Saturday, December 28, 2019

Marlene Gelfond, 81, assistant to Roger Ebert.

     I don't write many deadline obits anymore. A shame, because it's always worthwhile to delve into somebody's life and try to form their story into a beautiful keepsake, faithful to the truth yet cognizant of the irreversible moment it is commemorating. Typically, I focus on prominent individuals with Chicago connections, people whom we don't want to be caught napping when they pass, forced to piece together something that will do in a few hours. Far better to spend years digging into their lives and sculpting them into a story.
     But my former colleague Marlene Gelfond passed away two weeks ago, and the paper, on holiday skeleton staff, had no one to give her the attention she deserved. I did not know Marlene well, but I remembered her, and wanted to make sure it was taken care of properly. Plus I had time on my hands, being on vacation. Like the Marine Corps—in this if in no other regard—newspapers take care of our own, or try to. This ran Christmas Day. 
     When Marlene Gelfond was dying at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her family all around her, a woman rabbi came to visit. She said a few prayers, then urged the 81-year-old to make her peace with the world and seek forgiveness from anyone she might have wronged.
     Her family burst out laughing.
     “There would be no one” to apologize to, her sister Maxine Levenbrook said.
     “She was the nicest, sweetest person,” added son Dan Gelfond. “Not a mean bone in her body. She literally never harmed a human being in her life. The most moral person in the world.”
     Despite being a good and moral person, Gelfond who died of cancer Dec. 14, worked at a newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, much of the time as an editorial assistant to famed film critic Roger Ebert.
     “Marlene Gelfond was a culture maven who appreciated many aspects of the arts, and as such was happy to work with Roger on assignments ranging from movies to the theater and appearances to promote his books and speaking engagements,” said Chaz Ebert, the film critic’s widow.
     “She genuinely cared about people,” said former arts editor Laura Emerick. “She was the sweetest person in the world, full of love.”
     She was born Marlene Schultz and grew up on Chicago’s West Side. Her father was a clothing salesman; her mother, a homemaker. She loved walking to the Legler Library and grew into a fan of music, ballet and the arts.

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  1. When I got to the second paragraph of Marlene Gelfond's obit a couple days ago, I muttered to myself, "This sounds familiar. Could it be..." and glanced up to see who wrote it. "Knew it," I said. No one else would introduce laughter so soon into an obituary. A fine tribute to the "sweetest person in the world." Glad I got to hear of her, even if it had to be after her death.


  2. I never paid much attention to obits; who really cared about strangers no longer with us? Thankfully I’ve learned better, having read some of Neil’s here on social media. Lovely tribute to a lovely lady.

  3. Wow. The Legler Library, at 115 S. Pulaski. Stunning interior, with WPA murals of Native Americans. Wonderful children's section. Got my first library card there, when I was six. We moved out of the neighborhood the following year, but I've never forgotten the place. The Legler Library introduced me to the world. Happily, it's still around...and it will turn 100 in October.

  4. Beautiful tribute. Interesting that you say, “Despite being a good and moral person . . . Gelfond worked at a newspaper . . . . Hmmm.

  5. I’m curious why you specified a “woman” rabbi, when that becomes clear in the next sentence. Is it because that is a rare occurrence, or was there another reason?


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