My Lunch with Les

2005: I would meet Leslie (Les) Lieber for the first time at my neighbor Fred Charlton’s kitchen table. Les was in his early 90s at the time. For about an hour this little bird-like man told me wild stories about performing in jazz clubs in Cuba while on covert missions. The two were trying to one-up each other in tall tales. It did not take me long to realize this was all a pretense. Les wanted some promotion for his upcoming Chill Out jazz concert. Why not go along with it? I worked it into my community news column. “Thanks for the mention,” Les said the next time we saw each other. “I should know. I too was in the journalism business.”

Bathroom in the Lieber residence in SoHo, where a career of Les’s news articles doubled as wallpaper.

2007: The theme for an upcoming issue was festivals. Perfect for the Chill Out concert. The publisher liked the idea, so I mentioned it to Les. The next morning, I received a call from the Ocean Beach Police. “Mrs. McCollum I have Les Lieber here at the station,” said the officer most seriously. “He is ready for his interview.” The interview did not take place at the police station, but his home on Wilmot Road the next day. It was a classic Ocean Beach house with a screened in porch and dark Wainscot paneled walls. It was decorated in a dizzy array of animal hides juxtaposed with ruffled curtains that reminded me of a country French chateau.

Les spoke about his music and his days as a feature writer with This Week magazine, which had been syndicated in 43 papers across the country. He spoke of Jazz at Noon like a proud father. How he founded it in 1965, so that working professionals including doctors, lawyers, and magazine writers like Les himself did not have to put their instruments aside. The lunch hour venue in time attracted guest performers like Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie and Lionel Hampton. Sadly, my interview with Les was chopped down to bits in production. In a last minute decision on the publisher’s part, it was incorporated into something of a list, alongside other events like the Fire Island Dance Festival and the Ascension. The modest Chill Out concert was dwarfed among these giants. The next time Les saw me, he asked only one question: “Who ruined your article?”

2008-2010: Les was onto something. 2007 was my one and only summer as managing editor of Fire Island News. I went back to the position of news columnist with the other paper. Those were not easy years, but I never forgot to include Les and his Chill Out concerts. “Promote my concert beforehand,” he urged. “An article about the concert afterwards is not important to me.” I always tried to heed that message, but Les was such a great photo subject, I could not help but indulge in the latter as well.

2011: Sometimes the editor entrusted me to feature assignments, like interviews. Most were people on her list, but on occasion I would suggest someone. Over the winter I did the math and realized Les would soon be 99 years old. “We should do the interview now,” I stressed. “Next year might be too late.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. To be honest I was not sure Les would agree to the interview. When I called his New York City phone number, our conversation was short. “Come next Friday,” he said. “I perform at the Players Club.”

So on the appointed Friday I took the LIRR to Manhattan, on my way to see Jazz at Noon. The Jazz at Noon sessions that corresponded to Les’s birthday celebrations were always elaborate affairs. What I saw that day was much less formal, and the music played was very smart and efficient. Located near Gramercy Park, the Player’s Club was Manhattan from a different era. Mark Twain was known to have spent time there. About half way through the concert a waitress came over and served me a little sandwich with the bread crusts cut away. “Compliments of the Liebers,” she said.

As per the plan, I would follow Les and Edith back to their apartment downtown. However, it seemed I was not the only person with this idea. A writer for the New York Times was sitting in the audience. “It will only take an hour or two,” said the reporter. “I could ride back with you to your apartment if you like.” Les was momentarily stunned by the turn of events.

“Les, it’s the New York Times,” I conceded. “I can come back to the city another day.” He glanced at me, then at the other reporter. “We’re done here young man; I’ve made other plans.”

On a frigid winter day loading his two saxophones into the cab was a delicate task. He did not accept help from anyone else in handling the instruments. Soon the three of us were on our way. Their New York City apartment was like those I only saw in movies. It was paneled in blonde wood, and again eclectically furnished. If their Fire Island home reminded me of the French countryside, this space reminded me of Paris, with the baroque curves in the furniture and ornate chandeliers. Then he showed me the bathroom. Copies of his published articles had been used as wallpaper.

As we sat together in the living room, Les spoke as if he had been waiting his entire life for our interview. He told me his story, and my job was to listen. He spoke of his father’s death when he was only 13 years old, and how his mother raised him while growing up in his native St. Louis, Missouri, seeping him into the culture of jazz music. He attended George Washington University but did not care for it, and would graduate Phi Beta Kappa from University of Chicago. Publications he wrote for included Chicago Daily News, and he served as a foreign correspondent for the New York Times when the Spanish Civil War broke out. Upon his return to the States, Les worked in radio broadcasting with CBS. Here he was introduced to Paul Whiteman, and played what would become his signature penny whistle on a program called “Saturday Night Swing Session.”

Upon being drafted in the U.S. Army in the Second World War, Les would do publicity for American Forces Network.

“There were some ugly parts of France back then, the War was at its deepest despair,” he reminisced being part of the liberation forces.

However, it was in France that Les got to play with artists like Glenn Miller and Gypsy Jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. After the war, Les managed to interview Harry Truman after he left office, by catching up with him on a golf course in Kansas City.

“Now I wasn’t all that fond of him when he first took office, but he grew into that job,” said Les. “We became kind of friendly after that interview, but he died shortly after that.”

When I finally got to ask a question, it was about his family life. I had heard his marriage to Edith was quite the romantic story. “Do we really have to talk about that?” Edith asked. “Music brought us together,” Les answered.

“We’ve hardly talked about Fire Island,” I said.

“My wife fell in love with Fire Island and was coming out years before I married her,” answered Les. “I was lucky enough to tag along.”

As intense as that hour had been, it was over just as quickly. There was a golf tournament on TV he wanted to watch. The following June, when the interview was published, Les was pleased. It took up a full page, and any cuts made were with a light hand. To thank me, he asked me out to lunch at Maguire’s.

“You mean like a date?” my husband John asked.

There was considerable rain that summer, and the streets were flooded on the Saturday this lunch was supposed to happen. John secured the senior citizen cart and announced he was going to drive us. When we came to pick Les up at his Wilmot Road house, Edith was waiting for us on the porch. John helped Les into the golf cart. “You two have a good time,” said Edith, as she waved with a smile.

That afternoon, he and I sat on Maguire’s deck, some people glanced our way while trying not to stare. We chatted about various things – small talk, pleasantries – then we agreed we both wanted dessert. “You like ice cream too?” he said. We sat in silence, as friends will do, enjoying our desserts together, and watched boats go by on the water that sunny July day.

Epilogue: Of course Les did live well past the age of 99. Over that time he kept playing his music. After he turned 100 years old in 2012, he agreed to another interview, this time on video that runs about six minutes, and still can be viewed on YouTube. When I became the editor of this paper it became time for someone else to tell his story. Some of the reporters I assigned to the task did a decent job, while others fell below my expectations. In 2017, Ocean Beach Association President Maria Silsdorf approached me to make that summer’s coverage on Les special somehow, as now he was 105. I picked the best reporter and photographer we had on staff for that article. I am so glad I listened to Maria, because 2017 would ultimately be his last Chill Out concert. Les Lieber died this summer on July 10, 2018 at the age of 106. With a lump in my throat I shared the news on our Facebook page promptly, because I knew Les would have wanted it that way.

Leslie is survived by his wife, Edith; their sons, Jeffery, Jamie, David and Jon; along with their respective wives, as well as seven grandchildren and a great-granddaughter. The Les Lieber Fund has been set up with the Jazz Foundation of America to honor his legacy.