When the Harvard class of 1959 gathers for its 50th reunion a year from June, they'll chat about global issues and grandchildren, postretirement pursuits, and the inevitable health concerns. At some point they're also bound to discuss a subject few thought much about until recently: classmate Arthur Lemay and why he tried to fool them all into thinking he was dead.
In a ruse Mark Twain might have concocted, Lemay, a retired management consultant from Northern California, circulated his own obituary on a Harvard '59 e-mail listserv last month, then sat back and watched classmates' reactions. The faux obit followed scores of right-wing polemics Lemay wrote and distributed over the years, e-mails that tweaked and often infuriated his more liberal-minded classmates, virtually none of whom remembered Lemay from their college days, but upon whom he'd managed to make quite an impression recently.
"Arthur knew he was dying as early as September of 2007," began the death notice, which was signed by Lemay's wife and posted in late January. Ascribing his death to kidney failure while vacationing in the Caribbean, it contained descriptive touches such as: "He loved to play roles: the agent provocateur, the crazed right-winger, the insane bomber . . ." And: "He was actually a very reasonable person, not given to extremes. Had you met him, you would find him quite reasonable, sympathetic to liberal views, personable, interesting, and full of information - some of it quite esoteric and obscure."
According to his wife, Lemay also left behind five postings (one titled "Why are Environmentalists criminals?") intended to be shared posthumously. "Communications from the grave," she called them.
To put it charitably, classmates read of Lemay's demise with mixed emotions.
"Although I disagreed with Arthur on nearly every subject that came up in these discussions, I will miss him," wrote Bruce Parker, a Houston radiologist. "He reminded me of a medical school professor about whom was said that, even when he was wrong, he made you study and think to prove him incorrect."
"I have to say that I was sort of looking forward to meeting Arthur at the reunion," said Joseph Bower, a confessed Harvard Business School professor who'd frequently butted heads with Lemay online.
Being Harvard grads, many rose to Ivy League levels of creativity in penning tributes, sincere or otherwise, to the late Art Lemay. At least two responders turned to poetry (viz. "Arthur's done with Earthly tryst/and truth be told he will be missed/he goaded hawk and pacifist . . . but Glory what a catalyst").
Even among those expressing condolences to Lemay's wife, though, phrases like "contradictory feelings" cropped up. If there was genuine remorse among classmates who'd clashed with him, there was also widespread agreement that Lemay the political analyst and rogue ideologue had been a royal, crimson-colored pain in the neck.
On Feb. 10, Lemay posted an e-mail confessing to the hoax. His motive, he wrote, was to gauge classmates' true feelings about him once he, Lemay, was no longer around to torment them.
"I have to eat humble pie and admit it was very silly and stupid of me to do this," wrote Lemay, promising to be less confrontational in future postings. Or, as he put it, to become a "more philosophical person who has genuinely buried the old Arthur."
He also said the death of a close friend, coupled with a near-death experience of his own, had given him the idea for posting the obit.
This time the reaction was every bit as mixed as it had been before, only with a different menu of emotions in play.
One classmate angrily called Lemay's ploy "unforgivable." Another described it as being "very weird and narcissistic."
Still another grumbled, "At our age, jokes about death aren't funny."
Benjamin Shute, an executive with the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in New York, was among the few who waxed philosophical. Pondering how the death notice had been worded, Shute wondered: "Is this how his wife actually sees him? Is this Arthur's view of how his wife sees him? Is this Arthur's view of Arthur? The mind reels."
Weld Henshaw, a lawyer and no fan of Lemay's or his politics, took an even more benign view. "An absolutely brilliant stunt," he called it, the best Harvard prank he'd seen since a candidate for the Lampoon was arrested, drunk and wearing a Santa Claus suit, outside a Filene's department store in 1957 and wound up on the front page of a Boston tabloid.
"When Arthur claimed afterward to be alive, I wasn't sure he really was," says Henshaw, reached at his home in Maine.
"Let's say I was skeptical about news of his resurrection."
Others referred, with varying degrees of lightheartedness, to Huck Finn, "It's a Wonderful Life," the old radio show "Fibber McGee and Molly" ("T'aint funny, McGee"), and John Donne's metaphysics ("no man is an island"). If nothing else, Lemay rising from the grave gave everyone a jolt. Lemay included.
"I'm glad I did it," Lemay said, from his home in Santa Clara, Calif. "But it was a very peculiar feeling because everybody believed me."
Lemay, who celebrated his 70th birthday last week, is in many ways the very model of the successful, graying Harvard grad. Having retired from the consulting business with a large nest egg, he and his wife divide their time between their California home and a Paris apartment. He collects vintage sports cars, helps run a racehorse-breeding operation, and is justifiably proud of his technological know-how, having been among the first Harvard students to take a computer course.
Any remorse about perpetrating the hoax seems less acute now than it did a couple of weeks ago. Over five years of postings, says Lemay, he'd grown weary of liberal classmates - particularly those in academe - making him feel guilty about living well or taking politically unpopular stances: chiding him for driving a
"I thought, they deserve it," Lemay says. "Because the reaction I'd get to my postings can be summed up this way: 'I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up.' . . ."
As for classmates' reactions to news of his death, "Some said good riddance, but most said it was too bad," Lemay reflects. "On balance, most realized that my function on the listserv was to act as a spark plug."
Overall, he says, the prank and its blowback have been "a very positive experience." Now, "I have to go to our 50th reunion, so everyone can see the guy with the horns and tail."
He just might drive his Rolls to the reunion, Lemay adds.
Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.