Photo by Jefferson Siegel
Diane Wolkstein in her backyard on Patchin Place.
BY ALBERT AMATEAU | Diane Wolkstein, the first full-time storyteller hired by the Department of Parks and Recreation 45 years ago, who became a folklore historian and the author of 23 books, died Jan. 31 in Taiwan at the age of 70.
A resident of Patchin Place in Greenwich Village, Diane Wolkstein was undergoing emergency heart surgery while in Taiwan researching a Chinese folk story, said her daughter, Rachel Zucker.
“She died surrounded by close friends. A rabbi said Kaddish, and Buddhist prayers were said,” Zucker wrote in an e-mail to Jefferson Siegel, a photographer for The Villager who had photographed Wolkstein in 2009.
“Her life overflowed with joy, intensity, friendship, love and spirit. Her love for each of us and for the stories she told live inside of us forever,” Zucker said.
Wolkstein told a New York Times reporter in 1992 that she talked her way into the job as storyteller in the city parks in 1967 without realizing what had to be done.
“It was a park, people could walk away if they didn’t like it,” she told the interviewer.
For five years, Wolkstein went from one park at 11 a.m. to another at 2 p.m. five days a week with a few props and a repertoire of tales ranging from “Hansel and Gretel” to Chinese, Persian, Nigerian and African-American stories. The pay was $40 per week. From 1968 to 1980, she was on WNYC radio on Saturday mornings with “Stories From Many Lands.”
In 1971, with the municipal fiscal crisis looming, the city decided it could not afford a full-time storyteller. But Wolkstein was awarded the honorary lifetime title, with no pay, of City’s Storyteller. In 1980, she helped create The Storytellers Circle of New York, which trained thousands of volunteers and sent them to schools, libraries and to the weekly story session at the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park at Fifth Ave. at 72nd St.
The first of her nearly two dozen books appeared in 1972 with folktales, legends and creation myths gathered from research trips to Africa, Asia and Haiti. In 1983, with Samuel Noah Kramer, a scholar of Assyrian civilization, Wolkstein wrote “Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth,” a 4,000-year-old story of the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love and war. She also wrote a fictional account of the biblical story of Esther.
Wolkstein revisited her role as a parks storyteller in 1992; in an interview at the time with Clem Richardson, a Daily News columnist, she said, “Each time I tell a story that I love I appreciate it in a different way.”
She noted that she read hundreds of stories before finding one that she wanted to tell.
“You have to find one that moves you,” she explained. “If it doesn’t move you it won’t move anyone else when you tell it. You’re really sharing your heart, exchanging love with your listeners.”
She also told Richardson about a story she didn’t understand and therefore couldn’t perform until she finally did know in her heart what it meant.
Her repertoire included tales from Haiti, which she visited several times. She also learned from Aborigine storytellers she met in Australia.
Diane was born Nov. 11, 1942, in Newark, N.J., to Henry and Ruth Wolkstein and was raised in Maplewood. She graduated from Smith College and then went to Paris where she studied with Etienne Decroux, the renowned mime master. She earned her living in Paris teaching Sunday school for American expatriates. But she returned to New York in 1966 to earn a master’s degree from the Bank Street College of Education. A memorial service was held Feb. 3 in the New York Insight and Meditation Center on W. 27th St. A celebration of her life is planned for the summer at a time and place to be announced.
In addition to her daughter, also surviving are her mother, two brothers and three grandsons.