by Garnette Arledge
Rene Jacobus understood wine. And people, and music, and world events and their role of history. And Love and the pain of death and loss of his lovely wife Fernand. And:
Steak, Cornish Game Hen stuffed with a delicious French-Swiss concoction, Black Forest Cake, cold lobster salad. Like the Northern Dutchess Symphony Orchestra, Bard, Maverick and Baradovan concerts he attended, he was a connoisseur with impeccable taste. Think I’m exaggerating - not at all. One of the things I appreciate about Rene Jacobus is how he loved his darling wife, his mother, his relatives now living all over the globe whom he delighted in speaking with ‘on Zoom’ before dying, thanks to Cindy Mautner.
He was sixteen when Hilter took ultimate power in Germany in 1934. We both seemed to enjoy deep, endless conversations about the trajectory of his life, eventually going deeper and deeper into the details with each retelling.
His father, who owned four metal material factories in Berlin employing Jewish people, as he was, recognized the danger early on. His products were mostly kitchenware. So shortly before the terror, he moved his wife, and two sons to Brussels, in Belgium, where he owned a fifth factory. The father brokered a deal with his plant manager to turn over ownership, in return he would give the Jacobus family a safe home. (This, that follows is as Rene told me several times, I am only reporting his words and have no further research to double check as I would have taken notes when a working journalist.)
The mother taught her sons their lessons while hiding in that safe house and, as both a cultured and practical woman, raised vegetables in the back garden. Which she harvested as the Nazis invaded Belgium, burying the life sustaining in a trench in the middle of the flower beds, disguising the stockpile. Rene vividly remembered the Nazi planes overhead as he and his brother dug the secret trench. She had lived through the Nazis destructions and their desperate searches for food in the Jewish homes in Germany. The boys hid in the day but after dark (without permission from the mother) would sneak out sometimes, jump on a trolley which might be full of Germans boys in uniform, leaping off at their favorite dance club. Even though there were Nazi-filled uniforms dancing there too. In Berlin, the father and all his workers were swept up and sent to Auschwitz - the one time Rene talked about his father. Germans, not Jewish, then worked in those factories whose equipment produced war machinery instead of harmless kitchen and metal ware. I respected it was not dinner table conversation but was privileged to listen. (After journalism, I became a Hospice Chaplain, now retired, but still trained to listen and draw out life stories). Later, the mother moved them to their ski cottage in the Ardennes Mountains as the Nazis and the Allies battled it out in the skies overhead and onland.
There was a young girl in the Brussels home, a charming, talented artist to be, named Fernand. As the boys grew, hidden in her family home, so did she, and became their bonded friend. After the Armistice, like many Belgians, she emigrated to the, then, Belgian Congo, to teach. Married. “She was beautiful and delightful,” said Rene. A language teacher and an artist. Rene had been her best friend in the war.
Rene and his mother and brother were eligible for immigration to the US immediately after war’s end in ‘46, Rene said, however, ‘the Nazi scientists, the weapon-masters, received preferential admission in US emigration at the urging of US Military and the Space Program. Rene said these Nazis used up all the quotas until the mid-50’s. So unable to emigrate in 1946, Rene took his degrees, undergraduate and graduate, in electrical engineering. Finally in the mid 1950’s, the small family obtained their visas, settling in New York City and the upper West Side.
“When I started work in New York City-”for an British company, “my tiny office was the broom closet,” he joked. And then, he rose to be head of the company until he retired. Working for a European company, he had all of August off and most often went back to the continent. “Especially the sidewalk cafes and art galleries in Paris,” he laughed.
Meanwhile the African adventure was over for Fernand, the lovely young artist from Brussels. The Congo was in chaos, dangerous events, and the husband, older and abusive, unsuitable. Yet she and Rene had continued correspondence. “I wrote her a letter, saying come. ‘Come for a visit,’” he said. I would love to have read that letter. She came, they married and lived a gracious life until her passing some years ago.
