Muriel Leventhal, whose quiet philanthropy enriched lives, dies at 101
Among the paradoxes of Muriel Leventhal’s life is that as a child of the Great Depression, she tossed out food from the fridge with considerable reluctance, even when comfort replaced the scarcity of her youth.
A similarly deep-seated practice lay behind her discreet approach to changing lives.
The philanthropy of her late husband, developer Norman B. Leventhal, was often grand and celebrated by powerful politicians. And Mrs. Leventhal? She might save a leftover Danish past its prime, but she didn’t hesitate to quietly pay the entire college costs of many she met, never once seeking the spotlight.
“She realized this was a way to provide really boundless opportunities for individuals,” said her granddaughter Rebecca. “And she did this without recognition. It’s something she did because she thought it was the right thing.”
Mrs. Leventhal, who lived to be 101, as her mother had before her, spent her final moments in the den of her Boston home on Dec. 2. “My grandmother died in the place in her house she loved most,” Rebecca said.
A daughter of Russian immigrants and one of four sisters, Mrs. Leventhal believed in education and in strong women. When she was young and her father fell ill, she filled in at his Scollay Square newspaper stand, and she worked her way through Boston University in various jobs.
For her 1940 commencement, the Globe’s headline noted that the children of four BU professors were among the graduates. But it was Muriel Guren, the sixth name listed under bachelor’s degrees in business administration, who would make a key investment that helped shape Boston.
She saved enough money while working before, during, and after college that she was able to loan her husband $3,000 in 1946 so he and his brother, Robert, could found what would become the Beacon Companies. The brothers would go on to take their places among the city’s premier real estate developers.
“The fact is Beacon wouldn’t exist without my mother. My mother loaned the money to my father,” said their son Alan. “And, she was quick to point out, she didn’t give it to him, she loaned it.”
It turned out to be a historic investment in her city, her marriage, and her family, which had grown to include three children, 11 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren by the time she died.
Lest anyone forget how important she was to him and to his success, Norman Leventhal had silver pens inscribed “I Love Muriel,” and he always carried one in his breast pocket.
After he died in April 2015, at age 97, Rebecca found a drawer filled with “Muriel” pens in her grandparents’ Boston home, and she arranged 14 of them in a framed display.
“While my grandfather was repeatedly recognized for his civic leadership and philanthropy, my grandmother never wanted to be known for the instrumental role she played in these contributions,” Rebecca said in a eulogy that her family prepared, and which she delivered last week during Mrs. Leventhal’s memorial service.
“Her generosity was quiet,” Mrs. Leventhal’s son Mark wrote in a passage he contributed to the eulogy. “I’m not sure we will ever have a complete accounting of the ways she enabled others to thrive.”
Among Norman Leventhal’s landmark developments were Center Plaza, Rowes Wharf, and Post Office Square, where he moved a 2½-story eyesore parking garage underground to create a street-level park that was rededicated in his honor in a 1997 ceremony.
As Mayor Thomas M. Menino hailed the achievement that day, right beside Mr. Leventhal was Muriel.
“When I think of my father’s legacy, which I’m so proud of — and I’m filled with joy when I walk around the city and see the things he did — I feel my mother was a counterbalance,” Alan said. “It’s her legacy as well. She was the matriarch, in the real sense.”
The third of four sisters, Muriel Guren was born in Boston in 1917 and grew up in Brookline, a daughter of Nellie Steinberg and David Guren. For much of his life, her father ran the Scollay Square newsstand.
Mrs. Leventhal graduated from Brookline High School and took many Boston University classes at night while working during the day.
One evening she and a young man went on a double date with her friend, who was accompanied by Norman Leventhal. “She was more interested in my father than the boy she went with,” Alan said.
Though Muriel and Norman were the same age, he had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1938. He was working as a naval architect in the Charlestown Naval Yard when a workplace accident left him briefly hospitalized. That provided Mrs. Leventhal with an opportunity to ensure that their relationship flourished.
“My mother knew the way to my father’s heart was chocolate ice cream,” Alan said, “and she brought that to him in the hospital.”
They married in 1941 and had been married nearly 74 years when Mr. Leventhal died.
“He took such delight in her — such delight in the things that she did and her comments and her outspokenness,” Alan said.
As Muriel and Norman Leventhal raised their children — Paula Sidman of Palm Beach, Fla., Mark of Waban, and Alan of Chestnut Hill — they were a study in contrasts.
“They were perfectly paired, they were perfect opposites,” Rebecca said in her family’s eulogy.
“He exercised daily, ate white fish, drank hot water, and wore pressed gym clothes,” Rebecca added. “Water never touched her lips. She subsisted on coffee, Diet Coke, cheese puffs, and apple fritters. On a particularly active day she made it from the den to the kitchen and back.”
And yet “they built the warmest of homes where maybe, because they couldn’t agree on anything, everyone was welcome and anything goes,” she said.
Into her 90s, Mrs. Leventhal was a master bridge player who notched wins in tournaments. “She was a very strong personality. She had a great wit about her,” Alan said. “She was widely read and played the piano. She was a wonderful intellectual balance to my father and really a partner in everything he did.”
For 40 years, Mrs. Leventhal was a Monday morning volunteer at Boston Children’s Hospital, working from 9 a.m. to noon.
“If there were children who needed transport to another floor, I wheeled them,” she said in a 2009 interview for a hospital publication. “If the gift shop was understaffed, I worked there. I was happy to help in any way I could.”
Those comments were notable in part because Mrs. Leventhal almost never spoke publicly. The Muriel and Norman B. Leventhal Family Foundation went on to donate $1 million for the hospital to spend however it wanted.
“She was beloved,” Alan said. “It feels like a passing of an era.”
In Palm Beach, Fla., where the Leventhals kept a second residence, a small kitchen table that comfortably seats three is tucked against a wall.
“Yet I remember 20 people sitting at that table,” Rebecca said. “There was some magic in the fact that there was always enough space.”
In the homes Muriel Leventhal created with her husband, Rebecca added, “everyone was always included and there was always room for one more.”