The Greatest Love Story Never Told

The day Lenny died, I was in London. It seems retrospectively fitting that I’d been wandering on my own at the Victoria & Albert Museum, spending an inordinate amount of time looking at wrought iron gates and fences; things that were both supremely practical and also purposefully beautiful.

In our small town, on the same pretty Main Street strip as the old-fashioned glass-cased pharmacy, the deli where everyone knew your name and order, a newsstand owned by the same family as the deli, a cozy wine shop, and bookended by dueling greasy spoons, stood and stands an elegant, chock-full art gallery. It is filled with decorative treasures from curved hand-worked rocking chairs, to enchanting handblown paperweights, to old magazine etchings, to landscapes and abstract paintings, pleasing and pleasant to fill the houses of the commuter class the migrates to the village, year in and year out. The common thread of the pleasing assortment is a sharp eye for beauty. I should say “eyes,” for the gallery, Images, is the creation of a couple, Lenny and Marie Alpert. It reflects their good taste, specifically Marie’s. And from the start, it was more than a place to buy a birthday present or art for a new home. It was the locus of a small community, of which my family was one of many spokes, jutting out from the core that Lenny and Marie created. 

Marie has told me of my mom popping in when my sister was a baby. I picture her, holding my hand, carrying my sister, a literal bouncing baby. I can picture them all in fact. Lenny, a benignly stoic god, tall in his silver wheelchair, with his shock of silver-grey hair and his raspy voice. Marie, a darting hummingbird, busy and laughing around him, tending to the store, to the art, to the customers, to Lenny. My mom, sinking into one of the chairs pulled up to the table, interested, and curious, and chatty. The Alperts, also interested, curious, and chatty to this pretty, young woman and her pretty, young girls, washing up on their shores. Images wasn’t just a place of beauty, but a place of refuge as well. A peaceful oasis, where a young mom could sit for a moment, secure that her children were safe at hand, if only they didn’t destroy anything.

As we got older, we reveled in being useful there; we were sent out to fetch cups of tea and coffee, given license to wander up to the balcony, and even into the front window to pretend to be art. We had play dates there. It was a very happy place. On Saturdays, my dad would take my sister to breakfast, and they would end up there, and my mom and I would go and find them. We always could. Lenny would be in his chair, gently chastising my dad for his politics, my dad enjoying the intellectual joust, my sister sitting in one of the handsome chairs that were situated in front of Lenny and his computer, and the long table that acted as Marie’s point of sale and desk. If you stayed long enough, you’d get to know the other regulars too: a carpenter, a housewife, an artist, a prominent member of the Society pages, a former cabinet member, a teacher. All welcome, the same welcome.

 Later, after school and on some Saturdays, I was enlisted to “work” there. I’ve never had a happier job; sticking prices on picture frames, going on coffee runs, calculating things on the giant calculator Marie used, talking about books with Lenny, who was truly patient with me. He and Marie both were the kind of patient that didn’t make you feel like they were being patient. They genuinely seemed to enjoy us, me and Robin, to revel in our brightness, and our individuality, and encourage it. They were truly our friends, not simply friends of my parents, but my friends and Robin’s.  And in that way, because they both knew us as well as my mom and dad, they became our family. Except we never dread to see them, the one does with family. They were role models too. To build a life and a business together, with beauty and joy, in not the easiest of circumstances. Both Lenny and Marie were practical and also beautiful. And we loved them and love them still, because they loved us. Indeed, my children love Marie too. When the topic of families comes up, Marie is in the same breath as their grandparents. Recently Edward told me, “The thing about Marie is, she doesn’t really seem old at all. Because she makes a lot of jokes and asks a lot of questions.” I agree! 

There were bits and pieces of Lenny and Marie’s story that swirled, but I’d never stopped to ask Marie about any of it. When did Lenny get sick? How did it affect their lives? How did they have to change? Last winter I finally took a minute to ask her, and this is their story. I present it here in celebration of Marie’s 90th birthday with all of my love.

Meet Cute

At the beginning, we went to the same grammar school. We lived two blocks away from each other. We knew a lot of the same people, but we did not know each other.

When we met, I was still in high school, he was in college. We met in the neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx. There were a lot of young people our age. And we had no place to go, so in the summer, we would sit in a park. There were several parks. In the winter, we would go into what was the bowling alley poolroom, and we’d buy soda or whatever, so at least we were paying customers, and we’d hang out there. I always felt I wanted him to think well of me. His opinion of me mattered a lot.

There was a New Year’s Eve party coming up. It was going into 1951, and the boys had rented a huge hotel suite, down in Times Square. I had an actual date with a fellow named George, but I was not interested in him really. And when we got there, Lenny was there and he was sitting alone on a dresser. And I thought to myself, “I really wish I were here with him, not George.”

