Booksellers Association Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, her profession’s official organization. She rose to the occasion for a last hurrah and gave a brilliant, seamless performance. "A treasure for the ABA," said Weinberg tearfully. And for all of us who loved her, expensive leather-bound books behind her. She was classy all the way.

Thus her last appearance at Titles, Inc. became an event. For nearly an hour Florence—made up by her precious care-giver Kalina who dressed her prettily as for a book party—held forth cheerily on camera about her 30-plus years as a bookseller: how every two years for nearly two decades, she brought the International Book Fair to Chicago; how one fair-goer accidentally placed her hand on a weird little book written by her unknown-to-her father. It had a picture of him—the first she had ever seen—and told how he commuted to China buying up hair and bringing it back to Chicago for his business of making "sheitels"—wigs for Orthodox women. "For $75," Florence told the camera, "this lady bought a piece of her life she never knew existed."

Florence once got two hits the same day on an archery book- one from a samurai in Japan and the other from a Saudi prince!

Florence was also a writer and editor for the venerably intellectual Caxton Club magazine, writing its first humorous account of a book auction. She regaled her nationwide associates with tales of the unjailed governors of our state who shopped at Titles. Other customers included Chicago Bears like John Tait and Bulls like B.J. Armstrong, whom Florence loved and guided through a voracious interest in philosophy books. Her fans included authors Nelson Algren (the godfather of our lost son, Harmon); David Mamet (who wrote the forewords for two of my books); and "Catch 22" author Joseph Heller, who wrote a fan letter to her on the quality of her writing!

As the sound of Florence’s labored final breathing vied with the spaceship clatter of her oxygen machinery, a poem and a note came to hand. They’re from a 30-year-old Greek waiter-wannabe writer she befriended because he mentioned liking the writing of Nelson Algren and Harry Mark Petrakis, both customers of hers. "Make sure you let my beautiful friend know that it means a lot to me," Tom Papadakis said, "that she read and criticized my work from early in my fiction creation. She helped me get started. 'Look in your own heart, 'she taught me. ‘And write what you feel.'"

Tom's farewell poem to Florence laid itself out in the shape of a young Greek olive tree. The words began at the treetop and ended in the roots going into the earth that is now her eternal resting place. The poem ended:

"The flowers, rivers, trees, stars and people will adapt to your beautiful existence, and long after you are gone they will say how beautiful you were and that's pretty enough."

Goodbye my lifelong companion of all seasons. My smart, strong, eternal and beloved Florence. My beautiful pretty-enough forever lady.

Per Florence Shay’s wishes her bookstore, Titles, Inc. (1821 Saint Johns Avenue, Highland Park, Ill.), will close at the end of the year. On Nov. 7, Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman will auction off some of Florence Shay's and Titles,Inc.'s rare and collectible books.

If you can't wait until this time every Wednesday to get your Art Shay fix, please check out the photographer's blog, which is updated regularly. Art Shay's book, Chicago's Nelson Algren, is also available at Amazon.