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Friday, July 07, 2006

An Homage to Henry The Cheeseman

Awhile back I promised more on my cheese mentor, Henry Tewksbury, aka Henry The Cheeseman. In some circles he may be better known by his nomme de cinema, Peter Tewksbury.

If you look him up on the imdb website, you'll see he wrote, directed, and produced quite a few movies and tv shows during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.

But our story begins not in California, but in 1995, in a pleasant Vermont town called Brattleboro, in a pleasant food co-op known as The Brattleboro Food Co-Op. This place is not where I was born (NJ is where I'm from), but it is where The Caseophile was born, as it was there that I had my first cheesemonger job. Henry Tewksbury was the head of the cheese department at the time, and although I'm not sure if he ever understood the entirety of his meaning to me, Henry was, is, my mentor. I've learned a ton about cheese since then, but none of my friends, bosses, fellow cheesemongers, etc., have meant as much to me as Henry. Dondi Ahearn holds spot number 2, but for all Dondi's sweetness, passion, and wisdom, Henry will always be The One.

When I first started working for Henry, someone told me of his Hollywood past. I had no idea. Being a naturally blunt and curious person, I went to work and asked him about it. Now, Henry generally was a cheerful fellow, able to smile through, or ignore, quite a bit. A few things rankled him, though. At that point, I learned one of them. When I inquired about his Hollywood life (and at that point I hardly knew any of the details), he got very gruff, and answered me rather shortly: "That's in the past!"

Oh. Sorry.

A few years later, however, he could no longer hide his horrible past. The New York Times, of all people, came to do a story on him, specifically about an early-1960s TV show he directed that had achieved cult status: "It's A Man's World." The lid was off, and the article, appearing on January 14, 2001 (the Sunday edition, for those of you keeping track at home), outed Henry as the Hollywood ex-pat he was. Now it was out. The Elvis movies, My Three Sons, Father Knows Best, Disney...

Our Henry? Our good-natured Cheeseman? He hardly seemed like the Hollywood asshole type. Perhaps that's why we had him, and they lost him.

Once the article appeared, I suppose Henry decided to roll with it, because he became much more chatty about his past. Now he still played it close to the vest regarding his personal life, (for instance, twice I asked him how many children he had, and here were the answers I received: "Too many," and, "A whole basket-full." The actual answer is 6.) but from then on, you could ask him and not get a growling refusal. In fact, once he offered, with no prompting, a story about what a good time he had in Germany filming "Emil and The Detectives," a Disney t.v. film released in 1966.

I asked him how he got from there to here, and the answer is pretty simple: he wanted out of the Hollywood life, and through various adventures, he found his way to Brattleboro. Although he was rather private about his life, he was still a good storyteller who often couldn't resist, and even before his horrible past was revealed, he seemed to take delight in telling me of his "16 careers," including running a school, providing voice acting for cartoons, raising cows, being a sportscaster on the radio (pre-television), and I think selling furniture, if my memory serves me.

Henry was someone who seemed to need a project, who couldn't stand to be bored, and this, in addition to the passion he brought to cheese, is what makes him my mentor, even though it's in absentia, because we lost Henry in 2003.

At the time I began working for him, the Vermont artisan-made cheese movement was just starting. This was 1995, when Cindy and David Major had only been making VT Shepherd for 2 years. (wow.) A lot of the cheese we carried is what I now consider to be commodity cheeses, as they are mass-produced in factories. But then, that was pretty much all we had, and it was all new and exciting to me.

But, whenever there was word of a new local cheesemaker, Henry made sure to sell their cheeses. And whenever there was word of something exciting coming from abroad, Henry made sure we had it.

I had only been working at the cheese counter for a few weeks when one night, an hour or two before closing, two fellows from Neal's Yard Dairy showed up to talk to me about farmstead cheese. They probably wanted to talk to Henry, but I was the only one there, so in-between helping customers and cutting and wrapping Finlandia Swiss, I looked at big pictures of cows and delighted in cheese-related conversation with charming Englishmen. At the time, I thought we were just having a nice visit. In hindsight, this was one of those pivotal moments that hooked me, because there were stories behind these wheels and blocks of cheese. (I was a Sociology major. I needed stories to make sense of the world.)

