Peter Davies, 1937-2018
Peter Davies, of New York City and Germantown, NY, died September 12, 2018. He is survived by two sisters in Wales, daughters Jessica Davies and Heather Cox, in Florida, son Perry Davies in California, and me, his partner of 40 years, Mark Scherzer.
The cause of Peter’s death was acute respiratory distress syndrome, brought on by bleeding he suffered when he lacerated his kidney in a fall a week earlier. It was a painful and ugly end to a remarkable and beauty-infused life.
Born December 5, 1937, in Cardiff, Wales, Peter was the first of three children of the extramarital relationship of Joan Breckon and Richard Davies. Though she had three children, Joan was a woman who fully enjoyed her freedoms, and Peter was raised to a significant degree by his grandmother. Living in Cardiff through World War II, Peter’s most vivid early memories included navigating the bombings of the Nazi Blitz.
After the war, his mother married an American GI, Hank Seesemann. Peter’s sisters were put out for adoption in Wales, but Peter, already apparently quite a handful and not so easy to give away, was moved with his mother to Hinsdale, Illinois, where the tone of his relationship with his new family was set by his step-father’s regular alcohol-fueled beatings. Intent on escaping his second class status in a dysfunctional family, Peter largely raised himself and saw to his own education. Through morning and evening paper routes he created a college fund. When his mother stole his college savings and suggested he could be content working locally and paying rent to the family for his room, or perhaps following family tradition and joining the merchant marine, he doubled down and funded his own way through Northern Illinois University (B.A.), University of Illinois Champagne/Urbana (M.A.) and Yale University (Ph.D).
His university degrees in English Literature and Theatre History led to teaching jobs at the American College of Izmir, Turkey, Loyola of Montreal, Tulane University in New Orleans, and Simons Rock in Great Barrington. He was a great motivator of students and several devoted former students who have remained close to him will be among those most devastated by the news of his death. But the degrees and the teaching jobs do not come close to reflecting the powerhouse of intellectual curiosity and creativity Peter became. He sometimes wrote and frequently directed chamber theatre productions, establishing the Tangled Fringe theatre company in the 1970s in the Berkshires. He oversaw three historic home restorations, designed landscapes and installed gardens of great beauty, led tours focused on the history and culture of Turkey, and engaged in community and environmental activism. He was widely read, and could discuss with authority such diverse subjects as ancient Greek city plans, the plays of Samuel Beckett, early Christian theology, the birth of jazz in New Orleans, and the history of the Ottoman Sultanate.
Peter traveled intrepidly, particularly in the middle and near east. He never stopped kidding me about my fearful response when he insisted we follow a motorbike out to the edge of a small town in southern Morocco to negotiate with some Tuareg tribesmen in an abandoned caravansaray over some potential purchases. (I guarded the car.) He loved recounting how, hobbled by an ankle injury, he sought out kilims in Quetta, Pakistan, by traveling everywhere by horsedrawn cart. His peripatetic life is reflected in the birthplaces of his children: Istanbul, New Haven, and Montreal.
While living and teaching in Turkey in the early 1960s, Peter learned to speak Turkish by sitting in the bazaar talking to rug merchants. He developed a lifelong love for that country (saying he felt “half Turkish”), returning year after year for the next fifty plus years, in later years sometimes with small travel groups he assembled and with me in tow, as driver and aide. His time in the rug bazaars led him, as well, to an appreciation of Turkish flat-weavings (kilims), which he loved for the way in which they infused practical needs with an inspired, collectively developed artistic vision. After several years of financing his summer travel through bringing back and selling kilims and ethnographic artifacts, Peter in 1976 left academia and established Turkana Gallery of Old and Antique Kilims, one of the pioneer businesses introducing this form of folk art to the American market. He wrote an authoritative book about kilims, The Tribal Eye: Antique Kilims of Anatolia (Rizzoli Press 1993), which he expanded and elaborated in Antique Kilims of Anatolia (W.W. Norton 2000).
In 1984, with help from my family we bought the Ephraim Niles Byram House in Sag Harbor, New York. Peter’s vision directed a restoration so complete and true that when we ultimately put the house on the market the East Hampton Star ran an editorial suggesting we donate the house to the Sag Harbor Historical Society. Peter wrote a monograph demonstrating how the house melded Byram’s idiosyncratic scientific needs and local tastes with the architectural teachings of Andrew Jackson Downing that were so influential in mid 19th century America.
