Trisha Brown (choreographer), David Rockefeller (banker and philanthropist), Jimmy Breslin (journalist), and Bob Silvers (founding editor of the New York Review of Books): shakers and makers of arts and culture in postwar New York all gone in the last few days. None were young; all were vital. It’s a reminder of an era of a dizzying pendulum swing, roughly from the 1960s to the 1990s, in a city defined by extremes – from the wealthy global capital instantiated in the World Trade Center (thanks to Rockefeller) to the fiscal and political crisis just a few years later and then its long aftermath (reported on by Breslin).
Brown and Rockefeller were builders. Brown created dances that skimmed the roofs of downtown New York and animated the sanctuaries of museums. She started with pedestrian movements, demonstrating the energy and flow in our everyday and off of stages. And then she brought those movements to the ballet and opera. From Judson Church in the Village to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, a journey that she certainly did not deliberately plan but one that confirmed the innovation of the avant-garde and of postmodern dance, pushing at the staid traditions of art.
Rockefeller was the last of the brothers. Those of us who study Rockefellers refer to them in generations: Senior, the monopolist; Junior, the Standard Oil bearer but also budding philanthropist; then the brothers – John D. the 3rd, Nelson, Winthrop, Laurence, and the baby David (there is a nearly always forgotten sister, Abby, too). The brothers had successful careers (Nelson’s in government is perhaps the most well-known) but they all were philanthropists as well. They created the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in 1940 that spanned their interests, from foreign relations to the environment and the arts. But, always, a concerted attention to New York. The fund supported Lincoln Center, the Studio Museum of Art in Harlem, and public schools in the midst of the difficult 1970s. David spearheaded the New York City Partnership, begun in 1980, which was a coalition of leaders from the corporate, non-profit, educational, and government sectors dedicated to addressing economic development, education, and housing. One of the fund’s latest endeavors: the Charles E. Culpeper Arts & Culture program, which gives support to artists of underrepresented groups in the city.
I know less about Silvers and Breslin, who were makers and shakers of a different kind, bringing attention to literature and the workers of the city, respectively. As television and film took off in the postwar world, printed words were still the domain of New York, the hub of publishing and journalism. The editor Silvers crafted a world where books mattered so much that they deserved reviews almost as long as the books themselves. The journalist Breslin looked into corners of the world we typically ignore, those who bore tunnels, moved dirt, and suffered injustices.
The oddity of obituaries is that a particular day can bring together people that have no apparent connection to one another. I doubt these four were ever in the same room together, despite their active roles in the same era of New York. Maybe what they have most in common is a commitment to the city as it heaved—and they found their own rhythms within that swing.