Sunday, October 5, 2008

from Leslie Krebs

Robert at Chocolate Concerto after his talk, Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland, CA

I will miss my old friend, Robert Steinberg, very much.

I met Robert in the early 1960s, when we were in first-year French class at Marblehead Junior High School in Massachusetts. Our teacher was the indomitable Helen C. Bagley, whose French was so guttural she used to spray the front row of students with her spit. We said someday we'd all "go to hell n' see Bagley."

In high school, we called Robert "Stein" and "Bob," two names he did away with later, just as he did away with his terrific Cyrano de Bergerac nose. Tracked in classes with Robert year after year, I was drawn to his quiet intelligence, thoughtful demeanor, gentle charm and expressive green eyes. I didn't mind his occasional outbursts, when he would blurt out a pointed one-liner about something that was annoying him. As he himself once observed, "We sometimes play against our own best image."

Robert could be so kind. On one visit, he travelled all the way to El Salvador to see me in the 1970s, when I was having a rough time in a bad marriage with a baby in tow. Robert's presence spread a kind of balm over the scene and reminded me that there were some very good men in the world, and that it didn't have to be my fate always to suffer with a bad one.

(Was this the Latin American trip where Robert wound up trapped by flooding in a Bolivian town inhabited by Nazis in hiding? I wish I could call him up right now so he could tell me that story again.)

Robert was a good doctor, but he did not seem happy in a profession he had chosen out of caution, not love. So it was one of those bittersweet ironies of life, noted by other admirers online, that Robert's diagnosis gave him a reason to throw caution to the winds. Who could have known, back in junior high, that chocolate would give full play to Robert's creativity and single-minded pursuit of excellence? Or that his chocolate would rival the best in France?

Helen C. Bagley would have been proud, and she would have taken credit.

One of the things I liked best about Robert was how intently he would listen to you and value the way you put things. It made you think about what you were saying because suddenly it was very important. On one visit to San Francisco, after Robert had been through another one of those close calls with lymphoma, I said to him, "This illness is just so … so … so … (Robert was waiting) inconvenient!" "YES!" he fairly shouted. And I was relieved I had found the right word.

In recent years, Robert gave a talk at the Museum of Natural History here in Santa Barbara, arranged by a friend of mine who worked there. It was supposed to be an event for special donors, but the local newspaper mistakenly reported that it was open to the public. The frazzled museum staff had to turn away hundreds of angry people who called and showed up at the door, clamoring to be allowed in. When the lucky audience finally settled down, Robert gave a science lesson to equal any we got in high school and soon had people swooning over bits of cacao and dark chocolate.

The paper ran a story entitled, "Sweet Talker," which Robert sent to his mom. He didn't like the headline, but it was true there was real sweetness in him. I used to worry that he was not married. Some years back, after he had let yet another good woman slip away, I said, "But who will take care of you?" And he said, "I have WONDERFUL friends here in San Francisco."

Making great chocolate may have been Robert's m├ętier, but his friends — all of you who cooked and dined and drank with him and and talked philosophy and baseball with him — you were the spice of his life.

— Leslie Krebs

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