A ‘walk off to the unknown’: Mordicai Gerstein, Caldecott Medal winner, dies at 83

  • A picture of a young Mordicai Gerstein with one of his drawings hangs on his studio wall at his home in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A self portrait of Mordicai Gerstein that hangs on his studio wall at his home in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Some of the books written and illustrated by Mordicai Gerstein at his home in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers” by Mordicai Gerstein with an inscription to his daughter. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Items hanging on the wall of Mordicai Gerstein's studio at his home in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Some of the books done Mordicai Gerstein in his studio where he worked at his home in Westhampton. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS—STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The cover of Mordicai Gerstein’s 2017 book “The Boy and the Whale.” SUBMITTED PHOTO/R. MICHELSON GALLERIES

  • Art from Mordicai Gerstein’s book “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.” SUBMITTED PHOTO/R. MICHELSON GALLERIES

  • Art from Mordicai Gerstein’s book “The Man Who Walked Between the Towers.” SUBMITTED PHOTO/R. MICHELSON GALLERIES

  • Mordicai Gerstein in his home studio in Westhampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO/JEROME RENAULT

  • Mordicai Gerstein in his home studio in Westhampton. SUBMITTED PHOTO/JEROME RENAULT

Staff Writer
Published: 9/29/2019 11:56:03 PM

WESTHAMPTON — At age four, Mordicai Gerstein, who died Tuesday at age 83 after battling cancer, ​​​​​made his first painting. At age 10, he had his first art show. He was born an artist — and he remained one his entire life.

Though he never expected to be an author, the longtime Valley resident became a celebrated writer and illustrator of dozens of children’s books. Picture books, as he writes on his website, are “film and drawing and theater all in one.”

Gerstein, born in Los Angeles, lived in Northampton with his wife, Susan Yard Harris, for two decades before moving to Westhampton in 2006.

Gerstein’s most famous book, “The Man Who Walked Between The Towers,” is about Frenchman Philippe Petit’s daring and illegal 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers more than a thousand feet off the ground with nothing to catch him if he fell.

“When the world towers went down, he had on his bookshelf an article in the New Yorker about Philippe Petit’s walk, and he took it out and said, ‘oh I’m going to do this story,’” Harris said while sitting on her living room couch next to her daughter, Risa Harris-Gerstein, on Friday evening.

Gerstein was also drawn to Petit’s story because he was an artist, according to his daughter. “My dad just talked about, that he didn’t see the two buildings, Philippe Petit, he saw the space between the buildings and what he could do with it,” Harris-Gerstein recalled. “That sort of sums up what an artist does.”

“Right, and walk off into the unknown,” Harris added.

But it wasn’t easy to get published the story because it was right after 9/11, and the stunt also broke the law. “He couldn’t sell it at first,” Harris said. “People were afraid. Editors were afraid.”

For the 2003 picture book, he was awarded the Caldecott Medal, an award for “the most distinguished American picture book for children.”

Gerstein attended Chouinard Institute of Art — a school that has since been absorbed into California Institute of the Arts — and then moved to New York City, “which I thought of as the world capital of the arts,” he wrote on his website. There, he worked in animation, designing and directing commercials and children’s shows. He married painter Sandra MacDonald in 1957, and they had two children: Aram, who now lives in San Francisco, and Jesse, who passed away in 1991. The couple divorced in 1969, a few years before Gerstein met Harris, who is an artist, yoga teacher and a children’s book illustrator.

Though Gerstein was drawn to art, he didn’t plan to write books. “Meeting Elizabeth Levy in 1970 changed everything,” he wrote on his website. Levy wrote a kids’ mystery book and asked Gerstein to illustrate it. The book turned into a series that Gerstein illustrated for several decades.

That project prompted him to start writing. “I found that, for me, writing was a bit like gardening,” he wrote on his website. “I learned to plant ideas in my mind like seeds, and when they sprouted (if they sprouted), to cultivate them, nurture them and help them grow. I never know what kind of fruit, vegetable or flower a story will turn out to be. Sunflower or turnip? After writing on various projects for over 10 years my first book turned out to be a duck.”

That book was “Arnold of the Ducks,” which was published in 1983 after he received seven rejections.

Most recently, he had been working on a book called “Moose, Goose, and Mouse” that Harris said will likely be out next year.

‘A very gentle soul’

How Gerstein and Harris met, “it’s quite a story,” she said.

The couple first crossed paths in 1982 in New York City at an anti-nuclear demonstration. “There were a million people at it,” she recalled. “We both worked for artist groups that were preparing for the demonstration making signs and things.” At the demonstration, she caught his eye. “He saw me — I didn’t see him,” she said. “Two weeks later there was a party for these groups and that’s when we met.”

Harris lived in Brooklyn at the time, but frequently spent her summers in the Valley, which she was introduced to in 1975 when she was a resident of Cummington Community of the Arts.

“When I met him, I brought him up here, and he really loved it,” she said. “We rented a house in Cummington for the summer. We never left.” The couple then had a daughter, Harris-Gerstein, and moved to Crescent Street in Northampton where they stayed for 20 years.

Art and storytelling were not Gerstein’s only talents. “He could really cook pretty much anything,” Harris-Gerstein said. In particular, Harris said he took a class in Chinese cooking and his mapo doufu was excellent.

“He was so meticulous. And of course, ingredients are really important,” Harris said. In the backyard of their house, there are peach trees, pear trees, strawberries, herbs and a variety of vegetables. “I taught Mordicai how to have a garden because he was a city boy,” she said.

Another quirk, “He had an absolutely phenomenal memory. He remembered everything that ever happened,” Harris said.

“And everything he ever ate,” Harris-Gerstein said. “It runs in his family. I kind of have it too.” Harris said that ran in Mordicai’s mother’s family. “I don’t know how that gets passed down through the generations, but it did.”

“Even in his illness,” Harris said, “he still loved food even when he couldn’t eat that much. He would give us instructions on how to cook something because he couldn’t do it himself. I would take up a notepad and take notes, detailed notes, so that I was sure to get it right.”

A “voracious reader,” Gerstein consumed books ranging from graphic novels to poetry, Harris said. “Look at all these books!” she said gesturing to bookshelves that line multiple walls of the living room. “He was always reading three books at the same time … You couldn’t get him to read one book at a time.”

Gerstein was also an avid biker. “He rode his bike everywhere,” Harris-Gerstein said. Before moving to Westhampton, he had a studio in Haydenville that he would faithfully bike to and from each day, Harris said.

Jerome Renault became friends with Gertstein 12 years ago when he moved to the house next door. Gerstein was, “a very gentle soul,” Renault said. “He was such a good friend — someone who listened.”

The two would go on bike rides together. “He would bike in the winter in the snow. … Nothing seemed to stop him,” Renault said.

Gerstein also traveled to bike in places like Spain, France and Scotland. “He bicycled once from Oregon all the way down to San Francisco … by himself, always by himself. … He would bicycle through all kinds of weather and just loved it.”

“He’d always meet colorful characters,” Harris-Gerstein said.

One of those characters was a 90-year-old English man still riding his bike. “And he said, ‘I’m going to be like that,’” Harris said. So for years, he would bike his age in miles on his birthday, even up until his mid-70s.

“He just enjoyed life so much,” Harris said, “and he had tremendous energy — so much energy and life force.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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