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Ninety-six Years, and It's Still not Enough

"Elaine!" Jack LaLanne shouted from the front seat of a taxi cab to his wife, who was sitting in the backseat.

"What is it?" Elaine answered.

"ELAINE!" Jack shouted again, apparently not hearing her.

"What is it, dear?" Elaine replied.

And then, Jack LaLanne, who had just turned 95, started to sing to his bride of 50 years.

"Have I told you lately that I love you..." Jack crooned.

It was a sweet moment, the sweetest moment of our time in Chicago when we honored Jack with our Lifetime Achievement Award. Jack spoke and was feted with the honor at the 2009 Club Industry show.

The night before the presentation and keynote address, we took Jack and Elaine out to dinner. Jack had a little bit of soup, some vegetables and a mixture—yes, a mixture—of red and white wine. The meal was pre-ordered, of course, for the man who had shunned sweets of any kind since he was a teenager. If Jack had a little dribble around his mouth, Elaine was there to clean him up. A snapshot of what 50 years of marriage really means.

Jack died Sunday at 96. In this ever-changing world of social media, I saw the news on Twitter while I was watching the Jets-Steelers AFC Championship Game. It was a big moment in the game, too, but instantly, none of it mattered anymore.

Since writing the profile on Jack for our October 2009 issue and then meeting him and Elaine in Chicago, we've kept in touch from time to time, mostly through Elaine and mostly by e-mail. I sent them a holiday card of my girls the year before last, and last month, much to my surprise, the LaLannes sent me their holiday card. So I sent them the newest holiday card of my girls, and I received a second one of theirs a few days later. There's a caricature of Jack in a Santa hat flexing in that famous jumpsuit on the front of the card, which includes an update on Jack, Elaine and the entire family. Despite an aortic valve replacement in late 2009 ("His neck arteries were those of a 40-year-old but his aortic valve was like a 95-year-old," Elaine wrote in the card), Jack was still very active promoting his Power Juicer and a new line of vitamins.

I told the LaLannes recently about how our profile of him is up for an Eddie Award presented by Folio magazine, and they were very excited. The awards ceremony was scheduled for Jan. 13 but it got postponed until tomorrow. I've kept them up to date, and last Thursday, they wished me luck again.

Then came the news Sunday night. Maybe it was because of the holiday cards, maybe it was because of the book he inscribed for me, maybe it was because the award announcement was just two days away, but I started crying like a baby. It will be three years next month since I lost my dad out of the blue at 62, and the tears didn't flow nearly as freely then, the shock still very much unsettled. To me, losing Jack is like losing a member of my family.

An e-mail to Elaine just didn't seem right, so I called the LaLannes in hopes of leaving a message. Much to my surprise, Elaine answered. She was down for sure, but after I told her how sorry I felt, amazingly, she asked, "Did you win?" (UPDATE: Yes, we did!)

Elaine said that Jack started to not feel so hot on Friday. He had pneumonia, and that led to respiratory failure. Earlier on Sunday, a few hours before Jack passed, it was Elaine who was singing to him, changing Dean Martin's "If you were the only girl in the world" to "If you were the only boy in the world..."

I asked her if there was anything she wanted to say to his fans. She said to remember all of his "LaLanneisms" that he said over the years. One of those she recited was his famous "I can't die. It would ruin my image."

"Now his image is ruined," Elaine said, and again, it was amazing how well she was holding herself together.

Elaine was joking, of course. After 96 years, Jack LaLanne's image remains firmly intact.

I just wish he would have stayed around two more days, at least.

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