Skip to content

tribute from John Ingersoll

Dear Jennifer,

I’m still in shock over recently learning of Philip’s death, and sorry I hadn’t kept in closer touch so that I’d have known it immediately. Occasionally when I missed him I’d go to his website and read his writings, and that’s when I was startled to come upon his obituary. It is still saddening to realize this brilliant wit, artist, writer, skeptic, raconteur, and boon companion is no longer with us.

Philip had an enormous influence on my life. He was a dear and valuable friend in the fall and winter of 1968 in Atlanta when I was coping with a divorce and the move of my former wife and two children to France. Without his good company I’d have been bereft. It was a struggle to overcome grief and to function normally; I did, thanks in part to him. I don’t remember if I ever told him, and only hope he knew.

Then it was Philip who encouraged me to start a relationship with Vivian Rippy, a new instructor in Spelman College’s German Department whom I couldn’t believe would be interested in me. He assured me I was wrong, but I’d never have known if he hadn’t  provided moral and logistical support. First, he took me to her place for a dinner Vivian prepared for her two collegial friends. Then, a week or so later while we were having beers at the Stein Club on Peachtree Street (a place I henceforth regarded as a shrine, which was only recently demolished, 45 years later), he urged me to get up my courage and telephone her for a date. I finally did; she answered the phone immediately. I said Are you home alone on a Saturday night — if so may I come over. Philip even provided the transportation, his VW Beetle.

That was March 7, 1969. Vivian and I were married June 21, 1969. Philip was my best man (and godfather, matchmaker and orchestrator). I like to think I’d eventually have wooed her anyway, but can’t prove it. What I do know and will always remember fondly is Philip’s presence and support. At the rehearsal dinner as best man he delivered a typically ironic and droll tribute to us; my fingers were crossed all the way through.

We left Atlanta then, but saw Philip a couple of years later in Paris for a memorable dinner, and reunited again in the summer of 1976 when he celebrated the Bicentennial by bicycling all the way from the Pacific shores of Oregon to Boston,

where he dipped his front wheel into South Boston harbor. He stopped in Wellesley along the way, and we put Philip up for a few weeks until, true to form, he had won another woman’s heart and hearth. (We’d visit them at their brownstone in the South End.)

Life interrupted us. We moved to New York for a year, 1978-79, returned to another  house in Wellesley, I started a new job at Babson College, Vivian and I were both engrossed in raising Justin and doing various civic duties, and I kept in touch with Philip mostly by phone. I was crushed when he called one evening to say he was leaving Boston — if I’d been a closer and better friend, I remember thinking, well, maybe he’d have stayed. We attended your farewell party and met your wonderful parents. I didn’t see him again in the flesh until the summer of — when, 2010? I am so glad I visited the two of you then, in that pleasant neighborhood of Lawrence. It was easy to see why he returned there.

I should have told you at the time to contact me if Philip fell ill, for he was unwell even then — but I was afraid of appearing morbid and demoralizing you.

What a wonderful spirit he was! How he brightened my life! Philip had the most fertile, creative mind. His observations were constantly more acute and penetrating than anyone else’s — I loved to hear him talk in that twangy drawl, and opine. He saw through everything. He said the New York Jets were just as good as the Baltimore Colts, that a sycophantic (and money-corrupted) press had bamboozled us into  believing the AFL was vastly inferior to the NFL. He was right, and one of the few people to predict that epochal upset.

He was always doing that, taking his own side on issues, always intellectually provocative and stimulating. He was a splendid artist: in 1968-69 he created a series of striking serigraphs, one of which, a portrait of his then girlfriend, hung on our wall in Boston, Wellesley, New York, and Atlanta for decades. He was a gifted photographer — I loved viewing his slides. He was a brilliant novelist who made no concessions to a lazy reader: he was going to speak in his voice and you had better listen. Liar’s Moon is unlike any other Western tale, utterly unique, utterly Philip in its inclusion of black as well as native American and white characters. Nobody else did that. In some sections, such as the testimony of the Methodist minister, I could hear Philip speaking — I couldn’t read those words without the sound of his voice in the background.

Liar’s Moon and Harvesting Ballads will give Philip life beyond his years. They will always be read. Any future student seeking to understand the America of the Great Plains will read his books. I’m glad you were there with him in the ordeals of writing them — and with him throughout his journey. You were the soulmate he needed and deserved. He’d had a tough time before meeting you — losing a baby, working hard jobs to put his first wife through law school, doing many laborious tasks in Boston, Wichita, Cincinnati and Ann Arbor — and I was relieved when he found you. You had the understanding, kindness, patience, and enduring spirit to live with a genuine artist. Philip was truly driven to put his vision on paper, to pursue his art — and luckily, you were his partner.

I am grateful you were there with him for the last thirty-odd years of his life. I hope to visit you someday in Lawrence and, perhaps, look at some more of his unpublished work (his first novel was about me and Vivian, which I am relieved never saw the light of day and may no longer exist — don’t look too hard).

I miss his keen intelligence, his artistry, and his uplifting companionship. This comes with my affectionate best wishes.

John Ingersoll


February 2, 2015

more tributes