NEW YORK — Diane Wolkstein — a children’s author and folklorist who once upon a time served as New York City’s official storyteller, deputized to revive the dying art in this city of 8 million stories — died Jan. 31 in Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Ms. Wolkstein, 70, was undergoing surgery for a heart condition when she died, said her daughter, Rachel Zucker. She was in Taiwan to research a book of Chinese folk stories.
By most accounts, Ms. Wolkstein sparked a storytelling revival during her five years as the city’s lone full-time storyteller and helped set off a national wave of interest in the ancient art of the yarn.
Starting in 1967 (at a salary of $40 a week, on the Parks Department payroll) she staged hundreds of one-woman storytelling events, visiting two parks a day, five days a week. She carried a few props and a head full of tales. They included standards like Hansel and Gretel and an ever-widening repertory of Chinese, Persian, Nigerian, Haitian, African-American, and other cultures’ traditional stories, all performed with a spellbinder’s authority.
By the time the city decided it could no longer afford a storyteller, in 1971, Ms. Wolkstein had helped establish local storytelling organizations, revived traditions, and convened enough storytelling workshops to secure a place as the city’s unofficial storyteller-for-life.
Her radio show, ‘‘Stories from Many Lands,’’ was broadcast on WNYC from 1968 until 1980. She helped create the Storytelling Center of New York City, which trains thousands of volunteers and sends them into schools and libraries. She helped solidify a nascent Saturday-morning tradition of storytelling in Central Park, at the foot of the Hans Christian Andersen statue; over the last 50 years, attendance has become a rite of passage for city children.
In 1972, Ms. Wolkstein published the first of her two dozen books. Most were collections of folk tales, legends, and creation stories gathered during research trips. She visited China, Africa, and Haiti many times. In 1983, she collaborated with Samuel Noah Kramer, an Assyrian scholar, in writing ‘‘Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth,’’ a retelling of the 4,000-year-old story of the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love, and war.
Jimmy Neil Smith, founder of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tenn., a group that has promoted storytelling conventions, workshops, and jams since 1973, said Ms. Wolkstein was part of a revival that had its beginnings in the 1960s, paralleling the folk music revival.
‘‘What made her so unique in our community,’’ he said, ‘‘was that she had her fingers in so many different pies.’’
Ms. Wolkstein was an amalgam: folk historian, ethnographer, teacher, street performer, and feminist scholar. Several of her works, notably ‘‘Inanna,’’ sought to reclaim forgotten myths about female deities. Others reintroduced heroic women from ancient texts, as did her 1996 book, ‘‘Esther’s Story,’’ an imagined account of thebiblical heroine’s inner life.
The best stories, she said in 1992, revealed themselves to an audience in a kind of natural stereo: ‘‘Kids get it on one level, middle-aged people on another, and senior citizens have another,’’ she said.
Diane Wolkstein was born in Newark and grew up in Maplewood, N.J. Her mother worked as a librarian, her father as an accountant.
After graduating from Smith College, Ms. Wolkstein received a master’s degree in education from Bank Street College in New York. She later spent several years in Paris, where she worked as a teacher and studied mime with the renowned mime master Etienne Decroux.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Wolkstein, who was divorced, leaves her mother; two brothers; and three grandsons.
She talked her way into her job with the city, she told interviewers, only to realize later what she had gotten herself into. ‘‘There was no margin for error,’’ she said in 1992, describing her park visits. ‘‘I mean, it was a park. They’d just go somewhere else if they didn’t like it.’’