Peter was a founder of the Coalition of Neighborhoods for the Preservation of Sag Harbor. He served on the Village planning board, and ran the project to expand the Sag Harbor historic district to include the African American and Native American neighborhoods and landmarks that had been excluded when the first historic district was established. He fought for wetland preservation and against over-development. One of our most entertaining projects was helping defeat the proposal by the international luxury conglomerate LVMH to take over Sag Harbor’s main street for a concours d’elegance. Peter orchestrated a subversive campaign which included street theatre in front of the Louis Vuitton 57th Street store and anonymously distributing satirical flyers describing the plans of Louis Vuitton’s cousin, bag lady Latrina Vachon, for a concours de flatulence.
Diverse as all Peter’s interests and endeavors were, they shared certain themes. Evident in everything he did was a belief that history matters and that we live best when we understand our place in the stream of history. In the arc of history and in the present he favored the underdog. His childhood experience of abuse and neglect and the ravages of war did not make him believe that dog should eat dog, but rather that the most unfortunate among us should be respected and given dignity and help. He was not religious, but described himself as a pantheist who felt a pervasive life spirit around him.
Similarly apparent in all Peter’s projects were his consistent recognition that art and artistic vision must be intertwined with practical life – a marriage of utility and creativity that was reflected in every inch of our home and even in how he cooked – most excellently – our meals. He never stinted on pleasures, joy for him is an important human value to be found everywhere. But he never in indulging in the pleasures of food or drink or travel or personal contemplation time lost sight of what he considered fair or moral or promoting of human dignity.
In 2000, when Peter was already 63 years old, he and I bought the property that is now Turkana Farms. A year later, September 11, 2001, our City world was exploded when our home next to the World Trade Center was rendered uninhabitable and his weaving inventory, to the extent it survived, was buried in ash. In the vacuum created, Peter turned his energy to developing the farm, but in a manner that again reflected his values. Practical buildings and fences also had to be aesthetically pleasing. Heritage animal breeds were chosen in part to preserve and perpetuate historic traits of value. (Peter added to the subjects on which he could authoritatively speak the history of the Ossabaw pig, American Karakul sheep, and various breeds of heritage turkey.) The values of flavor and beauty trumped commercial motives. And the hard work was always, at Peter’s insistence, leavened by time to contemplate and enjoy the environment he had created.
The creation of the farm was another unlikely realization of a vision of the sort Peter had achieved, despite resistance, in such endeavors as staging controversial theatre productions or expanding the historic district in Sag Harbor. It required relentless focus and energy. He could be “difficult” and single minded in pursuing goals, but they were always carefully thought out goals reflecting his values. He had what his son, Perry, describes as a tunnel vision which nevertheless saw everything we generally overlook.
The day after Peter’s death, Perry suggested we take a Circle Line cruise as a means of processing our loss at a remove from everyday life. Perry clearly inherited Peter’s sense that there is nothing more invigorating than reveling in a stiff breeze on the open water. I anticipated it would be a calm, healing voyage, but had not anticipated how the excursion would call forth so many of the landmark events of Peter’s life, as so often recounted by him. We passed the place in New York Harbor where a gentleman passenger on the Queen Mary in 1946 hoisted 8 year-old Peter up to see the Statue of Liberty as he arrived in America, and the place where this young boy, already conscious of his personal dignity, insisted on covering his naked body with a raincoat for the immigration doctor’s inspection. We saw the Erie Lackawanna station where he departed for the Midwest in 1946, across the river from the then dark and disreputable blocks of the West Village where Peter and I first met in a bar in 1978. We passed the site of the World Trade Center, where the cataclysmic attack of September 11, 2001, set us off on a mad morning’s search for one another, each fearing the other was lost, and then from the East River we saw St. Margaret’s House, where later that day Peter and I eventually found each other. Ultimately, as we proceeded up the east side of Manhattan, we found ourselves opposite the window of the ICU room in New York – Presbyterian Hospital where Peter spent his last week, facing out of that window as he died. As Perry put it, these were sites of the major events from Peter’s arrival in America to his departure from the world.
The sight that was most poignant for me, however, was the view just south of the Trade Center of the penthouse Peter designed and lived in on Cedar Street. In his usual manner, Peter had taken a raw space and created a remarkable environment, in the fashion of an Ottoman harem room, filled with the weavings he sold. It was his gallery, where he staged fashion shows, special exhibitions, and parties, including our gala Regatta party for the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial. But it was also his home, where on our third meeting he told me he could love me, and which quickly became my home as well. From the water, towered over by massive new buildings on every side, the loft looked small and inconsequential. But into that modest space he brought an entire wider world I never would have encountered on my own, and joys I never would have known how to experience without him. At that moment I was able to see in physical manifestation what I had already been feeling inside: the immensity of the loss of my teacher, mentor, lover and friend.