Deceased August 24, 2018
W. Jeffrey Simpson, 72, author, cultural historian and long-time Architectural Digest columnist and editor, died Aug. 24 at Sherwood Oaks, a retirement community north of Pittsburgh. He died of liver cancer five weeks after it was diagnosed.
Jeffrey, who transferred to Amherst after a year at Hiram College in Hiram, Ohio, graduated cum laude in English. After earning an M.A. from the University of Michigan, he moved to Manhattan in 1970. There he wrote for a variety of publications and for 30 years covered New York showrooms for Architectural Digest. He also wrote speeches and presentations for Paige Rense, AD’s editor-in-chief from 1975 until 2010.
The most celebrated of Jeffrey’s 10 published books was American Elegy. It’s a family memoir that describes with deep affection but piercing objectivity the dissipation of a 300-acre land grant that Jeffrey’s great-great-great-great grandfather received for playing the fife in the Revolutionary War. Jeffrey was the last descendant. A prominent American Elegy fan, David McCullough, declared the memoir “a beautiful, touching, funny, heartfelt, and provocative book, a work of art and very American.”
Jeffrey’s last book, a biography of Vermont Revolutionary War leader Gen. Jacob Bayley, is due out next spring. His favorite after American Elegy was Chautauqua: An American Utopia, an historic guide to the Chautauqua Institution, the southwestern New York resort and cultural center where Jeffrey spent a part of every summer of his life. He was a four-term Chautauqua trustee.
Jeffrey used to say that the best New Yorkers were small-towners whom the city liberated. He grew up in prim Mount Lebanon, Pa., the only child of W. Clyde and Margaret Simpson, two public school teachers. He occupied a succession of old Greenwich Village townhouse apartments, which he furnished with Victoriana. Only one had a usable kitchen, but Jeffrey, a bow-tied bon vivant, rarely dined in even for breakfast.
Instead, he was for 20 years a six-day-a-week regular at the nearby Patisserie J Lanciani. “It’s like being a member of a civilized breakfast club,” Jeffrey told a New York Times reporter back in 1985. “There’s a great sense of neighborhood about coming here every morning. There’s also a pleasant reticence and a respect for privacy.” He felt his Lanciani breakfasts “gave order to the day,” which typically entailed researching and writing in his Amherst chair, its maple arms polished deeply by his own.
Jeffrey, a former trustee and elder at “Old First” Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, chose to be buried back home in hilly, manicured Plum Creek Cemetery between his parents and among his many kin. The 50 pounds of family papers on which American Elegy was based are now part of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera at the Winterthur Library in Winterthur, Del.
Frank J. Greve ’67