A Tribute to Sills

By Masha Leon

Published July 12, 2007, issue of July 13, 2007.
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When the Forward was preparing its 100th anniversary special edition in August 1997, Beverly Sills (who, at age 78, died July 2 of lung cancer) was one of several dozen New York personalities and politicians whom I invited to pose reading the English and/or Yiddish edition of the Forward. When Sills welcomed me, my daughter, Karen, plus camera at her office in New York’s Lincoln Center, she recalled the Forward as a presence in her Brooklyn home. I thanked her for posing and also for graciously autographing two photos in 1976. Sills seemed puzzled. I told her that in April 1976, I was in “The Big Easy” for the annual National College Bookstore Convention and noticed an ad in The Times-Picayune for a one-night performance by the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra — with guest star Beverly Sills. With the last ticket in hand, I took a taxi to the city’s then new Center for the Performing Arts on remote Rampart Street. The audience crowd seemed to know each other, and in mellifluous Louisianaese they chatted about parties, weddings and hunting. At the concert’s end, seemingly the only out-of-towner and unable to get a taxi, I was rescued by Cynthia and Hank Parham of Metairie; the couple offered me a ride to my hotel. During the trip, Cynthia Parham, a member of the orchestra’s junior committee and an avid Sills fan, mentioned that the evening’s conductor was a brilliant Russian Jewish émigré. In appreciation of the Parhams’ kindness, I promised to get them an autographed photo of Sills when I returned to New York. My husband, Joseph, and I had just seen her as Violetta in the Met’s production of “La Traviata,” and in my adulatory letter to Sills I set the scene for my request for an autographed photo. A few weeks later, two photos arrived — one dedicated to the Parhams, the other to me. The Parhams reciprocated by sending me a cookbook of old Cajun recipes. We lost touch, but I was able to find them post-Katrina. They survived the hurricane and remember fondly that magical Sills concert of more than 30 years ago. The Sills photo hangs above my desk.

After she retired from performing in 1980, Sills became co-director of the City Opera. An indefatigable fundraiser for the opera company, in 1994 she was elected board chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; she retired from the center in 2002. During those years, she was featured in this column frequently.

When she received the Golda Meir Achievement Award at the September 24, 1997, Israel Bonds Greater New York Women’s Division luncheon, Sills endeared herself by declaring: “You’ve seen me young and old, fat and skinny. Believe me, skinny and young is better.” World-renowned diva Sills recalled: “My Russian-born mother said I needed some accomplishments to find a husband — something like playing an instrument or singing…. And here I was, a poor kid from Brooklyn who felt lucky if I got to Manhattan to have all my dreams come true. I have sung in every great opera house in the world, [and still] Golda once told me, ‘Don’t be humble — you’re not that great.’” When Abe Cohen, then manager of the Israel Philharmonic, invited her in 1970 to do eight Hanukkah concerts in Israel, Sills asked, “Are we getting paid?” Cohen told her, “No nice girl takes money out of Israel.”

When Sills received the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award at the April 16, 1998, American Jewish Historical Society dinner, she declared, “Behind every Jewish woman who ends up in an encyclopedia, there is a Jewish mother.” She elaborated: “After my mother heard Lily Pons, she told me when I was 3, I would be a famous opera star, but my father told me only hussies go onstage. ‘What’s a hussy?’ I, a 7-year-old, asked my father. ‘They wear too much makeup, change the color of their hair and wear low-cut dresses.’ I was hooked.”

Honoree at the October 2, 1994, Hebrew Home at Riverdale benefit — where her mother, Shirley Silverstein, was a resident — Sills lamented: “My mother recounts her trip from Odessa to Brooklyn, has a fantasy that she can climb stairs and go shopping and [says] ‘Oh to be 60 again.’ When I tell her that I am 65, she says, ‘That’s your problem.’” Among my more recent Sills encounters were the April 22, 2002, mega-gala celebrating the 25th anniversary of “Live From Lincoln Center” at the New York State Theater, an event that Sills co-hosted with Placido Domingo; The March 3, 2006, Guild Hall Academy of the Arts dinner, honoring E.L. Doctorow, at the Rainbow Room, where I chatted with Sills (who shared a table with Jack Rudin), and finally, the June 8, 2006, Women’s Luncheon of the Museum of Jewish Heritage-A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, at which chic bag doyenne Judith Leiber was honored. When the emcee asked which of the ladies in the room owned — or had with her — a Leiber bag, among those who held their collectible treasured pocketbooks aloft were Sills and Kitty Carlisle Hart.


Among those whom Karen photographed for the Forward’s 1997 100th anniversary issue was film critic Joel Siegel, who died June 29, at age 63, of colon cancer. At his cluttered office at ABC, he cleared a chair and part of his desk, and then insisted on being photographed reading a Yiddish Forward as well as an English edition (the latter he said he “read religiously.” I’d known Siegel — a Yidisher mensch — since before I began writing my Forward column. Back then, I wrote film reviews for Ha-Or,” the Queens Tribune and Queens College’s “Phoenix.” During prerelease screenings, we would often sit across from each other on the aisle, and afterward, without divulging each other’s personal spin on the film, compare reactions.

Siegel was among the kindest people in the industry, who always greeted you with a smile. His “Good Morning America” reviews were right on the money, literate and rarely with malicious edge. Whenever I stopped by his ABC office, he would give me a few “Jewish theme” film tapes from his shelves. Good, bad or indifferent, he insisted that “they need to be seen.”

Our last zay gezunt — be-well parting — was at the December 4, 2006, benefit for the 92nd Street Y, held at Cipriani’s 23rd Street, when the visibly frail, yet smiling table-hopping Siegel, relinquished his role as evening host to National Public Radio correspondent Robert Krulwich.

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