Friday Flashback #198

Had it not been for COVID-19, tomorrow would have been jUNe Day here. Dozens of United Nations guests would have enjoyed a day in Westport — including an impressive display of flags from their native countries on the Post Road bridge.

jUNe Day 2015, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge. (Photo/Jeff Simon)

That’s the same bridge where, earlier this month, hundreds of people massed in support of Black Lives Matter, and to protest the death of George Floyd. 

The 2 events are related. The Post Road bridge — with both its flags, and its role as the cherished spot for political demonstrations — is named in honor of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. A remarkable Westporter (and former secretary to Eleanor Roosevelt), she dedicated her life to social justice, world peace — and music. 

The scene on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge, several years ago.

With jUNe Day canceled, and political protests fresh in our minds, it’s time to learn a bit more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. Staples High School Class of 1981 graduate Laurie Cameron writes:

Back in the day I met a true Westport treasure: my piano teacher, Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen. She would have been 100 on June 8. She was also the grandmother of my friend and classmate Adam Weisman.

Ruth was a generous, warm person who made music and kindness. Learning piano from her was a great education; she made sure I knew Hadyn, Chopin, Brahms and Vivaldi in addition to Mozart, Beethoven and Bach. I learned about Vienna and the Music festival from her.

My brother Byl was the musician in our family. I had no gift for music, but I returned each week for almost 9 years. I was so fascinated by her travels, her art, her bookcase, her antique harpsichord, and hearing about the many jobs she had when she was not being a piano teacher.

My favorite time of the week was the hour that I waited for my brother Andy to finish his piano lesson, when I could stare at the paintings, books and sculptures in Mrs. Cohen’s living room.

Her colorful holiday parties were also our piano recitals. After each student performed, Ruth and her husband Herbert played a duet: she on the piano, he on violin. Their music was rich and melodious, but the joy on their faces was the true lesson for us.

Sometimes when Ruth could see me growing restless at the piano, she took me for a walk in her garden. It had a brick path that looked like the yellow brick road through the woods behind her house. It was so thrilling to me that I sometimes snuck out while waiting for Andy’s lesson to end, and ran down its wooden steps.

Ruth Steinkraus Cohen (center) joins famed singer Marian Anderson (2nd from left) at a concert by young Suzanne Sherman, at Bedford Elementary School.

During her time running the UN Hospitality Committee, Ruth placed over 50,000 people into American homes for cultural exchanges. My family learned about habits and traditions of people from other cultures from those we hosted, thanks to Ruth. She was a great humanitarian with a desire to bring the world together, and bridge gaps between cultures.

When I came back to Westport after being away for over 15 years, visiting Ruth was an important stop for me. Even in her late 70s she was warm, joyful and busy making the world better for those who needed it.

I feel privileged to have known Ruth and to have learned so much from her. Her knowledge, openness, love of music, energy and patience were great sources of inspiration to me. She would be so proud to know that a bridge bearing her name is used to support people fighting for peace, civil rights and equal justice.

(To learn more about Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, click here for her New York Times obituary.)

5 responses to “Friday Flashback #198

  1. I met Ruth in 1983, when I moved to Westport. I joined the Board of the Friends of Music, which she practically ran single-handed. She selected the musicians and underwrote the performances, all of the highest quality.

    She was one of the warmest, kindest-hearted people I have ever known. I smile whenever I think of her.

  2. Diane Silfen

    Just a small bit of humor. Back in the 60’s it was great game to steel the flags…my brother David gave that a shot and got 3 or 4. He took them to our house in Vt and hung them from the sleeping loft. Then coach Hall asked if he could take a group of boys skiing for a weekend. David thought for sure he would be turned into the police and was not happy. Coach Hall just smiled.

  3. Beryl Kaufrman

    When I was in High School (WHHS in Bpt.) I was in the Usher’s Guild and we ushered at all the concerts at the Klein Memorial. Ruth Steinkraus Cohen was the guest soloist with the Bridgeport Symphony one evening and brought the house down with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto. I was thrilled to be the one who brought the bouquet of roses to her at the end of the presentation.
    Later in life I volunteered to host some of the UN staff who visited Westport every year.
    Fond memories of Ruth Steinkraus.

  4. Mary Schmerker

    I have often thought of my three encounters with Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. I wish I could remember the years. My Grandmother Ella Otis knew Ruth Steinkraus before she married Mr. Cohen. They were acquainted through music. In the early days was there a Southport Music club? My earliest meeting of Ruth was to be taken to a Piano performance. Miss Steinkraus was, I believe, the hostess and turned the music pages for the performer. She did not play herself. The second time I met her was when she hosted the Von Trapp Family Singers. This was long before the Sound of Music. A performance was held in her magnificent home. There was a reception afterward. I remember meeting Maria! I wish I could remember the year. I am guessing that it was the early 1950’s. The last time I was in Ruth Steinkraus’ presence was at a reception for music lovers. This would have been after 1956. I may have been out of college making it the early 1960’s. The reason I place it at this time was because the reason I went with my grandmother was to drive her because it was an evening event. When I think of this time period in Westport I think of Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, Lucy Bedford Cunningham,
    and others who gave so much of their time, talent and energy for the good of everyone. Always thinking about the youth coming up and what would be in the best interest of everyone.

  5. I was so happy to see Laurie Cameron’s generous comments about my step-mother, Ruth Steinkraus Cohen. She was everything that Ms Cameron, and others who commented, remember about her. She was passionate about life and lived it in double time. Who else could have done all that she did — perform and record piano music, sing with the Robert Shaw Chorale, teach music, work at the UN, entertain, travel widely and often, help to establish The Friends of Music, assemble one of great music libraries in the country, read voraciously and more. It helped that she needed only four hours of sleep a night. Even so, I once caught her driving while reading. She promised she wouldn’t do that again.

    I noticed recently that the sign “The Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Memorial Bridge” is missing. That’s especially unfortunate on JUNe Day, but given her contributions to Westport over her lifetime, I wish it would be replaced.