Family and friends were shocked and saddened to learn of the sudden death of Le Bateau Ivre restaurant owner Thomas Eddie Cooper the afternoon of Thursday, Oct. 16. Even those closest to him will never fully understand the depth of depression which drove him to unexpectedly seek respite by taking his own life. It was a final moment of despair that does not define a rich and complicated life.
Ed, Tom, or just plain Cooper, as he was most often called by his many friends, was born in Kentucky on March 27, 1941, to his loved, but troubled father Noah Cooper and his beloved mother Stella Elam Cooper. At the age of four the family moved to Ohio. To overcome a childhood bout with polio, he took up swimming. He became a high-ranked swimmer in college, and the sport remained a lifelong source of exercise and relaxation.
After attending college in Athens, Ohio, in the early 60s, Ed embarked on what was to become an eight-year adventure traveling through Europe. He learned to speak and read German fluently, some Russian and even Bulgarian, which he acquired while spending six months in a Bulgarian prison. His crime was (unwittingly) assisting an East German friend in trying to cross the Iron Curtain. His experiences informed his later life and were the source of many stories and conversations. Despite his incarceratioin, they engendered a lifetime interest in Slavic culture and music.
After his travels he settled in Berkeley, and for a period of time was a construction worker on the transbay BART tunnel, until an industrial accident ended his career in that profession. It also required him to have many orthopedic operations, starting with a spinal fusion in 1984, which caused him to have a long and close relationship with his doctors—so many orthopedic operations that friends lost count.
In the early 1970s Ed met his future partner and wife Arlene Giordano. He got involved in the extensive remodeling of a charming, 1900 vintage Georgian style building at 2629 Telegraph Avenue. This would become the home of the Berkeley institution, Le Bateau Ivre, (The Drunken Boat). Eventually others involved in the project fell away leaving Ed and Arlene the sole proprietors. A tremendous amount of work was required to transform the space into a restaurant, but Le Bateau Ivre finally opened on March 5, 1972 and has been operating continuously ever since. According to Ed, the restaurant was meant to be a home of lively discourse and of comfort to love and care for the many different characters in Berkeley.
During a 1976 lease dispute, Ed and Arlene managed to buy the entire building which thereafter became a major focus for Ed’s construction and painting skills. Whether repairing a sewer line or painting a bathroom, Ed was a perfectionist, spending hours researching and executing the never-ending projects. The company which assisted him in a reroofing project said that years later they are still using the same technique devised by Ed Cooper.
Le Bateau Ivre became the expression of Cooper’s vision and the center of his social life. The table by the window in the bar room was reserved for Ed and Arlene and their friends and family. He could often be found there discussing topics ranging from the metaphysical to the practical intricacies of retrofitting the large brick dining room. He had a deep love of language and words, and his ability to remember and recite literature constantly amazed his friends.
He was introduced to classical music at the age of 12. He had an incredible love and knowledge of music ranging from the bluegrass of his youth to dissonant modern to Eastern European folk--always the simple, soulful and honest. Anyone who has ever been to Le Bateau has heard the wide range of music which helped define the experience there.
His friends at the restaurant included an eclectic mix of intellectuals, academics, workers, fellow swimmers and the indigent who were given food, coffee and a place to hang their hat. His ability to touch so many people was incredible. He cared for and helped them without realizing what an inspirational figure he had been to them.
Ed and Arlene also had a soft-spot for four-legged strays who would find food and affection at the kitchen door, most notably Bainco the cat who had an uncanny ability to stay one room ahead of the health inspector, and Bentley, the English bull dog, who held court to his many admirers.
The cosy cottage in the Oakland hills that Ed and Arlene have called home for almost 40 years shows the result of benign neglect due to the demands of work and putting most of their efforts into the restaurant. Most of the house is cluttered with life’s accumulations. The one exception is the library which Ed completed after years of work. It is a simple spare room, with a couple of comfortable chairs and a wall of carefully arranged books, most of which Ed had voraciously read, ranging in topics from medicine to spiritualism, metaphysics, philosophy, history, language, and culture. The range of the collection was vast, and perhaps it was in those books that Ed sought answers to the questions he had asked thoughout his life.
In recent years a heart problem diagnosed as an atrial flutter caused him to take many medications. In January of 2008 he, and then Arlene, both were hospitalized with different strains of pneumonia. Ed spent 12 tense days mostly in intensive care and was very near death’s door. Could these illnesses and the many prescribed medications have triggered this recent bout with depression?
In a condolence email to a friend, Cooper included his own free translation of lines from Goethe’s Egmont along with the music of Beethoven’s Egmont overture. He described it as being about the passage of life and entering into death:
You come as a pure joy
unasked for, fully asked for
you loosen the bondage of forceful thoughts
blend all images of joy and sorrow
unhindered flows the circle of inner harmony
enveloped in blissful delirium
we sink into the earth
and are no more.
In addition to his wife Arlene and her immediate family, he is survived by his sister Mary Opal and many cousins back in Ohio and Kentucky. His older brother, Oscar William, passed away several years ago. Most importantly, he is survived by his large, extended family of friends, whose lives he touched so deeply.
A memorial service to celebrate his life will be held at Hiller Highlands Athletic Club, Sunday, Nov. 2, at 4 p.m. All of his many friends and acquaintances are welcome to attend.