December 17, 2001
One Tough Biscotti: A Woman, A Film And A Fight: A Tribute to Writer/Director, Jane Cusumano
James A. Cusumano
In memorium Jane Cusumano
November 11, 1954 - June 1, 2001
The first time I asked Jane out on a date she responded with a categorical, "No!" But I persisted again, and again, always with the same response. I suppose I just wore her down, she finally conceded, probably out of pity. I brought her to the nicest restaurant in town and I dressed to the nines in a new hand-tailored, monogrammed shirt. Over dinner we spoke about everything from Dostoevsky (which was one of her casual reads at the time!) to rock n' roll. Her breadth of knowledge impressed me. I first met Jane at work where she had been so unassuming. Who would have guessed?
All through dinner, she kept staring at the monogram on my shirt. Finally, I inquired with a big smile, "Like the shirt?" She coolly replied, "Not really. I know who you are, you know who you are and God knows who your are, so why the monogram?" I have not worn a monogram since then. Jane was an incredible human being, not just striking and beautiful on the outside, but also mystical and spiritual on the inside. She taught me the true meaning of humility and what it means to serve others. She inspired those around her with her incredible, quiet, unassuming creativity, always willing to help, never seeking anything in return.
She was an accomplished artist, musician and writer and a very promising screenplay writer and filmmaker. But you would never know it unless you pulled the information from her. Jane's piano playing was magical. I learned only after we were married for several years that she had played Rachmaninoff in concert at the age of nine. It was also some time before I realized she was an accomplished artist. We were just married and I was a struggling entrepreneur with a newly formed company. We had our challenges making ends meet. Jane solicited and acquired several commissions to paint portraits of multi-million dollar racehorses for very handsome fees. When our youngest daughter, Polly went off to Vassar, Jane bought a horse and became an accomplished equestrian, winning numerous ribbons in competitions. To fill the void of an empty nest, and when not riding her horse Netty Lark, she wrote almost obsessively and completed a novel under the guidance of her agent, Al Zuckerman, who managed a number of best-selling writers, including Ken Follet and Stephen Hawking. The novel, entitled De' Je' Vu, remains unpublished, in part due to her drive for personal excellence, and partly because she translated it to an enticing screenplay, her very first. Jane had found her true passion in life---filmmaking.
She wrote a number of screenplays, and on May 1st of this year, one of them helped fulfill her passionate dream of writing and directing her own feature film. The film, ironically entitled, WHAT MATTERS MOST, is a modern-day Pretty In Pink meets The Last Picture Show. Beautifully shot on the plains of the Texas Panhandle, this bittersweet Romeo and Juliet story is about following your heart, no matter what obstacles are thrown your way. While shooting her film, Jane received weekly chemotherapy treatments in Amarillo, fighting off metastatic breast cancer and working 16-hour days, six days a week. During those long Texas days and over many a late-night espresso, I often called her my tough biscotti. She was an inspiration to the entire cast and crew, and their performances show it, including that of our daughter, Polly, who studied filmmaking at Vassar and went on to become an actress. The making of WHAT MATTERS MOST was truly a family affair. The film has been nominated for and won a number of awards, including Best Director at the Manhattan Global Film Festival and Best Cinematography at the Portland Film Festival. Its release is planned for 2002.
Jane was my wife, my best friend and my teacher. As my wife, she provided unconditional love, constant encouragement and sound counsel. I was most fortunate to co-found and help grow a successful public company in Silicon Valley. This was not an easy task and required millions of miles of travel and many more hills than valleys along the way. Jane was always there to help me through the darkest hours and to show me how to celebrate our successes. She listened to my dreams. Five years ago, at age 55, I confided to Jane that since the time I was a boy growing up in New Jersey, I fantasized about climbing mountains like Whitney, Rainier, and Kilimanjaro in Africa. She encouraged me to just do it! And I did. Every one of them. The echo of her voice pushed me to the top as I struggled through thin air on each of those mountains.
As my best friend, she is aptly described by a verse from a poem by C. Raymond Beran,
"What Is A Friend"
What is a friend? I will tell you. It is a person with whom you dare to be yourself.
Your soul can be naked with her. She seems to ask of you to put on nothing, only to be what you are. She does not want you to be better or worse.
When you are with her, you feel as a prisoner feels who has been declared innocent.
You do not have to be on your guard. You can say what you think, so long as it is genuinely you.
Through it all ---- and underneath --- she sees, she knows and loves you. A friend? What is a friend? Just one, I repeat, with whom you dare be yourself.
I could always be me with Jane. She did not always agree, but she was never judgmental. And she was always there for me, always.
As my teacher, she taught me to listen. "Bud (her affectionate name for me)," she would say, "you learn so much more when you are listening than when you are speaking." Like an in-house Mother Theresa, she taught me to serve all people, no matter who they are. Once, while crossing the border from San Diego into Tijuana for a cancer treatment she could not legally receive in the U.S., she saw a disheveled lady, holding her baby and begging. She asked me to give her five dollars, and so I did. The next day upon our return, the same lady was there, begging again. "Please give her ten dollars, you clearly did not give her enough yesterday," was Jane's request. She taught me to give talent a chance and to build on the strengths of people, a lesson that served me well in building my company. Every actor she hired for her film gave incredible performances, and they did it for her. "We don't need stars, we need talented, committed, hard-working actors," she would say. And she found them, she loved and nurtured them, and drew from them performances beyond what any of us thought possible.
On the day before Jane died, after a courageous four-year battle with metastatic breast cancer, I lie sleeping on a cot in her hospital room. She awoke miraculously out of pain, the first time in weeks, and the doctors still have no explanation. She sat up excitedly on the edge of her bed talking about life and death, about her children, her grandchildren, her movie and that she wasn't afraid to die. She had two last wishes. First, she prayed that her efforts to make her movie, above anything else, would inspire young filmmakers to be true to their passion. "Be tenacious and find a way to make the movie you want, no matter what," she implored. To this end, we established an annual film scholarship, humorously dubbed The Jane Finish-Your-Film Award. Jane also asked that I create a foundation with family funds, one that would be managed pro-bono by qualified friends. She asked that it provide financial assistance to needy children and older folks in the town of Ojai where we lived. She loved her community. And so, The Jane Cusumano Foundation was born. Its mission is to help not only folks in Ojai, but breast cancer patients throughout the country.
On June 1, 2001 at 10:30 a.m., just one month to the day after completing "WHAT MATTERS MOST," Jane died quietly in my arms at Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California. All I could think of was the song she chose for our first dance as husband and wife, "Always And Forever." Janie, I will miss you dearly.
June 11, 2001
Chateau Wally Films