Remembering Vivian Perlis

Vivian Perlis — a longtime Westporter, noted musician and transformational musicologist — died last week. She was 91.

Perlis was a renowned harp player with a master’s in music history from the University of Michigan when she began studying for a doctorate at Columbia University in the early 1960s.

Living in Westport with 3 small children — her husband, Dr. Sandy Perlis, was a psychiatrist here — she was “turned down flat” when she asked for flexibility in her studies.

The Perlis family (clockwise from top left): Mike, Sandy, Vivian, Lauren, Jonathan.

“I could either orphan my children or give up the Ph.D.,” she told the New York Times in 1997. “That would never happen today.”

Instead, she became a research librarian at the Yale School of Music. While working on the Charles Ives collection, she conducted more than 60 interviews with the Danbury composer’s former colleagues.

She “faced disdain from traditional musicologists who thought recorded interviews would be merely anecdotal, overly subjective and prone to factual inconsistencies,” Perlis’ Times obituary says.

But she went on to found Yale University’s Oral History of American Music. The project — described by the Times as “an invaluable archive of audio and video interviews” — includes 3,000 interviews with figures like Aaron Copland and Duke Ellington.

Vivian Perlis interviewing (at right) Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

Perlis directed the program for more than 40 years. She also wrote several books. For many years, she was a harpist with the New Haven Symphony.

The Perlises moved to Westport from Stockbridge, Massachusetts. She worked at Tanglewood, and her husband was studying at the Austin Riggs Institute.

“The town’s reputation as a mecca for artists and writers appealed to both of them,” says her son Mike.

She was very involved in Friends of Music, the local organization championed by Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. She played with the Westport Madrigal Singers, and contributed to holiday events, Staples High School Orphenians and Staples Players.

She was also active in the Westport Arts Center.

Vivian Perlis in 2005. (Photo by C.M. Glover/New York Times)

Her son Mike recalls Coleytown Elementary School principal Lynn Odell announcing “a very special treat” one day. To his surprise, it was his mother playing Christmas carols on her harp.

He remembers too “the great pleasure of falling asleep listening to her practicing ‘Greensleeves’ into the night.”

Vivian Perlis was part of a cohort of talented, well-educated and energetic women who overcame barriers to achieve professional and personal success. They helped mold Westport into the artistic, volunteer-driven town it is today.

In addition to her son Mike, she is survived by her daughter Lauren Perlis Ambler; another son Jonathan; her brother Irwin Goldberger, and 5 grandchildren. Her husband — a professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine — died in 1994.

(Click here for the full New York Times obituary.)

7 responses to “Remembering Vivian Perlis

  1. A. David Wunsch

    This is totally fascinating. I wish I could have spoken to someone who knew Charles Ives.
    ADW Staples 1956

  2. Sally Kellogg

    A life well lived.

  3. Sorry for your loss, Mike. Sounds like she was a wonderful person. Once again, proof that Westport was a magnet for talent, skill and achievement.

  4. Fred Cantor

    Truly an amazing life.

  5. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Deepest condolences to Mike and Lauren. I remember the Perlis family fondly from long ago although I only met Sandy and Vivian a couple of times. I always thought they were individually and collectively one of the most talented, friendly and likable people I’ve ever met.

  6. I had no idea she was such an accomplished woman! My condolences to the whole family.

  7. Joyce Rothstein

    Our deepest sympathies to Lauren, Michael, Jonathan and other members of the family. We remember Vivian and Sandy fondly from our U of M days.
    Joyce was a sorority sister of Vivian’s and we both knew Sandy and Vivian well, a beautiful couple.

    Great obituary in NYT.

    Joyce Gould Rothstein and Ronald Rothstein