My lucky interview with the remarkable Maurice Edwards curled unexpectedly out of an assignment. My editor asked me to look up some guy who conducted the Brooklyn Philharmonic and was now living on Roosevelt Island. Freelancing I was ready for any work available. But this story was so much more.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
By David Stone
Special to the Roosevelt Island Daily News
Table of contents
- My Interview with Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian
- Discovering Paris, after World War II…
- About Nina Cassian, Maurice Edwards poetic muse…
Note: Maurice Edwards died in September, 2020, at 97, a victim of the coronavirus.
Lives are measured with intersections. The longer we live, the more involved we become, the more intersections fill our histories, some travelled straight through.
Others send us off in completely new directions. One intersection connected two personal histories, internationally admired poet Nina Cassian and New York City man of the arts Maurice Edwards.
They shared a home on Roosevelt Island.
My Interview with Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian
Their marriage of fifteen years, although started in old age, has nearly doubled the average American length of eight years. Ailments require daily management, but full retirement has not occurred to either.
One drops the names of legendary entertainment figures known well as casually,
.And the other notes brushes with political horrors in her Stalinist dominated homeland.
Eighty-eight and ninety respectively, Cassian and Edwards eagerly share tales from lives spent well.
Edwards compiled many of his in what he calls “my autobiography,” Revelatory Letters to Nina Cassian, telling his history in interwoven, anecdote filled missives to his wife. Published by the OCC Art Gallery Press in 2011, dedicated to “my Muse, Nina.”
The stories that make up Revelatory Letters take the reader from Edward’s childhood home in Wisconsin to the European theater in World War II. From there, he returns home for his education at NYU and Columbia.
Discovering Paris, after World War II…
Speaking of the first great intersection that changed his direction, Edwards says, “I served in World War II. Fortunately, I went in after the Battle of the Bulge and served in the Occupation Army.”
Before returning to the United States, Edwards spent time in Germany and France. In Paris, he became friends with Gertrude Stein.
“She used to take me shopping,” he recalls. “She had a Ford from the Thirties, and she drove me down the Rue de Rivoli to buy patisseries for her Sunday matinees.”
He added, “She was a pretty good driver.”
At the matinees, Edwards met luminaries from the world of art and literature.
For one, there was Stephen Spender, who later became Poet Laureate Consultant at the Library of Congress. And he also got to be friends with Stein’s partner Alice B. Toklas.
“One day, I found Alice crying. Gertrude had ordered her to get rid of her cat because her dog didn’t like cats. And she needed it, then. For the rats. All over Paris, there were huge rats.”
Did he ever get to try one of Toklas’ famous hasheesh brownies?
“No, I’m sorry to say,” he answers with a smile.
Edwards last saw Stein when she was recuperating from an operation for stomach cancer.
“She looked well,” he said. But she died not long after he returned to America to attend NYU where he earned a degree in philosophy and comparative literature before going on to Columbia for a masters.
About Nina Cassian, Maurice Edwards poetic muse…
In the meantime, thousands of miles away and completely unknown to him, Nina Cassian struggled to adapt her poetry to fit the demands of the Stalinist Regime in Romania. Her first book La Scara 1/1 (Scale 1:1) had been condemned in 1947 as decadent, not consistent with communist party values.
Throughout the following decades, she found a way to write poetry in an acceptable style, although she now rejects many of the verses. She published over fifty books while still in Romania. Some were her poetry and children’s stories, and she became a respected translator of English works, especially Shakespeare.
“A poet never leaves his country, his native soil, his language, of his own free will,” she said when asked why she tolerated the demands of Stalinism until she was over sixty.
Then, in 1985, something happened that changed the course of her life permanently.
In the United States as a visiting professor at NYU, supported by Yaddo and Fulbright Fellowships, she learned that her friend Gheorghe Ursu had been arrested in Romania for keeping a secret political diary. The diary contained satirical political poetry by Cassian, making her own return dangerous. Ursu died from injuries sustained during his interrogation, and within a year and a half, Cassian applied for and was granted political asylum.
She was broke, without income, a place to stay permanently or an appropriate wardrobe.
“I didn’t even have any spring or summer dresses.”
