By Victoria Looseleaf
The city of Cleveland is mourning. Not because LeBron James decamped for Miami but because the much-maligned town has lost one of its true originals. Harvey Pekar, the surly comic book writer who began chronicling his hum-drum life in 1976 with the publication of American Splendor died early on July 12 at age 70.
Since I too grew up on those sometimes harsh streets of Cleveland, I reached out to Harvey on a visit home in the early 1980’s after becoming a Splendor fan. His number was listed, I called and, bringing bagels and cream cheese, I arrived at his cluttered Cleveland Heights apartment to talk about, well, life. For him that was toiling for years as a file clerk at the Veterans Affairs hospital, jazz, Cleveland’s lousy winters and just getting by.
Thus began our friendship, if it’s possible to be friends with someone suffering from anhedonia, the inability to experience joy. But I loved Harvey’s unjoie de vivre, and a few years after starting my Public Access show, The Looseleaf Report, in 1987, Harvey made the first of numerous appearances. Splendor had been adapted for the small stage, with Dan Castellaneta (voice of Homer Simpson) playing Harvey and Siobhan Fallon assaying Harvey’s wife. Did he like it?
But I continued to champion him, even taping segments for the show in Cleveland, with Harvey, an old Jewish mensch named Emile, and genuine nerd, Toby Radloff. We riffed about donuts, work, Jewish holidays, whatever. One story concerned the time that Harvey, bearing bagels, came to see me at my grandmother’s (he loved old people), only to leave and discover his car had been towed. How Pekaresque is that?
I also happened to be in New York in 1987 when the curmudgeonly scribe was almost booted off Letterman’s show because he wanted to talk about NBC’s parent company, General Electric. But Dave would have none of it. Harvey then blurts out, “You’re full of shit, Dave,” and boom, they cut to commercial. Harvey, of course, turned the episode into a comic book – and much as I harped on him – I didn’t make it into Pekar’s pages.
Then there was Splendor, the movie. In Cleveland again, I forayed down to a funky bakery on a snowy November day to watch the shoot. There was Harvey, kvetching that it was for HBO and nobody would ever see it.
Yeah, well, you can’t keep a good anhedonic down. When I interviewed him for the L.A. Times for the movie’s opening in 2003, I asked him about possible Oscar attention.
“Oscars?” he replied. “All I see is bleakness.”
And this muttered from a suite at the Bel Age Hotel!
I know you had health issues, Harvey–cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and that bugaboo, depression. But you also gave countless people happiness–and hope. I’m gonna miss you, friend, not only your formidable talents, but because you’re part of what makes Cleveland special.
I’m also grateful for your comics and books…almost as much as the Harvey bobble-head doll I got at that fabulous red-carpet premiere. Talk about splendor!