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Myrna Kaye, astute writer and ‘savvy sleuth’ in the antiques world, dies at 90

Mrs. Kaye, shown on her porch in Lexington on an American rocking chair, wrote several books, including "There's A Bed in the Piano."
Mrs. Kaye, shown on her porch in Lexington on an American rocking chair, wrote several books, including "There's A Bed in the Piano."BERRY, Pam GLOBE STAFF

Having moved with her family to Lexington in the early 1960s, Brooklyn-born Myrna Kaye needed a way to settle into her new life.

“I thought, ‘I have to do something to make New England home,’ " she told the Globe in 1998. “I looked around and saw all these weather vanes.”

That simple observation helped lead her into a career as a writer, curator, and lecturer whose antiques expertise was sought out by buyers, readers, and museums.

A self-styled “savvy sleuth” who could separate the fake from the real, Mrs. Kaye was 90 and her health had been declining when she died on April 20, the day she was admitted to Lahey Hospital and Medical Center.

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“She was much admired in the antiquarian circles that I inhabited,” said Jonathan L. Fairbanks, former director of the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton and former curator of American decorative arts and sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

With self-taught proficiency, Mrs. Kaye impressed editors and curators alike, beginning with her first story pitch to a Yankee magazine editor.

“I started studying the different vanes and wrote 10 up as articles,” she recalled in the 1998 interview.

“I said, ‘You can have one weather vane for each month, and here are the first three,’ " and her submission so impressed the magazine’s editor that “he said I should write an antiques column for Yankee. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about antiques.’ He said, ‘Well, you didn’t know anything about weather vanes. You’ve got 12 months to learn antiques.’ "

Her work as a Yankee magazine columnist led to other writing assignments, including for the Globe.

She wrote books, too, including “Yankee Weathervanes,” “Fake, Fraud, or Genuine? Identifying Authentic American Antique Furniture,” and “There’s a Bed in the Piano: The Inside Story of the American Home.”

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In addition, with Brock Jobe she coauthored “New England Furniture: The Colonial Era.”

“Her work was essential as I formed the department of American decorative arts at the Museum of Fine Arts,” Fairbanks said. “Myrna quickly made herself known to us as a talented writer and researcher.”

Along with collaborating with Jobe on “New England Furniture,” “Myrna assisted with every aspect and every angle of this publication. She was a can-do person,” Fairbanks added.

A book on that subject seemed like “an impossible task,” he said, “but she could see how it could be pulled together.”

Mrs. Kaye “was an inspiration to everybody because she had the experience of writing as a reporter,” Fairbanks said. “This gave her the sense of the urgency — of meeting deadlines, which scholars tend not to follow because there’s always another ‘find’ and they don’t want to publish until they get everything together. Well, you never get everything together. Myrna was the driving wedge that made it possible to get it published. She knew when it was time to finish the job.”

A Publisher’s Weekly review of “There’s a Bed in the Piano” praised the way “she uses her historical knowledge to shine light on the present.”

With brisk storytelling, Mrs. Kaye spun out details as if she was letting readers in on a long-ago secret.

“Not until 1721 did Bostonians dare to crown a meetinghouse with a weathercock,” she wrote for the Globe in a 1975 essay that drew from her weather vanes research.

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“For almost a century the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay shunned the traditional steeple-toppers of Europe because the gilded weathercock came too close to being a graven image,” she wrote. “Puritan meetinghouses were kept free from such idolatry by using weather vanes in the shape of flags. Then Boston got her first church cock, in 1721. It was lovingly referred to as ‘the cockerel,’ but originated in an atmosphere of rancor and revenge.”

The older of two sisters, Myrna Hechel was born in New York City on Oct. 18, 1930, and grew up in Brooklyn, a daughter of Max Hechel, a civil servant who worked for the customs agency, and Zelda Caspe Hechel, a breast cancer survivor who later volunteered with the American Cancer Society, offering counsel from her experience to help women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Even as a girl, Mrs. Kaye “was very, very bright,” said her daughter, Sharon Smith of Quincy. “She originally wanted to go to art school. One of her teachers said she was too smart for that and should go to college instead.”

Moving quickly through high school and graduating early, Mrs. Kaye went to Brooklyn College, from which she received a bachelor’s degree in teaching.

She met Murray Kaye and they married in 1952.

“She and my father were a good match, intellectually and ethically,” their daughter said.

He was drafted into the Army and stationed during the Korean War in Annapolis, Md., where Mrs. Kaye was a teacher, a job she said she disliked because the school system was segregated and she encountered anti-Semitism.

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After the war, the family lived on Long Island while Mr. Kaye worked for Sperry Rand, an electronics and equipment company, which transferred him to Lexington.

While there, he switched to working as an engineer for Raytheon. Mr. Kaye died in 2008.

To learn more about antiques, Mrs. Kaye volunteered at the MFA in the American decorative arts section.

“I said I knew how to dust furniture and clean and I would do that for them in exchange for letting me take things apart and learn about how they were made,” she said in 1998.

She subsequently lectured at the MFA and also had taught decorative arts at Mount Ida Junior College in Newton and consulted with the Smithsonian Institution, when the museum needed to authenticate antique weather vanes.

Writing was a constant, however, and not always about antiques. In 1973, during the Watergate scandal, she wrote an “Emperor’s New Clothes” parody for the Globe that never mentioned President Richard M. Nixon, but name-checked all the president’s men.

“There was a whimsical playful quality to the way she wrote and the way she thought,” said her son Stephen of Lexington. “I’ve come to realize that mom was super, super intelligent and super ahead of her time.”

Mrs. Kaye “kept an immaculate home,” her daughter said, “but she was not happy with just being a homemaker.”

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A service has been held for Mrs. Kaye, who in addition to her daughter and son leaves another son, David of Framingham; a sister, Barbara Nerenberg of Boynton Beach, Fla.; six grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.

Burial was in Westview Cemetery in Lexington, next to her husband.

During her career, Mrs. Kaye had an eye and affection for the unusual. One of the items featured in “There’s a Bed in the Piano” is just that, a piano from which a trundle bed folds out.

“I wrote ‘Yankee Weathervanes’ because the ubiquitous vanes atop all types of buildings reflected the interests of the entire society,” she was quoted as saying in an encyclopedia.com biographical entry.

“The varied subjects of vanes showed the interests of all the people, rich and poor, urban and rural, commercial and religious,” she said. “Furniture, too, allows us to look at history, not merely as battles fought or laws passed, but as lived by people every day.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.