Luciano Rebay was remembered this week by friends and colleagues as a distinguished Italian scholar and a man who loved the sea, where he fished, swam and walked the beach. And he felt deeply rooted on the Vineyard, where he had been coming summers with his family for some half a century, friends said.
There was a famous story about the summer day at Squibnocket when Luciano took off his bathing suit to give to Bill Clinton so the United States president who had come to the beach without a suit could go swimming. Other stories from close friends recounted a childhood in Milan, and told of a teenage boy who joined the Italian Resistance against Mussolini, who would later attend school and work as a journalist in Paris, where he met his American wife Martha.
Mr. Rebay’s body was found in the water off the north shore this week by a fisherman. The cause of death is under investigation, although authorities believe no foul play was involved. He was 86.
“He was such a wonderful person. Luciano was a major figure in the literati of Martha’s Vineyard,” said Kib Bramhall, a West Tisbury artist and fisherman who was Mr. Rebay’s friend. “He knew and associated with all of the major poets, writers and other literary people. I’ll never forget a dinner party he had one night in Lambert’s Cove and the guest list included Jacqueline Onassis, Kay Graham and whoever her guests were, and Nelson Bryant, the outdoor writer for the New York Times, among others. It was an amazing night and an eclectic gathering to say the least. It’s a great loss. But he was 86 and had led a long and fulfilled life,” he added.
“I have loads of memories of him,” said Rose Styron, a poet and longtime Vineyard Haven summer resident. “We were very close friends, we had birthdays close together. He and Bill had a very close relationship,” she said, referring to her late husband the author William Styron.
“I met Luciano here about 25 years ago, he used to call me his fratello, his brother,” said the Hon. Mark Wolf, a senior U.S. District Court judge and longtime summer resident of the Vineyard. “He was just fascinating. A person of tremendous integrity and courage.”
Luciano Rebay was born in Milan, Italy on April 23, 1928. He was married in 1952 and had two children, born in 1960 and 1965. He was an Italian professor and literary scholar whose fields of specialization were modern and contemporary Italian literature, Italian lyric poetry and comparative literature (French and Italian). He was a student at Columbia University from 1955 to 1960, where he obtained his PhD. Prior to that he attended Liceo classic Alessandro Manzoni in Milan, Italy, obtaining the Maturita classica in 1946 and the University of Aix-en-Provence, Faculte des Letteres from 1948-1951, and obtaining the Licence es-lettres in 1951.
He came up through the academic ranks at Columbia, where he was hired as an assistant professor in 1960 and was tenured the same year. He was the Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor in Italian Literature from 1973 until his retirement in June 2005. In July 2005 he was named the Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor in Italian Literature Emeritus. He served as chairman of the department of Italian from 1970 to 1973 and was director of the Casa Italiana from 1976 to 1977. He taught a range of Italian literature courses, both undergraduate and graduate, primarily on modern and contemporary Italian poetry but also on lesser-known poets writing in dialect. He published numerous books, articles and translations, including a translation of the Nobel Prize-winning Italian poet Eugenio Montale.
“His knowledge of Italian literature was deep, his commitment to university life unwavering, and his citizenship exemplary,” said a statement from Columbia University that went out this week following the news of his death.
His close friend Judge Wolf recalled hearing stories about Mr. Rebay’s childhood in Milan.
“As a teenager he was in the Italian Resistance. His father was a blind school teacher but they did not go for Mussolini,” he recalled. “After he saw a friend murdered he joined the resistance and ran messages. He was appalled by the fascists. This was the young Luciano. He later went to Paris where he worked primarily as a journalist for one of the Italian newspapers. He met Martha there and they were married.”
He continued: “He came to the Vineyard when he was a young associate professor in the early 1960s. I think he met Stanley Burnshaw on the beach. Burnshaw was a great poet, they became friends, he fell in love with the Vineyard and somehow scraped together the money buy a house here. When I met him they had a home across from Seth’s Pond. Later they moved to lower Makonikey. Luciano for a long while was an avid fisherman and would fly fish for stripers — with Kib and alone. He was an avid swimmer. He was just fascinating.”
Mr. Wolf said he had seen Mr. Rebay late last week. Mrs. Styron recalled him as a man of Italian letters and fellow beach bum. “We shared a lot of Italian,” she said. “We also had many funny incidents on the Vineyard, one with Bill Clinton.” She recounted the story of the day when the Clintons were vacationing on the Vineyard during Mr. Clinton’s presidency and she and a group of friends had lunch with First Lady Hillary Clinton at Tess Bramhall’s house. After lunch they all went to the beach at Squibnocket. “We were up on a high dune, we thought by ourselves,” Mrs. Styron recalled. “Then a call came in to Hillary that Bill was looking for her. He was done playing golf and was going to come to the beach to join her. We didn’t know how it was going to work with the Secret Service and all, but it did and they arrived and we descended from our dune top to greet them. On the way Luciano was sitting on the beach and he jumped up to join us. Bill Clinton said, oh my gosh, look at this wonderful water, I wish I had a suit I would swim with you girls. And Luciano said, oh you could have mine. He dropped his long, loose bathing suit and had his Speedo on underneath. And Bill went behind the dune and got on Luciano’s bathing suit and they went in to swim.”
Mr. Rebay is survived by his wife of more than 60 years and their children.
The family has announced that no memorial service is immediately planned.