Jimmy Longhi passed away this week in New York City. He’d been around the block and back many, many times, in all taking about 90 years to do it.
Jimmy was a f - in' great guy.
I've just gotta say that, because that's exactly what he always said about the people he loved. His Italian-American, Brooklyn upbringing granted him the right to use cuss words as his personal poetry. And out of Jimmy's mouth, it was. Raging, passionate language, street-talk; all poetry from a loud, tough, colorful, cussing Brooklyn guy. But he also used the word “love” more freely than any just about any man I’d ever met.
Jimmy had a uniquely Brooklyn way of barking “I love ya!” in a tone that could make a wise-guy jump and reach into his pocket. Jimmy's “I love ya!” could happen at any moment, exploding like a grenade in your face. And you just had to brace yourself and deal with the Big Bang of love that came hurtling at you.
Jimmy was one of my father’s closest buddies, and my fill-in for a father figure. He wasn’t a musician. He was a loud and great man of conscience who had no qualms about screaming those conscience-raising thoughts all over the neighborhood. He was a lawyer, a writer, a playwright, and spokesman for the rank-and-file longshoremen on the New York waterfront in their struggles against corruption following WWII.
I was sentenced to silence in his presence. Nothing else could happen when Jimmy Longhi was there. He owned the room. And that was just fine. He had more things to say and stories to tell than anyone else ever did. And all I ever wanted to do was listen.
In the spring of 1943, mid WWII, Jimmy Longhi, Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston went down and signed up with the Merchant Marine together. Jimmy said, “When they (Cisco and Woody) asked me to ship out with them, I was honored, thrilled, and terrified. I was trapped between two heroes. I felt like a slice of salami in a hero sandwich."
They shipped out together on liberty ships over a three year period, carrying supplies, ammunition and troops to Europe and North Africa. Sharing living quarters, deck jobs, surviving torpedo hits and playing music together during the war years, their brotherhood was chiseled permanently onto each other’s hearts like tattoos.
They could be particularly tender and overtly affectionate with each other, both manly and loving figures. When Cisco Houston was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950’s, he came to say good bye to my father who was already hospitalized with Huntington's Disease. They knew they would never see each other again. A strong handshake and tight hug was followed by warm words of love and tear filled eyes. Then Jimmy went to the airport to see Cisco off to California, where he wanted to die. Embracing each other at the gangway Jimmy writes, "my beautiful Cisco said 'Good bye, my brother'."
A few years later, when my father was fading away, Jimmy went to the hospital to say his farewells. “I asked Woody if he loved me. He blinked his eyes once. It was the only way he could say ‘Yes’.”
Jimmy cried easily, and often did when he shared these stories with me and just about anyone else who would listen. He was not a private man, but rather someone who felt that his story was a piece of American street life - a life to be seen, heard and always remembered. His stories were public record. And he was the premier documentarian, being one of the great storytellers of all time.
One of the funniest memories I have is of Jimmy jumping up on a stage (uninvited) during a press conference for a Woody Guthrie concert at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1996. Using more cuss words than Joe Pesci in Wiseguys, Jimmy went on to inform us, and the press, that “Woody Guthrie was a f – in’ war hero who saved my f – in’ life so we should never f - in’ forget it and we should tell that part of the f - in’ story too…!”
Lucky for us, Jimmy wrote down these true life, often hysterically funny stories in one of the best books concerning Woody Guthrie ever written, “Woody, Cisco and Me” (1997, University of Illinois Press). It's the kind of get-down-and-dirty book where you laugh, cry, and cuss along with these misbegotten sailors in their rollicking, wartime adventures. It's a side of Woody that no one else could possibly know, and no one else could possibly write.
Jimmy's son, Jaime, passed this last story along:
"A few days before he left us, I was sitting at his bed. He wasn't doing well at all ... spending a lot of time looking out into what seemed another dimension. I started singing "Hard Traveling"...really low and slowly.
I hadn't sung more than a verse and a half when he popped right up and said, clearer than he had spoken all day, "Am I confused? I remember us singing it: and he started singing "Hard Traveling" fast, rhythmically, tapping his hand against his leg.......and finished the whole first verse.
I asked him if he wanted some beer ...and he grinned. I returned with his small and light glass which I'd poured some beer into, while I took the bottle. We toasted "to traveling"....but he couldn't manage the glass to his mouth. I gave him the bottle, and helped it to his lips. He drank. Then he ordered me out of the room, as his eyes went elsewhere. Ordered me to be quiet, and leave him alone. "Don't make a sound! Leave me"
I knew that Jim was drinking with Woody and Cisco. I felt it in a strange and miraculous and incredulous way. He wouldn't admit it, when I questioned him, but then again he kept hopping from one plane to another. But I KNOW that Dad was with Woody and Cisco......somewhere, somehow."
I believe it.
So, okay Jimmy. Now it's your turn to take to the skies. But let me tell you – if you'll let me get a word in edgewise! - you really were f - in' great. And the book you left us is so f – in’ great.
And you can believe that whenever I think of one of you, I'll think of all three... Woody, Cisco and you, baby.
Woody Guthrie Archives
New York Times Obituary Editor & Staff
From Jaime Longhi
re: the Passing of Jim Longhi
aka: Vincent J. Longhi; V.J. Longhi
I bring to your attention the passing, at the age of 90, of Jim Longhi, attorney, author, playwright. He was actively pursuing all three activities until one month prior to his death.
For brevity’s sake, I will list just a few things that Jim was famous for:
His friendship and work with Arthur Miller during Longhi’s 12th District congressional campaigns (Republican/Labor) on the Brooklyn waterfront, in the late 40’s. Longhi became the prototype for Miller’s lawyer Alfieri in “A View from the Bridge.” They also wrote together a play that was later developed by their breakaway partner, Elia Kazan, as “On the Waterfront.”
Longhi began his own writing career with a play, set on the Brooklyn waterfront, produced in 1954, which starred Gary Merrill, Sam Jaffe, and introduced Steve McQueen, for whom Longhi paid his Equity ticket. Other plays followed : about his upbringing in a house where his father forbid religion, and his mother conspired to have her children baptized (Climb the Greased Pole, starring Sir Bernard Miles); “The Lincoln Mask” produced at the Kennedy Center, and subsequently on Broadway, with Fred Gwynne as Lincoln, and Eva Marie Saint as his wife.......
Longhi wrote “Woody, Cisco & Me” ten years ago about his Merchant Marine years spent shipping out with Woody Guthrie. The book won the Independent Publishers award for best autobiographical novel. He has appeared numerous times on PBS and in documentaries recounting the heroics and genius of Guthrie.
Longhi finished his memoirs, in the form of a series of short stories, only one month before he became ill (as a result of a fall and fractured vertebra). During the last fifty years, Longhi headed an active law firm in NYC (VJ Longhi Associates) specialized in Plaintiff’s Negligence and Medical Malpractice
Google him. The NY Times archives have him listed under all three names.
Arthur Millers “Time Bends” mentions him in its index ten times.
In leau of flowers, the Longhi family has asked for donations to be made to
The Woody & Marjorie Guthrie Research Fund with HDSA.
Huntington's Disease Society of America
505 Eighth Avenue, Suite 902
New York, NY 10018
T: (800) 345-HDSA