A personal reminiscence: two great lives

By Ivor Davis 01/05/2012

My kids used to say that life sucks. And they’re right.


Good riddance to 2011 as far as I’m concerned.


To start with, an illness in our family has turned our lives upside down. And then to cap it all, on Christmas Day, two good friends died.


They were Simms Taback and Leslie Moss.


Taback was the talented and brilliant award-winning author and illustrator of startlingly original children’s books; Moss was a writer, businessman and Malibu planning commissioner. Both were 79.


Taback was a brilliant and gentle man and one of the world’s most talented authors and children’s book illustrators who had moved to Ventura more than a decade ago to be close to his children. My best friend, Moss, lived just 30 miles away in Malibu.


And while the connection might seem tenuous — and Taback didn’t know Moss — it seemed eerie that both died on the same day, at the same age. Though they were born 3,000 miles apart, they would have recognized each other’s neighborhoods. Moss was born in Brixton, a less than salubrious section of London. Taback hailed from the Bronx.


Moss dropped dead in the kitchen of his home. No warning. No illness. The night before, Moss — who had a marvelous voice — had been singing Christmas carols at a friend’s house. His death was sudden and without warning.


Taback had been bravely battling pancreatic cancer, for a couple of years and the doctors had told him there was no further treatment they could give him for that awful disease.


So their deaths were dramatically different, but the two men had much in common.


Both came from traditional Jewish backgrounds and the Yiddish language was a fundamental part of both their upbringings. Moss’ background made him a writer, raconteur, businessman and salt-of-the-earth guy, with strong right-wing opinions that he was not at all reluctant to voice. Taback was a sweet, gentle guy with a modest demeanor, who had won just about every award open to children’s authors, including the prestigious Caldecott Medal. He was weaned on the politics of the labor movement in New York among the “old lefties” who knew all the words to all of the Spanish Civil War songs.


Moss was godfather of my two children, Rebecca and Gideon. Taback was a hero to my grandchildren after he wrote sweet personal notes to them inside all his books.


Both men were larger than life and had a wonderful sense of humor and healthy attitude to the world.


I first met Moss in 1960 when we got together for a cup of tea in London, and he told me that I should move to the United States — the best piece of advice I ever received.


I first met Taback and his wife, Gail, in 2006 at the home of Jody and Perry Shapiro. Jody, herself a children’s author who ran Ventura’s very successful Adventures for Kids bookstore for many years, knew great books and told me about Taback’s prizewinning volumes like There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and the Yiddish folk tale Joseph Had a Little Overcoat.


“His books are unorthodox, using all sorts of marvelous novelties like cutouts, collages, flaps and die cuts,” Shapiro said, “and kids love them. Simms intrigues young readers because he allows them to have a sense of discovery with all the little details that fascinate them.”


Indeed, Taback’s works are like print versions of The Simpsons in that they have a wide crossover appeal, attracting adults as well as young people. Impressed by his self-effacing personality and the fact that such a celebrated award-winning author and illustrator was living virtually anonymously in our midst, I suggested that this newspaper’s sister publication Ventana Magazine run a profile of him — and the profile ran in the October 2007 issue, which displayed wonderful color pictures of him and his work.


In 2010, I ran into Taback and his wife, Gail, at the movie house and he revealed that he was being treated at UCLA for pancreatic cancer. And in early 2011, he told my wife, Sally, that he had given up on treatments. He faced the inevitable with grace and courage. And he drew up a “bucket list” that included visiting Israel and England, all of which he completed before his death.


Shortly before he died, he was thrilled to attend the opening retrospective of his work, called “Simms Taback: Making Pictures for Children,” at the Ventura County Museum. The exhibit runs through Feb. 2.


Moss, alas, had no time for bucket lists or excursions to favorite places. He had not been ill and could not have contemplated the end of his life.


All Taback’s old pals came out from the Bronx to view the exhibition in Ventura and see their old comrade one last time.


Simms Taback didn’t know my friend Les Moss, but I know they would have loved meeting and would have relished each other’s company, and I’d like to have been a fly on the wall when they started the inevitable political spats.


They were both — in the Yiddish vernacular — “real Mensches,” genuine, people whose humanity never deserted them.


Moss drew on his Jewish background in his work. Moss’ volunteer work with the blind, his involvement in distributing food from Malibu supermarkets to the hungry and his absolute commitment to the civic life of Malibu were directly drawn from the Jewish commandment to go out and “Repair the world.”


Taback began his career, at the age of 24, as a graphic designer at the New York Times and Columbia Records. He had grown up in a working-class Bronx neighborhood that was a fruitful breeding ground for many talented artists, among them the directors Stanley Kubrick and Gary Marshall, the writer E.L. Doctorow and the actor Walter Matthau.


“The neighborhood was made up mostly of socially aware Eastern European Jews who built their own cooperative housing project,” Taback told me. “It was utopia for me, complete with a community center, science and sports clubs, art classes and its own library.”


Taback attended what he describes as “a progressive secular Jewish summer camp,” and it was the experiences he had there that enabled him to draw his medal-winning Joseph book.


Moss went to an English public school and, beneath a sophisticated British veneer, was a traditional synagogue-attending Jew. And a fervent Zionist.


Taback died quietly, surrounded by his wife, Gail, children and grandchildren. Moss’ life was celebrated by 200 people at a memorial “party” at a beach club in Malibu, complete with British food: bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, and shepherd’s pie. It was tribute to the respect Moss had garnered from his community. Every living mayor in Malibu was there. They closed the pub where Moss showed up every week to watch soccer, so that the denizens of the area’s equivalent of Cheers could show up at the memorial.


Both will be desperately missed by the legions who loved them.

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