Photograph by Myrna Suarez
The first time I met Martin E. Segal, “Marty” to his friends, he was wearing a red rose pinned to his lapel – a signature detail, and Marty was always about the details – cane in hand, round spectacles framing a broad grin. He was a familiar, dapper figure at Film Society events. During the last two years, he often called to see how I was doing, to ask if I had noticed this or that piece of news, or to comment on one of the many Film Society projects and mostly to offer support or advice. I would always learn something new about Marty or the Film Society's history, as he sprinkled his conversations with anecdotes about various events and personalities between his nuggets of wisdom.
In 1972, Marty traveled to Europe and coaxed Charlie Chaplin to return to the U.S. to be honored at Lincoln Center with a tribute. That historic night was the inspiration for creating the annual Chaplin Award Tribute Gala, held each spring to raise money for the Film Society's year-round programs. “After reducing us to tears so many times over the years,” Marty wrote in his introduction to last year's gala, “[Chaplin gave us] the opportunity to return the favor.”
On Sunday, just before 3pm, I was stunned to receive an email from Joanne Koch, Film Society's executive director from 1971 to 2003, with the subject line announcing, “Marty Segal died.” He and I had talked at great length last Thursday about the New York Film Festival 50th anniversary book that is being edited by Joanne, Film Society program director Richard Peña and Film Comment managing editor Laura Kern. Though he mentioned that he was not feeling well, he nonetheless wanted the latest draft to be hand-delivered to his home (he lived around the corner from the Film Society offices) and we agreed to talk again on Monday after he read it. Always an early champion of new cultural projects, Marty had contributed towards the funding of the book and had carefully read the essay by Phillip Lopate on the history of the New York Film Festival. He enlisted the help of former Film Society chairman Roy Furman, and together they combed through the document for accuracy and made suggestions so that the proper individuals were recognized. He was impatient that the process was not moving fast enough, almost presaging that he didn't have a lot of time.
At 96, Marty had the energy of a young man and a great sense of urgency to get things done until the very end. He was the founding president and president emeritus of the Film Society and served as the chairman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in addition to many other cultural advisory councils and boards. His many honors included the Lincoln Center Laureate Award, the Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture, and the New York State Governor's Arts Award. The thing that struck me the most about Marty was that, never one to rest on his laurels, he was always looking forward to the next accomplishment.
He was dedicated to our organization and enthusiastically supported our programs including last year's screening of Chaplin's The Gold Rush and this year's anniversary book. Two weeks ago, we visited him at home to interview him about his memories of the NY Film Festival and he was sharp and witty as ever. Always generous, he offered the use of an extra bedroom in his home in the event that a Film Society staffer was too tired to travel home after one of the frequent late nights at the film festival. He showed me his paintings, which were hung throughout his home, and told me that he continued to try to improve his skill by attending art classes. In that moment I learned another thing about Marty: his boundless energy and curiosity brought new possibilities every day. He was truly an inspiration and I will greatly miss him.
Rose Kuo is the Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center.