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Humor Came Her

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She never spoke to Hertzberg again. And she didn't speak to most of the others until she was diagnosed with cancer nearly four years later.

Late in the summer of 1996, Hamilton detected a subtle shift in Geng's behavior. She no longer listened in conversation but talked right over him; soon, she was complaining about crippling headaches. That November, while making a pot of tea, she had the overpowering seizure that would first land her in the hospital.

Since her departure from The New Yorker, Geng had been living on income from freelance assignments and her father's estate. Health insurance, however, was an extravagance Geng believed she didn't need. After she was diagnosed with cancer, her friends had to rally, both emotionally and financially, and many of them did. Philip Roth drummed up more than $20,000. Bronz took Geng into her Berkshires home and cared for her from December right through July.

Geng wasn't an easy patient. Cancer was robbing her of the thing she valued most: her independence. When one medication caused painful hives, she hid them under long sleeves. When Bronz suggested hiring a nurse for her, Geng snapped that she didn't need one.

"She was in denial," says Bronz. "And yet she managed to be quite gallant. She was totally determined to be herself." But Geng continued to deteriorate, and so did her relationship with her caregiver. She became vague, irritable, and monstrously paranoid. In mid-July, she packed up her belongings, called Hamilton, and took off in the dead of night.

When Geng got back to New York, a devoted trio of male friends cared for her most. Roth gave her his writer's studio to live in on the Upper West Side. Hamilton came by every day, and Blount nearly as often. Mimi Kramer, the former New Yorker theater critic, was a regular visitor, too, and found her one of the two gentle, good-humored nurses who would be with Geng around the clock. Until then, Geng had been going through them like popcorn. "A lot of her help went, uh, screaming into the night," remembers Hamilton. Why? Blount explains. "She thought some of the people we hired were really bad conversationalists -- and said really dumb, clichéd things."

In September 1997, Geng was admitted back into the hospital to remove a second tumor. She continued to act unpitifully, though she was in pain, busying herself with supermarket tabloids and (more urgently) cigarettes. "My most extraordinary memory of Veronica," says Miller, "was her, half paralyzed, on the steps of Sloan-Kettering, lying on a gurney as if it were a beach chair, smoking with whichever hand worked." She also remembers Philip Roth sitting at the edge of Geng's bed, gingerly trying to feed her.

Geng's condition never improved. Hamilton moved her into the Helmsley Medical Tower, where for several weeks she slipped in and out of consciousness before disappearing into a coma. Friends came by to hold her, to read to her, and to talk to her, even though she could only respond with a faint smile or a tight squeeze of the hand.

There was a great Geng moment at Greenwood Cemetery. Guards detained mourners for about twenty minutes at the gate because of some misunderstanding involving a credit card. Hamilton had to stand outside and negotiate while the others sat in their hired Town Cars. Roth amused his compatriots by scanning headstones for Jewish names.

It was a damp, shivery December day, and the graveside service was as strained and improvisational as the service back at the Little Italy funeral home. A fact checker from The New Yorker recited a prayer in Hebrew, even though Geng was Catholic; Kincaid read something aloud, though she now can't remember what it was. When it was all over, people threw flowers into the grave.

Then everyone just stood around, whispering, crying, wondering what should happen next. Roth, with his instinct for solemn and imperfect endings, was the one who finally provided the cue. He simply turned on his heel and walked away.


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