Remembering Financier and Arts Patron Roy Neuberger (1903-2010)

Roy Neuberger
Roy Neuberger: Financier and art patron extraordinaire.
When someone lives to the age of 107, that’s news in and of itself.

But when Roy R. Neuberger died at 107 on Christmas Eve Day, he was far more than just a person who had lived an extraordinarily long life. He was one of the most significant figures in 20th Century American finance, along with being an important patron of the arts.

Neuberger’s life story follows the arc of America’s modern history. Born into a family of wealth in Bridgeport, CT in 1903, he was orphaned at an early age. At first Neuberger was interested in a journalism career, but found college studies unfulfilling and dropped out of New York University before earning his degree.

Neuberger’s first job in business was with B. Altmans, a famous New York department store. He would later recall that this experience prepared him not just for a life in business, but also nurtured a lifelong appreciation for art.

Neuberger then took a sabbatical from business in his early 20s to travel to Europe, where he dabbled in painting and lived the life of a Bohemian in Paris along with other American expatriates.

After this wanderlust wore off and he was back in the United States, Neuberger stepped back into the business world by beginning his career on Wall Street – mere months before the stock market crash of 1929. Soldiering on during the years of the Depression, by 1939 he had co-founded Neuberger Berman, an investment firm that would later establish one of the first no-load mutual funds in America (the Guardian Fund – still in operation today).

But Neuberger’s love of art and painting was never far from his mind. In fact, by the early 1940s he was well on his way to becoming one of America’s most important art patrons. Neuberger was an early admirer of the paintings of Peter Hurd, promoting his works and helping to put this artist on the cultural map. It was a pattern that would be repeated over the years, as Neuberger championed the works of such luminaries as Edward Hopper, Milton Avery, Alexander Calder and Jackson Pollock.

Over the decades, not only did Neuberger amass a trove of modern art, he was to become a major benefactor of important works to institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), as well as numerous college and university museums. This culminated in the building of the Neuberger Museum of Art on the campus of the State University of New York in Purchase, to house his collection. The museum, designed by architect Philip Johnson, opened in 1974.

On the social scene, Roy Neuberger was a fixture in New York business, political and artistic circles. He was a close personal friend of Gov. and later Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. In later years, after the death of his wife, he was a regular escort of the glamorous singer, actress and fellow art patron Kitty Carlisle Hart – another member of the glitterati who lived a long and celebrated life (96 years).

Throughout his many decades of involvement in the arts scene, Neuberger never severed ties to his business or the world of finance. Indeed, he was a person who seemed genuinely comfortable operating in both realms – two worlds that sometimes do not get along so well.

Neuberger even found time to write his memoirs: So Far, So Good – the First 94 Years was published 13 years before his death … and he penned a second book on art collecting as late as 2003.

Clearly, Roy Neuberger was someone who had a real zest for life and who never stopped growing and learning … which surely makes him an inspiration to many. But if that’s not enough for you, just the fact that he lived to be 107 years old is noteworthy in itself!

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.

Risë Stevens: A Living Legend

Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
This past week, a living legend in the world of the arts has celebrated a birthday. When Risë Stevens was born in Bronx borough 96 years ago, New York City was very much like it is today … the largest city in the United States, with a rich ethnic diversity including many first-generation immigrants. A city of amazing contrasts, from dirt-poor neighborhoods to districts of fabulous wealth and style.

Miss Stevens’ background was typical of many. Her father was a first-generation Swedish Protestant, her mother a second-generation Russian Jew. Growing up on the tough neighborhood streets of the Bronx, the bright lights of Manhattan must have seemed a world apart rather than just a few short miles away.

In her rise to the top of the billboards at the Metropolitan Opera, Stevens would have her share of luck – the onset of World War II in Europe gave American-born soloists their best chance ever to star in the limelight. But it also took years of practice, sheer hard work and “paying her dues” on provincial stages in places as diverse as Prague and Buenos Aires. Much of those early years are recounted in her biography Subway to the Met, published in the late 1950s.

Miss Stevens’ rich mezzo-soprano voice, coupled with her highly attractive physical appearance, made her a natural for several femme fatale operatic roles such as Dalila in Saint-Saens’ Samson & Dalila, Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and, most notably, the title role in Bizet’s Carmen. But early in her Met career, management seemed disinclined to cast her in this role, perhaps because several other stars were already filling the honors there. Not willing to accept this situation, Stevens did a true star turn, getting herself cast opposite Bing Crosby in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Going My Way in which, as Father O’Malley’s erstwhile neighborhood chum and now star of the opera, she sang the famous Habañera from the opera Carmen.

That seemed to do the trick, as the American public now clamored to see her sing the role. Dutifully, the Metropolitan Opera cast her as Carmen within the year, and for the next two decades, Stevens would practically own the role at the Met. (And it was as Carmen that Stevens made her last performance before retiring from the Met stage in 1961.)

The number of people who were introduced to the world of opera through Miss Stevens during the 1940s and 1950s is astonishingly large. Her compelling portrayal of Bizet’s cigar-factory worker temptress has been cited as THE defining catalyst for opera lovers in countless postings all over the web (you can read some examples here, here and here).

But beyond the limelight and the marquee board, there is another reason why Risë Stevens has been loved by so many: she has always been true to herself, and to her art. You can see that in how, despite the fact that she probably made more money starring in just three Hollywood films than she made in her entire career on the opera stage, she left Hollywood and returned to opera because it was her true love.

… You can see it by her loyalty in promoting the art of opera and her beloved Met Opera company. Even today, she remains on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, making her association with the company more than 70 years running.

… You can also see it in her compelling “up-from-poverty” personal story … and in her long and loving 65+ year marriage to her Viennese-born Hungarian husband, Walter Surovy.

And you can see it in the genuine interest she takes in people of all backgrounds and generations. Unlike so many stars who, once they are famous, become absolute personality horrors – full of arrogance and snobbery — Risë Stevens has never lost her connection to the “real world.” My own two daughters have carried on a correspondence with their “Miss Risë” for 15 years, who they’ve come to regard as a kind of special relative who lives far, far away and is larger than life in some respects.

From them, and from so many others: Happy Birthday, Risë … and may you celebrate many more!