Lee Greenberg — longtime resident, active volunteer, salon host, talented sculptor, noted tennis player and skier, yoga teacher (long before most people knew what that was), and friend to countless Westporters of all ages — died Friday at her beloved home of 43 years, on Duck Pond Road.
Born Lee Snell during the Spanish flu influenza on January 22, 1918 in Hell’s Kitchen, New York to parents from Belarus Russia, she came to Westport in 1941 after marrying Nat Greenberg. He operated the Westport Hardware Store for more than 55 years, and became a noted real estate developer.
Lee and Nat were among the earlier Jewish residents of Westport. Nat helped establish Temple Israel, and later enabled the development of Birchwood Country Club.
Lee was intellectually curious, bold and worldly, and dedicated to a healthy lifestyle including exercise and mobility long before it became popular. She played tennis, did yoga, and did splits into her 90s.
A perennial beach and sun worshiper, she held court year-round with friends and family while playing backgammon and Scrabble on her cherished beaches (from Block Island in summer to St. thomas in winter). Young at heart, she kept her mind active with games and news to the end of her life.
She was aided by the irreplaceable love, endless dedication and careful driving of her 18-year caregiver, Gina Prempeh from Ghana. Through this winter she could be found at Compo Beach, listening to her favorite operas and watching the sun set next to her “bouquet of trees.”
Lee was married to Nat Greenberg for 43 years, and to the late Jacques Sternberg for 10 years. She is survived by her children, Linda Libow of New York, Gail Greenberg of California, Michael Greenberg of Westport and Debbie Filkins of Block Island, Rhode Island, and their spouses; step-children Edward Sternberg, Cathy O’Gara and spouses; 8 grandchildren, 3 step-grandchildren; 4 great-grandchildren; 6 step-great-grandchildren; the Snell nephews and their children, and her beloved caretaker Gina Prempeh.
In the spirit of Lee’s love of and support for the environment, music, history and equality, the family welcomes donations in her memory to the Westport Rotary Club, Temple Israel Community Tzedakah Fund (Social Action), Norwalk Symphony, Block Island Historical Society, or Salmon River Restoration Council,
A week ago, “06880” and the entire town honored her on her 103rd birthday.
Fellow Rotarian Gillian Anderson writes:
I was fortunate to see her recently. On January 19 a half dozen friends from the Westport Rotary Club gave her an ice cream cake (chocolate, her favorite), a bouquet of roses, some fabulous balloons and a card made by Dave Matlow of his photographs of Lee with family and friends.
We saw her in her heated garage with her loyal companion and aide Gina, her son Michael and one of her granddaughters. We enjoyed a short, socially distanced visit and sang “Happy Birthday.”
She was happy to see us. She spoke about her husband Nat and her long life in Westport. She celebrated her 103rd birthday with her family 2 days later.
We are so pleased to have seen her and to greet her so happily in this special way. She was a remarkable, unique character. We shall miss her very much.
Gillian prepared these remarks for the Rotary’s celebration of her 103rd birthday:
The former Leah Snell moved to Westport from New York in 1941, when she married Nathan Greenberg. He was a native of the town, and an early member of Westport Rotary. As fellow Rotarian Ann Sheffer said, “The Greenbergs were committed to the evolving community of Westport, and the world in general. They brought the world into their Westport home.”
Lee continues to be an inspiration, an example to us all of a life well lived, a truly abundant life.
Lee has continued to represent an outward looking, worldly curiosity and contributes so much to the local community. Until COVID hit, she was not only a regular attendee at Rotary but also active over many years in the Westport Historical Society, a board member of Norwalk Symphony, the Westport Arts Center, and her Carriage Barn sculpture group at the New Canaan Society for the Arts.
I first got to know Lee 10 years ago at Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler’s house. Political candidates were making rousing “get out the vote” speeches. I sat down next to her and introduced myself. I had no idea I was sitting with the Grand Dame of Westport, the person who knew everyone in the room and just about everyone in the entire town.
