Mere days before memorialization by The New York Times in a piece that praised her poetry and pictured her iconic tresses crowned by a fur cap, Lucie Brock-Broido was similarly lionized by The New Yorker for possessing a “sly, baroque diction” vaulting her among the historic American voices.
That encomia should come for the professor and director of Columbia University’s poetry concentration, who at 61 died after “a brief illness,” is not uncommon. Neither is the reawakening of childhood memories by those who knew the magnificently radiating girl from Maynard Street in Squirrel Hill.
“I can picture her perfectly,” said Jill Silverman, of San Francisco. “She had long flowing light brown hair. She had freckles, a big smile. She was very pretty, very friendly.”
Silverman and Brock-Broido, both of whom were born in 1956, became friends at the Wightman School, located on Pittsburgh’s Solway Street.
“It was probably around third grade that I knew that she was exceptional,” said Tracey Goldblum, of New York. “We were in the library and we were reading our stuff aloud,” and it came time for her classmate to share her composition. With poise and projection, Brock-Broido recited her crafted tale of Py-Co-Pay the Toothbrush.
“I will never forget the response I had of both jealousy and awe that she was such a good and entertaining writer even at that age,” said Goldblum. It was “visceral.”
Early on it was clear that “she had a flair for artistic things,” agreed Silverman.
“Lucie was probably more dramatic than most little girls, but not in a bad way,” offered Wightman classmate Kim Teitelbaum (née Righter).
Brock-Broido came by her talents honestly. Her mother, Virginia “Ginger” Greenwald, performed in George Romero’s films, did voiceover and on-camera commercial work, studied to be a playwright, served on the board of the Pittsburgh Playhouse and directed the City Theatre.
But it was a residentially staged achievement that still strikes sentiment, recalled Teitelbaum.
“When we were younger, middle school age, Lucie was having a big sleepover with a lot of girlfriends and it was late and we were all sprawled out over the floor and beds in the bedroom trying to settle down for the night,” she said. “And suddenly the door opened and in came a person with a nylon stocking over her head, and we all started screaming bloody murder. And here it was her mother purposely trying to give us a fright. She definitely succeeded. I’ll never forget that.”
Teitelbaum thought that Brock-Broido would go on to be an actress like her mother. “But then she was drawn to poetry,” she mused.
“She was pretty self-aware. I mean, she had…a career path already at the age of 14 mapped out pretty well,” said Wendy Bennett, a friend of Brock-Broido’s from Taylor Allderdice High School.
In 1971, Bennett and Brock-Broido created a text, titled “Peoplings,” for a ninth-grade English assignment.
“When I say we wrote a book together, it was [actually] a pastiche of collages, very bad poetry on my part, not too bad on her part, illustrations, song lyrics, all sorts of provocative things ripped from the headlines of Life Magazine and Weekly World News and other things because she really liked to be provocative,” explained Bennett.
Whether it was cutting class at Allderdice, skipping Saturday school at synagogue or swimming in her family’s outdoor pool at all hours of the night, Brock-Broido had no shortage of adventures, said those who knew her.
“We all had quirks,” said Goldblum. “She just seemed so interesting all the time.”
One winter, “Lucie had wanted a Christmas tree in the worst way,” remembered Teitelbaum. She eventually got one for her bedroom, but when the two decided to take it down, “it was shedding all of the needles all over the floor.”
Ginger was downstairs entertaining friends and “Lucie was trying to dispose of this Christmas tree,” continued Teitelbaum. “We didn’t want to go down and make a fuss in front of all of the ladies” so Brock-Broido decided that it would be best to push it through the window. “We opened up the window and pushed and pushed” until the tree finally fell two stories down. It “plopped right beside where Ginger and her friends were playing mah-jongg.”
It wasn’t the only time the pair cooked up mischief. Frequent class-cutters, as teenagers Teitelbaum and Brock-Broido would head up Darlington Road, “near the top of the hill,” park on Serpentine Drive in Schenley Park, play the radio and smoke cigarettes. “We thought we had a good hiding place,” until “we were busted,” said Teitelbaum.
One day, Ginger, who was in the car with “some other women who she played mah-jongg with,” drove past. “I still remember the look on her face as she went by and shook her finger at us,” said Teitelbaum. “We had a lot of laughs.”
After high school, Brock-Broido earned degrees from Johns Hopkins University and Columbia before joining the latter’s faculty. Her accolades include the Witter Bynner prize for poetry from the Academy of American Arts and Letters; Harvard University’s Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Award; the Harvard-Danforth Award for Distinction in Teaching; the Jerome J. Shestack Poetry Prize from The American Poetry Review; two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 2013 work, “Stay, Illusion,” was a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
“She was obviously very bright,” said Silverman. “She could do whatever she wanted to, I think, but she had a flair for artistic things so it makes sense that she went in that direction.”
Added Bennett: “Lucie was in every sense of the word unique.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.