Meanwhile due to his profession, Rene was traveling to the Textile Mills in this country, mostly then in the South although now defunct, or moved to Asia, he said. Here’s where there’s an intersection in our journey: He knew my cousin who had textile mills in North and South Carolina, Mr. Boys, I discovered at our first Rhinebeck at Home lunch together. With the shift of business overseas and labor issues, my cousins also had apple orchards so retired. I only knew them as living on Lake Summit - which Rene also knew as their guest previously.
Rene eventually married his Belgium rose and bought an apartment in Kew Gardens. She taught French and Art at a local prep school while Rene commuted by subway to midtown Manhattan. Except on 9/11 when he walked home from his midtown office over to 34th Street and through the darkened Queens Midtown tunnel with thousands of other commuters on foot.
Just one story from that apartment, where they had the choice top floor view of Greater New York, spectacular at night. In the summer, being Europeans, they kept the windows open . . . and a canary flew in one day. He stayed for years, singing his head off as they do when delighted.
After 9/11, Rene bought a weekend cabin in Rhinebeck in the deep woods near 9G. Later when they retired, they moved to the larger house on a cul-de-sac behind the High School. Do you know the path at the back of the playing field? It was behind the Jacobus property. A cut through for the neighborhood students, located between them and their next door neighbor who had been the Fire Chief.
The charming, white ranch with mature trees and plantings remains as Fernand decorated it. Her paintings, and others they collected, on the living room walls, white with deep blue, thick carpeting, plants, fine stereo playing classical music. A formal dining room seating eight to ten. Screened-in porch, white kitchen with breakfast table under the large windows, charming curtains. Rene’s prized George Forman grill. In the heated garage, the laundry machines and enough fireplace wood to outlast the Pandemic or the Ice Age.
Daytimes, Rene slept in as long as he liked, “because I can” and listened to WAMC, to RoundTable discussions. Evenings, he faithfully watched PBS NewsHour, missing Gwen Ifill, but not one word of the news. Each day he did both the NY Times and Poughkeepsie Journal crosswords, as he subscribed to it for local news. Afternoons, he sat in the sunny living room, reading completely The New York Times, home delivered first to the street edge of the driveway then carried -- by Mary, a neighbor walking her dog: who brought the paper up to the mailbox each morning at 6. She is an RN, teaching at Marist College. All the neighbors were concerned about Rene when he was in Thompson house, when I would go over to tidy away the weeds, a sure sign of an empty house.
When the Pandemic started, another neighbor Nanci, contacted Rene that she would like to bring him dinner occasionally, without mentioning she’s a gourmet cook originally also European and wrote him letters he loved getting in lieu of conversations. She may have seen the series of trucks: Zabar. Amazon, Swarm etc., bringing Rene’s food orders from online. Did I mention for a man so tall and slender he completely enjoyed fine dining and had an amazing capacity for fine food. Paul Geureig and Sally Van Kleeck celebrated Rene’s 96 birthday by taking us to dinner - and we had all hoped to make it an annual . . .
And this is where I come in. We met at Rhinebeck-at-Home’s group lunches. Each month/every Wednesday at noon, at a local restaurant, a place for members to dine and socialize. Now, I had a car and Rene didn’t drive any longer. It began when we sat in conversation-possibly. Nina Lynch, founder, and co-leader Anne Brueckner, mentioned I might be pleased to offer Rene a ride to the lunches. I was.
And Rene was pleased to invite me to drive him to music and fine dining. It was a perfect relationship. Nothing messy like commitment - we had both had, and missed, our dear mates. So, until Disaster struck, for a few years, we had an unspoken deal. He to be charming; me to be grateful. (I suppose I should be editing out that he told me I was enchanting but I treasure the memory. But so typical of Rene who was not a bit flowery yet a complete gentleman.)
