Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.
October 9–16, 1997
The Litt Fantastic
Remembering Nat Litt—architect, clown, purveyor of tea.
By Jim Quinn
Nat Litt is dead. He died peacefully in his sleep, probably the only thing he ever did peacefully, sometime in the night, Sept. 29. He was 65 years old. Why not put the name of his store at the top of this obituary? If this is an obituary. I've never written one. But I have to write about Nat Litt. Nat's wife, Margot, says the store will stay open "as long as people come in to buy. We'll manage. I worked there for a while, till Nat threw me out. I went without an argument. The shop was Nat's domain."
There's not a better, or cheaper, place to buy fine teas in Philadelphia, or as far as I know, the USA. Nat would like his obituary to say that, I think. He'd also like me to say that life was his domain.
Nat Litt was born in 1932 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was one of the funniest men I've ever met, full of deliberately awful jokes and unbelievable stories. He sold great tea, and threw in free an earful of advice and personal history. People would ask me, "Was he really on the cover of Life magazine? Does he own a Picasso? Did he work with Frank Lloyd Wright as an architect? And for Ringling Brothers as a clown? And graduate from Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris? And do pastry at Le Bec-Fin? And run a magic store? And know Henny Youngman? And break windows for a mind reader? Impossible!"
Impossible—but not for Nat. I've seen the Cordon Bleu diploma. I've seen the Picasso and the cover of Life (February 20, 1970, headline: "The architect who ran away to join the circus as a clown").
Nat did what he wanted. Which was everything. Margot sits in their handsome art-filled house in Center City. Nat's and Margot's combined collection includes works by Manet, Turner, Jacques Villon and one of the original gels from the Beatles' Yellow Submarine movie. Margot is not always certain about dates, but dates don't really matter. This is a life.
"Nat's parents were immigrants. They wanted him to be a doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, anything professional. He wanted to perform. As a teenager he worked in Brooklyn summer stock, and at Coney Island. He made friends everywhere. We'd get visits from ancient men, eternally old, whom Nat had worked with. Al Flosso, the Original Coney Island Faker, who had a spiel called WHAT JOHNNY SAW WHEN HE LOOKED THROUGH THE KEYHOLE. He'd take a paper match, split it, twist it, fold it, talking the whole time. Very funny, and all to get people to part with 'one thin silver dime,' for a piece of junk. Nat traveled with Jack London, a mind-reader famous in the '40s. One of his jobs was, when they got to a new town, to break a window in the local department store. Because Jack would predict that the window would be broken, and next day the papers would have the story about this marvelous clairvoyant.
"Then Nat went to Actor's Studio in winter, and did the Borscht Belt in summer. He knew Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. He introduced me to Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett. He was Buddy's warmer-upper for a while. We used to babysit Henny Youngman when he played Jersey nightclubs. Henny hated to be alone, so we stayed with him all the time he was here.
"Where am I in Nat's life? The Korean War, he was in Special Services. Doing a comic magic act with Josephine the Rabbit of Mystery. He disappeared a locomotive. It wasn't a trick. He was a corporal and somebody said, 'Take your men and get that locomotive off the track.' There was no way to move it, so they started at the top, and took it apart. Separated all the pieces and stored it neatly in a warehouse. The army, Nat said, was not amused.
"After the army he went to Columbia. Dropped out. But liked an architecture teacher. So he went to study with Frank Lloyd Wright, became a certified architect, and worked on getting the Guggenheim through the New York Building Code Inspectors. Then he worked with other architects. Edward Durrell Stone for one, doing buildings for the New York World's Fair of—I think 1968? Then, 1969, at our summer house in Cape Cod, he was in an accident. A car with four people ran into him. They all died. Nat recovered, slowly.
"He saw an article about Clown School. He said he wanted to be a clown, not an architect. I said to him, go then. He went, and got a job with Ringling Brothers. He stayed a year, then worked with other circuses. The family traveled along. The kids got to ride elephants. It was wonderful. Then Nat got sick. Appendicitis. But nobody knew. Thirteen weeks in the hospital in the Midwest.
"After that we came back East to Haddonfield. He had his own troupe, Nat Litt's All Star Clown Revue. He opened a craft shop, so he could learn all the crafts and became an expert at decoupage. Then he ran a magic shop in Center City. Then we made jams and jellies and sold them at Reading Terminal. Then he decided to get serious about cooking. He went to the Culinary Academy at May's Landing. I said, why not finish off at a good school? He went to Cordon Bleu in Paris, and graduated in 1991. He came back and worked at several restaurants. Finally as an assistant to Robert Bennet at Le Bec-Fin. He was happy as a clam.
"Then in 1993, he opened The House of Tea. His leg was still bothering him from the crash in 1969. He needed to lose weight. And this last year he was managing to do that. He was feeling better. Then?"
Two weeks ago, Nat found a comic baseball cap with long gray hair attached to it. "Look!" he said, putting it on. "My Jim Quinn imitation! I'll wear it whenever you come in."
I never saw him again. The last thing he ever told me was a joke, so scabrous it could only be funny when Nat told it. And it sure was funny. Everything in life was funny for Nat. Philadelphia will miss him. So will I.