Martin E. Segal, Titan of the Arts in New York City, Dies at 96

August 6, 2012

By ROBIN POGREBIN

August 6, 2012

Martin E. Segal, whose puckish warmth and old-fashioned ways belied his power and influence as one of the city’s leading cultural figures, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his son, Paul.

Mr. Segal, who made his fortune through the Segal Company, an international consulting business, was perhaps best known as the elder statesman of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he served in several leadership roles, contributed his own funds and generated substantial gifts to the organization. Most people know that Lincoln Center has halls named after Alice Tully and Avery Fisher; Mr. Segal knew Ms. Tully and Mr. Fisher personally.

Mr. Segal was chairman of Lincoln Center from 1981 to 1986. His successors have included the soprano Beverly Sills. But a recent chairman, Frank A. Bennack Jr., said in a November 2008 interview that as far as he was concerned “somehow Marty is the Lincoln Center chairman.”

Mr. Segal was also the founding president and chief executive of the Film Society of Lincoln Center from 1968 to 1978. During his tenure the Film Society honored Charlie Chaplin, whom Mr. Segal went to great lengths to bring to the United States from Britain, at its first annual gala tribute. The second award went to Fred Astaire, the third to Alfred Hitchcock.

Well into his 90s, Mr. Segal remained a larger-than-life presence on New York’s cultural scene. Although his board positions evolved into emeritus or advisory roles, he continued fund-raising and counseling executives at his favored arts organizations. He went into the office almost every day and out on the town almost every night.

Mr. Segal’s full social calendar never flagged, even in later years when he lost sight in one eye and walked with a cane. He could be regularly spotted holding forth at his favorite lunch haunts — the Four Seasons Grill Room, Le Bernardin, Oceana — with his signature early-stage red rose in his lapel.

And he was constantly at fund-raising galas, be it in honor of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, the New York Public Library or the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Mr. Segal and his wife of 74 years, Edith, frequently entertained guests at small dinner parties in their apartment near Lincoln Center, gathering important figures from the arts, academia and the media.

With his wife at one end of the table and himself at another, Mr. Segal would preside over discussions about the issues of the day, soliciting opinions from their guests. These evenings were “choreographed in ways that I’ve never seen in anybody else’s apartment,” said William P. Kelly, president of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York and an occasional guest.

While Mr. Segal was generous with his money, he was perhaps most admired for the donations he managed to extract from others. He used to say he had no trouble giving people the “opportunity” to contribute to the causes he cared most about, whether it be Lincoln Center’s redevelopment project, which updated the campus; Public Radio International (formerly American Public Radio), of which he was a founding member; or the Library of America, a nonprofit publisher dedicated to publishing, and keeping in print, editions of America’s most significant writing.

In meetings with potential contributors, Mr. Segal was straightforward about “the ask.”

He would “sit down with a donor and say, ‘You really ought to do this,’ ” Mr. Bennack said, adding that Mr. Segal would “tell you how much you should give.”

He would joke that prospective donors always told him, “Having lunch with you is expensive.”

Mr. Segal was also the moving force behind several arts organizations, including the New York International Festival of the Arts, which he founded in 1985 and ran until its discontinuation in 2002. He helped establish the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2000. In 1986 Lincoln Center established the annual Martin E. Segal Awards, given to aspiring young artists.

Emanuel Ax, the pianist, who met Mr. Segal in the 1970s, said Mr. Segal was “eternally interested” and seemed “to know everything about everything.”

Yet Mr. Segal was something of an autodidact. Kicked out of high school for failing every subject except English and art, he used to stop by the Brooklyn Public Library to read on breaks from his paper route and completed all of Proust by the time he was 13.

Books “introduced me to worlds I never knew anything about, including women with deep décolletage,” Mr. Segal said in a 2009 interview, “and I loved it.”

He did poorly in school, Mr. Segal used to say, because he was already busy working: delivering newspapers and operating the steam machine at a tailor shop.

Mr. Segal was born in Vitebsk, Russia, on July 4, 1916, though he also celebrated on Aug. 15 because, he said some years after his family moved to Brooklyn when he was 5, he didn’t want to have a birthday on a national holiday.

At 17 he was offered a job selling insurance, and by 1939 he had founded the Segal Company, which continues to provide international consultants and actuaries for employee benefit plans.

Mr. Segal was appointed by Mayor Abraham D. Beame to be the first chairman of the city’s Commission for Cultural Affairs, serving from 1975 to 1977. He was on the board of the Fund for the City of New York from 1978 to 1987.

His hobbies included painting — he was at his easel three times a week.

Besides his son, Paul, an architect, he is survived by a daughter, Susan Segal Rai, a lawyer; a brother, Hylan; a sister, Esther Maidenbaum; four grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. His wife died in 2011.

With his twinkle-in-the-eye charm, Mr. Segal embodied the glamorous city of a bygone era. Asked once why he wore a boutonniere every day, he said: “I like the idea. I like the fact that friends like it. They may not know your name, but they remember that you wear a rose.”

Originally published by The New York Times