Volume 77 / Number 29 - December 19 - 25, 2007
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

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Elias Karnoff, a dentist and a Democrat, dies at 85

By Ed Gold

Elias Karnoff, a longtime dentist in Greenwich Village, a participant in reform Democratic and dental association politics and a friend of top Village entertainers in the 1950s and ’60s, who survived a tiff with the U.S. Army after World War II, died on Dec. 2 at the age of 85.

He died of cancer, according to his daughter, Monique Hanson, of Queens, whose family Eli — as ever one knew him — had lived with during the past five years.

Although Karnoff had some difficult personal experiences, notably his wife’s longtime illness before her death, he always maintained his sense of humor, his daughter noted.

He had known for more than a year that he had cancer but decided against any medical procedures, telling his daughter that he was not afraid of death, “only of suffering.” He remained in high spirits till the last few weeks, his daughter said. One thing he was afraid of, she mentioned, “was that Giuliani might become president.”

A graduate of New York University, where he was class president, Karnoff began practicing dentistry in 1946 and became a fixture at offices near Washington Square Park for half a century. For more than 30 years he was a partner at Brisman, Karnoff & Hirsch.

He was active in the New York County Dental Society for many years, mostly “in the insurgency, battling those in control,” according to his former partner, Stuart Hirsch. He taught for many years at N.Y.U.’s Dental School. And he had a warm, avuncular relationship with patients, warning one of them for example, “never have any dental work done in Russia.”

But he was never afraid to join a cause he favored, helping form the Stevenson for President operation in the Village in 1956, and later becoming an early member of Village Independent Democrats. Former City Councilmember Carol Greitzer remembered how at the Stevenson headquarters Karnoff told her that she would “just love canvassing.”

Hirsch recalled that despite personal problems, Karnoff “remained charming and never tried to hide his eccentricities.” One of Karnoff’s hobbies was roller-skating around Greenwich Village.

He also developed good relationships with top mid-century entertainers in the area, some of whom went on to national and international fame. His daughter recalled he had a strong friendship with Josh White, the folk singer, as well as with members of two important singing groups, The Weavers and the The Clancy Brothers. Some were also his patients.

At one point, while living on 11th St., he knew several writers, including Grace Paley.

He also got involved in community education, joining a group of parents who were looking for a site for an alternative elementary school. He found an appropriate building on 10th St. in the West Village, which was to become the Village Community School.

Karnoff served in World War II, rising to captain in the Dental Corps, but his problem with the Army occurred after he left the service.

“He needed a job,” his daughter recalled, “and his best friend, who happened to be a Communist, got him a job as a night watchman. The problem was it was watchman at Communist Headquarters in New York,” although Karnoff had no affiliation with that party.

The Army found out about his employment and told him it might take away his good conduct medal and even withdraw his honorable discharge.

“But my father and his friends threatened to take the issue to Walter Winchell” — at the time possibly the best-known newspaper and radio journalist — “and the Army decided not to make a public issue of the situation,” his daughter added.

In addition to his daughter, Monique, Karnoff is survived by her husband, Keith, and their son, Carl. Also surviving are Karnoff’s son, Lincoln, his wife, Laura, and their three children, Max, Katie and Jeffrey.

A memorial service is planned for April at the Ethical Culture Center, 64th St. and Central Park West, according to his daughter, but no date has been set yet.

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