Remembering Red Heller

Red Heller died last week at 105. She was one-of-a kind, not only because she was born in the 19th century, and departed in the 21st century.

At a time when most women did not go to college, Red not only graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, but also moved from her home in Pittsburgh to New York where she obtained her graduate degree in social work at Columbia University. She was an intrepid woman: she not only worked at her profession, but also traveled extensively as a young woman, again, at a time when most women lived relatively confined lives. One of her favorite stories told how she managed to travel to India: having gotten as far as Europe, she met an older woman by chance who was en route to India and needed assistance in traveling. Red signed on immediately, traveled by boat and train to India, delivered the woman to her relatives there, and continued on. Seventy or more years later, well into her 90s, Red remembered all the details of the trip – where and what she saw, and accompanied the story of the trip with a commentary on the social issues affecting women and children in India and elsewhere at that time.

Red was passionate about music, especially the contemporary music of her long life. She and her husband, Ernest Heller – known by all as Pick, lived in an apartment on East 57th Street here in New York where they entertained musicians, composers, conductors, artists, and friends constantly. Pick was erudite, spoke many languages, and had a vast repertoire of jokes, the last of which he told me the day before he died. When he died at 94, Red, then 96, was disconsolate, but lived on with the bravery and intelligence with which she had always led her life. From the 1970s, when I first met Red and Pick, they were omnipresent at almost every concert we attended in New York. Red was usually accompanied by her two sisters, one in a perky small hat, the other wearing a veil across her nose and eyes, and by Pick. Afterward, everyone went to their apartment for food, conversation, and more music on their grand piano. I remember after-concert evenings in the 1970s that were extraordinary, with Pierre Boulez, Jacob Druckman, Robert Mann, Arnold Newman, Ned Rorem, and many others, including my husband, Earle Brown, all in the same room. Red was particularly close to Edgard Var&egravese and his wife Louise, so much so that Var&egravese dedicated one of his works – Ameriques – to her. The score was somewhere in Red’s desk, or closet where she kept her other treasures, many of those being the photographs of musician friends like Jennie Tourel accumulated throughout all the years of passionate involvement with the music world. In the front entrance hall, she had framed small scores dedicated to her by “her boys”, Earle and Boulez among them. And in Pick’s bedroom, also Red’s sitting room, some things changed from time to time, but the constants were a group photograph taken by Earle at a surprise 60th wedding anniversary party that we – the Heller’s young friends – made for them at the home of Ann and Paul Sperry, a photograph of Red’s father, and one of Bill Clinton.

Red and Pick were a constant presence at the two major contemporary music festivals of their time in this country, first at Tanglewood and then in Aspen. One of my favorite Aspen memories was the evening when Nicolas Slonimsky, then about 97 years old, arrived at the Heller’s pre-concert dinner straight from the Aspen airport, having flown in from Los Angeles. The effects of the high altitude struck, the paramedic team arrived, and rather than immediately providing the oxygen Slonimsky needed, the young team started to take his medical history. The first question was “How old are you, sir.” Slonimsky said he was 97; the paramedics looked around the group in disbelief, and asked again. Red, probably in her late 80s at the time, continued to serve dinner, and urge everyone to eat so that they would arrive on time at the concert in the Aspen tent. Slonimsky continued to insist that he was 97, the Hellers also insisted, in between courses, that he was indeed that age, as everyone could see that they were in their 80s and that he was their elder by far. The young, athletic medic team just couldn’t believe any these “stories”, since the Hellers and Slonimsky seemed so “young” and forceful. Finally after much discussion amongst the young people about the impossibility of Slonimsky’s reputed age, Slonimsky announced that he no longer needed the oxygen that he hadn’t yet been given, thanked the medics for coming so promptly, and everyone, including our indomitable elders, trooped off to the tent for the Fromm concert.

Red had an avid interest in the political arena: she was reading The New York Times each day when she was over 100 years old. She continued to pay attention to the major issues of the world, and although almost entirely deaf, could somehow carry on a conversation with me about the things she cared so passionately about. Apart from politics, one of these was the MacDowell Colony. In the winter of 2001-2002, I was asked to join the MacDowell Board, and knowing of Red’s life-long support and involvement of the Colony, I wanted to take her place there. I went to 57th Street to see her immediately, to tell her the news. She asked if I was sure I had been invited, because “the Board was a powerful one”, and Board members had to be truly grown-up – a position that I had not yet quite attained being still so very young in her eyes.

Red’s last request to me, repeated frequently in her final years, was that I travel around the world, and come back to tell her about everything I had seen. Her passionate involvement in the world lasted until almost the very end of her life: she was indeed remarkable. I loved her dearly.