Richard was a member of the New York City Ballet from 1956 to 1972. He said that when Balanchine did not ask him to be part of his new ballet “PAMTGG” he took that as a signal. I suggested that perhaps it was Balanchine doing him a kindness not to put him in that rare disaster. I had become aware of Richard as a dancer during the company’s first season at the New York State Theater. Other dancers were more spectacular, but something about the cleanness and the elegance of his performance style appealed to me. It seemed that for him the created work was central and his job was to be the best instrument possible to show that work, an approach the direct opposite of another dancer of the time, Rudolf Nureyev.
If you’d like to see Richard in performance, take a look at “Four Temperaments” from the New York City Ballet in Montreal” collection, this filmed in 1964. Richard appears about 7 minutes and 25 seconds in, dancing the “Melancholic” movement (but watch the whole wonderful ballet): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tnj95tNGJ6c&t=822s
During the first half on the 1970s a young man from Colombia named Oscar Ramirez worked for me in the Acquisitions Department of the Columbia University Libraries. It turned out that he shared an apartment with Richard Rapp. Oscar and I became friends, and over time my late partner Tom Miller and I were invited to a couple of parties in his and Richard’s apartment. There I met Richard, but at the time we remained merely pleasant acquaintances.
After I left the Libraries and retuned with Tom to my family home in Alabama, we I kept in touch with Richard and Oscar primarily through the exchange of Christmas cards and the occasional note. After Richard retired from the School of American Ballet, he and Oscar moved to Florida primarily because Oscar’s mother lived there. Then one Christmas no card. A brief internet search turned up a notice of probate of the will of Oscar Ramirez with Richard Rapp as executor. I immediately wrote a letter of condolence to Richard. Tom had died not that long ago, and I thought I might have words of sympathy and advice to share.
And Richard wrote back, a long letter that began with apologies for his not letting me know (but I understood: I’d been through my own loss and knew how busy one got thereafter). He reported on Oscar’s last months and asked questions about how I was getting along, the sort of letter than required reply. So I did, and we began an epistolary relationship that lasted a decade and gave us both a great deal of pleasure.
Richard did not do computers, and all his letters were handwritten. His cursive was clear (it was taught back in the day), but over time, as my macular degeneration and other vision problems worsened, I found it increasingly difficult to read. But I struggled on. We wrote about dance, then and now, including some gossip. He was pleased to have a new friend who knew his work as a dancer and who knew Oscar. He lacked close gay friends in Florida and that I think prompted him to value me. We wrote about our families and our daily lives. We wrote about the books we were reading. In his later years he had discovered books and was reading voraciously. He loved Dickens, even “Bleak House.” He loved Ron Chernow’s biography of Grant. He was thrilled by Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” (I less so, but I never told him that). I gave him my biographies of Jerome Robbins, and he devoured those. (They had dance gossip too.)
Both Alabama and Florida weather got referenced a lot. I offered my home as a possible escape when hurricanes were on the way, but it seemed like they would get there faster than my invitations. Too, he felt that fleeing was potentially more dangerous than staying, and I think, like me, he felt that if his home got blown away he’d just as soon go with it.
In early 2018 he wrote me that a spot had been discovered in his lungs. Already 86, he had decided that he would decline even biopsy and devote his remaining time to being as happy as he could. I did write him a time or so after that, but quickly I decided that it was time to move our conversation from letter-writing to telephone calls. He seemed to like that a lot, and I’d try to talk with him at least once a week.
We had wonderful talks. I had purchased a 13-disc DVD set of Royal Ballet works, and he was interested in my thoughts about each one. We chatted about news from the dance world, about the books he was reading, happy stuff. The closest we ever came to his illness were my occasional “How are you doing?” Fine. Okay, I’ve been better. Not so good. That seemed to be the trend, but I sensed that he didn’t want to go into specifics. During the early fall on his doctor’s advice he moved into a reduced level of hospice care, since that would have him set up for emergency calls and for certain medications. He became unhappy with hospice at that time and withdrew from the program. “They were trying to take over my life.”
Excitements locally made me skip a week calling Richard during November. When I tried to reach him after that, there was no answer. I was increasingly concerned and began obit searching. But finally he answered. He sounded weak but coherent. He confessed that upon learning that his cancer had spread to liver and brain he had gone to bed one night after taking every sleeping pill he could lay his hands on. To his chagrin and perhaps embarrassment he had awakened the next morning. “I slapped my face and said you fool!” He called for help.
He then spent over a week in a psychiatric facility, from which he had been released to a hospice facility. The day before he had returned home under fulltime hospice care, two nurses each having a 12-hour shift. I was relieved to hear his voice, but I suspected that his final days were approaching rapidly. Thereafter I began calling daily.
For a while would answer, and depending on how he seemed to be feeling I’d determine whether to try a conversation or just say something like “Wanted you to know I was thinking about you.” During that first week he admitted to serious pain, and then one day when I called he said “I’ve got a bunch of doctors here and I’ll talk later.” Thereafter when I would call his daytime attendant usually answered. If Richard happened to be asleep, I would say “Don’t wake him. Just tell him I said hello.” Sometimes the nurse would take the phone to him if he happened to be awake. Richard was mostly sleeping, a result the nurse confirmed was related to the increased levels of painkillers. Once, hearing his weak voice, I asked him directly, “Am I calling too often? Would you rather not be interrupted?” He was adamant. “No. I love to hear your voice.” I kept on calling, although rarely thereafter was he able to take the phone.
Early on after he returned home the hospice workers assisted him in putting his affairs in order. “It’s a big job,” he said. I believe that during this time he prepared a list of people to be notified after his death and had sent the list to his older brother in Wisconsin, who called me. I believe his nephew was the person who handled matters in Florida after his death.
My letter-writing and telephone friendship with Richard was unexpected and rewarding. I believe that was just as true for Richard as for me. I valued it greatly during these last years, and I still do.
The unexpected gifts that life gives us.