Rose Heller, a lifelong supporter of art and contemporary music and co-founder of the Picred Heller Foundation (with her husband Ernest “Pick” Heller d. 1998), died peacefully at her home in New York City on Saturday, July 19, 2003. She was 105 years old.
Most people referred to Mrs. Heller as Red, but official records of her service to many arts organizations usually refer to her simply as Mrs. Ernest Heller. Throughout her lifetime, she and her husband demonstrated a true love and commitment to the work of living artists and composers. Mrs. Heller served on the boards of the American Music Center, The League of Composers/International Society for Contemporary Music, and the MacDowell Colony, as well as the awards committee for the Poses Creative Arts Awards at Brandeis University. She was also a supporter of the Aspen Festival and Tanglewood. In 2002, Mrs. Heller was named Trustee Emeritus at MacDowell to honor her boardship in the 1980s during which she led a personal campaign that raised over $1,000,000 for the colony.
In a letter to former MacDowell Executive Director, Mary Carswell, from 1990 Red wrote: “My deep involvement with the Colony goes way back to Aaron Copland—he was so ardent about it as were all those at the time—Virgil Thomson, Albee, Flanagan, etc., not board members—a base who understood the need for a thing like the Colony. A benefit was an occasion—we filled the house with people committed to a cause. It was a good base for the Colony. As it grew more costly it was more difficult but we managed to fill tables…. In any event the cause is just and your slugging it out is worth the effort.”
She was also involved with the American Music Center from the late-1960s through the 1980s. After over 13 years of service to the board, she was named an honorary board member in 1980, a title which she held for the rest of her life. “She was really helpful for a longtime,” remembers former AMC Board President and current board member Paul Sperry, who credits Mrs. Heller with getting him onto the board in the 1970s. “They supported the Center and cared greatly about it.”
Rose Fine, later to become Heller, was born in 1898. At a time when women were just being granted the right to vote, she was pursuing an degrees in social work from the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University and traveling all over the world. She met Pick in Paris in the mid-1920s and the couple moved to New York City a few years later. She was active as a social worker for many years and ran a summer camp in Damascus, PA from the late 1920s to 1950. Pick, a Princeton graduate and later a member of the alumni council for the Princeton music department, was in the pearl business. He was also a gifted linguist who spoke Chinese and collected Chinese porcelain. The couple also inherited an exquisite art collection that included works by Edward Hopper, Renoir, and Chagall.
The Hellers counted many composers among their friends and were very close to Edgard and Louise Varèse as well as Earle Brown and his wife Susan Sollins. Their apartment on East 57th Street became a social focal point for the art circles. ” They were amongst the most remarkable people we knew. They went to every concert of contemporary music there ever was,” recalls Sollins. “And after every concert you’d go to their apartment on 57th Street and everybody was there.” The Hellers also welcomed musicians into their homes for intimate performances and Sollins calls the soirees they threw in their apartment “the last of the great salons.”
Red Heller is survived by two nieces, Lynn Gilbert and Alison Fine, and two nephews, Barnes Keller and David Fine. There will be a memorial service for her at the Harvard Club (27 W. 44th Street in New York, NY) on September 12, 2003, at 11:30 AM.
Read a personal tribute to “Red” Heller by Susan Sollins-Brown.