Warm, Witty Words at David Carr’s Wake and Funeral

A lover, a brother and “an asshole,” tributes flowed in for The New York Times columnist whose wide range of friends were drawn from AA meetings to the Hollywood A-list.

Larry Busacca/Getty

Judging by the boldface names in attendance—HBO star Lena Dunham, comedian Tom Arnold, CNN personalities Anthony Bourdain, Jake Tapper and Brian Stelter; Watergate sleuth Carl Bernstein, and the last three executive editors of The New York Times—one might have mistaken David Carr’s wake for a solemn state occasion.

Instead, Monday night’s celebration of the Times media columnist—who died last Thursday night at a mere 58, collapsing in the Times newsroom an hour or so after expertly moderating a panel on national security journalism—was a down-to-earth and often hilarious farewell by an overflow crowd of friends, family and admirers who, despite their frequent bursts of laughter, were clearly shattered by Carr’s abrupt departure. Carr’s funeral was held Tuesday at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church.

“I loved my dad, I loved him so much. I am so sad that he’s not here. But, good lord, he would have loved this!” daughter Erin Lee Carr told the mourners gathered at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They filled every seat, lined the walls, and spilled into the lobby, all drawn by the magnetism of Carr’s irresistible persona, as powerful in death as it was in life. “My dad was a crazy one,” Erin added.

At the front of the chapel, where Carr’s widow Jill Rooney Carr sat with daughters Erin, Maddie, and Meagan and greeted friends with tight hugs, there was a huge black-and-white head shot of David, smiling happily and looking deeply satisfied with life, and two of David’s pocket-sized reporter’s notebooks, propped against vases filled with lilies. On the front of each notebook in blue ink, he dutifully wrote his name and the season—“Winter 2014” on one and “Spring 14” on the other—in handwriting that was serviceable but hardly fastidious. To the left was one of David’s beloved cans of Diet Coke, which, along with cigarettes, had replaced his addiction to the illegal sort of coke. (An autopsy determined that David, who had survived non-Hodgkins lymphoma years earlier, died of lung cancer.)

The Rev. Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest, officiated at a brief religious service and offered a homily—in which he acknowledged, to raucous laughter, that Carr “was [not] the perfect Christian.” Still, Father Jim added, Carr led “a joyful and ultimately faithful life...As his wife Jill told me the other day, he left nothing on the table.”

“As Father indicated, he was not a perfect Christian; back then, he was not a perfect anything,” David’s brother Joe, one of four Irish Carr brothers of which David was the baby, told the crowd. “The only exception was that he loved fiercely, even in the throes of his crack addiction.”

David himself unsparingly chronicled his former life as a drug and alcohol abuser, bar brawler, jailbird, neglectful and occasionally violent boyfriend in his searing 2008 memoir, The Night of The Gun. “It made it hard to love him,” Joe Carr said.

David’s silver-haired sister-in-law, pre-school teacher Linda Carr, recalled her first meeting with him 45 years ago at the modest Carr family home in Hopkins, Minn., otherwise famous for its Raspberry Festival. “He had long hair, a plaid leisure suit, and was just nuttier than a fruitcake,” she said. “I’m a pre-school teacher and David loved me of all people. He was a great guy. He really was.”

Linda added that shortly after dinner ended, “David was arrested in the driveway” of the house in Hopkins, though she didn’t mention why.

Yet the people who showed up for Monday’s wake—each of whom seemed to have enjoyed, at one point or another, an intense personal connection with the youngest Carr brother—“simply verified the fact that David became good man,” Joe Carr declared. “Not only a good writer, not only a good columnist. He was a great father. He was a great brother.”

Then mourners came to the podium one by one, some of them spontaneously, to paint a 3-D portrait of David as friend, mentor, critic, curmudgeon, uncle, godfather, feminist, suburban paterfamilias, and partner-in-crime.

Comedian Arnold—who wondered, “Am I the only Jew here?”—told the crowd he’d known Carr for 32 years, during the last 27 of which “we haven’t drunk or used drugs together,” and suggested that one measure of their friendship was that they’d once gotten into a fistfight. (Arnold claimed he won.)

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Apparently out of deference to the delicate sensibilities of the priest, Arnold tried to illustrate what his pal’s personality lacked by timidly whispering a certain word. At which Father Jim helpfully repeated the word loudly: “Asshole!”

Arnold spoke with pride about his friend’s ascension to media stardom. “I knew David was getting famous when I was at Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Oscar party, and Harvey Weinstein came running up and said, ‘Your friend David Carr is an asshole.’ ”

That word again. But this time, having received holy authorization from a man of the cloth, Arnold pronounced it with gusto.

