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Published in Hartford Courant on December 4, 2022
Austen Eadie-Friedmann, beloved husband, brother, son, and friend, died at his home in Thompson, Connecticut on December 1 after a hard-fought three-year battle with ALS. He was 39. Autumn was his favorite season, and he was happily able to experience one last colorful changing of the leaves in the home that he loved so much before his passing.
Born in New York, Austen spent his formative years in New Jersey, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Massachusetts, where he attended the Williston Northampton School. In 2006, he received a degree in history from Tufts University and worked for law firm Proskauer Rose before receiving a Master’s in Human Resource Management from Rutgers (2012). Most of his subsequent career was in human resources for the pharmaceutical industry, at Bristol Myers Squibb in New Jersey and London and Alexion in Boston, with a brief foray into luxury fashion at Chanel in New York.
It was at Tufts where he met and fell in love with his partner of 17 years, William (Billy) DeGregorio, 36, a fashion historian. The two formed a civil union in 2012, and married in 2017.
His peripatetic childhood laid the groundwork for a passion for travel and history that he would nurture for the rest of his life. As a teenager, he did charity work in Honduras and studied abroad in Spain (where he picked up a stomach flu and a lifelong antipathy for manchego). He saw all but two of the United States and 12 countries, including the UK, Belgium, Latvia, Poland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Turkey, Egypt. Some of his happiest moments were vacations spent with Billy on Cape Cod.
Diagnosed with ALS two days before his 36th birthday, Austen’s ability to travel and ardent professional ambition came to a sudden end, as the disease quickly robbed him of mobility. The disease cheated him out of the long career he had envisioned, but he chose to transition to patient experience at Alexion, bringing the clarity and compassion defined his professional demeanor to patient and caregiver advocacy. Towards the end of his life, when daily remote work became impossible, he volunteered his expertise to nonprofits organizations like I Am ALS and EverythingALS, where he served as an industry consultant.
Austen was a man of contrasts: decorous but irreverent; haughty and formal, but with a dark and often dirty sense of humor that delighted his friends. Human resources executives are not often the most popular members of an organization, but Austen’s mixture of clarity, calm, and compassion made him so. He was often the go-to man for the dreaded task of firing, not because he enjoyed it, but because he communicated with kindness and honesty. Afterwards, those on the other side of the desk would often thank him. He deeply regretted that at precisely the moment where he was entering his stride professionally, he was obliged to shut down his hopes of a more illustrious career.
It was his prosaic determination in the face of ALS that disarmed those accustomed to a more Pollyannaish attitude towards terminal illness. He often said that he did not consider his life a tragedy, though his loved ones may have felt differently. While he knew that ALS was a cruel and unfair fate, his mantra was “It is what it is,” a characteristically matter-of-fact perspective that helped him navigate the emotional rollercoaster of the disease. He even asked that one of his favorite songs, drag queen Alaska’s “It Is What It Is,” be played at his memorial service to remind those in attendance that his life was neither a catastrophe nor a triumph; it simply was what it was: full of love, laughter, and a heaping dose of cynicism.
One of Austen’s most fervent personal dreams was to own a house. In 2020, after a long search, he and Billy purchased the historic Alpheus Russell house (built ca. 1795) in remote Thompson. In the following two and a half years, they enlarged their collection of art and antiques, of which Austen thoroughly enjoyed directing the arrangement, even as he lost bodily function. His eye for the placement of pictures and objects was always spot on, and it gave him enormous pleasure to create a home for Billy and the couple’s beloved cat, Lily, whom the two had adopted in 2008.
Never a religious man, Austen instead worshipped the pantheon of great divas of the twentieth century. He appreciated the melodrama of Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, and Diana Ross, and the sheer raunchiness of Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, and drag queens like Alaska and Willam. (He and Billy never missed a season of RuPaul’s Drag Race.) Late in life he developed an abiding passion for Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, much to his husband’s delight. He particularly enjoyed the latter’s “Someday” and “Prisoner,” while a video of Houston performing “How Will I Know” live in 1986 became a sort of mood enhancing drug, watched periodically in order to make him smile.
His love of strong female characters extended to films and television as well. Kirsten Scott Thomas and Maggie Smith in Gosford Park (his favorite film); Rosalind Russell and Coral Browne in Auntie Mame; Bette Davis in All About Eve, Anjelica Huston in The Witches: these performances were near and dear to him always. He loved quoting lines from Russell in particular: “Does this make me look like a Scarsdale midge?” “The problem of labor in India is gargantuan,” and “Agnes, I wonder…”
Austen loved the finer things in life, particularly fine dining and wine. While the pandemic put a sudden halt to the former, he could enjoy wine until quite recently. When he was no longer able to eat or drink, much of his will to live quietly dissipated.
Austen is survived by his husband Billy; father Craig Friedmann of Reston, VA, mother Alexandra Eadie-Friedmann of Waterford, CT; sister Anna Friedmann of New York; and kittens Mariah and Whitney. Lily predeceased him in May of 2022. A private memorial is planned for the spring. In lieu of flowers, please consider donations to the organizations Austen championed most: Compassionate Care ALS, Death with Dignity, and the Nature Conservancy.
It is what it is, but it will never be the same.