A short paid notice in the New York Times last week brought the news that Barbara Head Millstein had died on May 14. Hers is not a household name, yet she preserved valuable reminders of the cultural history of New York City and Brooklyn. The notice didn’t say how old she was; she was probably 90 if not more. She had been the curator of photography at the Brooklyn Museum.
For all my interest in photography, it was not in that role that I knew her or remember her for. Rather it was for her more “archaeological” efforts. When so much of Manhattan was being torn down in the 1950s and ’60s for new office buildings, Barbara Millstein helped organize the retrieval of sculptures and ornamentation from the demolished buildings, and she was instrumental in creating a sculpture garden behind the Brooklyn Museum for many rescued pieces. (See photos at right.) Subsequently she also unearthed original drawings of the Brooklyn Bridge by its designer, John Roebling. For the preservation of those artifacts and documents, a debt of gratitude is owed to her.
I first came across the museum’s garden in 1976 while temporarily idled by a strike against NBC by the union I belonged to. I had volunteered to assist in taking my son Tor’s third grade class at P.S. 8 to visit the museum, and I was captivated and charmed by the sculpture garden, a revelation to me. (The garden was largely scuttled some years later to make more room for parking behind the museum, but last I was there some pieces remained, and several others now adorn the walls at the entrance to the Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum subway stop.) There also turned out to be a bit of a personal connection, as I knew Barbara’s husband, Gilbert Millstein, from my work at NBC.
Gilbert Millstein has his own claim to memory. A writer and editor who chafed under the dictatorial rule over the New York Times Sunday Department by the legendary Lester Markel, Millstein eventually left the Times to become the grammarian and editorial curmudgeon of the Huntley-Brinkley evening news program at NBC. Beneath his crusty exterior Gil harbored a deep love for New York City, which he feared was on an irreversible decline. He wrote a pair of books, "New York, True North", which celebrated some of the unheralded people who gave the city its flavor, and the novel "The Late Harvey Grosbeck", in which Gil described his character’s funeral cortege winding its way through the Manhattan cast-iron district he cared so much about.
Barbara Millstein struck me as no less cantankerous than Gil. Toward the end of her tenure at the Brooklyn Museum she spoke critically of the populist direction it was taking, and it may have been with relief that the administration saw her eventually retire. What probably drew Barbara and Gil together was that they fiercely loved and hated the same things.
Like the people in "New York, True North" the Millsteins left strong impressions on those who knew them, even if the great swirl of the city and its history will have swallowed them up. They mattered.
Some of Gil Millstein’s crotchety insistence on correct usage has rubbed off on me. Gil would have been close to apoplectic over how many people now write “centered around” instead of “centered on.” If you’re not driving directly at the point, you are revolving around it.
Another of my bête noirs — I don’t know that it was so overused in Gil’s time — is the word “located.” Ninety percent of the time I come across it in articles for the Heights Press, I simply excise it. No need to say Junior’s is “located” at 386 Flatbush Avenue Extension when you can just as easily omit it. (I must save an inch of space in each issue by these excisions.)
In the May 14 New Yorker (a magazine with its own quirks) Joan Acocella took aim at “descriptivist” (“anything goes”) dictionaries and authors, generally supporting the “prescriptivists” who insist on certain standards of usage. What she didn’t really come to grips with is the importance of grammar as the underlying and logic-conferring structure of language — why, for instance, the correctly understood use of “whom” can clarify a sentence. But this is a topic to return to. I remain a prescriptivist, with my own quirks.
— Henrik Krogius, Editor
Brooklyn Heights Press & Cobble Hill News