And everywhere we went, restaurants from Poughkeepsie to Hudson, from Mt. Tremper to Millbrook, the host and waitstaff; greeted Rene cordially, delighted to see him. Hovered professionally, as he, using his portable chair/walker, made his steadfast way to table. So many lovely occasions after concerts. Or sometimes just because. After Mirbeau opened, we would sit by the fireplace: sometimes just for tea, other times for their light meals in the dining room. And we were looking forward to the high terrace looking into the fully leafed woods. Rene said “Their business will boom in the summer,” never dreaming all dining out would end abruptly in spring, 2020. And a loveliest dividend when, his Courtyard moderator in Thompson House Hospice wing, Maureen, who had served as a waitress previously at five different Red Hook restaurants, was over the moon to see and cosset him. He beamed.
We attended so many concerts, summers at Maverick of course, where staff greeted him, including some of the regular performers and audience. Bard holds a special memory for me, although we went many, many times as it was handicapped accessible - a must. For example, this January, I spent 21 days in Thompson House regretting falling on the ice. The next Sunday after I was released and still limping, Leon Botstein was leading an enormous ensemble of various musicians and choirs in a spectacular performance of Beethoven’s Eroica. Oh the choirs. . .the musicians. . .the chorus. . . joy. Shortly thereafter, we were in lockdown, which I didn’t care about as I could hardly walk. If not for Rene and Beethoven, I wouldn’t have gone to the last amazing live music. . . of 2020. Fortunately there’s Zoom and soon something amazing from Northern Dutchess Symphony Orchestra.
Which other restaurants did he like: Market Square when it opened rose to the top of the list, partially for its accessibility. That’s when I finally figured out why Rene would order a whole bottle of red wine for himself, drink one or two glasses, and take the rest home. He’d always pick the most interesting thus saving himself from the Wine Stores steps. And man, could he eat. Full course meals, appetizers through to desserts. Heavy meats, duck, goose, pork: it was the European palette. Gravies, potatoes. Not pasta especially - he and Fernand had summered in Italy for the art. And always France for the cafes, never Germany. . .England and Scotland due to his career.
We went to Fireside in Red Hook where the host was delighted to see him. We went to Bistro, where the wait staff all came over to speak to him in French. Amsterdam when it first opened and liked it but the stairs were hard to navigate with a walker so only once. We laughed at the kindness of the smoked ribs place, preferring the back garden, when they said ‘too smokey, too smokey’ as the smoke house was smoking. We knew but didn’t want to eat in the car fumes out front either. Gaby’s Mexican Cafe, yes, delightfully on his birthday served the whole party Chocolate Cake as a gift. No to Japanese as I cannot bear the sight of people eating raw meat being a vegetarian. The Red Hook diner. EverReady in Hyde Park, LeCanard after Maverick. Rene was very fond of Reginnato’s in Lake Katrine - where of course they greeted him delightedly, other wait staff coming over cordially to see him. It wasn't just the generous tips but his gracious, beaming spirit.
When the pandemic came, and no more fine dining, we sat in his garage on garden chairs conversing, not talking, having whole conversations. Or we would devote an hour or two each evening on the phone once PBS News was over. Outside he, in the fresh air, I, inside the open garage unless I was weeding and planting impatiens the colors his artist wife had always put in.
We sat near the stacked boxes of his dear friends, Cindy - who he called his angel - and Jacques (as Rene pronounced Jack’s name) Mautner who every morning picked up his NY Times and mail and brought them to Thompson House to Rene. They had sold their business, Classic Cleaners and moving house all at the same time. It was they who had arranged Rene’s final birthday party the previous summer where about 30 close friends joined in a German meal in Tivoli that went on in European fashion for all hours and all meaty courses. And they also arranged for Zoom calls with his Jacobus family in Europe. And so it was Cindy and Jacques, who with Power of Attorney, were with him all the way until - I can hardly bear to say it, much less believe it - he left.
And all those people in all those venues who were so delighted to see him. How will they know? It took a nasty fall in his own bedroom to tamper down the living flame of graciousness.