Sarah Zenis at a poetry workshop at Greenwich House in October 2008.
BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Fellow poets and friends of Sarah Zenis met last week to celebrate the life of their beloved mentor, who presided at Greenwich House’s poetry workshop every other Tuesday for the past 20 years until she died on Sept. 11 at the age of 97.
There was lots of laughter as her friends recalled her irrepressible and adventurous spirit.
A member of The Lambs Club, she used to lead performances of poetry and song at senior centers and assisted-living residences all over the metropolitan area.
“She expected us to do everything; we recited poetry and those of us who sang or danced would perform. It was really a riot, like a vaudeville show,” said Rebecca Lepkoff. Famous for her Lower East Side street photography from the 1930s and ’40s, Lepkoff was a member of the poetry workshop and a fellow trouper with Sarah for the past 12 years. “I’m a year younger than Sarah. I met her in my dotage and hers too. I used to dance with Martha Graham in the 1930s,” Lepkoff said.
“She was an impresario, a heavenly person,” said Max Nemerovsky, 92. “She took us to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Temple Emanu-El, all over town. Sarah and I both had Russian backgrounds. Our parents were born there, but I was born in China,” Nemerovsky said.
Sarah was born in Lynn, Mass., on Jan. 10, 1915, and started writing poetry in high school. She told The Villager a few years ago that she graduated during the Depression and began working as a bookkeeper. In a poem that begins, “I knew I was there./Footprints scraped on worn pavements,/Dented into deep ridge,/Painful wisps of grass,” she remembered the house in Lynn where she was raised.
She came to New York in 1954, began working for an importer of textiles from China and took a course with Ruth Lisa Schechter, a poet she admired.
A resident of W. 79th St. across from the Museum of Natural History for 50 years, Sarah became close friends with her neighbors.
“She lived next door to me and I met her one morning on my way to work,” said Anne Nadell. “Her door was open and she invited me into a sitting room with pink walls. She taught me about Shakespeare, about love and life; she looked after me and I looked after her,” said Nadell, who organized the Oct. 9 memorial. “She used to say, ‘I tell ya man, I did it. I traveled the world,’” Nadell recalled. And travel the world she did, touring Tokyo, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Bangkok in 1969 with her employer.
Father John Sheehan, a fellow Lambs Club member with a big tenor voice, was also among Sarah’s performing companions.
“I don’t remember if I met Sarah at the Lambs Club or at a JASA [Jewish Association for Services for the Aged] event,” he said.
Andre Da Silva, 38, an actor, recalled meeting Sarah when he answered an ad in 1998 offering a 1973 Olds Cutlass Supreme for sale.
“She didn’t want to sell it to me because she thought I was too young. I had to bring my father to say it was all right,” Da Silva said. “It was her favorite car but she stopped driving it in 1997. It was my favorite car too. We used to drive out to Sayville, Long Island, go to thrift shops. I had to sell it last year, but she said it was all right. She was my mentor, the grandmother I never had. She always wanted us to be the best versions of ourselves,” said Da Silva through the sobs he strove to suppress.
Susan Ealy, a neighbor, met Sarah five years ago and recalls entrancing conversations about poetry in Sarah’s pink parlor. Jim Sullivan, another neighbor, recalled gatherings of fellow tenants in Sarah’s rosy-hued sitting room during their campaign to compel the landlord to repair the elevator.
“She was the only family I every had,” Sullivan said.
Muriel Mandell, a Village resident who used to write for the old Brooklyn Eagle and the Patterson, N.J., Morning Call, was another regular at the Greenwich House workshop.
“It was an incentive to write poetry,” she said.
Abe Vigoda, the actor (remember Tessio in “The Godfather”?), recalled meeting Sarah around 1960 at La Martinique, a dance hall on W. 57th St.
“I paid $1.35 admission and asked her for a dance. We became friends,” Vigoda said.
“Sarah called me three weeks before she died,” said Anthony Cilione, director of the Greenwich House Senior Center. “ ‘I have a lot of ideas for the fall,’ she said. She was always full of ideas. Last year, she told me she wanted to start a high school poetry contest. I dreaded the amount of work it would take, but she went right ahead. We got Stuyvesant High School involved and it was a huge success, for Sarah, for Greenwich House and for the students,” Cilione said. “She was really all about the fellowship of poets and that’s why we have to try to keep the workshop going,” he said.