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Gracie Dyer | graciedyer

Katherine Vaz and Christopher Cerf: Kermit Will Attend

Jul 11th 2015 at 12:30 AM

The smiling face of the green amphibian dotted Christopher Bennett Cerf’s tie, as he stood next to Katherine Anne Vaz while their marriage rite was read to them in the leaf-strewn garden behind the townhouse they share on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

As each word was pronounced, Mr. Cerf’s smile seemed to inch wider, competing with the Muppet’s for biggest grin. Next to him Ms. Vaz listened intently as their friend, the former editor and publisher of The Nation magazine Victor Navasky, led the ceremony with the assistance of Emily Jane Goodman, a former justice of State Supreme Court in Manhattan. As the proceedings moved along, the bride’s patchwork, tea-length wedding dress swayed slightly in the breeze.

“Christopher asked me to be funny,” said Mr. Navasky, who had been ordained by the Church of Spiritual Humanism previously to officiate his daughter’s wedding. “Katherine asked me to be serious,” he said. “Sounds to me like they are already married.”

The Sunday morning ceremony was the culmination of a relationship built on fun, as filled with jokes, pranks and humor as are the bookshelves in their home on East 62nd Street.

Though neither has children, their library, in which the guests clustered before the ceremony outdoors, could be the envy of any toddler: filled with picture books featuring creatures like the rapscallion Cat in the Hat and the benevolent Big Bird.

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Mr. Cerf, 73, is a son of the late Bennett Cerf, a founder of the publishing company Random House, which counted Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, as an early star author, and where the younger Mr. Cerf began his career working as an editor. His mother, Phyllis Cerf Wagner, worked closely with Mr. Geisel, but not always easily. In her obituary in The New York Times, Mr. Cerf said: “They had some disagreements which were memorable. They were both perfectionists and would argue about every comma that went on the page.”

Perhaps perfectionism runs in the family; for all his appearance of freewheeling fun, amphibian neckties notwithstanding, Mr. Cerf, Mr. Navasky said, is a “secret pedant.”

Everyone with an address on Sesame Street is close to Mr. Cerf, who wrote or co-wrote more than 300 songs for the show. The golden gramophone-shaped Grammy Awards gleaming from the fireplace mantelpiece on the first floor of the townhouse, near where guests sipped grapefruit Perrier and ate fresh fruit before the ceremony began, are testament to his long career, which includes such playground hits as “Put Down the Duckie.”

But interspersed among the playful books are tomes of a more serious nature: They are the works of Ms. Vaz, 59, who has written extensively on the Portuguese-American experience, including two novels, with far darker tones than the stuff penned by Mr. Cerf, the president of Sirius Thinking, a company that creates interactive learning tools for young students. And he is an author of various books on language with Henry Beard, of the National Lampoon magazine, which Mr. Cerf helped start.

Yet to paint the couple standing beneath a bower of slightly dripping trees — having hastily moved their wedding from the rose garden in Central Park to the flagstone patio at home because of predicted bad weather that fortunately failed to materialize — as a yin and yang of fun versus serious would be incorrect.

“We’re both just two big kids,” Ms. Vaz said in an interview before the wedding, as she worked on the relocation details. “That’s why it works.” (At the ceremony, a friend, Sean Kelly, said of Mr. Cerf: “He’s like a 5-year-old. It’s a compliment.”)

Ms. Vaz added: “It’s not just a fun-and-games household, it’s just a quiet loving. We have reached an age where we have a lot of joy together. Joy is a serious thing. He and I were really alone for a long time, so this is kind of, ‘Oh, my God, life has given us this incredible gift,’ and we take it very seriously.”

When they must travel to the many conferences at which one is invited to speak, the other will invariably tuck among the folded clothing a tacky figurine, to be discovered later. It is one of the many in-jokes the couple share, references to which they are constantly leaving for each other around the house.

They are “jokes that no one else gets, but we find hilarious,” Mr. Cerf said, filling the relationship with levity. But the pair also respect solitude, as two writers must, often retreating to separate rooms to write, with a deep understanding that such seclusion is part of their work — something Mr. Cerf said was lacking in his other relationships.

“Love means being the guardian of each other’s solitude,” Ms. Vaz said.

Their first date was in 2007 at a book party — at Bellevue Hospital, a site weird enough to intrigue Mr. Cerf, who had initially become intrigued with Ms. Vaz 22 years earlier.

They had first been introduced at the home of Mr. Beard. Mr. Cerf recalled having spoken with Ms. Vaz about Portuguese dance and having found her ravishing.

But that was as far as it went. They married other people, yet somehow they never forgot each other. Each had later divorced amicably, before being reintroduced by a mutual friend.

After the hospital date, they carried on to the literary hangout, Elaine’s, now closed, where they talked for hours, then, unexpectedly, kissed madly before parting.

Ms. Vaz recalled, “I sat on the edge of my bed afterward and realized my life had just changed.” Then the phone rang. It was Mr. Cerf. He felt it, too.

Mr. Cerf said Ms. Vaz radiates kindness, in life and work. “She once showed me a letter a student wrote saying how Katherine’s generosity and love had changed her life, and it almost made me cry, because it’s so true that she has that effect on people, certainly on me,” Mr. Cerf said.

Of their former marriages, Ms. Vaz, in an email, wrote: “Neither of us regard a past marriage as a mistake. In fact, my ex, Michael, was instrumental in helping me organize the paperwork I needed to obtain the license to marry Chris, because he has always cheered me on. We’ve been apart over 10 years, but it was a matter of deciding with true affection to allow each other to go in different directions. His ex-wife, Genevieve, helped us clear out parts of our house to help me move in.”

Their wedding took place on the anniversary of their first date, the first day of summer. It was also Father’s Day, chosen in homage to Ms. Vaz’s father, August Mark Vaz, who died two years earlier. Her chin trembled when Mr. Navasky mentioned her father’s name. Beyond her, in the small crowd, stood her brother-in law, Jon Goodfellow, wearing the same necktie Mr. Vaz had worn on his own wedding day.

The ceremony was a mix of poetry and Portuguese: Ms. Vaz wore a custom dress that was a blend of different fabrics, chunks of lace and linen falling beneath a sweetheart neckline. At the hem, she had asked the designer, Mary Adams, a New York-based couturier, to incorporate swatches of antique doilies and a pillowcase that had been a family heirloom, into which a matriarch had stitched the words “I love you very much” in pink, in Portuguese. The words trailed Ms. Vaz down the curving metal staircase as she descended from an upper floor to the garden level for the ceremony. Mr. Cerf beamed from below as he watched her spiral down the stairs.

The role of paparazzi was played by Phil Donahue, the former talk show host, who snapped photos incessantly with his iPhone at the direction of his wife, the actress and activist Marlo Thomas, who had collaborated on an album and a book with Mr. Cerf.

The ceremony was followed by a reception in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s patrons lounge, where guests listened to some of Mr. Cerf’s songs liltingly plucked by a harpist. Guests marveled at what the couple had seemed to achieve, beyond all others: a life of continuous laughter, now solemnized on a Sunday that in the end turned out to be a sunny one.

“They will have a laugh-filled life,” Ms. Thomas said. “And I think that’s the cushion of life, after all.”

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You should also see:

https://notegraphy.com/naomishah/note/1890002

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