One on One: John Rosenthal asks, why?

Published 11:19 am Saturday, September 18, 2021

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By D.G. Martin

Why? Why? Why?

This question haunts anyone who has lost a family member or friend to suicide. We deal with the question of what could we have done and wonder why it had to happen?

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North Carolina’s famed photographer John Rosenthal faced these questions in 1965 when his friend, a former girlfriend, Amylu Danzer, took her life and he deals with them again in a new book, “Searching for Amylu Danzer.”

Rosenthal grew up in New York City and its suburbs but made his way to Wake Forest College. After graduation in 1964 he entered Columbia University for graduate work in English.

On February 25, 1965, his mother called him to let him know that Amylu Danzer was missing. The day before, Amylu and her mother had gone to nearby Jones Beach together. After an argument, Amy had walked away along the beach with a sketchbook. Her mother said Amylu had then disappeared.

Amylu’s mother thought she might have made her way to New York City hoping to visit John, her longtime friend.

John immediately began looking for her. He walked up and down the streets of the West Side of New York near Columbia. With a photographer’s eye John describes the sights and scenes as he walked along the city streets hoping to see Amylu.

“Up and down the avenue pigeons, like plump, nervous dowagers, warbled and fluttered on the cement balustrades of stout whole buildings.”

“I stopped and looked through the frosted glass of Zajac’s fish market at a row of silvery redfish stacked on a bed of ice. A thick red hand clutched a fish and tossed it on a scale suspended above the white counter. The scale swung lightly, tilting to the left. The fish head protruded, its mouth open, aghast.”

The city was already losing its face. as the old immigrant-run meat shops, eating places, laundries and other city scenes that have been the subjects of Rosenthal’s photographs were disappearing

Not finding Amy, he headed back to Columbia. He writes, “There would be no heroics today, no comfort gallantly bestowed, no phone call to Long Island assuring everyone she’d been found and would be home in a day or two.”

On April 14th The New York Times reported that Amylu’s body had washed ashore in Queens and been identified.

“I decided,” writes Rosenthal, “that Amylu’s suicide had wounded me and I would never recover. I would never be carefree again.”

Throughout the rest of his life, so far, and the rest of the book, Rosenthal wrestles with the puzzles Amylu’s death created for him.

He remembers how, on a trip to the beach with Amylu before her death, he rejected her offering of a piece of driftwood she found on the shore. “It’s so beautiful,” she had said. “It’s a work of art.”

Rosenthal was annoyed. “It’s not a work of art, Amy. It’s a piece of wood. It has nothing to do with art. It’s debris.”

Looking back now, more that 50 years later, Rosenthal wonders “if that moment on the beach was a turning point,” one step on the way to her suicide.

Throughout the rest of his life, he reconnects with Amylu’s parents, her brother, co-workers at a magazine on the design school’s campus.

In his darkroom processing his artistic photographs Amylu comes back to him and raises questions about what else he might have done.

The loss of such a friend can be so burdening that the fact sometimes has to be denied or avoided.

Rosenthal sums it up this way.

“The unexpected suicide of a close friend is humiliating: it ruins the present and muddles the past; It refutes everything–the here-and-now, common memories, candor, shared music, remembered laughter. It’s so large a fact that it can’t be taken all at once. Not by half. So one resorts to magical thinking, to an alternative reality. My friend killed herself but not really.”

Why? Why? Why?

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV). The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.