I write with a heavy heart about a man I never met and knew for only six months. Word came this week that David Naylor, author, architectural historian, and expert on America’s grand picture palaces, died of a heart attack. He was just 57 years old.
David emailed me in August to ask for some publishing advice. He had read and admired a book I published at Random House about “the battle of the sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, by the great sportswriter Selena Roberts. He was now determined to write about Title IX and the Women’s National Soccer Team, and held Selena’s book up as model. “I want to get something out fast,” he said. “Even though I am a Luddite of the first order, I just did an eBook in under six months.” That immediately endeared me to him. Later on he wrote: “Don’t know about yourself, but half the reason I write books is so I can learn about things previously uncharted (the other half is about the travel–certainly not about the huge heaping royalties, eh?).” He was an endlessly curious man, and also modest, funny, generous, and sweet.
As time went by, David and I emailed each other about various things. It turned out he was also passionate about railroads, particularly abandoned ones, and he knew a guy I was eager to meet, Ryan Gravel, the visionary behind the Atlanta Beltline. David met Ryan when he was working on his eBook Trash Backwards; he wrote about how Ryan had lived in Paris as a student, near the Bastille, and was inspired by the Promenade Plantee, an old elevated railroad that had been transformed into a lush, spectacular garden rising 30′ above street level. David regarded Ryan’s Beltline — a 22-mile linear park constructed along former railroad tracks that connects as many as 45 different Atlanta neighborhoods — as one one grand recycling project, a perfect example of the “trash backwards” idea. The Promenade Plantee was, of course, the inspiration for the High Line. David kindly made me an introduction to Ryan, who has also become a friend.
We barely knew each other, but only weeks after we met David was writing to apologize for “having fallen off the map for so long.” He updated on me therapy he was having for his knee, and asked what I was working on, where I was traveling. “Looking forward to your news of the world,” he signed off one day.
The last email I got from David was on January 11th. I was touched to see he had added me to a small group of friends he regularly communicated with when he had something special to pass along. The email linked to a perfectly marvelous video called “The ABC of Architects,” which dashes through 24 of the world’s great buildings in lively animation with a cheerful musical background.
David Naylor was a connector, a guy fueled by myriad interests and passions, and someone who relished making a new friend. A total stranger, he came into my life via the contact form on this blog — a little bit of digital technology that even “a Luddite of the first order could manage” — and with candor and charm he said, in essence, hey, you and I both care about women and sports, and I’m guessing you might help me out with this question I have….
I replied to him right away, but wasn’t terribly encouraging. I thought his soccer book idea would be a tough sell, but wished him well anyway. Luckily for me, he came right back with a world of other stuff we could talk about, from recycled railroads and old movie theaters to a book about the NFL he had just bought for his godson. My great sadness is that our conversation was cut off so quickly, only six months after it started.
Right after he died a group of David’s friends got together and started reaching out. Everyone, it seems, was opening old emails from David Naylor and looking at the “cc” list, copying and pasting addresses into new emails with as much information as could be gathered. David was in Florida, “one of his stopping-off spots,” when he died. One person wrote: “Please pardon the abrupt, maybe impersonal nature of the mass e-mail, but it is not surprising that with his nomadic life and extraordinary number of friends it is hard to know who all to reach out to, and how to contact them. Perhaps if each of you reached out to those you know who were his friends it would help get the word out.”
Even after he is gone, strangers are reaching out to others strangers about this marvleous man who connected us all. Within just a few days someone had created a website, DaveNaylorTheGreat.com, and now more of his friends, family and colleagues can join the ongoing tribute. Maybe you didn’t know him, but have a click and see for yourself. He will make you smile, I promise.
I can’t be at the funeral this weekend, but offer this poem from my dad for the gathering.
So long, David. Even after just six months I’ll always think of you as an old friend.