Nora Beate Sigerist Beeson, editor, author, translator, land-preservationist and musician, died Monday, June 17, 2019 at age 97 in New York City. The cause was Alzheimer’s Disease.
Nora and her family had a home on Shelter Island for a quarter of a century, where she founded the local chapter of The Nature Conservancy with fellow Islander Priscilla Dunhill. Nora was instrumental in saving one-third of Shelter Island from commercial development. Mashomack Preserve, all 2,039 acres, remains one of her proudest personal achievements.
She was born February 23, 1922 in Zürich, Switzerland, daughter of the medical historian and social visionary Henry Ernest Sigerist, who was an early champion of healthcare for all in the United States. Wife of composer Jack Hamilton Beeson, Nora was the mother of Christopher Sigerist Beeson and Miranda Beeson. Her husband, son and sister, Erica Sigerist Campanella, predeceased her.
Nora arrived in Baltimore from Leipzig, Germany in 1932, where her father had been director of the University of Leipzig’s Institute of the History of Medicine. She was enrolled at Roland Park Country Day School at age eleven without a word of English, mastering it in a matter of months, foreshadowing her mastery of French, Italian, Russian and a smattering of Church Slavonic (in addition to her native German and Swiss German languages). Her favorite word in the latter remained chuchichästli, Swiss German for kitchen cupboard. The word delighted her no end; the contents or care of kitchen cupboards, not so much.
Ever-independent, she opted not to return to Switzerland with her family following World War II. Instead, she set her sights on furthering her violin studies at Eastman School of Music while attending the University of Rochester. It was here that she met the ever-dapper Jack Beeson who was studying composition at Eastman, and would become her husband of 63 years.
At the invitation of composer Douglas Moore, Columbia University captured their attention. Jack Beeson taught in the music department, while she obtained an M.A. in Russian, and Ph.D. in Slavic Literature and Languages, writing her dissertation on Russian theater director, actor and theatrical producer Vsevolod Meyerhold. The Beesons were known to fly between classes on campus, swapping off the strollers containing their two small children.
Post-Ph.D., Nora had an illustrious career as a lecturer, writer, translator and editor — teaching at Hunter; working for Columbia University’s Russian Institute; preparing manuscripts for McGraw-Hill’s Encyclopedia of World Art; editing international editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica; and, most happily, as a senior editor at Harry N. Abrams where she joyfully collaborated with numerous artists, including Christo and Jeanne Claude, and George Rickey.
In 1972 she was the author and general editor of the first “Guide to The Metropolitan Museum of Art” — a challenge which necessitated the use of her many languages, her considerable charm, and all of her brilliance, her family recalled, to navigate the complex web of the museum’s many curatorial departments.
Nora was also instrumental in founding the Bloomingdale School of Music in New York City which provides high-quality music education to children K-12.
There will be no service. The family asks people to play a piece of music you love in her memory.
Her ashes will be scattered in Long Island this summer.
Donations in her memory may be made to the Bloomingdale School of Music, 323 West 108th Street, New York, NY 10025, for “Stay Tuned,” which tunes and maintains the pianos of Jack Beeson, Douglas Moore, and 15 other studio pianos played by more than 250 young pianists every year.