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Else Blangsted, who fled the Nazis and found a Hollywood ending

NEW YORK — Else Blangsted, who fled Nazi Germany as a teenager believing she had given birth to a stillborn child, then gradually built a career as a leading music editor on Hollywood films, died May 1 in Los Angeles. She was 99.

Her death was confirmed by her cousin Deborah Oppenheimer, an Oscar-winning producer.

For more than 30 years, Ms. Blangsted played a major part in shaping how movie music was heard, through her work on such features as “The Color Purple,” “Tootsie,” and “On Golden Pond.”

She broke down film scripts to provide detailed instructions showing composers where, in dialogue or action, to place parts of their scores, and for exactly how long. She was also the composers’ representative through the recording sessions.

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“The information that came from her was crucial,” Dave Grusin, the Oscar-winning composer who was Ms. Blangsted’s collaborator on “Tootsie” and many other films, said in an interview. “I knew what I was doing was working if she said I was on the right track.”

But music editing is an unsung profession. Music editors do not receive Academy Awards, as film and sound editors do. When Grusin won an Oscar for his score for “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988), Ms. Blangsted, his editor on the film, went unrecognized.

Her only major industry honor was the 2006 life achievement award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, an industry group. In written remarks read at the ceremony, Robert Redford, who directed two of the films Ms. Blangsted worked on, “Milagro” and “Ordinary People,” said she had “the mind of an artist and the soul of a saint.”

But even as Ms. Blangsted had firmly established her reputation as a creative and outspoken partner to composers, the story of her child was about to enter a new chapter.

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Else Siegel was born May 22, 1920, in Würzburg, Germany. Her father, Siegmund, was a horse trader, and her mother, Lilly (Oppenheimer) Siegel, was a homemaker, with whom Else had a difficult relationship. In a profile in The New Yorker in 1988, she said her mother subjected her to “a life of misdemeanors, punishments, and a lack of forgiveness.”

When she was 15, she began dating Eric Seelig, then 24, and soon after became pregnant. She told no one. Soon after, with the Nuremberg Laws restricting where Jews like her could attend school, her family sent her to a Jewish boarding school in Switzerland. It was September 1936.

By January 1937, when she was seven months pregnant, the tightness of her corset was causing her to faint. Desperate and ashamed, she tried to kill herself by lying on a snowy hill near the school, hoping to freeze to death.

She was found hours later, her lower legs frostbitten. Her secret was out.

In early March, she went into labor. “They used chloroform in those days, and I passed out and came to and I must have said, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ and they put the mask back on,” she said when she was interviewed for a documentary, “Looking for Else” (2007).

“Later, I demanded: ‘Where is the baby? I need somebody to take the milk.’ ”

“There is no baby,” a nurse told her. “The baby is dead.”

Ms. Blangsted thought she had killed her baby by keeping the corset too tight. But her family, who was ashamed of her behavior and fearful of Nazi repression, lied to her and sent the baby girl to a nursery, where a German-Swiss couple adopted her.

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Knowing nothing of the deception, Ms. Blangsted returned to Würzburg and in August boarded a luxury liner for New York City. After arriving alone, she headed to Los Angeles, where a sponsor family put her in touch with a local rabbi, who found her work as a maid and, later, as a nanny for Warner LeRoy, the son of the prolific director and producer Mervyn LeRoy.

At 17, she had made her Hollywood connection, but it was, at best, a modest one. Mervyn LeRoy was married to Doris Warner, a daughter of Harry Warner, one of the founders of Warner Bros. studio. After a year as a nanny, she found work at Warner Bros., as a seamstress.

She wrote to Eric, who was living in Argentina, and asked that he marry her. In 1940, they wed, and had a daughter, Erica Seelig, four years later. They eventually divorced.

Her jobs continued: She was a wardrobe woman, an actress, and a waxer, who protected film emulsions. In 1960, she was hired as a music editor at a postproduction house; her only credentials were being able to read music and play the piano and guitar. That led to work at Paramount and Columbia.

Her reputation was building. “Her importance to me was not only her portfolio, but her charisma, her sense of authority, her humility, and her survivalism,” said Van Dyke Parks, who wrote the music with Perry Botkin Jr. for the 1978 comic western, “Goin’ South,” starring and directed by Jack Nicholson.

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By the mid-1980s, her credits included “The Great Santini” (whose music was composed by Elmer Bernstein), “A Soldier’s Story” (Herbie Hancock), “Six Weeks” (Dudley Moore), and “Absence of Malice” and “. . . And Justice for All” (both Grusin).

Then one day in 1984, she got a call from an aunt who read an ad in Aufbau, a journal for German-speaking Jews. Her daughter was not only alive, but wanted to meet her. She went by Lily Kopitopoulos and was 47 and living in Switzerland.

Ms. Blangsted tracked down her number and called.

“This is your Mama,” she said, according to the article in The New Yorker. “Forgive me. The nurse told me you were dead.”

When they finally met, Ms. Blangsted said in “Looking for Else,” “It was the end of drama, the end of shame, the end of accusations, the end of migraines.”

Their reunion included several years in which Ms. Blangsted moved to Switzerland. They drifted apart after about 20 years, during which one of Kopitopoulos’s sons, Sandy, directed “Looking for Else,” with Daniel Maurer.

In addition to her daughters and grandson, Ms. Blangsted leaves another grandson and two great-grandsons. She married Folmar Blangsted, the Danish-born film editor of “A Star Is Born” (1954) in 1960; he died in 1982.

A witty person known for her frequent laughter, Ms. Blangsted had many actor friends including Lee J. Cobb, Gregory Peck, and Moore. She met Moore, the star and composer of Six Weeks” (1982), when he was already working with a music editor. The director, Tony Bill, wanted him to meet Ms. Blangsted.

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After watching the film together, she recalled in a 2011 profile of her in Patch, a local news website: “I said to him, ‘You have 2½ minutes to make up your mind that I will be your music editor.’ I went away. Came back and he nodded his head, very definitely.”

They remained friends until 2002, when, as he lay dying, she called to read him Dickens over the phone.