Memories of an Amazing Once and Forever Love
|Maurice Sherbanee 1930-2023
His voice on the phone was gentle and loving, taking me back through the decades to our time as lovers. “I love you, Kat,” he said, using the nickname only he ever called me. “I always loved you and will love you forever.”
Struggling to keep my voice steady, fighting sudden tears, I replied “I love you forever, too, Maurice.” In that quiet moment between us, I realized that he was saying “Goodbye.”
The loving friendship I shared with Maurice Sherbanee was a journey of more than 55 years. We met as actors at the Desilu Studios talent development program. He was hard to miss: tall and muscular, well over six feet, with a warm smile and a soft foreign accent. But for several years, we were simply friendly acquaintances. I was in my early twenties, still very much a kid, combining acting ambitions with a rapidly evolving writing career. He was pushing 40, a recent immigrant with a history he kept secret along with his true ethnicity because he didn’t want to be typecast. During his successful acting career in U.S. and foreign films, on television and stage, he played nearly every ethnicity but his own.
Maurice was easy to like, but hard to know. However, our friendship took a warm turn after we worked together in a musical revue and a year later, it became romantic almost by accident. An actress friend of mine confessed that she had an unrequited crush on Maurice. But she had hope. She had tickets to see him play the role of Pannise in a Los Angeles revival of the musical “Fanny” and invited me to come along. I marveled at his joyous, tender, nuanced performance, weeping through his death scene near the end of the show. I was still snuffling when we went backstage to congratulate him. He handed me tissues, then asked me out.
Startled and embarrassed, I declined, mostly because I knew my friend liked him and was hoping he would ask her out. But there were other factors in my reticence. Our 15 year age difference was also daunting. At 40, Maurice was so far ahead of me in life experience and maturity. Also, I didn't like dating actors.
|A Headshot from 1972
Maurice called me a time or two after that to say hello and ask me out for coffee. I demurred with excuses so lame it made us both laugh. Finally, my actress friend broke the impasse. “Look, he’s never going to ask me out,” she said. “So please validate my taste and go out with him. What’s your problem? He’s handsome and kind and so talented. He works a lot as an actor. He’s a wonderful person.” I nodded, agreeing with her description of him.
I said “Yes” the next time he called – and loved our times together – going out to small ethnic cafes, long talks, listening to music together, lots of laughter. And, in time, I learned about the mysteries of his ethnicity and life before Hollywood. He was a Mizrahi Jew from Iraq, born in Baghdad of an Iraqi father and a mother from Singapore. He told me that he spent a happy childhood in Baghdad but that ended when he was not quite eleven. World War II spread to Iraq. His family fled to safety in India where he spent his adolescence. Then when civil war broke out in India, his family, unable to gain admission to the United States, fled once more -- this time living stateless in post-war Japan for 20 years until they were finally able to emigrate to California. His father had died in Japan, so his mother moved with him to Los Angeles while his sister Katie and her family settled in San Francisco. Having lived through so much together, he and his family treasured one another. He felt particularly close to his sister Katie Wahba and her daughter Rachel. He doted on Rachel's young daughter Tiffany Wagner who was a very little girl when we were dating. He loved doing Tiffany Wagner imitations, recreating her particularly cute and clever moments for me. And, in a moment of vulnerability, he told me sadly that he would love to have a child, but was sure that would never happen.
Maurice and I shared much love and laughter in our years together. There are so many memories, vivid despite the passage of time.
Maurice was a consummate entertainer: a wonderful, multi-lingual actor who worked in both U.S. and foreign language films. He was a dynamic musical theatre performer -- a terrific singer and skilled, graceful dancer. He brought singular humor to the many commercials he made. He was a gifted musician and composer, specializing in pieces for classical guitar. His career in entertainment began as a nightclub singer in Japan, but truly flourished when he arrived in the U.S.
|A commercial shot
|Maurice's Den Wall 1
|Maurice's Den Wall 2
He was incredibly competent in his personal life, too, with a myriad of skills, from expert hair cutting and styling to fixing household appliances as well as car repair and maintenance. I remember how patiently and expertly he coached me through the technical parts of a magazine article I was assigned to write for young women on maintaining one's own car. He only chuckled and rolled his eyes once or twice and then only when I wrote something totally clueless about distributor caps or alternators.
He had effortless charm and grace in social situations, managing challenges like deflecting, with calm, kindness and tact, drunks of both sexes who made surprisingly overt passes at him at several industry parties we attended together. He felt comfortable conversing with just about anyone. The only time I ever saw him struggle was when I convinced him to attend an arts discussion group with me at the invitation of a professional acquaintance of mine. It was a stultifying evening, with too many pretentious, pompous people talking about the intellectual nature of art. Maurice was unusually quiet. Then someone asked him a question and he gestured helplessly, pretending that he couldn't speak English. We escaped as quickly and politely as possible. Jumping into his car, I said "Well, that was quite an act." He scowled at me, and, talking like Donald Duck, as he often did when annoyed, said "Fuck you!" We faced off for a moment and then started laughing and, paraphrasing "Tea and Sympathy", we said together "When we remember this in the future -- and we will -- we won't be kind!"
