Home Burial: Gene Lott 1935 – 2013
Tzaims Luksus said it was undeserved, but he had a reputation for being erratic, whereas Gene Lott was quiet and steady. Yet it was Tzaims who had a brief but remarkable career in the fashion world and so he was the subject of the magazine profile I wrote in 1991, nearly 20 years after he had faded from the scene.
In the headline that accompanied the piece, my editor called Tzaims the “eccentric extraordinaire” of Bennington, Vermont. Yet it was because most townspeople only knew him for his theatrics and not his record of accomplishment that I thought him worth a story.
It began at the Philadelphia College of Art, where he designed fabrics that brought him near instant acclaim. The young man born James Lukshus in 1932 recast himself as Tzaims Luksus and moved to New York, and in 1965 he won the Neiman-Marcus Award for “bold, daring and imaginative fabric designs of breath-taking beauty and dimensions unlike anything seen before.”
When Tzaims hosted a midnight fashion show attended by Halston and Rudi Grenrich, the creator of the topless bathing suit, the New York Times covered it. Meanwhile, the heiress and arts patron Rebekah Harkness took to wearing Luksus’ paper dresses and installed him at the Hotel Crillon in Paris.
Then in 1966, at an experimental film festival in the East Village, Luksus met Gene Lott, an aspiring writer from Texas. The pair soon moved into a rambling, cedar shingled house in Old Bennington, where Luksus leased an empty textile mill. Although critics and designers continued to praise his silk prints and woolen fabrics, Luksus’ business went under.
As his reputation waned on Seventh Avenue, however, it grew in Bennington. He hosted the radical Living Theater and a troupe of loincloth-wearing “demon drummers“ from Japan. He celebrated something he called the Festival of Pandu with a party for 300. And he and Lott opened a gallery and head shop on Main Street, which the police shut down after it relocated to a spot behind the junior high school.
When I interviewed Tzaims in 1991 he seemed increasingly troubled by feuds with his neighbors and run-ins with the police. For a while it became rare for him to leave the house, grandly named Buckthorne Hall despite its lack of running water and central heating. Although Tzaims sent me periodic emails denouncing the Select Board and others, I didn’t reply, thinking it best to keep my distance.
Gene was a different story. Tzaims might fly to England to attend classes at Oxford, but Gene stayed and worked the graveyard shift at a local factory to support them both. It was Gene — slight and soft-spoken, with lank brown hair to his shoulders and a beard flecked with gray — that I’d see occasionally when running errands around town. Not only was he loyal to Tzaims, but he was modest and funny and grounded and I liked him a lot.
I hadn’t seen either of them for a while when on December 10 of last year I was copied on another email from Tzaims, this time announcing that Gene had died that day at the age of 77. Tzaims now asserted that Gene, whom he referred to as John, was his own biological brother given up for adoption at birth. After a week passed, Tzaims wrote that I was welcome to visit the house they shared and pay my respects. I could take photographs if I wanted, he said.
I feared what I might find, but compassion and morbid curiosity led me to the upstairs room where Gene was laid out. There were flowers and incense and the oak coffin was draped with flags displaying royal insignias. Although Gene hadn’t been embalmed, Tzaims assured me that the frigid room would preserve the body until a burial could take place. In fact, snow had drifted through a hole in the roof. Before we exited I struck a gong in Gene’s honor.
I stayed and spoke with Tzaims for several hours — more than I had in the past 22 years — retreating to a spot beside the wood stove in the kitchen, the only warm room in the house. It was there that Gene had complained of chest pains and where moments later he died. The way Tzaims told the story made me think grief had calmed him.
Tzaims intended to hold a home burial on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, but a fiberglass vault he ordered was damaged in transit and so the interment was delayed. Instead, a Requiem Mass was celebrated that evening at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. The ritual offered solace, but the only witnesses were Tzaims and me and in a pew at the rear of the church, a plainclothes policeman.
As the days passed and the temperatures climbed unseasonably into the upper 40s and low 50s, I began to worry about Tzaims alone with Gene’s body. Then on the morning of January 15, nearly five weeks after Gene’s death, Tzaims phoned to tell me that the burial would take place that day.
It wasn’t as if the wariness and caution I felt had left me completely, but I no longer wanted to keep my distance. And so I put on a jacket and tie and joined the gravediggers and undertakers to serve as a pallbearer.
But it was 81-year-old Tzaims who lay on the ground to ensure that the vault and coffin were properly positioned. And it was Tzaims who grabbed a shovel and filled the hole with dirt. And it was Tzaims who was the last to leave.