Henry was perhaps the first authority figure in my life who displayed a strong sense of fairness, compassion, and patience. We weren't his employees. We were human beings who had families, school, health concerns, and a need for full lives. He understood when "something came up" and I couldn't be at the cheese counter. Because when I was there, which was for the better part of 8 years, I was more "there" than anywhere else I'd been in my life. I wanted to taste every cheese. When I was cutting something, I leaned down and smelled it. This was during the days before mandatory gloves, and I wanted to touch every cheese, to understand its texture. (Henry hated gloves, and fought very hard to exempt us from having to wear them. His arguments are valid: people follow less strict sanitary practices when they are wearing gloves, because gloves give off the sometimes false impression of cleanliness. Frequent hand-washing is a better practice. Alas, he lost that battle.)

Henry wasn't a mean person, and he was perhaps the best-known and -loved person in the area because of his bright and friendly nature, but he would not take any bullshit whatsoever, and when a voice needed to be raised, he'd raise it. But those were rare occurences, and when they happened, we who were under him whispered about it for weeks. Usually the outrage was directed toward the co-op's upper management and their ill-advised mandates. This only made us cheesemongers appreciate Henry further. He had unmistakable leadership qualities, but he himself seemed to have little respect for self-proclaimed authority figures who had done little to earn that power.

I don't want to get too much into Henry's passing, because it's still hard for me to deal with. I was on the road to New Orleans at the time, and I missed his funeral. I am still having a hard time forgiving myself for not turning around and driving back up to VT to pay my last respects.

But I did pay my respects at the Society of St. Anne's March to the Mississippi River on Mardi Gras Day, during a yearly ritual for that very thing: to remember those who we've lost in the past year. I had one copy of Henry's last Weekly Cheese Bulletin with me - when I heard Henry died (but before his funeral was announced), I frantically went into the co-op to see if I could get a copy of it. I got one, because I knew I was going to New Orleans and I knew I was marching with St. Anne's, and I knew I might have only had that opportunity to pay my respects to Henry.

I wrote him a little note on the back of his last bulletin, the one where he complained about having to type the thing with one hand because something had gone wrong with the other hand. (The problem with his hand was the result of a stroke. It took more than that to keep Henry from doing what he loved.) When we went to the River, I got up to the front of the line, so I was as close to the river as the bottom step would allow me. I took the paper from my bag, I read it to myself one more time, and I placed it on the surface of the water. The River carried it somewhere. Hopefully somewhere where Henry could read it.

I didn't take two copies of Henry's last bulletin. That's another regret I have.

Yours in Cheese,
-Wendy M. Levy


Mrs. Jongberg said...

Hello Mrs. Levy; this is Mrs. Jongberg. Through a series of serendipitous events I just now read your tribute to Henry. I'm crying. I remember our first year at the coop, at the little cheese counter with our Henry, very well and with many smiles. You've done a great job in memorializing him. I would only add that we are still remembering his outbursts, because things he said have come to pass. I remain at the coop, though you are flown,all these years later, though my protein specialty is now meat. Dano has told me you have a website but I can't find it. Get in touch, you cheeeeesehead! Very proud of you in Brattleboro.

Wendy M. Levy said...

Mrs. Jongberg! How nice to hear from you! Please contact me through my website www.cheesesnob.com (I don't wanna put my email address here for the obvious reasons) I guess I oughta update the blog so people can easily get from here to there... duh! Anyway, I am so happy to hear from you, and I am glad we could share our memories of our favorite Cheeseman. Hope all is well at the coop!
with lots of love,
-Wendy, Cheese Snob

ccsmzoe said...

I don't know why I was thinking about it, but I was remembering today that around twenty years ago, as a young, aimless, curious, restless soul, I was hitchhiking from Mt. Shasta, California to San Francisco, and a man picked me up and gave me a ride. He was an older man who ended up taking a fatherly interest in me and my dangerous ways, after our five-hour drive ended up being a five-hour conversation. He went so far as to ask me to send him some of my frustrated attempts at writing stories, which I did. We corresponded once or twice, and I felt very encouraged by this serendipitous meeting. He also told me that he had done some writing himself, and a little directing too, and had had something to do with My Three Sons and a few other projects. He was just in the process, he'd said, of leaving Hollywood behind, and he and his family were living in a little town on the coast of California, Cambria I think, extricating themselves from the craziness of L.A. and growing their own vegetables.
This man's name was Henry Tewksbury.
Anyway, now, twenty-some years later, having just finished my first novel, I was thinking about all the people who have encouraged me along the way, and Henry came to mind. I googled him and found your blog. I was really sorry to discover through it that Henry had died, but had to smile to hear about his career far beyond the ratrace to a new life as the Cheeseman.
Zoe in California