Remembering Vera Stern
Carnegie Hall’s Museum Director and Archivist Gino Francesconi remembers Vera Stern, one of the most important members of the Carnegie Hall family for more than 50 years, who recently passed away.
Vera Stern—one of the most important members of the Carnegie Hall family for more than 50 years—died on July 21, 2015, at the age of 88.
Isaac Stern is the main headline when it comes to the saving of Carnegie Hall. But his second wife of 43 years, Vera, played a significant role in making much of it become a reality. Their son, Michael, in his eloquent tribute to his mother, called her Isaac’s co-pilot for the saving of the Hall. The wording is perfect.
President Eisenhower had broken ground for the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in March 1959, and the formidable Robert Moses, who was spearheading the project, wanted nothing to compete or stand in its way of success, including a much-loved concert hall just down the road. That December, philanthropist Jacob Kaplan gave a reception for Isaac Stern at his home after Isaac had performed three violin concertos with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall four days in a row. It was a tremendous success, yet at the reception Isaac lamented that those would be his last performances at the Hall, as it was scheduled to be torn down in March 1960. With Kaplan’s encouragement, that evening began Isaac and Vera Stern’s involvement to the save it from demolition.
Isaac was 39 years old and Vera was 32. We often forget how young they were. And Vera was also nine months pregnant with Michael. She later remembered that evening went so late into the night that she felt she was going to give birth in Kaplan’s living room.
Isaac was the personality, the presence, and the persuader. He brilliantly convinced the City of New York to purchase Carnegie Hall for historical purposes, but also—so as not to compete with Lincoln Center—to create an institution devoted to teaching music to children. But, as one of the most sought-after violinists of his time, he was frequently on the road. Vera was on site. She was not only Isaac’s voice when he was afar, but she was also his eyes, his feet, and a hands-on instinctive daily doer. With construction delays at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall never closed as a concert hall. Vera began multitasking in multiple languages (she spoke six), organizing meetings, seeking funders, addressing envelopes, making phone calls, and questioning everything from prices of tickets to prices of floor wax for the lobby. She was a major force—if not the major force—behind the scenes at Carnegie Hall during one of its most important transitional periods. At the same time, she gave full energy to other causes, such as the America Israel Cultural Foundation, the Musicians Foundation, and Israel Bonds. Isaac would hear a new talented musician. Vera would find housing, a scholarship, an opportunity. So many musicians—such as Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, Itzhak Perlman, or Midori—found passage through Isaac and Vera. And she was a devoted mother of three children.
While Isaac could wax eloquently with the grand vision, Vera asked the questions and took to doing a lot of the work, often getting there on her bike. I remember one time seeing her riding along West 57th Street, and she spotted me and called out. She and the bike stopped, but one of her shoes continued on into the middle of the intersection. With cars buzzing, she took the bike and me into the traffic to retrieve the shoe, never stopping her conversation. I first met her at the stage door of Carnegie Hall on West 56th Street in the 1970s. Part of my job then as backstage artist attendant was to greet the performers at the door. I was excited because not only was it going to be my first encounter with Isaac Stern the violinist, but he was also president of the Hall. I waited for what I thought would be a limousine. Instead, a Jeep Cherokee pulled up with Vera driving and Isaac in the passenger seat. I escorted them up the backstage stairs as both looked in my direction and said “follow me,” taking off in different directions. I learned quickly whom to follow.
Having fled the Nazis from her home in Berlin through Switzerland to Paris, and then having to flee from them again, escaping to Sweden in disguise, losing her father in Auschwitz, back to Paris, then to New York to work for the young United Nations, to Israel, and then returning to New York, there was an unstoppable, unflappable, unmovable strength throughout her entire being that was exactly, perfectly what was needed at Carnegie Hall at a time when buildings weren’t always saved. Her perseverance is a landmark of driven focus to honor and never forget.
It’s been 55 years since the Hall was saved from demolition. Last year, while giving a tour of Carnegie Hall, I mentioned, “When the Hall was saved ...” and someone asked, “Saved from what?” Time passes. Memory dims. We cannot forget.
They had been divorced for 11 years and yet Vera Stern died on what would have been Isaac’s 95th birthday. Bonded, too, at Carnegie Hall, where the main auditorium carries Isaac Stern’s name and Box 44 on the Second Tier is named in honor of Vera.