Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Remembering a One-of-a-Kind Friend and Talent

Family simchas, like the one Gilda and I attended in San Diego this past weekend—the marriage of our niece Lauren to Ofir—do not block out other, more somber, life cycle events. 

We heard Saturday morning of the passing of Milton Berwin. I’ve known Milton since the fall of 1978. He was the art director of my publications for close to 20 years. Over the years I worked with many art directors, none who possessed the love of literature Milton did. Moreover, Milt always took the time to read our stories before designing a page. 

In the pre-computer years of page layout, we would work together most afternoons, Milt chewing on an after lunch thin cigar as he held copy galleys in his hand, cutting them, pasting them on a page around a picture of a retail store, mostly interiors to show displays and, most importantly to him, customers to give the scene perspective. 

Never an easy man to get along with—cantankerous would be a mild description of his usual workplace demeanor, prompting one of his subordinates to throw a house iron at him (she missed)—Milton had mellowed, even becoming quite sentimental. 

He would read poetry to his partner of many years, Marianne, as they walked along the Hudson River. To the assembled friends and family at his 85th birthday party, he read the following poem by Robert McCrum:

I have learned, in short, that I am not

Immortal (the fantasy of youth)

and yet,

strangely, in the process I have been renewed

in my understanding of family and, finally,

of the only thing that matters:


Some might think Milt was no longer in his prime. He was, after all, 97, a veteran of World War II including service during the Battle of the Bulge. Yet he was still sharp of mind, funny, acerbic, creative, and only until recently during his near century-old life not a devoted exerciser at home or at the gym. 

Several of his paintings hang in our home, my favorite being a self-portrait that, to me, makes him look like a Portuguese fisherman. I become transfixed whenever I gaze upon it. It will be hard to accept the vibrant person staring back at me is no longer alive.

Sometime the words of another cannot be improved upon. They speak to one’s own thoughts and sentiments. Jay Forbes knew and worked with Milton even longer than I did at Lebhar-Friedman, publisher of Chain Store Age. He wrote to Milton’s decades-long partner Marianne the following tribute: 

“I am so sorry for your loss. Milt was an unforgettable guy in many respects. One of the first people I met when joining L-F, feisty, opinionated, talented, sharp as a tack and a premature curmudgeon at an early age. 

“He lived with an unrestrained passion, irrepressible, even when others carefully hid their feelings and conceded their true selves to conformity.

“I cannot express how wonderful it was to have seen him and yourself last year at that NYC diner, sharing a table with Roy, Walter and his partner and hearing him sing loudly and proudly every stanza of “Sunshine on my Shoulders” between courses while sharing memories of so long ago.

“He was a true original and I am glad someone of your intelligence and grace was able to be there for him as this force of nature slowly submitted to old age and finally succumbed. I know it will be hard for you but such is all our fate as we move down the path. I wish you many more good years and lasting memories.”