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Emily Rose Marcus, 1969-2023
In the autumn of 1969, a busted romance left me so devastated I couldn’t bear to return to my empty Manhattan apartment, throwing me on the mercy of three Californians: my old editor in L.A., my born-again brother in San Jose, and most remarkably by far, a Berkeley rockcrit I’d met exactly once. True, Greil Marcus and I had corresponded plenty over the previous months and took to each other quick when we finally met in person the night before he went off to cover Woodstock, where we never laid eyes on each other. So I hoped maybe he’d put me up for a few nights, which he did only if “a few nights" means most of a month.
Of course, “he” was in fact “they”: Greil Marcus and his wife Jenny Marcus, who let me use her car as a loaner and played cards with me when I couldn’t write and did the cooking and, most important by far, brought someone else along every minute—Emily Rose Marcus, who came into this world on December 10, 1969, well after I’d returned to NYC, but was in my heart well before then because one dream that died with that romance was our plan to raise a child. Although a few pals had kids, I’d never witnessed a pregnancy close up and was occasionally thrilled just to put my hand on Jenny’s belly and feel Emily kicking. But it was only a year later, when I was teaching at Cal Arts in L.A. and popping north many weekends, that I got to know Emily, even joining Greil occasionally at the day-care group where she made several lifelong friends. And because I visited the Marcuses often and also, years later, because she attended NYU—she worked for a term or two as my assistant, even helped me put up the CD shelves on the other side of the wall I’m facing as I write this—she became an occasional presence in my life. None of which would mean as much if she wasn’t now tragically gone.
Emily remained a New Yorker through the ‘90s but in 2004 returned to the Bay Area, where she worked in both the arts and the restaurant business, particularly that flagship of Calfornia cuisine Chez Panisse, and because I no longer visited the Bay Area regularly I kept up with her mostly via news from Greil and Jenny and a few mutual friends. So in September of 2020 I was shocked to learn that she’d been diagnosed with appendiceal cancer her doctors believed would be fatal. Appalled though I was that this 50-year-old woman I’d known all her life was expected to leave this earth too soon, I was doubly shocked by the timing and mechanics of her diagnosis. September 2020 was the apex of the pandemic—pre-vaccine by months in an overwhelmed medical system where practitioners were reluctant even to examine patients for any symptom that didn’t present itself as grave. So when Emily began suffering abdominal pain in June she couldn’t find a doctor who’d diagnose her in person. It was months before she located a physical therapist willing to treat her—a physical therapist who as I understand the story palpated the afflicted area and immediately called an ambulance. At the hospital Emily was told she had cancer not of the stomach but of the appendix, an affliction so rare that few treatments are even posited. So in my view, Emily is a victim of not just a deadly cancer but of Covid and a dysfunctional medical system.
The struggle that followed this terrible news is above all a tribute to Emily Marcus, who refused to stop living her life just because she’d been hit with a death sentence. But it’s also a tribute to her immediate and extended family—above all Jenny, whose own health all of us who love her worry about, in part because for the first half of 2022 Greil was battling off cardiac crises that at several junctures were literally life-or-death themselves, as he’s indicated in the Letter in the Ether Substack he finally launched on November 30. The only time I’ve seen Emily post-cancer was via a Zoom bat mitzvah in Minneapolis for her niece Pearl, when she came up to offer her tribute and I suddenly found myself crying. But I’ve never stopped following her saga. For most of this period, fortified by serious painkillers, Emily insisted on living with her cat Pippa in her longtime Oakland apartment, which she redesigned and redecorated. She bought new clothes and patronized the beauty parlor. She read novels and visited museums. She traveled with old friends to the Marcuses’ longtime vacation haunts in Hawaii and with her sister Cecily to New York City. She lived.
But in her last hour on January 31, I’m told, Emily donned one of her favorite outfits, put on some makeup, and lay down to die. May we all prove so stalwart. If you’d like to know what Greil has to say about his heartbreaking loss, the obituary he posted on his Substack is where to start.