By Annette Hinkle
It can often be difficult to wrap one’s imagination around an individual who is incredibly prolific. For these creative minds and deep thinkers tend to leave in their wake an astounding collection of materials filled with insight and wisdom.
Such is the case with Melinda Camber Porter who, in her lifetime, was many things — a journalist, a poet, an artist, and a writer. Husband Joe Flicek notes she was also a loyal friend, loving wife and mother to James and Robert, the couple’s two sons. She did nothing halfway, he adds, either personally or professionally, and her life was filled with both passion and meaning.
This Saturday, two years after Porter’s death from ovarian cancer at the age of 55, friends and family will come together at the John Jermain Memorial Library for a remembrance through her film, art, poetry and music. A tree dedication in her honor will follow on Ackerly Street where Porter lived with her family and ultimately died.
This has been the year of memorials for Porter. In April, friends and colleagues gathered at Lincoln Center Institute in New York City to pay tribute to her. It was at the center’s Clark Studio Theater where “Night Angel” a one woman musical with book and lyrics by Porter, was performed in the 1990s. In July, Flicek organized a memorial celebration for his wife in his native South Dakota, where the two were married 25 years ago. It was a place that moved Porter deeply and was the setting of her novel “Badlands,” a Book-of-the-Month Club selection about the Sioux Nation and repercussions of the Wounded Knee massacre.
And this weekend, Porter, a native of England and a graduate of Oxford University, will be remembered at home in Sag Harbor, where she chose to live full-time in the fall of 2006 after learning she had cancer. It was also where she painted and wrote in her final days before dying on October 9, 2008, her family by her side.
“She wanted her ashes to be in Sag Harbor, Oxford and South Dakota,” explains Flicek who is now embarking on the Herculean task of preserving Porter’s legacy through the voluminous writings, artwork and recordings his wife left behind.
To that end, Flicek has assembled an informal advisory group, including Peter Trippi, editor of Fine Art Connoisseur magazine, a family friend and a great admirer of Porter’s paintings, to help process and publish her artwork and writings. Flicek will also be seeking advisors in journalism, literature, poetry, and film, as well as enlisting the help of graduate students from New York University, to wade through Porter’s materials.
To fully understand the size of the job at hand, it’s important to understand the life and career of Melinda Camber Porter. She grew up in London, won scholarships to both Oxford and Cambridge as a junior in high school, ultimately choosing Oxford where she studied French Literature.
“Her Scottish father was a doctor and a member of the Royal Society,” says Flicek. “Her mother came from 15th century Spanish descent. There was a deep sort of European intellectual background.”
After Oxford, Porter moved to Paris where she became a cultural critic for The Times of London, interviewing the most influential people in French society, including François Truffaut, Jean-Paul Sartre and Eugene Ionesco. It would prove to be a defining experience for her.
“She absorbed things so quickly,” says Flicek. “The French loved her, even though she was English. She lived in Paris for 10 years, met and interviewed all the great Parisian intellectuals. She read more French literature from the last 300 years than most French have. Her book ‘Through Parisian Eyes,’ includes her interviews with all the leading French cultural people at the time.”
A quick learner with a voracious appetite for knowledge, Porter was not an average journalist. Flicek notes that in preparation for interviews that would last anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours, Porter would spend weeks immersing herself in her subject’s work.
“She read all 20 of Saul Bellow’s novels before she went to interview him,” notes Flicek. “She drove at the creative process, and wanted to know what were they trying to bring to society.”
And it was that tenacity that endeared Porter to her subjects. Many of them ended up as friends. Joyce Carol Oates wrote Porter to tell her that she kept her book by her bedside and read one chapter each night before going to sleep. Filmmaker Wim Wenders sent all his films in progress to Porter seeking her input. Flicek recalls one time Wenders called in the wee hours of the morning to hear what his wife thought of the most recent epic he had sent her.
“She said, ‘It’s too long! You’ve got to cut it,’” grins Flicek. “Melinda was not about puffery. She was intense, personal, spiritual and very feminine.”
And always brutally honest. Flicek notes it’s what endured her to everyone from novelists to Native Americans. And at the time of her death, Porter left behind more material than several people could produce in a lifetime. Her legacy is a reflection of a voracious and life-long learner who was curious and passionate about the human condition. In fact, it was that interest which led Porter to Flicek in the early 1980s when both were working for Amnesty International in New York.
“I think it was her search for her soul,” says Flicek of Porter’s passions. “To her it was really spiritual expression — and whether it was painting or writing, she tried to understand where the spirit is going. Creative people really bonded with here. They corresponded with her, visited her.”
“She was truly a creative force. She wanted your intellectual best and always expected you to stand the heat,” says Flicek. “I had 25 years with her. Hers was one of the most brilliant minds in the world.”
The remembrance for Melinda Camber Porter at the John Jermain Memorial Library (201 Main Street, Sag Harbor) begins at 1 p.m. on Saturday, October 2, with four films of Porter, including “Luminous Journey” about her inspiration and love for Barcelona Point. From 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. poets Megan and Scott Chaskey, Tammy Nuzzo-Morgan and Emily Toy offer art, poetry and music in honor of Porter followed by a discussion and remarks. At 5 p.m., the Sag Harbor Tree Fund will host a dedication for Porter on Ackerly Street at the site of a recently planted red maple tree donated by Sag Harbor residents Steve Flaherty, a Broadway composer, and Trevor Hardwick. For more information, call the library at 725-0049.
Top: Sons James and Robert with parents Melinda Camber Porter and Joe Flicek at Trinity College in October 2006.
Middle: “Sag Harbor Home and Holly Tree” a painting by Porter.