Mr. Chatterbox

By Robert Plunket January 1, 2010

Here in Sarasota we don’t really have funerals anymore. We have “Celebrations of Life,” and I for one am all in favor of the change. There are good food and drink, maybe some live cocktail-type music, people are dressed chicly rather than somberly, and if the deceased is lucky, there’s even a video about his or her life.

Janet Kane’s “Celebration of Life” set a new standard, though, and as I sat there on the Saturday morning of Thanksgiving weekend, I couldn’t help but be impressed. It was a lot like Janet—top of the line but a little understated. Even the intangibles, the things that a big budget can’t buy, were the highest quality. Her daughter, Katherine, read several poems she had written about Janet, and while this is not unusual at a memorial service, the quality of the poems sure was. They were not the usual treacle but a loving analysis of what made Janet special, beautifully phrased, the sort of poem that one might stumble across in the New Yorker and go, wow. My favorite line: “She knew when to leave a party. . .”

What made Janet Kane special? Sarasota has more than its share of grande dames, of rich older women who run the town socially. But she was different. It was not so much that everybody liked her—which they did. It was more because she was the fantasy rich lady. There was an Auntie Mame aura to her. You knew that wonderful, lavish and exciting things would happen in her presence, and that some of her glamour was bound to rub off on you. Everyone loved Janet. Although I must say I once got so mad at her I didn’t speak to her for a year.

Janet and her husband, Stanley, now 89, personified the millennial Sarasota. They, like the town, were rich, sophisticated, art-loving, entrepreneurial, generous and stylish. They lived the sort of lifestyle that wealthy people lived in the olden days, with a staff to run their several homes (a lavish house on Siesta Key overlooking the city skyline and an even more elaborate estate on Martha’s Vineyard). An invitation from the Kanes was something to strive for, and though Janet entertained beautifully, she didn’t obsess about it. I remember at one of her parties the air-conditioning went out. I thought she’d be furious. Instead she found the sight of everybody sweating hilarious.

Janet was a small woman with blond hair swept away from her face. She had a sexy streak that never left her, and late in her life she developed a taste for gowns that showed off her décolleté. Alone among Sarasota grande dames she wore glasses, though hers were usually tinted some becoming color. She was very tactile and often held your hand. Sometimes she would caress your cheek. “She had healing hands,” her daughter said.

And while she spared no expense, she still had her own small economies. One year at her famous Oscar party—300 of the town’s elite, dressed to the nines—she asked for the prizes back. (They were Oscar statuettes.) “Frankly, they were rather pricey,” she announced to the guests. “And I can use them again next year.”

As was noted at the “Celebration,” she had an irreverent side, which mostly means that she liked to have fun. Deb Knowles told of the time Janet grabbed her at a party and dragged her out to the dance floor, forcing her to perform a rumba. As Janet put it to Deb: “If we can’t be shining examples let’s at least be horrifying warnings.”

Katt Hefner opened Janet’s Cele-bration by singing How Lucky We Are, and it was a perfect choice. Janet was lucky to have Stanley as a husband—for 61 years. He indulged her and pampered her and protected her. When she had her stroke (two years ago at Caragiulo’s, after viewing the holiday boat parade), she called for Stanley, begging him to explain what was happening.

Sadly, ill health was the one thing Stanley couldn’t protect her from. She got better for a while and started going out a little. But a certain fragility remained. Although she understand the written word perfectly, conversations became harder for her to follow. Her life became simpler, centered around her home. It was not unpleasant. Her death notice in the Herald-Tribune (written by her daughters) describes it in detail. She had her orchids and what sounds like some very good food. The dinner she ate the evening before she passed away is even described: “grey sole, zucchini seasoned with cinnamon, and oven roasted potatoes.” (Although, in a twist that Janet would have loved, it was revealed at the “Celebration” that she actually dined on flounder. But the girls recognized that flounder lacked the emotional and aesthetic gravitas of Janet’s last dinner, so they changed it to the more appropriate grey sole.)

If Katherine’s poems were the high point of the Celebration, the video put together by the daughters, assisted by Carolyn Michel and Bill Wagy, was a labor of love. It featured short tributes from family and friends, plus footage from parties and travel. We saw the shopping, the clothes, the grandkids, the pugs, the QE II—all the glamour of Janet’s lucky life. But it was Stanley who brought the tear to your eye. He said but one line. “She was the best wife a man could have.” And that said everything.

Then the family gathered on the dais to drink a toast to Janet. They each raised a “janetini”—her favorite drink, vodka on the rocks with an orange slice. And why not? As Janet once said—regarding a chandelier in a beauty salon, of all things—“without a little vodka it just doesn’t have the same sparkle.”

My fight with Janet? It was about our dogs. We were both pug lovers, and we each loved our own pug a little too much. I thought hers was a spoiled, effete thoroughbred, while she considered mine a little common, a little thick in the neck and haunches. Try as I might, I couldn’t get her to repudiate her pug. So, much to my shame, I stayed away from her for a whole year, out of spite.

Now I wish I had that year back. I’ve lost my ideal reader. And my perfect subject matter.  z

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