Unexpected Friendships: Past and Present

Take it back to childhood for the best memories. Then they grew up to be competing Presidents, a novelist and an electrical genius, a comedian and poet, two entertainers from the West Indies, two women entertainers in love with the same man, two prizefighters–an African American and a German backed by the Nazis. Life does make interesting friends. Keeping the friendship is where the gold is won.

To have a person who is “your” person, for you always even when it’s hard—down right impossible—is a gift beyond measure. Matters not who the person is, the role someone performs in your life, but that you know you can count on that person, not just for support but to parse the essential issues in your lives. Never offering an Inquisition, but asking the questions you might not want to address. Yet raising those you know you must ask in order to move on, to achieve your goals, be fully present and responsible in a meaningful life.

A “best” friend can also be the person you hang out with when you’re letting off steam or relaxing, have dinner or a couple beers or glasses of wine, but if you can’t ask each other the hard questions and offer honest answers, then there’s something important missing.  Those “easy” friends who share a similar career or a child’s preschool are fine, but if you want to look a little farther afield, you might open into something richer and deeper.

Many people I have communicated with over the past four months during this Pandemic have found their usual haunts closed for safety reasons, so they must resort to other ways to connect. A phone call or letter to a new acquaintance or an old friend who you would like to re-engage could make a positive difference in your life and theirs!

No doubt you have heard that U.S. President #2 John Adams, stout, leaning neurotic northerner, and U.S. President #3 Thomas Jefferson, slim, genteel, southerner, were great friends in the 1770s when they had the American Revolution in common. But when they were involved in the nasty 1800 Presidential campaign (politics is not often a relationship builder) that friendship turned bitter and they didn’t speak until 1812. Did you know how they began speaking again? Adams wrote Jefferson a letter after a mutual friend encouraged him. Both well-read and voracious readers, their correspondence between Peace Field in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia covered philosophy, religion and, of course, politics, but lacked the fire that destroyed their friendship in the earlier years. Of course, it is well known they both died within hours of each other on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

Moving Through Time

While Adams and Jefferson were physically different as well as political opponents, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor were both beautiful women, but they were drawn together initially by the third in the triangle—Eddie Fisher. A bit after fathering Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame, carried on a very public affair with Taylor, eventually divorced Reynolds and married Taylor. After his death, the two women became friends and when Taylor died, Reynolds inherited her sapphire jewelry. Quite a gift recognizing forgiveness and the friendship they built. Maybe there are some future friendships in this Pandemic that only require soul searching, forgiveness, and a fresh start.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) and Nikola Tesla, the electricity wizard of the 1890s, met during the Gilded Age when the two men circulated in the New York social scene. Their friendship blossomed through letters focused around their shared intellectual curiosity. Twain would often visit Tesla’s lab, to examine scientific oddities and be present for Tesla’s demonstration of high voltage electricity and early x-ray technology. Each man claimed the other had cured him of an illness. As a child, Tesla was once bedridden and found Twain’s “captivating” novels helped him jump-start a recovery. Twain said that Tesla cured him of a severe bout of constipation by having him stand on a high frequency oscillator.

Comedian Groucho Marx and poet and Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot were quite the opposites. Marx with his bawdy humor and Eliot, the author of difficult, melancholic verse, like “The Wasteland” began their friendship when Eliot wrote to ask Marx for a signed fan photograph.  Both men respected the work of the other and shared a love of literature, although Eliot showed to be the more conservative while Mark took opportunities to embarrass the bashful poet. They met for dinner with their wives at Eliot’s home in London in 1964, after which Marx said they shared “an affection for good cigars” and cats and “a weakness for making puns.”

In the 1930s came one of the more striking friendships between “The Brown Bomber” Joe Louis and German prizefighter Max Schmeling favored by the Nazis. Louis, unbeaten until 1936 when Schmeling beat him. In the rematch in 1938, Louis won a contest overlaid with racial and political implications. Louis scored a knockout against Schmeling. After the match, the two took to phone calls to discuss their roles as nationalist icons for their respective countries—Louis against racism in America and Schmeling now against Nazism in Germany. When Louis fell on hard times financially, Schmeling helped out. When Louis ran into financial difficulty toward the end of his life, Schmeling came through and helped to pay his debts. Unexpected friendships.

And there are those entertainers who we might have expected to be friends, but to maintain that bond for 40 or 50 years is a credit to them that creative jealousies never disrupted their bond. Betty White of “Golden Girls” and long a television favorite, first met Lucille Ball when she was filming “A Date with Angels” at the Desilu Studios in 1956. The comedians remained friends until Ball’s death in 1989.

Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier met when they were 20 in 1947 at the American Negro Theater. Their common birthplace, the West Indies, and their personal commitment to civil rights helped sustain their 70-year bond and provided American music and movies with classic presentations of both.

Two popular leading men—Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart—could not be more different. Stewart, a religious Republican, and Fonda, an agnostic, liberal-leaning Democrat would be a hard match under normal circumstances. But these two spent their time together building kites and model airplanes and playing practical jokes. Their 50-year friendship didn’t conclude until Henry’s death in 1982.

If these people can keep their friendship alive for 50+ years, think of what or who is missing in your life. Maybe making and flying a kite might open up your friendship with someone you’ve had difficulty reaching. Communication is simpler now. A text or an email might rekindle your friendship, but wouldn’t a letter be a nice surprise?   


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