The hallmark of a good journalist is the ability to keep a safe distance between yourself and your subject. You’re supposed to remain objective and comment unemotionally and impartially. I can’t say I always get it right and today I’m unashamedly throwing the rule book out of the window. Hard. Because – and I don’t even want to write this because seeing it in black and white somehow makes it real and I so want it not to be true – the tall, wonderful, warm and funny force that for so long was Jimmy Lithgow, no longer is.
Sorry, that’s the best I can do. I simply can’t put it any other way. I won’t. Jimmy was the most wonderfully kind and fun human being and I am going to miss him so very much. So I intend to be unapologetically unobjective.
I started writing this at my desk, but it wasn’t working. So I’ve kicked off my shoes and plonked myself down on my bed and somehow that feels more appropriate. Jimmy was never formal, or if he was, it was never for long.
Jimmy was born on 16 November 1946, the eldest son of three. His father, Dr Donald Lithgow, was a gynaecologist and his mother Lesley, the daughter of a compound manager at the Robinson Deep Mine near Turffontein. His grandmother ‘Babs’ was an avid racegoer and along with her sisters, would don hats and gloves and go to Turffontein for a flutter on the horses. Babs would come back and regale young Jimmy with tales of the horses and the race course characters and it wasn’t long before he was thoroughly enthralled.
Mother Lesley was a keen rider and his father owned racehorses and it was at a racecourse lunch that they met Les and Tilly Rathbone. When they visited the stables a short while later, Jimmy went along and met Les’s young assistant and daughter, Elaine. He could recount exactly what she was wearing that day and says she was the most unusual girl he’d ever met. They married in 1974 and had two sons, Jonathan and Aidan.
I first encountered Jimmy in 2010. I’d just started writing for the Sporting Post and was still nervous and self-conscious and he criticised an article I wrote about Secretariat. At least, that’s how it felt at the time. In actual fact, Jimmy had simply spotted an inaccuracy and in his usual helpful way had written in to set me straight. I admit that my first reaction was not one of gratitude. It had been a small detail and I felt a bit aggrieved that he’d had to make a fuss and couldn’t just have let it go. But of course that wouldn’t have been Jimmy. He paid attention to detail and it was important that things were right. In short, he cared.
And after due consideration (and a glass of wine or two), I realised that and rang him up. We had a long chat and I found him intelligent and funny and by the end of the conversation I was thoroughly charmed.
I met him in person a short while later in the parade ring at Kenilworth. One paints a picture of someone in your mind’s eye and Jimmy really didn’t fit my mental description of him at all. He was unexpectedly tall and elegantly outfitted in a neat suit and hat. Jimmy knew how to do dapper to a T! However, the elegance and poise was short-lived and when I introduced myself, he flung his arms out to wrap me in a hug.
‘Flung’ is a good word to use to describe Jimmy. He spoke in the most wonderful plummy private school English, which may have sounded pompous to those who didn’t know him better, but Jimmy never took himself the least bit seriously. He was intelligent, well-read and well-travelled. He had a tremendous sense of humour and regarded life with wide-eyed curiosity and a great deal of amusement (usually at his own expense). He told me once that having discovered a love of theatre in high school, he tackled Shakespeare for the first time in Std 9 when he got to play Richard II. Excitement and nerves rather got the better of him and he swept off stage before the main act. “Ruined the play!” he chuckled.
With a degree in English and the History of Art, Jimmy had a formidable command of the English language and used it generously and flamboyantly. His flair for the dramatic and a natural eye for mischief, made him the most wonderful story-teller and he loved telling jokes and amusing anecdotes, frequently dissolving into giggles long before he got to the punch line. He loved reading, writing and travelling. He had a terribly sweet tooth, and was aggrieved to be diagnosed with diabetes a few years ago, an affliction which he suffered with fairly good grace and the odd dietary transgression!
Jimmy loved life and most of all, Jimmy loved people. He loved his wife Elaine, with whom he’d just celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary. He loved his son Jonathan, who works at one of the most exclusive hotels in the Western Cape, and he was utterly devoted to his two grandchildren. He was tremendously proud of his son Aidan, who he was helping with his project, Legends of the Turf. Aidan won the award for tv media in 2011 and Jimmy spent all evening telling everyone “I’ve sired a winner!” When Jimmy received the award in 2013, he announced that he was proud to be following in his son’s footsteps.
They say people may forget the things you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Jimmy had a warmth and sincerity that made him a natural confidante and an immediate, life-long friend. His kind, easy-going disposition and wicked sense of humour inspired confidences and off-colour jokes. In short, Jimmy made everyone feel like an old and treasured friend.
It is a human foible to assume that the people we love will be around for ever and sometimes we are guilty of not appreciating them as much as we could while they are still here. I like to think Jimmy knew how terribly fond I was of him and while I know that life should feel emptier without him, somehow it doesn’t. Jimmy saw so much colour and humour in everything, that life will always be a little brighter and cheerier for having had him in it. And therefore so will I.
There once was a guy called Jimmy Lithgow. But only once.
RIP James Alexander Charles Lithgow. 16 November 1946 – 17 October 2014
There will be a memorial send off “Tribute to Jimmy” on Friday, 24 October at Turffontein racecourse starting at 3.30pm for 4pm. The affair will not be formal as the family want it to be a joyous occasion, but there will be a few people who will say a few words and all are invited to join in and share your memories. There will also be a piano, accompanied by Adele Strombeck and any or all of Jimmy’s friends are encouraged to send him off in song. He would have loved that. So get out the song books and come down to Turffontein on Friday to experience the love that was and will remain Jimmy Lithgow.