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Everybody’s Port: August 29, 2013

Lost Treasure

She really was a dame, but not a dame. She was a dame with a capital D, not a dame there is nothing like. In 2010, she became a Dame when named a member of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

By now, if you hadn’t read or heard that Marian McPartland died August 20th, you were on another planet. Ms. McPartland was a pianist, radio host, writer, and composer who excelled at everything she did. More importantly, she was an irreplaceable asset to the Port Washington community. Rather than repeat the litany of her achievements and honors, may I, please, tell you about the Marian McPartland three of us knew in different ways.

In the early 70s, where the Chase Bank fronts on Main Street, there was a steakhouse called Virgil’s. There, weekly at lunchtime, I hosted a radio show that featured luminaries from diverse fields. Marian McPartland was one of them. She was easy to look at, of average height and build, with an accent that was pure London.

She told me that she was born Margaret Marian Turner in Slough, just outside of London. Started playing piano as a child and was classically trained. During WWII, she entertained the troops with a USO group. Ironically, that’s how she met her husband, Jimmy McPartland. He joined the same USO tour after combat duty in the Normandy invasion.

As an aside, many Port people never knew that the Jimmy McPartland, who played cornet and gained fame as an exponent of Chicago-style jazz was the same Jimmy McPartland, who lived with his wife, Marian, in Port Washington on Essex Court.

Another long-time Port resident, Dick Coyle, had an enviable personal relationship with Marian over many years. They had big band-leader and clarinetist Artie Shaw in common. (He had at least five wives — not at the same time — that included movie stars Lana Turner and Ava Gardner.) Shaw was Dick’s idol; he has every recording Shaw has made. Marian knew Shaw well.

Dick became acquainted with Marian during her eight-year appearance at the Hickory House in Manhattan. A friend told Dick about Marian McPartland, whom the friend described as, “The greatest female jazz pianist he ever heard”. Dick said, “Neither of us was married, so we went to hear her almost every week.” One of those weeks, Dick introduced himself to Marian, but that was almost that. It appeared that the conclusion of Marian’s Hickory House gig also snipped a budding friendship.

Years later, by chance, when Marian McPartland played piano with a Schreiber High jazz band, Dick and wife, Jean, were in the audience. Concert over, Dick reintroduced himself. After that, they met frequently at Marian’s house on Essex Court — always at her invitation. “I was flattered,” said Dick. “The reason I got to hear her play was that she wanted to me to hear the ‘wonderful grand piano’ she had been given by someone in Sands Point. She and the grand were great.”

During one of their conversations, Marian reminisced about Jimmy when he and she were members of a USO company heading to entertain troops in England. As their troopship was about to pull in to port in Scotland, Jimmy – who had a few too many — was standing alone with cornet in hand on the ship’s fantail (back end). “There he was,” she said, “and he played ‘The Blue Bells of Scotland’”.

Patti Vunk, former owner of The Dolphin Bookshop, remembers Marian fondly. She was a frequent customer. “She told me she was grateful for my efforts to keep it going against scary odds,” Patti said. Then smiling, she added, “A new employee was having a long, charming conversation with Marian at the front desk. It wasn’t till after she’d left that she noticed her name on the credit slip and said, ‘Oh, my God, that was THE Marian McPartland! I kept thinking. I’ve just met this woman and she seemed so familiar.’”

Ironically, Marian and Jimmy divorced, but remarried 21 years later — two weeks before he died and two days before his 84th birthday. Although she stopped performing in her 80s, Marian continued to share her special gifts until, at 95; she left Port Washington to join Jimmy. Marian McPartland was a gem.

Howard Blankman, 57 years in Port, is a public relations counselor and former government official.