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Island Profile: Dorothy Seiberling’s not slowing down by stepping down
BY JOAN BAUM | CONTRIBUTOR
“I like to be low key,” she says, instinctively adopting a music metaphor that perfectly suits her reputation on Shelter Island. For 22 years Dorothy Seiberling was president of the 32-year-old Shelter Island Friends of Music, a position she has just relinquished.
Though she handed over the baton recently to veteran TV and film actor Forrest Compton, she remains active and as enthusiastic as ever, involved with various SIFM duties.
She was the SIFM’s third president, beginning in 1976, the year when harpist Nancy Allen convinced her father, Don Allen, who lived on Shelter Island, to inaugurate a chamber music series at the 200-seat Shelter Island Presbyterian Church. Dorothy recalls being invited onto the board in the mid-1980s and then, one day, the board president, Henry Goldsmith, came to her house “with an armful of stuff, and said, ‘You take over.’”
Gradually, SIFM expanded from two or three concerts a year to as many as six, and though now down to four or five, continues to attract superb musicians. They typically perform traditional pieces, from Baroque through the early 20th century repertoire. On occasion SIFM also does challenging contemporary pieces, a slightly risky venture for SIFM’s mostly “seniorish” audience, still the staple of SIFM, Dorothy said.
“I always shudder when I see the parking lot empty a little bit before a concert, but then, at the last moments, it fills up,” she added, and the turnout, even when the “moderns” are on the program, is “pretty good.”
Few neighbors, however, let alone music lovers who come to the concerts from both the North and South forks, know of Dorothy Seiberling’s distinguished background, which includes a notable American family as well as personal accomplishments in journalism. She was art editor at Life under Time, Inc.’s fabled Henry Luce; associate editor at New York Magazine, before Murdoch; and deputy editor of The New York Times Sunday Magazine during the reign of Abe Rosenthal.
As for family, the Seiberling heritage in Akron, Ohio was recently exhibited on a program, “American Castles,” which featured, among other grand residences, Stan Hywet Hall, built by her grandparents, Frank and Gertrude Seiberling. Mr. Seiberling was the founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which he named in honor of Charles Goodyear, the inventor of vulcanized rubber.
Stan Hywet (Middle English for stone quarry — there was one on the estate) was designed by Charles Sumner Schneider, with grounds landscaped by Warren H. Manning.
Dorothy and her family lived in the little gate house on the estate. Her mother, Henrietta, was a “wonderful pianist who gave my sister and me lessons but never disciplined us to practice. But we loved hearing her play as we pursued our games outside.”
Henrietta gained her own niche in history as a result of her meeting with “a rum hound from New York,” an encounter that led to the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. Dorothy’s brother, John, later became a U.S. Congressman from Ohio, who was particularly active in environmental affairs, but he also served on the Judiciary Committee that voted to impeach President Nixon.
Like her mother and sister, Dorothy went to Vassar, where she majored in English and “lived it up” in student theatricals. After graduation, she was chosen by Time, Inc. to be trained as a researcher-fact checker. She was moved around in various departments, including the art section on Time when the famous photographer, Walker Evans, was writing for it. She eventually found her spot as a researcher at Life, moving from sports to foreign affairs and finally to her desired destination, the art department.
By the mid-1950s, she had become the editor and writer for the department. One of her major achievements was producing a year-end double issue on the Bible, which turned out to have the largest circulation of any issue up to that date. She later did a special issue on Picasso and was editor of Life’s final Christmas issue in 1972.
After Life folded in 1972, she went to work at New York Magazine, which was founded by her former Life colleague, Clay Felker, She worked there until 1977, when she was hired by The New York Times to be deputy editor of the Sunday Magazine. At one point, she was called in by The Times editor, Abe Rosenthal, who was disturbed that a German theologian whom most people, including her, had never heard of, was featured as the cover story. She recalls saying, “Well Abe, Mr. Luce always thought it was up to us to tell people about important things they didn’t know.” Abe was silent, then said, OK.
Although Dorothy Seiberling had known film and TV producer Sidney Stiber when both she and he were married to others (she, to the famous art historian and cultural critic, Leo Steinberg, who died in 2011), they reconnected in 1977, when both were single again, and shortly thereafter, she quit her job at The Times, married Sidney and came out to live on Shelter Island. He had come looking for land in 1955 and once he got off the ferry and looked around, that was it: he was hooked. He and Dorothy bought a house that had been built by an old Shelter Island family, the Avonas, that sat on lots of land, and Sidney went into joyful overdrive redesigning the house.
Though the deer have deterred her gardening enthusiasms somewhat, she still delights in showing off her fig trees and full-flowering pink camellias. Books adorn a coffee table, and she’s already preparing copy for the next SIFM concert. But wait, she’s retired. Well . . .