Lena Dunham, star and creator of the sexually explicit sitcom Girls, called Carr “a ferocious feminist” and “one of my best friends” since the columnist took her to dinner five years ago at a then-trendy restaurant in the Village. “I was a vegan and I didn’t drink, so he took me to the Waverly Inn, where I ate a steak and drank a martini. Then he led me around the whole place, introducing me, saying, ‘Please remember this person’s name or you’re going to look like an idiot.’ ” Dunham recalled that she later vomited the meal, having taken her usual daily dose of Xanax.

The last time she saw Carr, Dunham recalled, was at a five-hour brunch a month ago in Brooklyn Heights. She said she asked how things were going at the Times. She quoted Carr: “I know everybody’s trying to get out of here, but I’m gonna ride this thing straight into the ground.”

Lots of general laughter, although it was difficult to gauge the reaction of former executive editor Bill Keller sitting near the back, his successor Jill Abramson standing on the side, or that of the current newsroom leader, Dean Baquet.

Tantalizingly, in his remarks, Baquet revealed that Carr had recently sent him a lengthy memo suggesting various staff reassignments. “I won’t distribute it because he used names,” Baquet said, adding that Carr wrote of one unnamed Times journalist, “he’d love the job and he’d kill it”; of another, “he’s super with-it and a great writer”; and of a third: “unfortunately, he likes the uniform more than playing the game.”

Baquet called Carr’s death “heartbreaking.”

Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple—who, like Tapper, was a protégé of Carr’s in the 1990s when Carr edited the Washington City Paper—spoke of how losing his mentor was almost like losing a father. A couple of Carr’s neighbors from Montclair, New Jersey, described his joy mowing the lawn and using his snowblower, a cigarette dangling from his mouth as he threw himself into a state of suburban bliss.

A thirtysomething man who introduced himself only as “Michael”—as in, “My name is Michael and I’m an alcoholic”—talked of becoming close to Carr in AA meetings and supporting each other through sobriety and much else: “He was the first friend I trusted with 100 percent full disclosure...Eight years ago, I was in the darkest place in my life...I said, ‘OK, if you can make me sober, God, I will accept that the fun is over, my life is over. Just take this despair away from me. I’m fine with no fun.’ And then I met David.”

Michael, along with a few other mourners, documented Carr’s penchant for fervent dancing. He said during a visit to the Carr family home in Montclair, he and David were in the kitchen and a song by the Psychedelic Furs, The Ghost in You—the acoustic version by Robyn Hitchcock—started blaring on Spotify, spurring Carr to action.

“If you haven’t seen David dance, it’s amazing,” Michael recounted. “I can’t tell if he’s the worst dancer I’ve ever seen or the best dancer I’ve ever seen. But he’s the least insecure dancer I’ve ever seen. So he was dancing around the kitchen, singing and mouthing words, pointing at me, and I was so...uncomfortable...It was so intimate. There were only two of us in the kitchen...But it was such a gift to have that moment. I’ll forever think of that moment with David.”

Addendum, Tuesday 2.45pm

Tuesday’s funeral was a more formal, professionally choreographed, far grander affair—as befitted the locale, St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, a Gilded Age church designed to dazzle and impress, what with an endless variety of exotic marbles, a gilt-bronze altar and, toward the heavens above, a vaulting baroque ceiling.

Arguably the antithesis of David Carr.

And yet, as David’s eldest brother John and his three daughters spoke to the mourners—who included New York Times publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeffrey Bewkes, and New Yorker editor David Remnick among other worthies of the media world—things were brought pretty quickly down to human scale.

John Carr recalled that decades ago, “at the wake of a young cousin who’d died of a drug overdose, my dad whispered to David—who looked like hell, and was probably high—‘Is this what you have planned for us?’”

Not at all, it turned out. With the help of God and his AA partners, “but especially with the help of the women in the front row,” John said, indicating David’s widow Jill and his daughters Erin, Meagan and Madeline, he became a best-selling author, influential media critic, esteemed professor at Boston University, and even a movie star as the scene-stealing protagonist of Page One, the 2011 documentary about the Times.

“This was a surprise to me. I always thought David had a face, voice and posture for newsprint,” John Carr joked. “People often described David’s appearance and posture as looking like a homeless man. I work with the homeless. Many of them would resent that.”

His daughters each delivered tearful eulogies, describing their dad as a bottomless well of love, support and encouragement, who was possibly happier to talk with them about the art of cooking and household projects than about the twists and turns of media business that consumed his life in the newsroom.

Erin Carr recounted how her father loved to take her and her sisters to a rustic cabin in the Adirondacks borrowed from his former protégé, Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple. “Dad liked to build these giant fires. And when I say ‘giant,’ I mean nine feet tall which he thought was so cool,” Erin said. “That’s the kind of dad my dad is: Do it big.”