Ralph Lowenbaum: He Led A Life Without Headlines But With Artistic Consequence
Ralph Lowenbaum didn’t get a news obituary either in the morning paper or here at St. Louis Public Radio. News editors, rightly, ask “What did he or she do?” and they’re not easily swayed by exaggerations or social or professional associations. The bar is high, and those who don’t clear it don’t make it.
By traditional measurements, reinforced by general perceptions of Mr. Lowenbaum’s 89½ years, the answer to “what did he do” would be “not much.” Turns out, that was wrong.
During a memorial service on a recent morning at Temple Israel, his three children – Michael Lowenbaum, Edward Lowenbaum and Cathy Lowenbaum Glaser -- dispelled common prevailing opinions about Mr. Lowenbaum and in the process reinforced others.
Overall, what they said was warm but not particularly sentimental. The talks were candid and certainly not memorial-service-proper. There was laughter; and when Michael Lowenbaum finished talking, the audience cheered. The talks also served to change some minds on the subject of the character and accomplishments of the deceased, a man who was indeed in perfect health and who died not of natural causes or the infirmities of age but in a multi-car accident that occurred as he drove to visit a friend in a nursing home. As the congregation left the synagogue – a place Ralph Lowenbaum never darkened in his adult life -- there was a chorus of “Who Knew?”
His life, as it turns out, was sort of like the wreck. He caused some damage as he made his way through it, but no one was fatally injured (except for Mr. Lowenbaum himself, in that actual accident). He was formidable -- I was wary of him because I never knew which I would get: the friendly and solicitous Ralph-the-hilarious or the cranky and profane Ralph-the-knife. But in the posthumous redemptions afforded him by his children, he emerged as a man who was productive, indeed, by standards he set and maintained. And in retrospect he was endowed with a special, if irreverent, brand of grace.
In a talk that was the antithesis of vocal black crepe, Mike Lowenbaum said his father lived a largely unfiltered and unfettered life.
“Generally,” he said, “as people age, two things happen: Their relationships with others tend to deteriorate, and they lose their filters. For Ralph, like with many other things, it worked in reverse. As he aged, most of his relationships with people actually improved, and the truth is he never had a filter.”
Mr. Lowenbaum started his working life in his family’s dress manufacturing business, which qualified as a huge mistake. Mike Lowenbaum said that his father hated the business; and although he was good at designing dresses, he was no good at running the business of manufacturing them.
“He was given no choice by his dad and had to work there,” Michael said. “Between the two of them they bankrupted it.”
Freed from darts, gussets, flounces, trim and ledgers, he became prolific as a painter and sculptor, one usually below the radar in the art biz, but dauntless. A brooding, introspective self-portrait, shown here, looking you in the eye, demonstrates his talent for painting, as well as his self-assurance. Michael’s older son, Scott Lowenbaum – who is making a successful career in New York and in Europe as an artist – said his grandfather wanted more than anything to be recognized for his art. He studied in the School of Fine Arts at Washington University, and among his teachers were the locally famous Fred Conway and the internationally acclaimed Max Beckmann.
One of his good works was to teach art to inmates at the old Adult Correctional Facility at Gumbo. He was devoted to animals, and was a longtime supporter of the Humane Society and often took in strays. His sympathies were with immigrants who came to the United States believing in the promises it has proclaimed through most, although not all, of its history, and hired them to work for him. He wrote a novel, “The Prince is Dead Long Live the Prince,” a mystery Mike Lowenbaum says is autobiographical.
Mr. Lowenbaum, for better and for worse, was distinguished by a resolute singularity, a quality with which humankind has problems. While we proclaim our individuality, departures from the norm are met with fear and often detestation and sometimes ostracization. The more decidedly the transgressions depart from tribal norms, the more the huffing and puffing goes on, and that proceeds to the gnashing of teeth, then fistfights, then murders and ultimately war. In facing the truth, it becomes apparent that those who stay within the confines of conformity, and live comfortable lives in the fortresses of safety, experience the lives of quiet desperation Henry David Thoreau wrote about.
As chameleons do, we the desperate adapt ourselves, taking on the colorations of our surroundings and of the inhabitants of those surroundings; and we all match up and blend in with each other’s wallpaper and each other’s automobiles and so forth. If you look at Ralph Lowenbaum’s habitat, you might think he was just another member of our default Chamaeleonidae family, albeit a right comfortable branch of it. The outward and visible signs of Mr. Lowenbaum’s life were swell. He had a 63124 address, belonged to Westwood Country Club at one time and never lacked for anything.
One of his two best friends is a gazillionaire. The other, who died just a couple of weeks ago, was a prominent lawyer, insurance underwriter and political mover and shaker who married a department store heiress. Mr. Lowenbaum’s wife of 63 years, the estimable and radiant Barbara Lowenbaum, is a powerhouse Realtor, and she supported him. He was generous to his neighbors and his family. He quit Westwood in the 1960s and bought a houseboat, the “Mother Load,” the better to get everyone together, or perhaps Ralphishly, to confine them together
Although Mr. Lowenbaum dwelled in the midst of all that affluence, he resisted letting affluence handcuff him. He remained resolutely singular to the end. He was a compleat Thoreauvian, a wayward and often impolite one, but a Thoreauvian nevertheless.
Ralph didn’t pray, at least as far as anyone knows, but Henry David Thoreau did. Had Ralph prayed, he might have said something like this:
Great God, I ask thee for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.
“My dad truly embraced the term ‘L’dor v’dor’ – from generation to generation,” Edward Lowenbaum said in his eulogy. His legacy to his children and grandchildren, Edward said, was showing them how to live their own lives on their own terms.
“It has allowed us all to follow our own passions.”
And another thing. “It let us have a good laugh along the way.”