Putting himself on a pedestal
while a student at USC.

Your Eye I Eyed

William had broken his arm. He'd been in Southern California and fell while pumping ethyl at a gas station. When he flew home to San Francisco a few days later, his arm was in a sling. The bandage needed to be changed. He couldn't put on his socks or shoes by himself. He couldn't get his meals.

All of a sudden, his life was ending.

I would go up in the morning to help him get started. Mostly he would lie on the couch. He wanted to write a will. He wanted to direct the disposition of his art collection. He wanted to be cremated. He wanted an epitaph -- the last two lines of one of Shakespeare's sonnets:

For fear of which, hear this, thou age unbred,
Ere you were born was beauty's summer dead.

To the very end, an aesthete. A few minutes later, he remembered. He had written some sonnets once. Maybe he would dig them out.

The next morning when I came over, William was feeling better. He'd gotten his breakfast. He had an envelope marked "poems." He'd found his sonnets, written while he was in the Navy during World War II.

It took a few weeks, but eventually his arm healed. So did his spirit. He kept busy working on a new book. We'd decided to publish his sonnets and other poems from the war years. He chuckled at the irony -- and good fortune -- that while so many others had been dodging bullets, he had been sitting at anchor in the South Pacific in a supply ship, marveling at the sea and sky, writing poems.

They made a handsome book. This, the Tropic Sea was published in 1999 in a limited edition of 100 copies. We celebrated with a launch party in a private room upstairs at Jack's, which had been restored to its original splendor.

Those sonnets gave him four more years.

Early in 2004, as he lay dying, I brought William's favorite volume of Shakespeare's sonnets to his bedside. As I read aloud the words of No. 104, he faintly mouthed the opening lines from memory.

To me, fair friend, you never can be old,
For as you were when first your eye I eyed,
Seems such your beauty still.

More about William W. Whitney