“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
-- Henry Adams
men·tor: [men-tawr, -ter], noun
1. a wise and trusted counselor or teacher.
2.an influential senior sponsor or supporter.
A friend of mine died this past week. She was 91 years old. She was a teacher, a filmmaker, a chemist and pharmacist, a dancer, a communist and atheist, a lousy cook and one hell of a person. They don’t make them like that in New York City anymore.
I met Eleanor Hamerow when I attended NYU’s Graduate Film Program back in the 1980s. She was my teacher and we were terrified of her gruff New York accent and attitude which was only a veneer for a caring and intelligent woman.
The heyday of the NYU Program was slipping fast, mostly due to the enormous popularity of film schools across the country. NYU was becoming a money-making corporate entity and some of the old timers like Ellie seemed to be in the way of a new image the school wanted to portray. Her last years at the school were a constant political battle for students and the art of film.
She hung in there as long as she could showing Orson Welles and John Ford movies and La Belle et la Bête and teaching film editing. She was a film editor and documentary filmmaker of some renowned.
(CBS News (She was fired for including President Eisenhower's "beware the military, industrial complex" speech in their televised documentary of his life.), Martha Graham: An American Original in Performance, A Dancer’s World, An American Family...)
Film Editing was her second profession after her early years as a chemist. Teaching was her Third Act.
She got a small auditorium named after her at NYU...but when she finally retired, the soul went out of the school along with all the increasingly antiquated film equipment, like hand-cranked sound synchronizers, moviolas and film splicing blocks...and the old projectors that chewed up old French new wave or Italian neo-realist film prints...
After I finished school, Ellie gave me a job working for her to help me pay off my student loans and I was able to work on her last documentary...appropriately about a teacher.
Somehow...and it is probably worth a novel in itself, I travelled to Moscow with her in 1989 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the VGIK Film School started by Eisenstein in 1919. One brief story I’ll share is we went in search of the Moscow Arts Theater...home of ‘The Method’ and Stanislavsky...the mythical directing and acting philosophy that breathed life into Marlon Brando, James Dean, Lazlo Benedict, and Elia Kazan...and the NYU Gradate Film Program under Ellie Hamerow.
We found the old theater in the early afternoon and walked into the empty lobby. The doors were open, but the place seemed deserted. A man in a dark suit handed Ellie a rose and escorted us into the theater...on the stage was a casket with a large photo next to it of one of the actors from the theater troupe. They assumed Ellie had come to pay respects...she looked born and bred...her boots, her head popping out the top of a heavily-scarfed, long black coat...all 5' 1" of her...so we joined the line of mourners.
We had a young interpreter from the school with us and he found the administrator of the theater and told him that Martin Scorsese (me) and a famous American film producer (Ellie) were here. So he came to see us and though we didn’t fool him, we scored some tickets to the theater the next night, and Ihe gave me a poster for the 100th anniversary of The Seagull.
The next night, we got to see a play that was banned since the 1930s by Stalin himself. Ellie was in heaven. There we were sitting in the front row at the Moscow Arts Theater watching a play in Russian. Our translator was there, kind of filling us in on what was being said and of course there was Ellie's running commentary as though the performance was taking place back at NYU in one of her classes...
Again, a story for another time...but Ellie had written a speech for the VGIK Film School celebration in which she was going to scold the Russians for Stalin and ruining the promise of communism...
After Ellie retired and the years started piling up, some of her contemporary friends began to get ill or even pass away. I would get a phone call from her telling me that Mimi or Ruby couldn't make the performance tonight at Lincoln Center and would I like to go...I saw my first Shostakovich with her and my first Tudor ballet...and my first opera...(a four-hour Semiramede where I didn’t realize that Marilyn Horne was supposed to be playing a man).
She introduced me to the Manhattan cocktail...she couldn't drink anymore, but she wanted me to order one so it sat on the table through dinner so she could smell it...she ordered it the way she liked it: gin, dry vermouth, a dask of bitters and a twist lemon peel.
She was a teacher, but also, always a scholar. Into her eighties she was taking classes at Columbia University. In her late seventies she decided she needed to read the Bible and took a class. I would get a call from her. “What do you know about The First Nicene Council?” or “Have you read Aquinas? Let’s have a nosh and talk about it.” So I would wrap up in a scarf and coat and gloves and take a cab from my East 55th Street apartment to her West 89th Street penthouse and we’d get coffee and something to eat and discuss religion and inevitably movies.
I moved to Los Angeles over twelve years ago and only corresponded with Ellie at first by phone and letters and then dwindling to a few emails and a long Holiday card.
I wasn’t there for the dementia or the need to put her in a home, or for the end where I am told she simply refused food and shortly after, died.
To live such a life and to take it to age 91...Not bad Ellie, not bad at all. You are remembered and cherished...tonight over a Manhattan, Ellie-style.