Then we get to March. I went to school in the city and I was home in the afternoon doing my homework. And he called and he said, “Do you want to go for a walk?” And I said, “Yes.” And that’s how it really began. We just started to walk and talk and talk and talk and talk. And our brains fell in love before our bodies did and it just went from there. That’s it.

My mother was not happy. When things got more serious, I told her I was not going to get married in the church, I was not going to get married by a priest. I didn’t even approach how we would raise our children. (Note: Lenny was Jewish and Marie was Catholic.)

His mother did not have any objections to it at all. She liked me from the start. And so we just started to go together. By then I was in college at Hunter, and we were going together.

He had to serve, and instead of going into the Army, he decided to enlist in the Navy because he could choose his own path that way. And he enlisted in the Officer Candidate Program in Newport to become an ensign. He hurt his back doing something and he got a medical discharge. And then we didn’t get married until I finished college, which was now October 1954.

A Phoenix Rises

When we’d been married for a year, he got sick. We called the doctor and told him the symptoms. The doctor told us to meet him at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in the Bronx. Once we got there, and they saw what was happening, they knew what it was. And like most childhood diseases, adults get it much worse than children. Lenny had Polio. Big time. He became nearly totally paralyzed from it.

We never discussed it when it Lenny got sick. All I knew was that I could do it. I could make it work. I would make it work. And I did make it work. I don’t know if it was cockiness or what. The with this is, we either lay down and die, or we get up and live.

And we chose to live.


By this time, he was working for Sears, as a systems analyst, which was a new field at that time. Once he was conscious, he was determined to go back to work.  He understood the implications, that this was it- he was paralyzed. He wanted to move on, so he began to agitate to go back to work. And somebody- from what was then called personnel- came and talked to him and he said, “Look, I’ll know if it’s working.” So they took him back and I went as his secretary, so to speak. To help him when he needed me.

And we were living up here, in Briarcliff, where we had built our little house on the top of the hill, and I drove.  I wasn’t getting paid. After a while, they said, “This is silly, we need qualified people. You’re here, so you should be working here.” So I did. And that was wonderful because it made a big difference in our standard of living.

In early 1960, Sear’s began to embark on a program in data processing. He was incredible because he just understood it intuitively. And he could internalize all the computer specifications and capabilities and could compare one with the other. He just was brilliant. There’s no other way I can explain it. And he was the one who did it. It was our field of Sears business, the fashion lines. And they decided they would do that first, rather than hard goods or furniture or men’s wear. They had to start somewhere, so they decided to do women’s wear. And he was brilliant.

Ed Note. In 1960 data processing was new, heck, computers with business applications were new. For the first time, organizations where able to take data and organize it and relate it to each other, so you could start to line up inventory, transactions, and customer information. This was revolutionary and allowed businesses- especially larger retailers like Sears-to scale up. Retail businesses still do this to this day: it helps them buy the right amount of the right merchandize and market it to the right customer.

It was the best thing that ever happened, after what happened. That was the worst thing that ever happened.

Art and Artists

As for me, they had a lot of interesting jobs. I put together the employee newspaper. I did it single-handedly. I did all the writing, the editing, the working with the printer, the laying out, everything, took the photographs, did drawings. It was wonderful. My own little thing. But the thing is, all of these jobs that I got were kind of self-contained, and I could be housed next door to Lenny without involving any other people. In case he needed me.

Sears had outgrown the space in the building where we were, down on 31st Street and Ninth Avenue. And there was a lot of unrented new unoccupied office space. So, we moved uptown to Broadway and 50th Street, terrific location, right across from the Winter Garden Theater. And I and my friend, Mark, oversaw moving whatever art we had in the old building and acquiring new- not art-but decorative pieces. And it was really a big, big job. And Mark and I worked together, we were like a little team. We just were in harness together. I loved it. And I was good at it. I got to see a lot.

I would go down to the Soho. I found a terrific gallery called Poster Originals. And I got these wonderful posters and they did all the framing for me. I had a frame shop at Sears, and we had a carpenter working with us, and if we had to frame something ourselves, he would follow my instructions on a worksheet I made. It was a lot of fun.

I still use the same worksheet today. They were perfect then, they’re perfect now. I was working with Kulick. Kulick was the innovator in metal frames, and there was a Mr. And Mrs. Kulick. They got divorced and she got the business, the framing business in her divorce settlement. And they were beginning to open franchises, and they opened one in Short Hills, New Jersey.

