Michael Zimmer, who died on October 12, 2008 at the age of 74, leaves a host of saddened friends and family behind. Diagnosed with lung cancer only a few weeks before , he was taken home to his house in the West Village to die among his books, his friends, and with a view of his beloved garden.
Michael was born in Heidelberg in 1934, the youngest son of Sanskrit scholar and Indologist Heinrich Zimmer and his wife Christiane, daughter of the Austrian poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal ( “Der Rosenkavalier”,“Elektra”).The family fled Nazi Germany in 1939, and New York’s Columbia University offered a hospitable teaching environment. After her husband’s premature death in 1943, Christiane settled in New York’s West Village where her house became a gathering place for luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic, among them Hannah Arendt, Wyston Auden and Joseph Campbell, one of Zimmer’s most illustrious disciples. Michael and his two brothers attended Horace Mann School and Michael went on to study at Harvard University, supported by the Mellon family who had early-on recognized the importance of Heinrich Zimmer’s work on Indian myths and philosophy.
Always fascinated by the built environment, Michael chose to major in architecture, studying with masters such as Walter Gropius and Siegfried Giedion. A short-lived career as an architect in New York followed: Michael, by his own admission, wasn’t cut out for the compromises it entailed. After his marriage to Emily Sophia Harding, a cousin by marriage and daughter of Alice Astor, the couple briefly occupied the glamour pages of Vogue and other glossies. In 1967 they had a son, Jacob and soon after left New York to live “off the grid”. In 1969, assisted by the proceeds of the sale of a Hofmannsthal heirloom, Picasso’s selfportrait “Yo Picasso”, they purchased a piece of land on the island of St. Barts. After his divorce from Harding, Michael made the little paradise his home, sharing it with his companion,Vera Graaf and a group of like-minded friends. “Le Camp” was a compound of mini buildings with a solar-powered kitchen and a beautifully cultivated tropical garden, all of which Michael used as a playful laboratory for his ideas of the good life, guided by aesthetic principles. It was a visionary example of “green lifestyle”, as well as a cleverly choreographed piece of theatre which Michael directed, smoking, talking, always a glass of rum in hand, endlessly amusing and usually surrounded by a bevy of awe-struck friends. When St. Barts became a celebrity hangout, Michael was soon looking for a more hospitable shore.
He found it in Canada, on the island of Grand Manan, where his second wife Veronique Sari took him whale-watching and he discovered a group of defunct smoke houses. He managed to buy and transform them into a museum whose most striking exhibition piece was he himself, living in the midst of it all and motoring around in an aluminum boat shaped like a sardine can. He became the island’s keeper of memories, the man who guarded and exhibited what the islanders threw away. The “Sardine Museum and Herring Hall of Fame” became Michael’s last great project – a poetic environment, part museum, part curiosity cabinet, part living memory.
Michael Johannes der Baptist Karl Maximilian Heinrich Hugo Zimmer (his full name) enjoyed what was perceived by many as a charmed life. He lived by his own rules and conventions, counting among his lovers and companions men and women. Tragedy intervened only once, when his son Jacob was killed in a drowning accident in France in 1990. Michael and Jacob had many unfinished plans. May they now be re-united to carry them out.
Michael is survived by his cousins, Romana McEwen, Octavian von Hofmannsthal and Arabella Heathcote-Amory of London, England, as well as his nephew Christopher Zimmer and his niece, Adriana Zimmer, both of Washington, D.C.