March 2006 -- In March, I was stunned to learn of the unexpected death of a remarkable individualist and friend, Madeleine Pelner Cosman.
You have heard the term “Renaissance man.” Madeleine was a Renaissance woman—almost literally. A Renaissance scholar, and an expert on medieval cooking and medicine, she founded and directed the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College in New York. She also organized the annual medieval festival at the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan, and spoke frequently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art about daily life in the Middle Ages.
For most individuals that would be impressive enough; but Madeleine’s accomplishments and talents were legion. She held a Ph.D. in English and comparative literature. Deciding in her late fifties to become a lawyer, she achieved her J.D., then became a consultant in medical law. She was the author of numerous books and countless articles. A singer, pianist, and lute player. An entrepreneur who bought and sold medical practices. A controversial and outspoken political activist, and philosophically, a committed Objectivist. A wife (widowed), mother, and grandmother. An airplane pilot. An expert marksman (serving on the board of the California Rifle and Pistol Association). Even a volunteer patrolwoman with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department.
Madeleine lived theatrically, larger than life, all the world her stage.
I mean “spectacular” in the sense of spectacle. Madeleine was a nationally known speaker, and appeared repeatedly “by popular demand” at The Objectivist Center’s summer seminars. (Editor’s update: The center is now known as The Atlas Society.) These were not mere lectures: they were Events. Tall and slim, elegantly dressed and perfectly coiffed, Madeleine would stride across the stage, arms sweeping in grand, dramatic gestures, voice rising in crescendos to thundering shouts, then plunging to soft whispers—always delivering her lines with impeccably precise diction, accompanied by perfectly-timed PowerPoint presentations.
To borrow a term from the film The Quiet Man, Madeleine Cosman was simply “Homeric.”
She was a woman of serious convictions. Her lectures, articles, and talk show appearances on socialized medicine, illegal immigration, environmentalism, and self-protection were impassioned and uncompromising. Even those who disagreed with her could never fault her for lack of commitment or integrity: Madeleine never hesitated to put her own time, money, and neck on the line for her beliefs.
But she was also funny. Her inimitable combination of stage theatrics and PowerPoint displays—often exploiting hilariously anachronistic images from the Middle Ages—kept audiences laughing and applauding. I witnessed quite a few of these...let’s call them performances, and the only predictable thing about them were the thunderous standing ovations at their conclusion.
Theater and drama was so...Madeleine. She lived theatrically, larger than life, all the world her stage.
Her home was another stunning stage set. Designed herself, it is a grand, one-of-a-kind circular structure perched atop a small mountain peak near San Diego. It’s a private aerie—perhaps “Olympus” is a better word—surrounded by breathtaking vistas, and filled with a host of brilliant architectural innovations and a remarkable Renaissance art and manuscript collection, all of it as tasteful, elegant, and priceless as the woman herself.
So appropriate that Madeleine made her final home on a mountaintop. For she lived her entire life on a mountaintop.
The lights on the world stage have dimmed with her exit.
Brava, Madeleine—for a superb performance.