She showed me her sculpture (“When Pigs Can Fly”), which she was donating to raise funds for the DNC silent auction that night, then gave me thumbnail bios of all the important folks in the room. Quite an education! Gradually we became friends, particularly when she invited me to attend her renowned cultural salon.
Lee’s cultural salon was an extraordinary gathering at her home each week. She and her friend Herb Podell invited a small group of friends and acquaintances to hear a speaker or performer of note. The cosmopolitan range of her interests and connections was breath taking: opera singers, musicians, journalists, political columnists, photographers, artists, human rights activists, politicians, economists and authors. For many years, each shared their ideas and talents in Lee’s living room to an appreciative audience, who were thrilled to attend and join in the lively discussion that followed.
One of the striking aspects to me of Lee’s persona is her intellect and curiosity. Her conversation is peppered with questions and references to current events, to making connections and with people in the news, many of whom she knows personally. Until quite recently, here at Rotary lunches when the speaker would ask for questions from the floor, Lee often nailed it with a reference to a relevant New York Times article she just read and quiz the speaker on his opinion!!
Of course, we must mention Lee’s life-long athleticism. Local tennis champion – often playing on her back yard tennis court, skiing every winter, and yoga and daily exercise routines. For many years she taught yoga on the beach at her place in St Thomas, and on Block Island.
This perhaps is one of her secrets to long life and mobility. I had been unaware of all this until one evening about 8 years ago (when she was a mere 95). I was working out at the NY Sports Club. There was Lee doing a circuit of the machines – legs and abs, all manner of major stretches. My trainer said, “Oh yes, Lee’s one of my best clients. She’s often here 5 days a week!”
Mobility is still important to Lee – she loves to be out and about in her beloved Westport. Thanks to the TLC and careful driving of her loyal helper Gina, you’ll easily find Lee most afternoons at Compo Beach. Her white SUV is parked overlooking the water. She often holds court with many friends who love to be in her company.
When we celebrated Lee’s 100th, several members spoke.
Martha Aasen talked of Lee’s outstanding generosity and energy as a fund raiser for countless political candidates over many decades. She said, “It’s a privilege to call her a friend.” Martha told this story:
In the late 1950’s, Lee, Nat and their 4 children were living in a then-huge house on Long Lots Road, enjoying a very comfortable life Liz Taylor and then-husband Mike Todd were house hunting. She was pregnant. Her mother lived in Ridgefield, and Liz wanted to be near her mom.
Their realtor called Nat Greenberg — a long-time Westport real estate developer — in a panic. The realtor had nothing to show them, so he asked Nat if he could them his house.
In walked Liz Taylor and Mike Todd. They loved the house — one of the few in those days with a swimming pool and tennis court — and asked if the Greenbergs would consider renting it for a year.
Their first reaction was “of course not!” But Nat and Lee talked. They came up with an idea: They could live in Switzerland for a year. Mike offered to pay not only the year’s rental, but for the family of 6 to travel to Europe in style, by ocean liner — and for their chalet.
Unfortunately, during that year Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash. Lee learned the news at a ski mountain. It was a tragic ending to Liz Taylor’s Westport adventure.
A post-script on the 175 Long Lots Road house: Liz Taylor and Mike Todd were not the only famous residents. Lee and Nat eventually sold their home to Harry Reasoner in 1968 — the same year the TV newscaster teamed up with Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace to begin CBS News’ “60 Minutes.”
Ann Sheffer also spoke. She talked about the strong family ties between generations of Greenbergs and Sheffers. Her grandparents were close friends of Lee and Nat — all wicked tennis players, and all involved in local real estate development.
Ann also talked about Lee’s talent as an artist, and how nearly every Democratic candidates for state and local elections — and many national ones — from the 1950s through the ’80s were hosted by their two families, for fundraising and support.
After the speeches. cake and singing of “Happy Birthday,” Lee stood up. She expressed great joy for all the wonderful words spoken about her. She thanked the Rotary Club and guests for a great celebration, and said she had so much fun she’d like to do it all over again.
However, she concluded, she’d settle for seeing her friends again next Tuesday at the Rotary Club.