Meanwhile, I was doing my own fabric art. I was making batiks. Lenny was really strict on what I would keep and what I would destroy. He was like my editor, that’s the only way I could explain it. And so, I had begun to show my work in local galleries in Westchester. A gallery in New Jersey gave me a one woman show. And I was so pleased. For an artist, this is very important. It’s one thing for your friends and family to come to the gallery and buy your work. It’s a whole other thing for the gallery’s customers to come and buy your work. And that’s what happened.

I began sending slides of my art to people. I sent slides to Lord & Taylor because they had an art gallery. It was a floating art gallery within the furniture department. So I sent a sleeve of slides there. And the buyer called me. She said, “I’m looking at your work and you are calling them paintings, but is that Batik?” I said, “As a matter of fact, it is Batik.” But Batik had very unfavorable connotations, kind of hippie dippy, floaty schmoty rags. And I said, “These are pictures. They are pictorial. They are framed. Look, I’m on 31st street, you on 38th Street, I can walk over and I’ll show you unframed pieces and you could be the judge.” And she loved them and she took them. So I became a Lord & Taylor artist. So now I’m showing in Westchester, Short Hills, New Jersey, in Manhattan, and Lord & Taylor. It was wonderful.

And it pleased Lenny very much, because I know at the bottom of it, Lenny felt that I was giving him everything, and I wasn’t getting any recognition, I wasn’t doing anything really for me. And this was for me. So, he didn’t care where it was, he would go anywhere to help me promote my work. As far away as Connecticut, almost in Rhode Island. I can’t remember the name of the town.

The House

We originally moved to Briarcliff from the city after Lenny became paralyzed. His sister and brother-in-law lived in Hartsdale, and since we had no idea how we would manage or what was going to become of us, they said they would sell their house in Hartsdale and buy a place that had a house that had enough land where we could build a house, a little house. And so we would be close to each other in case we needed help. And that’s what we did.

We live on top of the hill and they lived at the bottom.

When we bought it, it was not the house we liked at all. It was like the dopiest house in the world when we moved in. It was so weird, and Lenny hated it. He wanted to sell it right away and move. And I said, “Not so fast.” I said, “I like it here. I like it very much. I like this spot where I’m in the middle of no place and there’s nobody on top of us. I like that. I like the quiet.” I said, “You know what’s wrong with the house? Fix it.” And there began 15 years of improvements and additions and turning around this room and adding that room to bring us to the house that exists today. Somewhere, I have graph paper with overlaying sheets showing the different incarnations, but even I can’t understand it anymore. Lenny loved building, loved architecture. He lived for that, he loved it.

Every now and then, he would stop talking and he’d lean his head back and he’d look around and I said, “No, no, no, no, Lenny, no, no, no. Stop, stop, stop.”

He said, “What if we took that door and made a window…” And then I’d go,  “Oh God, here we go again.”

But in doing, in all the things, putting in the garage, putting in the sun porch, we made a friend. We made a friend named Sven. Sven was a native of Finland, but his ethnicity was Swedish because there was a Swedish enclave in Finland. And he was the middle bidder when we had enough money to add a garage. And he worked on each successive change and even the turning the drugstore into an art gallery. And Sven was the most unlikely person to befriend Lenny and me because he hated Jews (Lenny) and he hated what he called Guinea Wops (me!). But he loved us. He would’ve hung by his thumbs. He would’ve done anything for us.

He used to come, usually on Monday night, and have a drink and sit and talk to Lenny about his business problems. And after he left, I’d say, “What did he say, Lenny?” He says, “I don’t know. I understood every word, but I don’t know what it meant.” And there were several Scandinavian people with whom we dealt. Their English was excellent, but we had no idea what they were talking about. There was something in the syntax, I don’t know, didn’t understand. But he and Lenny became fast friends.

And so first we did the garage, then we added a bedroom and turned rooms around, and then we just kept going and going and going. And then he got to do the gallery and the whole remodeling of the gallery. And then when we were there five years, our celebration was building the upstairs, constructing the balcony and all of that.

The Gallery

We’re now in the ’70s, and rumors began to fly that the entire New York operation was going to be moved to Chicago. And when it became official, we both said, “We will stay as long as you need us, but don’t make any provision for us. We are not going to Chicago. We’re going to go off on our own and we’re going to open an art gallery.” And that’s what we did.

However, it wasn’t easy to find a place. We started looking in the summer of ’79. There was a gas shortage that you couldn’t use your car every day, depending on your license plate, even and odd days. We were looking all over when we could, and we could not find a good spot. There was a place available in Mount Kisco. I don’t know who said, “Don’t sign that lease.” I had the lease in my bag. We didn’t sign it.

