THIS MONTH IT’S already three years since the death of dear Dempsey Heiner, who went to his eternal reward on 16 January 2008. Demspey was a real gem of a man: a scholar and a gentleman, capable of relaying brilliant insights easily and who, at least once, exhibited his skill in the art of the gentlest intellectual rebuke of a presumptuous young intellectual fellow-Catholic (i.e.: yours truly), backed up with a remembered citation of François Mauriac.
Dennis Clinton Graham Heiner was born in New York in 1927 to Robert Graham Heiner and Frances Eliot Cassidy, friends and fellow-travellers of Margaret Sanger, the notorious racial eugenicist & founder of Planned Parenthood. Dempsey’s parents enrolled him at St. Bernard’s, where he was in the same year as George Plimpton, the founder of the Paris Review and twentieth-century embodiment of the gilded amateur. Plimpton (who died in 2003) described Dempsey as “the brightest boy in the class, a genius” and remarked that since leaving school he remained something of an enigma.
Dempsey stretched the veracity of the truth regarding his date of birth in order to join the U.S. Navy and catch the tail end of the Second World War. With the return of peace, it was Harvard for undergrad, and then a law degree from Yale Law School (though he never practised law), followed by study at the University of Paris from which he received a medical degree (though he never practised medicine either). Dempsey’s typically cryptic response to an alumni questionnaire from St. Bernard’s stated that he had been “studying languages” for forty years.
Assuming that Dempsey had retired from some field or profession, a close friend of mine once asked of Dempsey’s sister, “What did Dempsey do?” “Dempsey didn’t,” was the simple response. The answer is telling yet inaccurate. In fact, Dempsey did. In the 1950s, Dempsey did convert to Catholicism, as Father Rutler put it, “in contradiction of everything his parents understood to be rightly ordered”. Dempsey did frequently pray the Rosary, silently and solemnly, outside one of Manhattan’s busiest abortion clinics. Dempsey did marry Helena Reina, a Cuban psychiatrist who fled the ravages of Castro’s revolution. Father Rutler again:
They were married for more than fifty years, and all the while I knew them he was her nurse, for she had become blind and nearly comatose. Even toward her end, whenever I brought her the Blessed Sacrament, he sat her under an oil portrait of herself in youth. Not once did I ever hear him speak of her as anything but a blessing, or of her infirmity as anything but a benison, and he seemed never so joyful as when he tried to make her drink through a straw.
But the most famous thing that Dempsey “did” happened on December 16, 1999. The Brooklyn Museum put on an exhibition entitled “Sensation” that included, among other failed attempts at art, a revolting portrayal of the Blessed Virgin surrounded by images of female reproductive organs cut out of pornographic magazines. The painting was an affront to the good people of the Five Boroughs who hail Mary as their mother, but the popular outrage only increased the smug feelings of superiority amongst the puerile cultural elite of the city.
And so Dempsey did. The 72-year-old visited the exhibition, stepped over the barrier in front of the offensive misrepresentation of his beloved Mother, opened a tube of white paint and smeared it all over the work. He was quickly apprehended by Brooklyn Museum security guards, who phoned the authorities, but once the arresting police officers were out of sight of the museum officials, each one shook Dempsey’s hand with pride, and patted him on the back for a job well done.
The trial provided a somewhat surreal moment as Dempsey, testifying in his own defense, listed the numerous places throughout the world where the Blessed Virgin is reputed to have appeared. The court stenographer asked for the proceedings to halt temporarily so she could take down the spellings of such exotic locales as Częstochowa.
Dempsey’s filial devotion for Mother Mary shone forth to such an extent that even the judge, a Jew, was convinced. Judge Thomas Farber admitted that before the proceedings began he had expected to hear nothing but hate from Mr. Heiner but that instead he heard only love. He rejected the prosecutor’s request for probation, community service, and an order barring Dempsey from the Brooklyn Museum. Instead, he encouraged Dempsey to visit any museum he liked “but without a tube of paint”, and sentenced him to one day of sensitivity training. “I am sure that no amount of sensitivity training,” the Judge avowed, “will lessen the defendant’s love for the Virgin Mary.” Truer words were never spoken.
The last time I saw him alive was a Monday morning in 2008, as I was ensconced in Bloom’s Deli on 39th and Lexington, enjoying a hearty breakfast at a table beside the window. I looked up from the morning paper out towards the street below and there he was, Dempsey Heiner, sailing slowly down the sidewalk with a steady but ponderous gait, immaculately dressed in jacket and tie. I immediately dropped the paper to knock on the window and wave hello, but relented at the last minute and decided to let him go his way in peace, sure I’d see him another day.
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon him.
May he rest in peace. Amen.