Scott Zwiren was, according to Michele Emanuele, who knew him since the fifth grade, a creative genius. “He was an incredible genius,” she said, “and I just want the world to know he existed. He was part of the art department, he wrote for the school paper, he was always in plays.”
Zwiren and Emanuele lost touch when they went off to different high schools and his life took a terrible turn after he completed the film program at NYU. The life-long Brooklynite began an unending battle with mental illness, suffering severe bouts of depression. When he was 23, he attempted suicide, twice, the second time by jumping in front of a 1 train. But he seemed to channel his demons into his work.
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Emanuele said, “he lost his right arm and left leg, then he trained himself to draw with his left hand.” Some of those works were exhibited at the SORS Gallery in Paris and at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
Robert Winthrop Curley was Zwiren’s closest friend, their friendship forged in the Boy’s State Summer Camp when they were teenagers. It was a political camp run by the Legionnaires. Curley described Zwiren as a bit of a fish out of water.
“He was a nice, good-hearted Jewish boy from Canarsie,” Curley said. “He wasn’t a grunt type at all.”
He described his friend as, “brilliant, but shy,” a young man who loved David Bowie, Elvis Costello, John Lennon and The Ramones. He was also a dedicated film lover who spent Saturday nights at the midnight audience participation screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”.
“I am shaking my head now,” Curley said. “I can’t believe he is gone. He survived so much in life, and then to be taken down by COVID-19? It’s just heartbreaking.”
Zwiren’s first book, “God Head,” written while he was in Bellevue, won the Barnes & Noble Debut Book Award. He would go on to write 11 more over the next 25 years.
In time, his mental illness overtook him, and he was institutionalized, eventually finding a permanent place at the Isabella Center in Washington Heights, a senior residential home now the subject of an investigation by NY1’s Courtney Gross. That is where he contracted COVID-19. Nearly 100 of its residents are now believed to have died from the virus.
Emanuele reconnected with Zwiren in 2015. “We would have long text exchanges,” she said. “He would borrow the nurse’s phone to call me. No matter where I was, I said I’ve got to take this call because I knew he needed me and he was so alone.” His last Facebook post said, “Sorry, but social distancing describes my whole f*****g life.”
Curley said he is working to create another exhibition of Zwiren’s paintings in Paris.
Emanuele remembers their shared love of jazz and Billie Holiday, and so much more. “I will miss talking to him about life,” she said. “We talked about art, music and films. I will miss his enthusiasm, his courage. He was my cheerleader, and I his. He was an incredible, witty, artistic, beautiful soul. When I think about everything that he has survived, and for this to be the thing that took him down is just hard to believe.”