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Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, New York City civic leader, dies at 100

Mrs. Heiskell was chairwoman of New 42nd Street Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mandate to revive the grandeur of the historic theaters.
Mrs. Heiskell was chairwoman of New 42nd Street Inc., a nonprofit organization with a mandate to revive the grandeur of the historic theaters.(James Estrin/New York Times)

Marian Sulzberger Heiskell, a New York civic leader and philanthropist who led campaigns to create the Gateway National Recreation Area and restore the grandeur of theaters on 42nd Street, and who was a member of the family that controls The New York Times, died Thursday night at her home in Manhattan. She was 100.

Her death was announced by her daughter Susan Dryfoos.

As the granddaughter, daughter, wife, sister, aunt, and great-aunt of six successive publishers of The Times, and as the wife of Andrew Heiskell, the chairman of Time Inc., Mrs. Heiskell moved in the circles that dominated New York’s philanthropic and social world. And that might have led to a whirling life of cotillions and charity balls.

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But she discovered as a young woman — “much to my horror,” as she put it — that she was good at fund-raising and getting things done, and she soon found herself in demand on the civic circuit. Mayor Robert F. Wagner named her to a “Keep New York City Clean” campaign, and before long her first husband, Orvil E. Dryfoos, the publisher of The Times, was picking up scraps of paper on his morning walks.

Her work caught the eye of the Kennedy administration, and she was named to its Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission — a natural fit because she loved fishing, canoeing, and hiking. That led Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall to name her to a seat on the National Park System Advisory Board.

From 1970 to 1992, she held a series of mayoral appointments as the chairwoman or co-chairwoman of the Council on the Environment of New York City, a privately funded group that she founded with Mayor John V. Lindsay. It created scores of community-run parks, playgrounds and gardens, as well as the city’s first modern-era farmers’ markets. It also organized environmental education programs in schools and was an early advocate of paper recycling.

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Mrs. Heiskell became a leader in the campaign that prompted Congress in 1972 to create the Gateway National Recreation Area, a 26,000-acre park of beaches and wildlife refuges on scattered sites around the entrance to the New York-New Jersey harbor. The Interior Department, honoring her in 1980, said she was “responsible for the acceptance of the urban recreation concept within the National Park Service.” At her death she was the chairwoman of the National Parks of New York Harbor Conservancy.

But her most striking contribution to the cityscape was her work on the restoration of the theaters along 42nd Street just west of Times Square, which dated from the early 20th century. These once-grand theaters, where Flo Ziegfeld and George M. Cohan had dazzled the top-hatted limousine trade, had degenerated into a seedy lineup of triple-X and martial-arts movie houses, a shadow of Broadway’s fabled Great White Way.

As chairwoman of New 42nd Street Inc., a nonprofit organization created by the city and the state, Mrs. Heiskell began in 1990 with a mandate to revive the grandeur of the New Amsterdam, the Victory, and other theaters with millions of dollars provided by the developers of office towers in Times Square, pledges made in exchange for big tax breaks. As the projects went on, they began to generate income — rents, ticket sales, fund-raisers, grants from the city and private foundations — that drove additional projects to fruition.

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A decade after it began, the work was substantially done, including a new theater for children at the renamed New Victory and a 10-story building housing rehearsal studios and offices for nonprofit cultural organizations. Mrs. Heiskell and Cora Cahan, the president of New 42nd Street, said in a letter to The Times that visionary public officials and preservationists deserved the credit.

“Although it was anticipated that the planned office buildings at the four crossroads sites would spur the redevelopment of 42nd Street, it turned out that the abandoned theaters led the parade,” they wrote. “The lineup of legitimate theaters, built at the turn of the century, made 42nd Street the most famous block in the world. Once again the theaters light the way.”

Marian Effie Sulzberger was born on Dec. 31, 1918, in Manhattan, the first of four children of Arthur Hays and Iphigene (Ochs) Sulzberger. Her maternal grandfather was Adolph S. Ochs, who bought The Times in 1896 and was its publisher until his death in 1935, when his son-in-law, Arthur Hays Sulzberger, succeeded him. He died in 1968, and Iphigene Ochs Sulzberger died in 1990.

Marian was the last surviving member of her generation of the Sulzberger family. Her siblings were Ruth Sulzberger Holmberg, who was the publisher of The Chattanooga Times for 28 years, and who died in 2017; Judith P. Sulzberger, a physician, who died in 2011; and Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, who died in 2012.

In addition to her daughter Susan Warms Dryfoos, Mrs. Heiskell is survived by two other children from her marriage to Dryfoos: a daughter, Jacqueline Hays Dryfoos, and a son, Robert Ochs Dryfoos, as well as two stepchildren from her marriage to Heiskell, Peter Chapin and Diane Schetky; seven grandchildren; eight great-grandchildren; four step-grandchildren; and three step-great-grandchildren.

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Marian attended the experimental Lincoln School, affiliated with Teachers College at Columbia University, but did not fare well in its unstructured classes, and could barely read or write by the seventh grade. As was discovered later, she had dyslexia, a learning disability that was not then recognized and that had also affected her mother.

After a year of tutoring, Marian was admitted to Rosemary Hall, a boarding school in Greenwich, Conn. Always athletic, she played tennis and jumped horses, but the school concluded she was not meeting its academic standards. She toured Europe for a summer with a tutor and was admitted to Lenox, a prep school in Manhattan. She disliked her studies, tested poorly, and was barely able to graduate.

A psychologist finally diagnosed her dyslexia, and after more tutoring she was enrolled at the Froebel League, a three-year training school for prospective kindergarten teachers. She graduated in 1941 but did not pursue a teaching career.

At a dance given by her parents she met Dryfoos, a Dartmouth College graduate and Wall Street investor who held a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. They were married in 1941.

Dryfoos soon joined The Times and began a long apprenticeship that included a year as a reporter and many years as an assistant to his father-in-law, the publisher. In 1957 he became president, and in 1961, when Arthur Hays Sulzberger retired, Dryfoos became publisher. Two years later, after the strain of a 114-day newspaper strike, he died of a heart ailment related to the rheumatic fever he had as a child.

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Soon after her husband’s death in 1963, Marian Dryfoos was elected a director of The Times, a position she held for 34 years. (Her sisters also served for many years as directors of the company.) She worked for the newspaper’s promotion department, focusing on educational projects, such as distributing copies of The Times to schools and colleges.

Mrs. Heiskell also served on the boards of the Ford Motor Co. and Merck & Co. and was a trustee of the Consolidated Edison Co. of New York.

In 1965 she married Heiskell, the chairman of Time Inc., whose divorce from actress Madeleine Carroll had been granted a week earlier. With her new husband, Mrs. Heiskell, who had been active for years in community and environmental projects, expanded her involvement in urban affairs and philanthropic causes. They gave money, lent their names, and appeared at affairs to promote education, urban renewal and other causes.

In 1970, she and Lindsay formed the Council on the Environment, which joined city agencies in trying to improve the local environment. Over more than two decades, with Mrs. Heiskell at the helm, the organization reclaimed trash-strewn lots and created 40 community-run parks, playgrounds and gardens. The Marian S. Heiskell Garden, on West 48th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, was opened in 1997. The council also organized 33 farmers’ markets, began environmental education programs in 15 schools and promoted early wastepaper recycling programs.