Mutt and Jeff Take Chicago

Kübler-Ross at play.

One of the earliest posts from my old site.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross ran counter to people’s expectations in most ways. She rolled right over her father’s objections and got a university education when he wanted her to become his secretary. She insisted on pursuing a career in medicine at a time when women rarely entered the profession. She treated the mentally ill with dignity and respect, bent on returning them to a normal life, at a time when the dominant thinking was simply to warehouse them, like dogs in a kennel. Most famously, of course, she stalked the hallways of a Chicago hospital, chronicling westernized society’s shoddy treatment of the terminally ill.

The only time I am aware of that the little Swiss pirate bowed to popular convention is when she decided not to publish any material on Near Death Experiences in On Death and Dying. I write about that decision at length in Fringe-ology. But Kübler-Ross’s story goes much deeper than space permitted me to explore in my book. So here’s one of the funnier, more telling anecdotes I didn’t have the opportunity to include—one that speaks to the depth of her friendship with a particularly important person in that chapter, The Reverend Mwalimu Imara.

Kübler-Ross and Imara were allies in the 60s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, at the University of Chicago Hospital. The administration believed Kübler-Ross needed a kind of symbolic bodyguard—a sidekick appointed by the hospital to indicate that she was not alone. When I spoke to him, Imara delighted in recalling what an unlikely pair they were: He was tall and black; she was a tiny, Swiss-born white woman with a thick accent. He was a Reverend; she rejected organized religion.

“We were a Mutt and Jeff team,” he says.

Over time, their friendship leant them the strength to buck standard hospital practices. Rather than ignore the terminally ill, they focused on them. Rather than discouraging conversation with the dying, they sought it out. And looking back, the revolution they fomented inside the hospital’s walls mirrored the cultural forces bringing a whole new day to America on the streets outside.

For her part, Kübler-Ross found all these cultural concerns decidedly unhelpful. And as Imara remembers it, she seemed entirely disinterested in whatever cultural taboos they were breaking—either in their friendship, or on the hospital wards. He didn’t feel that he could be so cavalier about the questions their friendship raised. But he did know he could trust Kübler-Ross. He could relate to her in a way he simply couldn’t afford to relate to most other white people. And so Kübler-Ross also broke taboos that existed for him.

For instance, in quiet moments, when they were relaxing after a day spent ministering to the needs of dying patients, Kübler-Ross sometimes asked Imara to sing. Imara still retains a deep, resonant baritone. And in his younger days, he boasted a fine singing voice. But Kübler-Ross didn’t ask for just any song. She asked Imara to sing “Ol’ Man River.”

To this day, of course. “Ol’ Man River” raises up some powerful ghosts from this country’s past. “Ol’ Man River” is Al Jolson in black face. Minstrel shows. Racism institutionalized as “entertainment.” In the 60s, “Ol’ Man River” spoke of a country that had yet to award African-Americans the right to vote.

“If anyone else, any other white person had asked me to do this,” Imara told me, “I would have taken offense. But I knew Elisabeth. And so I knew there was no ulterior motive for her.”

In short, Kübler-Ross asked Imara to sing “Ol Man River” because the rigors of ministering to the dying left her in need of some solace by the end of the day; because she thought Imara had a good singing voice; and because she liked the song.

So how did Imara handle this odd request?

“I sang it,” he said. “I sang ‘Ol Man River’.”

There was a real, familial love between Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Imara. And now that there is a movie about her life in the works, I hope, very much, that it will capture that bond for everyone to see.