She settled on Roosevelt Island, initially at the Senior Center, before gathering enough resources to take the apartment where she still lives, with Edwards, in Island House.
“It was all charity,” she say, expalining how she managed to live in those early days in New York. The fellowships helped.
“And your father’s friend in Paris,” Edwards reminds her as if it was history they shared.
Continuing my talk with Maurice Edwards, the other side of the Atlantic…
Sharply contrasted is Edwards’s life as an American where freedom of choices is common. An adventurous, creative soul, he took many risks in pursuing parallel careers, but never with his life on the line.
A passion for the theater bloomed, fertilized by his exposure to it in New York, and by 1950, he was in his first Broadway Show. “It was Happy As Larry with Burgess Meredith,” he recalls, pausing for effect. “But I call it ‘Unhappy As Larry.’ It only lasted three performances. It was too sophisticated.”
While his career on the stage grew in spite of this early failure, the newly formed Brooklyn Philharmonic recruited him as assistant to the manager in 1955. He served until 1998 in various executive capacities.
“I was doing two things. The Philharmonic as part time in the morning. Then, I had the theater at night.”
Edward’s theatrical success was both traditional and experimental. He recalls singing the part of Peachum in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, opposite the legendary German singer Lotte Lenya, with the New York Philharmonic at a summer program in Lewisohn Stadium at City College.
In his autobiography, he recalls being congratulated by “Lenya’s friend, the divine (Marlene) Dietrich, dressed in a scarlet, form-fitting knit dress, who kissed me after asking: ‘Where did you get that feeling for Berlin?’”
A break with Fiddler on The Roof…
When Hal Prince took a gamble, staging Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway. The play had been optioned and dropped ten times before,
Prince castEdwards as the beggar in the original cast, and it starred Broadway giant, the once blacklisted legend Zero Mostel.
“I was also understudy for the rabbi. Two weeks into the run, the actor playing the rabbi got sick, and I had to go on. We hadn’t even had time for understudy rehearsals. Zero, with his mischievous manner, did everything he could to break me up.”
Even as his role with the philharmonic moved “from acting manager to manager to executive director to artistic director,” Edwards branched out into directing and helping to form independent, off off Broadway theater groups, like Cubiculo where he was a founder. At Cubiculo, they also performed dance and poetry.
At the Classical Theater, where he acted and directed, they focused on lesser known masterpieces, like The Bachelor, an early work by Ivan Turgenev.
In her less visible but equally determined way, after settling on Roosevelt Island, Cassian moved her writing career forward by learning to write in English, managing to incorporate her earthy lyricism in New World syntax.
…the so-called steps to perfection…
In her collection Continuum, published by Anvil Press in 2008 Cassian writes:
“Just like that, just like that, twisting, shrinking, flinching,
distorted like a length of yarn on fire –
that’s how I’m supposed to climb the so-called steps to
In six books of poetry written on Roosevelt Island, her voice reads as genuinely American. “Nina Cassian strikes me as one of the best poets alive,” said Howard Moss who, for nearly forty years, was the influential poetry editor at the New Yorker.
She dedicated Continuum “To Maurice Edwards, my husband, who almost forced this book out of me, helping my essential survival.”
Conclusion: My lucky interview with Maurice Edwards
Married in 1998, Edwards and Cassian met when a mutual friend tried to see if Edwards could help Cassian with another of her passions, music composition. That effort was unsuccessful, and her music, mostly for piano, has not gained the recognition her poetry has. But it was a success in bringing together soul mates who seem to inspire and thrill each other.
With Cassian ailing lately, Edwards has committed to “taking care of my wife,” who he sometimes calls “the empress,” for her gentle regal bearing. He continues to assist the Brooklyn Philharmonic with their archives, and any mention of poets and poetry by a visitor sparks an instant conversation.
Both love the poems of Wallace Stevens, a poet who, like both of them, carried his art with him in every moment. In addition to being a Pulitzer Prize winner, Stevens was also an insurance executive, far away from the literary crowds, in Hartford, Connecticut.
“He used to write verses while out walking during lunch,” Edwards notes admiringly. “Then, he came back and dictated them to his secretary.”
Such dedication to the arts can define a life marked by intersections, rich details filling the spaces between.
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