Remembering Bernice Kliman and H. Gordon Smyth — A Special Message from Ralph Alan Cohen

Bernice Kliman and H. Gordon Smyth, two important friends to the ASC, died last week. They didn’t know each other, and they would be surprised to find themselves being remembered together in this piece. In truth, they were about as different as two good people can be. Gordon, a retired executive with Dupont, was a quiet and reserved man, the kind of upright citizen you expect to meet at the Rotary Club and have as a deacon of your church. Bernice was a retired professor from Nassau Community College, and the kind of gleefully uninhibited New Yorker you’d expect to see at a protest march with Bella Abzug.

Bernice first raised a family of four sons with her husband Merwin on Long Island and then began a remarkable career as a Shakespearean. At the Folger Shakespeare Library, she was the first reader at her desk when the library opened at 8:45 and the last one there when it closed at 4:45. After hours, she was the ringleader in getting the other scholars together for plays, concerts, lectures, and – especially – parties where there was dancing. She was a wonderful dancer and my memory of parties at the Folger Guest House and at Tom Berger’s Malone Society Dances at the Shakespeare Association of America always feature Bernice tearing up the dance floor in her colorfully patterned stockings – imagine Ruth Gordon doing a damned good Tina Turner imitation and you’ll be pretty close to what I remember.

Bernice didn’t like snobs and she was suspicious of the establishment, but she loved upstarts and underdogs – she was one – so she was immediately drawn to the work of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express. A good show was all the credentials she needed in a Shakespeare company. At the Folger she became a vocal proponent of the SSE, and, when we offered our first teacher seminars (at the Dayton Learning Center), she was our featured visiting scholar (thanks to the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and our first ever grant). Later she brought us up to Long Island to do shows and workshops at at her college. She was one of those people’s whose high regard for our work made me know we were on the right track, and her remarkable enthusiasm put a favoring wind in our sails. Her great work, The Three-Text Hamlet, gives a side-by-side-by-side look at the three versions of the play, and is one of the indispensible books for a Shakespearean scholar. She did me the honor of letting me use an advanced manuscript for my production of the play in 1995.

By contrast, Gordon’s support was not so much moral as financial – generously so. At his funeral, the minister talked about the story in Luke of the Good Samaritan, and pointed out that loving your neighbor meant extending the idea of “neighbor” even to strangers. In a way, that’s what Gordon did with us. I don’t think he cared that much about Shakespeare, but he and Mary Beth wanted to support young minds – their foundation sends deserving young people to college – and he cared about Mary Baldwin College and knew we were important to Cynthia Tyson and then to Pamela Fox.

I remember, during board meetings, his quiet dismay at our first attempts to be a sound business. I remember his dry comments and his pointed questions. I fancy, too, that he had a glint of amusement in his eyes, the kind of glint your father had while you were explaining to him why you needed a larger allowance. Whatever his misgivings may have been about our start-up, upstart Shakespeare company, it was Gordon who agreed to assure the mortgage our late, great Bruce Campbell had arranged for the Blackfriars.

Gordon and Bernice – the businessman-philanthropist and the scholar-teacher – so unlike one another except in their devotion to the idea that learning enriches, were part of our foundation. We are saddened at losing them. We celebrate their friendship and we owe their memories the best work we can do.