Remembering Review Alumnus Ross Drake

Nate Cavalieri

In March of 1999, a piece by then-Sports Editor Ross Drake, OC ’00, appeared in The Oberlin Review under the headline “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?” — a touching if slightly awkward obituary for the heroic center fielder. In the piece, Ross’s affection for DiMaggio has the immediate, open-hearted earnestness of a lifelong sports fan. But the surprise is in the first line, where he makes a glancing reference to e. e. cummings’s “Buffalo Bill ’s.” It goes like this:

Buffalo Bill ‘s


        who used to

        ride a watersmooth-silver


and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat


he was a handsome man

                 and what i want to know is

how do you like your blueeyed boy

Mister Death

Ross died of an apparent heart attack days before his 35th birthday on Jan. 13, 2012. He was an Editor-in-Chief of the Review from 1999 to 2000, my first editor and a dear friend.

Given his brutally arid, sardonic, often self-deprecating wit, I doubt he would look on “Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?” with much kindness these days. The fact that his was likely the only DiMaggio obituary to reference cummings (without so much as a quote!) wouldn’t have escaped him. With a shuffling smirk, he might blame the piece’s disorganized sentimentality on the caffeine- and alcohol-addled deadlines that defined our tenure on the Review staff. This of course might lead to a quip about the captions he wrote for an intentionally offensive parody of the Family Circus comic, a childish scrawl named “Family Circle Jerk,” or the byline we both shared with Tyler Kord (now a New York chef of some renown) for a review of a Lorain County Ponderosa, or about Nancy Dye, Oberlin’s former president who was savagely lampooned in the Review cartoons week after week.

But as his friends and colleagues try to make sense of Ross’s loss by rereading his work, the homage to DiMaggio via cummings stands out, and takes on a different weight. It’s not because Ross himself was a sleek blueeyed boy — with perennial three-day stubble, an oversized Red Sox jersey and a mess of black hair he was anything but — but because it offers us an unusual look at his cutting intelligence, passion for writing and his ability to catch us off guard. Ross’s obituary is a young writer’s attempt to understand the loss of a hero; his cummings reference is his attempt to make sense of it. It’s walking the same ground where we find ourselves in the wake of his death.

In the years that followed our tenure at the Review, Ross’ singular view of the world and omnivorous tastes brought a successful career as a film and cultural critic, first in New York and then in the San Francisco Bay Area. After years of piecing together freelance work (occasionally augmented by working the door at a nightclub), he became the principal movie critic for The San Francisco Examiner, a contributor to San Francisco’s 7×7 magazine and a well-regarded member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He literally published hundreds of reviews — on everything from Metallica to art films — with a voice that was always uncompromisingly independent, slyly sardonic and often unexpected. Playmate Anna Faris’s performance in The House Bunny? A “fearless physical comedienne.” Spielberg’s widely panned War Horse? “Genuine as it is ambitious.” In one of his final pieces for the Examiner, a review of Iron Lady, his argument seems straight from the classrooms of King; he guarantees an Oscar nomination for Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Margaret Thatcher while deriding the film’s unwillingness to address the complexities of her political life.

Over time, the professional and personal relationship between us drifted in orbits of increasing distance, and after receiving the call about his death I realized that it had been several months since we’d last been in touch. And while the archive of his work provides the only way to reconnect with his voice, it’s impossible not to be left with the feeling that it was silenced too soon. His great fondness of and affection for the Review seems to make it an appropriate place to pay respects — as cummings might say, he was a handsome man.

Nate Cavalieri, OC ’00, was Arts Editor at the Review from 1999 to 2000.