I knew that I was reaching the endgame, but not until today did I realize the suddenness and the finality with which a life can be snuffed out. Norman Witty has been a friend of mine for almost half a century, ever since he picked me up while I was hitchhiking on Wilshire Boulevard. He was a couple of years older than me, a chain smoker of unfiltered Camels, and—like me—a film freak. At the time I was a grad student in the UCLA film department, and Norm—well, he just watched a lot of movies. I had the feeling he had a trust fund or some other family income source that obviated the need for a job.
After a while, we parted ways for a while. I dropped out of the Masters degree program at UCLA because of faculty politics and went into the computer industry so that I could make a living. Norm, on the other hand, moved back East (he was originally from Massachusetts) and opened a comic book and film poster store in Northampton, Mass.
We re-established our friendship when he started coming out to Los Angeles for the Cinecon shows around Labor Day Weekend. By this time, Norm was fast approaching the point of total deafness. He offered Martine some money to help him interact with potential clients in the Cinecon dealer rooms. Martine and Norm communicated by way of a notepad, and Martine usually took the helm when Norm took a smoking break. This worked out well for both, and for me because I got to see a lot of free old movies at the Egyptian Theater down the street. We would go out to dinner together and have one of our annual food fights: Like many people who know nothing about preparing food, Norm had some curious requirements. He hated the ethnic restaurants I would “drag” him to, and Martine and I hated the white tablecloth joints with mediocre Euro food that he patronized.
This Labor Day, Norm did not come out for Cinecon. I have been in touch with him only by e-mail, and through a joint friend who visited him at his New York cooperative apartment on West 57th Street. Several New Yorkers whom we knew in common were concerned about Norm not seeing any of his friends and acquaintances any more.
Then the bombshell hit when I received an e-mail from Norman’s sister announcing that he had died early this morning of an aortic aneurism. Fortunately, she had been visiting with him and, in fact, was with him when he fell ill last night. He was able to get fast access to the medical care he needed, but his luck had run out.
I’ve written about Norm before, though not by name. You can see my blog from September 4, 2012 entitled “A Prickly Individual,” in which I expressed growing concern about his health.
In truth, Norm was prickly, but he was also generous and funny. He also had a store of knowledge about films which only began to wane as his hearing disappeared. At that point, he switched to silent movies and would buy and sell at the silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy.