Producer of Stuyvesant Town documentary dies

Partner on project says he will complete film

Marie Beirne, who had a background in preservation, died on November 26. (Photo from Marie Beirne bio)

By Sabina Mollot

It was over a decade ago when, as part of an effort to get Stuyvesant Town/Peter Cooper Village landmarked, the Tenants Association formed a committee to help with this goal, including by potentially making a short film.

Ultimately what happened was that, while the apartment complex still hasn’t been landmarked or even on the waitlist for consideration, the short film turned into a full-length documentary that according to one of its two co-producers, William Kelly, is currently about 85 percent complete.

Sadly, the other co-producer of the film, Stuyvesant Town resident Marie Beirne, died on November 26, 2018. Beirne’s death at age 72 was unexpected, Kelly said, stemming from complications from what was supposed to be a routine hip replacement last May. There wound up being complications including infections that landed her back in the hospital, including for more surgery. Though Beirne seemed in good spirits just four days prior to her death, when family and friends celebrated Thanksgiving with her over Chinese food at her hospital room, she was never able to recover.

She died peacefully in her sleep at New York Presbyterian.

Meanwhile, her documentary, which is called “The Burden of Eden,” will go on.

“I’m going to finish it because that’s exactly what she would have done,” Kelly said. Kelly, who has a background in film industry work, including directing, joined in the effort after hearing Beirne pitch the idea at the meeting of the ST-PCV Tenants Association.

Beirne, along with helping William conduct interviews, also found the interviewees for the film, most notably Lee Lorch, the professor who organized the desegregation movement in Stuyvesant Town’s early days. He’d essentially declared war on then-owner Metropolitan Life by allowing a black World War II veteran and his family to live in his apartment.

“No one knew where he was. Most people didn’t even know he was still alive,” said Kelly of Lorch.

Still, Beirne was determined to locate him and she did. The interview that was conducted with Lorch is believed to be his last before his death in 2014.

As for the film, it is now intended for a bigger audience than the Landmarks Preservation Commission and Kelly hopes to get it seen at film festivals and possibly streamed.

“It really is a gripping story,” said Kelly, with much of the focus not only on the racial discrimination that stained Stuyvesant Town’s past, but the day-to-day lives of its original inhabitants. Interview topics range from JFK’s historic visit to 20th Street and First Avenue to the neighborhood’s early surrounding shops.

“As the landmarking thing petered out, we just turned it into something else,” said Kelly. “We said, ‘There’s a film here.’”

Beirne, retired from a corporate background as a technical consultant for Bank Parabas as well as Dell Publishing, lived in Stuyvesant Town for 16 years. She’d been interested in preservation even before getting involved in the film project, having previously been involved in a successful fight on the Upper East Side to keep a building from becoming a luxury tower.

After retiring, she also gave walking historic tours through the Financial District for the company Wall Street Walks, uniting her background in finance with her love of Big Apple architecture.

Marie Beirne used to lead historic walking tours.

She also served as a member of various neighborhood nonprofit organizations. They included the Lenox Hill Neighborhood Association; Community Board 8; the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association; the ST-PCV Tenants Association; The Bowery Alliance of Neighbors; Historic District Council; The Lower East Side Tenement Museum; The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation and the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative, where she was on the board of directors.

“She was a very compassionate and empathetic woman,” said Kelly. “An interesting mix of sweetness and stubbornness. She also had a caustic wit.”

Beirne was married to a man named Jerry Rubin in 1970 but they split a couple of years later. She grew up in Manhattan on East 83rd Street, but lived for some time in Honolulu, where she got a degree in political science from the University of Hawaii. Beirne’s brother, Jim, said many of her friendships in Hawaii were longlasting with one friend flying in to help care for her for 10 days after one of her surgical procedures.

Despite her deteriorating health conditions towards the end of her life, Jim said she kept a positive attitude, usually cheering up others who came to visit her in the hospital or call. She’s actually told him fairly recently that she thought she was “about 75 percent” through her ordeal.

“She had this ability to make others feel better,” he said.

There will be a memorial service for Beirne on March 16 that’s open to the public, though a venue has yet to be arranged.

Susan Steinberg, president of the ST-PCV Tenants Association, had met Beirne as a result of Community Board 6’s effort to get landmark status for the complex.

By then, Steinberg said, “Marie had been central in a successful effort to achieve landmark designation for City and Suburban residences on the Upper East Side so, when she moved to Peter Cooper Village, she threw herself wholeheartedly into and worked with the Tenant Association Board for its own landmarking campaign. Marie seemed to have boundless energy and soon organized volunteers and followed up any lead that could help us.”

At the time, the focus on landmarking was due to Met Life’s selling off the property and fears that a new owner would redevelop the Oval and other green spaces.

Eventually, Beirne’s work, including getting the film started, resulted in the TA receiving a letter from the New York State Historic Preservation Office indicating that the agency considered Stuyvesant Town (although not Peter Cooper Village) eligible for landmark status. However, Steinberg recalled, “outside forces (the sale of the property and the changes in ownership) slowed down the landmarking effort.”

She added, “Marie was a remarkably kind and generous person, always good-humored and ready for a laugh. The ultimate networker, she seemed to know the world. It was always her favorite fantasy to have a red carpet showing of the Stuyvesant Town film when it was finished. Bringing that about would be the best tribute to her.”

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