Maurice had a wonderful sense of humor and playful impulsiveness. I remember how he teased me once by singing the theme from the movie “Love Story”, which he knew I loathed, as we walked down a city street, prompting a variety of touched reactions from fellow pedestrians as I blushed furiously.
|Maurice making music
I remember how tender he was as a lover and how he told me that I was beautiful, words I had never heard before. He was a gentle and tender friend as well. A year or so after we parted as lovers, he comforted me when a new love broke my heart. Maurice held me as I sobbed, stroked my hair, and said “Honey, he’s not worth such anguish. You’re a treasure and someday you’ll find a love worthy of you.”
Although our age and cultural differences as well as life goals at odds ended our romance after four years together, we never stopped loving each other as dear friends. He was supportive of my marriage to Bob several years later. I urged him to marry Rosemarie, a woman he dated for 18 years. I thought she was perfect for him: a smart, accomplished widow his age with wonderful adult children and grandchildren, all of whom readily embraced Maurice and considered him family. He was hesitant: "What if it doesn't work out? How can I ensure that my mother will be okay? In my culture, we don't discard our old people, you know." (His mother was not particularly amused at the prospect of Maurice marrying his longtime love.) We supported each other emotionally through many life challenges – his cancer, my graduate school and new career as a psychotherapist, the deaths of his beloved sister Katie and, some years later, his mother who had lived to be 104, and died in his loving arms.
|Maurice at 90
We spoke often through his years of declining health and increasing isolation: two excruciating bouts of colon cancer, several heart attacks, a quintuple bypass, a stroke that made it difficult to use his hands and to walk. Sadly, he never did marry Rosemarie and, exasperated, she had finally walked out of his life. But his niece Rachel, Katie’s daughter, was a loving constant in his life and I finally got to know her during this time. Rachel is only a year younger than I am, a writer and psychotherapist in the San Francisco area. Over time, she filled me in on family history I had never known. Maurice had told me about his family's flight from Iraq to India to Japan, but he was vague about what started them on that long journey. What I didn’t know, until Rachel told me, was that Maurice was a child Holocaust survivor, having experienced the infamous Baghdad Farhud with his parents and two older sisters when he was not quite eleven. He was so traumatized by the violence of that event that he had never been able to speak about it in all the decades since.
When I wrote my memoir “The Crocodiles Will Arrive Later” several years ago, Maurice asked why I had never told him in detail about my experiences growing up with an unpredictable father who was mentally ill and alcoholic.
“Why didn’t you tell me about experiencing the Farhud?” I countered.
“Some things are just too painful to tell, aren’t they?” he said, suddenly understanding.
|Recovering from Surgery
I felt pain more recently when, during that last phone call, I sensed him saying “Goodbye” before going into hospice care. And though it wasn’t a surprise when Rachel contacted me this week to tell me that 93-year-old Maurice had died, quietly and gently, his tender heart simply giving out, it made me gasp, trying to imagine a world without my dear friend.
|Rachel Wahba, Maurice's beloved niece
at his recent funeral in San Francisco
Grieving a close and longtime friend is complicated, even more so when that friend is an ex-lover. There are rituals for families, cards for widows, for surviving adult children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews.
|Maurice's nieces and nephew at his funeral:
from right, Rachel Wahba, Rebecca Wahba,
Tiffany Wagner and Elliot Wahba
But there is none of that for someone filled with love and memories but with no official standing in the life of a lover turned lifelong friend.
On one level, it makes perfect sense. I can hear the logical observations now, both from others and in my own head:
“But he was just a boyfriend. And then you were just friends…”
“But you and he broke up nearly 50 years ago…”
“But you both found other loves that were more enduring and sustainable in the years since…”
All of that is true. But Maurice was never a “just” either as a lover or as a friend. He helped me to grow up, learn to trust and stop fearing men. At the same time, he helped me learn to enjoy life with the ease of a child I had never been, singing when happy, being silly, laughing between the stresses of daily living. He was special to me in so many ways and the years since have not diminished his unique place in my heart, even in my 48 years with my husband Bob or his 18 years with Rosemarie.
Unexpectedly, he appeared in my dreams several times in the weeks before he died. And each time, he repeated what he said during our last phone call: that he would love me forever. I had sensed that the end was near.
But what now?
What does one do with the flood of tenderness and pain? Travel back in time to linger with bittersweet memories of long-ago passion? Cry over songs that defined our time together? Reflect with gratitude on the blessing of this once and forever love? Write thoughts, feelings and memories, perhaps for one's eyes only, perhaps for the world to see? Talk with someone who knows you well about someone who mattered so much?
As I sat, feeling sad and overwhelmed, my husband Bob took my hand. “Do you want to talk about Maurice?” he asked me.
I hesitated, surprised and a bit self-conscious about my obvious grief. “He was such a good person,” Bob said. “I had so much respect for him. What an amazing man he was. Let's talk about him and remember. What was he like when you were together? What made your time with him so special? What are your best memories of Maurice?”
I smiled through my tears and squeezed his hand.