special tribute
Norris Embry

Introduction | Knowing When To Stop

A Memoire By Ned Rorem

Excepts concerning Norris EMBRY, whom Ned Rorem first met during
his adolescent years in the Chicago area.


Jackson Park in the thirties…At the top of the park looms the Museum of Science and Industry erected in 1929 by Julius Rosenwald…Into the museum proper…I ventured with Norris Embry, who headed straight toward a phonograph display which allowed you to hear your own voice. Into a hand-held microphone Norris intoned:

  Margaret, are you grieving
  Over Godengrove unleaving?

  Leaves, like the things of man, you
  With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?

with such simple eloquence that even before he pressed the playback button, Hopkin’s rhythm, new to me, was incised on my psyche and would become the source of my first true song.

pp. 111-112

Another friend appearing extracurricularly in the late thirties was the Evanston painter Norris Embry.  What was one to make of that body, so Christ-like and pro-Giacomettian, that troubled and lovely face resembling the young Cocteau’s, the breathless speech, part world weary and part juvenile, which never uttered banalities, the sadness, the craziness?  He went to a different school, never quite fit in, but hung around, knowing everyone and everything but remaining forever an anchorite. 

He too went on to Saint John’s College, site of neurotic male Wasp geniuses, was expelled from there, then from other schools, for being, so far as I can judge in retrospect, not so much drunk as overly fanciful.  He would fall out of windows, break bones, get beat up by rough trade, send poems and poseys to impossible recipients (movie stars, prizefighters), and end up for long stays in loony bins.  During one such stay, exasperated and done in by the academic specialists’ Freudian prying, he finally, out of sheer boredom, rushed to the door, pointed down the hall, and screamed : “RABBITS! Here they come!  For that he was given an A.

Norris set up house eventually in Mykonos, where the locals found him apparently no weirder than most Americans, and where he could dispense his meagre but regular allowance (the family paid him to stay away) on wine, men, and song.  For all of us over the years, wherever and whenever Norris appeared, he was as welcome for his adaptability (he could just curl up over there in the corner) as for his huge talent.  For he worked as hard as he played. 

He never sent a letter (and he sent thousands) without enclosing an inked comic strip à la Dubuffet of what he was up to.  During none of these “appearances”  was he without a suggestion for a poem I might set to music. This poem he would immediately write out from memory on the back of a menu, and yes, I would set it to music. My dearest songs are those that would not have existed but for Norris.  (I have no taste in poetry, but infallible taste in those who do.)

I saw him last in Baltimore in 1979 with David Sachs, at his filthy flat. He was an outpatient at John Hopkins.  I bought three powerful paintings.  They hang in my front hall.  He died two years later, aged fifty-nine.


We all drank a lot…In retrospect, except for me and Norris, I don’t recognize it as a developing problem for anyone.

p. 119

Then there were heavy doses of the so-called popular [music]…Norris showed up with an album of Mae West, “Easy Rider,” Frankie and Johnny,” and “A Guy What Takes His Time.”  At the start of the last named we hear a thrice-uttered “Oh,” the lewdest one syllable ever recorded.  Mother thought Mae West was cheap (well I guess so) and irresistible.

p. 164

We gave parties…Norris Embry and David Sachs, now colleagues at Saint John’s College along with a few hundred other enfants terribles, showed up and talked of Sang d’un poète by  the same Jean Cocteau who had written Les enfants terribles. With them was Robert  Anderson, no fool, despite being tall, blond and handsome (and straight), and their description of the movie was graphically  so precise as to leave no surprise when I finally saw it myself two years later.


Norris Embry recited a quatrain of Jean Cocteau’s called “De Don Juan”:

En Espagne on orne la rue
Avec les loges d’opéra.
Quelle est cette belle connue ?
C’est la mort. Don Juan l’aura.

In one sitting I set it, steeped in the Bowlesian dying fall. (When in 1950 I first met Cocteau and quoted the poem, he, like Man Ray with  the slave pictures, professed not to remember.) During the next weeks I wrote other songs on verses of my own, or by friends, or by an odd cluster of poets suggested either by Norris or by his colleague, blond Bob Anderson, both now settled, or unsettled, in New York after years at Saint John’s College with David Sachs… “Dolls Boy”, for example, on Cummings’s famous words.


Quick flashbacks…Finding John Latouche at “The Beggar’s Bar.”  The weird German actress Valeska Gert, who in 1925 destroyed Garbo in Pabst’s Die frudlose Gasse, and in 1963 would portray a witch in Fellini’s 8 ½ was now proprietor of this dive on Bleecker Street where she entertained tiny audiences as cackling diseuse, and where Norris Embry in adoring masochism waited tables for no pay.

p. 260

…And another setting, “Spring and Fall,” on the Hopkins poem Norris had read into the machine at the Chicago museum so many years before, may be the most touching song I ever  penned. Built on the descending ground base of Monteverdi’s “Amor,” it spins a tune of an adolescent girl’s first menstruation and the pangs thereof, mounting gently ever higher as the bass line reiterates its four notes ever lower.


Eugene [Istomin] was the first of us to go to Europe.  The grand tour was the goal of American graduates then, as it had been in the nineteenth century and as it is not today.  For us the reflection of Paris’s postwar aura from the twenties was forceful enough to impel an equally forceful mystique in the fifties. 

We would supply the mystique, awakening France like Sleeping Beauty of a long-war’s nightmare.  Eugene, giddy with his success as a young pianist and abetted by the funds of the Leventritt Foundation, went abroad early in 1948 and wrote us about how the newly released ferment of intellectual activity was more purposeful there than in the States.  He rented a villa in Cap Ferrat where Shirley and I and maybe Norris Embry planned to meet him that spring…

p. 396

…On the afternoon of Tuesday, 7 June [1949], loitering in the place Sainte-Geneviève where children used to throw rotten fruit at the drunken Verlaine (not really so long ago), we heard a choir rehearsing from the nearby church, repeating, repeating, a modal five-note refrain. The sky clouded over.  We returned to Harp Street.  Norris, looking as always like a hyperthyroid version of Picasso’s Blue Harlequin, thin and wistful, mixed gin and sodas.  Then, leaning by the great window and gazing down in to the darkening street where neon was beginning to reflect on the newly wet pavement, he pronounced these verses:

There fell a beautiful clear rain
With no admixture of fog or snow,
And this was and no other thing
The very sign of the start of spring.

Not the longing of a lover
Nor the sentiment of starting over,
But this clear and refreshing rain
Falling without haste or strain.

I felt, still feel, that no poet, certainly not our habitually perfervid Paul, had ever more prettily stated the absence of anxiety.  That evening, using maybe that five-note refrain, I made a song out of the Goodman lyric, my first music written away from home.

p. 409

Norris did see The Blue Angel --- we all did.  We also saw (heard) Tristan with Flagstad who filled the Salle Garnier with tragic gold.

p. 411

But where exactly is Morocco?  I asked Shirley and Norris.  It’s down under the Mediterranean, they said, just across from France.  Do you think I should go? I asked.  What else have you got to do? They answered.


I saw quite a bit of Truman [Capote], who used me as a decoration and as translator.  He came to Harp Street to entertain Shirley and Norris Embry, after which we went to the Deux Magots for him to be interviewed for Paris-Match.

p. 478
Thursday, 18 May [1950]…packed a huge suitcase (enclosing, as a gift for Guy, several of Norris Embry’s extraordinary brown and black lithographs), caught a 9 p.m. bus at the Gare des Invalides which headed toward Orly, then boarded an old-fashioned plane for Casablanca

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Cover photograh by Man Ray