James (Jim) H. Ellis
James H. Ellis died in his home town of Scarsdale, New York, on May 26, 2005.
He had finished the last line of the last paragraph of his new book that morning,
and he was enjoying a good lunch with good friends.
His death was a shock to us, just as his life had been a blessing.
We at Where Books Begin were only a few of the many people
who benefited from Jim’s wisdom,
intelligence and generosity.
He was a fine human being.
A man of many parts, Jim Ellis was an important author,
beloved at Where Books Begin (WBB).
One of Jim’s many eccentricities was his conviction
that face-to-face was the way to get things done.
This in an era when telecommuting was all the rage.
He would show up at the WBB office on lower Broadway
with coffee and sometimes muffins for everyone.
He remembered our names and our troubles:
he found an immigration lawyer for a Swedish intern;
he helped an assistant find that first job in the arts;
he located an uptown office for us after September 11.
When Ellen came home from the hospital in 2004,
Jim was her first visitor.
Mark McMillan, a former trapeze artist working as a WBB editor,
spent hours discussing the Hartford Circus Fire with Jim,
trying to convince him to write a book about it.
Here Jim and Linda attend the launch of a new dance company.
Jim’s generosity to artists starting out is legendary.
Indeed, one could argue that Jim’s first experience
in the wonderful world of entertainment
was the Hartford Circus Fire of July 6, 1944.
Jim, just eleven, saw the first flames spread along the canvas of the tent
(it had been waterproofed with a mixture of gasoline and paraffin.)
He stood up,
instructed his mother and brother to follow him,
and walked out.
the other spectators snickered at him
and insisted there was nothing to worry about.
In the stampede that followed ten minutes later,
nearly 500 people were killed, most of them children.
The Ellis family emerged unscathed;
the first of many times that Jim led the way.
But Jim’s son recalls that the circus fire scarred his father too:
every time Jim entered a theater
he would scope out the exits before he sat down.
When Jim, a lawyer, banker and advisor to mutual funds, retired,
he was free to participate in his many enthusiasms
including sailing, theology, theater and travel.
Every month, Jim was off to a new place:
Kentucky to check out the new shows;
Budapest to attend an old friend’s wedding;
Barcelona to meet the artisan who made his coffee table;
Paris, where he took his granddaughter as a bat mitzvah present;
Chicago to visit his adored grandsons;
to Newport, Oregon, where he could buy a bargain seaside condo.
“It’s five hours by plane,” he told the reluctant Linda.
“How is that different from five hours by car?”
Jim’s wife, Linda Abess Ellis, is a scholar of English literature,
an expert on Mrs. Trollope’s fiction.
Jim greatly admired Linda’s achievement
in writing a book about Mrs. Trollope’s novels,
and decided to turn his hand to doing a book himself.
In the office, we jokingly called that first book
The Type A Guide to Retirement,
since Jim was on the go all the time.
Stephanie Kaplan Cohen,
Jim’s friend and a favorite author around here,
suggested he call it
It was the first of Jim’s interview books.
Again, he traveled all over the country
to talk to teachers, singers, sheriffs and bankers
to find out how they juggled
the health, money, family and fulfillment aspects of a life
where every day is Saturday.
Like his subjects, Jim took retirement as a challenge, not as a sentence,
and he was consistently creative in the activities
he undertook once he was free of the daily grind.
Jim was born to be an interviewer.
In the tradition of Edward R. Murrow and Studs Terkel,
he was able to talk to anyone about anything.
He enjoyed hearing about others’ lives
and that pleasure shone through on every page.
Book cover of Jim’s “Dancemakers On Dancemaking”
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Allworth Press,U.S. (September 2005)
In the retirement book, Jim talked a little about himself,
and we discovered that not only was he an angel for many Broadway shows,
he was also the president of the board of the Parsons Dance Company.
He had spotted David Parsons’ talent early on,
and had built up the dance company to something of a phenomenon,
in that it earned eighty percent of its income from performances,
not depending on donations as so many companies have to do.
Jim loved the company’s work and was deeply involved
with the individuals who made up the company.
He and Linda threw a huge party for the company every summer.
One day, Jim burst into the WBB office with a spring in his step
and that puckish smile of his turned up to two hundred watts.
He had an idea, he said.
What about a book like the retirement book,
about choreographers with their own companies
talking about where they get their inspiration.
It sounded like an excellent idea to all of us,
so Jim flew to Portland, Houston, and Minneapolis
to talk to up-and-coming choreographers.
In New York and its environs,
he talked to an array of dance experts as well as choreographers.
Dancemakers On Dancemaking,
is a treasure trove of artistic insight,
practical information and anecdotes
that make up dance history.
Jim thoroughly enjoyed putting this book together.
Jim Ellis was a remarkable man.
Soft-spoken, he never advertised his lawyerly command of language,
but all sorts of people found him both understanding and understandable.
The first thing one noticed about Jim was his appearance:
confident, curious, and graceful.
His training as an actor dovetailed with his training as a lawyer,
so there was enormous power behind his charming façade.
Jim had a paternal quality that underlay his other characteristics.
He had married Linda Abess when they were quite young
because Jim wanted to enjoy his children as they grew up.
He always cared about young people.
He never lost that comfortable way of letting others know
that he cared for them because he cared about them.
All of us who were lucky enough to have known Jim
carry his warmth and caring with us.
We miss him greatly.
Contributions in Jim’s memory
can be made to:
The Linda A. and James H. Ellis Foundation
c/o The Westchester Community Fund
200 North Central Park Avenue
Hartsdale, NY 10530