At 85, so many parties, so little time

Heart of the City: A profile of Martin Slobodkin, Boston’s inveterate partier, aging in body, not in spirit.

The Boston Globe

December 18, 2005

By Keith O’Brien

The joke was that Martin Slobodkin was going to kill himself with all his partying. Actually, it wasn’t a joke so much as it was a prediction. Slobodkin a sherry-drinking, bicycle-riding, skinny-dipping man about town in the 1960s and ’70s was going to die young. His liver, it was believed, just couldn’t keep up.

“We should leave shortly, darling,” Slobodkin says one recent evening in his Cambridge apartment. His third wife, Teresa Craig, looks at the clock on the wall. It’s still 45 minutes before the start of the Rotenbergs’ annual holiday party in their elegant town house on Beacon Hill. Craig tells Slobodkin to cool his heels. It’s still too early to climb into their lime-yellow Saab convertible and head across town. Slobodkin sits and waits.

He’s 85 now, going on 86 he will tell you, and his life is not the same as the one party photographers documented decades ago. His hair is gray, his body slowly slipping away from him. He curses his bad back and the surgery that laid him up recently. His contemporaries are dead or dying.

But take no pity on Slobodkin. He doesn’t want it. Doesn’t need it. The man is not only alive; he is living. He may not attend 40 parties a week like he did in his heyday. Yet he is still going to parties. Still moving about the crowd, regaling them with stories and witty one-liners. This is still Slobodkin’s town, and life for him has never been better. These, he says, are the happiest days he’s ever known.

“I’ve learned to finally relax,” Slobodkin says recently from his apartment overlooking the Charles River, winter sunlight coming through the windows. “I’m not chasing that brass ring on the merry-go-round of life. I’ve attained contentment. It took a long time to get here. But I attained it.”

Not that life was so bad before. It wasn’t, not by a long shot. There he was at cocktail parties, balls, brunches, benefits and wild galas that raged late into the night beneath twirling disco balls. For a time in Boston, Slobodkin got invited to almost everything. And he did his best to at least make an appearance. People expected it after a while from the man the newspapers called Boston’s full-time bon vivant. A premier partier. A social lion on the prowl in the city.

“Parties,” he told the Globe in 1973, “are my life.”

It hadn’t started that way. Born in Malden in 1920 as the son of Russian immigrants, Slobodkin went to Harvard University, graduated, then went off to be a medic in World War II. When he came home from Europe, he took over the family’s publishing business, married his high school sweetheart, Salem, and moved to Cambridge. It was a good life. Salem was a poet. They knew writers, had parties. But it wasn’t until his wife died of cancer in 1964 that Slobodkin, lonely and grieving, began accepting invites night after night.

“The ubiquitous Martin Slobodkin. He used to be absolutely everywhere in this town,” recalls Smoki Bacon, the cohost of “The Literati Scene,” a Boston community television show, and herself a fixture on the social scene. “He was out morning, noon, and night.”

By the 1970s, magazines, including People, called Slobodkin to get the scoop on goings-on about the city. He became a fixture and a character. He wore a monocle now and then, and his facial hair was unforgettable. Slobodkin had perfectly sculpted burnsides.

Women loved him. These days, they still often ask Craig, his wife of seven years, how she hooked him. “I’ve even had men come up to me and ask, `How’d you do it?’ “ Craig says.

She laughs. She doesn’t know. She lived in New Hampshire when she met him in 1993 and hadn’t heard anything about the legendary Slobodkin: how he swam naked almost daily as a member of the L Street Brownies in South Boston, how he navigated city streets on a Peugeot 10-speed, how he emerged at night, perfectly coiffed, behind the wheel of his bright yellow Porsche 914.

“People would say, `How could you manage three parties in the same night?’ Very easy,” Slobodkin says. “I had an accurate watch, a fast sports car, and an unquenchable curiosity. The only problem was finding a place to park.”

Back in his apartment in Cambridge, Slobodkin looks up again at the clock on the wall. “Let’s go, darling,” he says to Craig. It’s a Saturday night in December, the night of Michael and Karen Rotenberg’s party. Slobodkin says it’s “the high spot” of the season, and he’s all ready to go in his pinstriped suit and Brooks Brothers cologne. Again, Craig tells him to wait. The party, she reminds him, doesn’t start until five.

Slobodkin leans back, bides his time, and begins singing Irish folk songs. It was how he wooed Craig, 65, years ago. He called and left messages, singing songs that she would find later and treasure. The man was older, yes. But he had not lost his touch.

“What a character,” says Craig.

“It was true love,” says Slobodkin.

“Even though we broke up for a year?”

“Well, we don’t talk about that.”

Now, finally, Craig relents. They can leave for the party. They bundle up, walk outside, and slide into their Saab. They drive across the river and into Beacon Hill. This, the Rotenbergs’ affair, will be their second party of the day. And, just as Craig had feared, they pull up outside just as the clock strikes five.

“That’s all right,” Slobodkin assures his wife. “Good timing.” Sometimes he likes to be the first one there. Other times he likes to be the last to leave. After years of going to parties, he knows just what he wants to do and how to work a room.

“I hope we’re not too early,” he says, greeting the hosts inside.

The Rotenbergs assure him that they’re not. He gets a gin and tonic, then another. The empty town house begins to fill up. Seared duck gets passed around on crostini, and Slobodkin loses himself in the crowd.

He doesn’t get as many party invites these days. But it doesn’t matter that much to him anymore. Just waking up every morning, he says, is sufficient cause for a grand celebration.

“I don’t believe in the hereafter,” Slobodkin says. “Therefore, I’ve got to get as much as I possibly can out of this life here and now. I want to enjoy every moment of every day to the fullest and hurt as few people as possible while doing it.”

Heart of the City is a weekly series profiling people around our neighborhoods. Have a subject to suggest? E-mail Keith O’Brien at keith@keithob.com

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