In February of 1980, I go into the drugstore in Briarcliff Manor, and the pharmacist says, “Oh, what are you doing home in the middle of the week?” And I said, “We don’t work in Manhattan anymore. I’m looking for a place to open an art gallery.” And he said, “What about here?” And I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’re closing as of June 30th. Lenny Gordon, who was the original pharmacist, lives in Florida. He still owns the building.” He said, “Why don’t you call him?” So Lenny and I called the other Lenny that night, and he said the magic words, “Why rent? Buy it. I don’t want to own it anymore. I don’t want to be an absentee landlord worrying about people slipping on the ice.” So we did. We bought the building.

He said, “Here, I will give you a two-year option. You pay me $10,000 and you have two years in which to exercise your option.” We gave him the money and we were paying $1000 a month in rent. And from the very beginning, we saw the everything was going fine. I wanted to buy it as soon as I could. Lenny said, “Not so fast. Leave the money in the bank.” Because certificates of deposit were making incredible interest in those years. I don’t know why. I think we were in a downturn economy. Anyway, we left the money there and two years later we bought the building, paid cash for it, no mortgage, like with the shopping bag full of cash. And there we are.

How bad could it be to own a building?

And here’s the clinker. I’m not a believer. But I had to open a bank account for the gallery. And I went across to the little bank that looks like a Western saloon, and I opened the bank account, and it was the end of June, beginning of July, and it had rained, and there over the building was a rainbow. You can’t make that stuff up.

With Lenny, nothing is haphazard. Everything is organized and thought out beforehand. When we knew what we were going to do in those years, there was no computers, no iPhones. I had a little index file, three by five index cards. We went all over to art shows and competitions, and I would make notes, the name and address and phone number of the artist, my recollections, what I remembered seeing, what kind of work it was. And Lenny said, “We do not get in touch with anyone until we know where we are going to be. Until we have signed a lease, then you get in touch with them.”

And so, then I got stationary, and I wrote letters to all of these people explaining that we were opening a gallery in Briarcliffe Manor, that we had 1500 square feet, high ceiling room with skylights and blah, blah, blah, and invited them. Most of them rose to the occasion. When we were ready to open- by this time, it was September of 1980- we had, I think a dozen artists who were going to come with us to the grand opening.

We got rid of all of the drugstore furnishings, which would’ve been a fortune to junk. But Lenny had a great idea. He said, “Call King’s College, see if they need fluorescent lights, bookshelves,” because we had all these cosmetic display things. They came and took everything. They said, “We can use it all in our workshops in the basement.”

And they cleaned it… In a lease, it sometimes says, “You have to leave the premises broom clean.” We left the premises broom, except for one thing. There was a candy refrigerator. It was wood-grained formica. But it was a nice looking unit, and we thought, “Maybe we can sell that.” Well, Sven had other thoughts. Sven had a friend with a bake shop and catering place near the Tappan Zee Bridge. And he came over one Sunday morning, he got the key and he brought his friend, his friend, Elam, to see the thing. And he did a deal. He said, “Here’s the deal. You give Elam the refrigerator, and in return, he will cater your grand opening.”

So we figured, “Why not?” Then, I went to the wine shop down the street and I said, “We’re going to have a grand opening. “And the guy didn’t even wait for me to finish the sentence. He said, “Oh, I know what, I’m going to bring you a dozen bottles of wine. And you put a sign on the table, “Wine courtesy of  Manor, wine and spirits. Okay?” And I said ok, and we had some wine!

The opening day was pouring, pouring rain. It was the end of a drought. It had not rained all summer. It rained that day like it never rained before. And I thought Sven’s friend was going to bring some potato chips and a couple of breadsticks and things, olives. No. The door kept opening and closing, it was like a Marx Brothers movie. Elam and his wife kept coming in raincoats with these platters and platters and platters of food, all kinds of pates and cheeses and strawberries. It was elegant. Lenny and I, and this friend of ours, June, who worked for another gallery, thought, “MY God, who’s going to come and eat it? It’s pouring.”

We were mobbed. It just fell together. I’m an atheist, but it would make me think of believing in God.

A Clean Dry Washcloth

The winter of 1999. It was cold and we were both sick. He saw your parents’ friend, (the cardiologist) Ricky Kay, and he was going to have a stent put in his heart. He was tired.

The last night, he asked to talk to his best friend, and I thought “he’s ok, he wouldn’t do that if he wasn’t ok.” And he was hungry. And I thought “he’s ok, he’s eating.” He was at home, in his own bed, looking out at the garden. He loved the garden in the winter, because he said “you can see the bones”. He asked me to go and get him a clean dry washcloth. We never did anything with a dry washcloth! But I said ok. And that was it. Those were his last words. He was in the house he loved, with me, looking at the garden he loved. He always wanted to go very quickly, and he did.