There is a phenomenon in psychiatric literature called "the halo effect." Basically it refers to people who have such enormous personal charisma that when you meet them it's as if a bright light radiates from them. During my lifetime I have been in the company of three who radiated this light. The first three were John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jackie; and my dear Philadelphia friend, Elaine Strauss Rosen, who died of cancer in 1986.
This past September I saw this light for the fourth time. It belonged to Peggy Amsterdam, who moved onto the same floor of my Center City apartment building.
At that time, I had no idea that my new neighbor was the extraordinary leader of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, about whom I had read so much. When I met her that September evening, I saw why Peggy— as petite as Audrey Hepburn, with a smile as radiant, sparkly, intelligent and kind— was repeatedly able to accomplish the seeming impossible: battle Philadelphia and Harrisburg when shortsighted proposals threatened to eliminate public support for the arts or (as was proposed this year) to tax the arts into oblivion.
When Peggy asked politicians and public officials, "What were you thinking?!" even the thoughtless were humbled. With every fiber of her being, she understood and taught and lived a basic truth: The arts are the world's one consistent pathway to insight, humanity and yes, survival.
I knew that Peggy was ill when she became our neighbor. I also knew that friendships take time. But my own experience had taught me something else as well: No matter how full your plate, immediately create time for one who touches your heart.
Over the few months I knew Peggy, our conversations ranged from the frivolous (our wonderful neighborhood restaurants, and how to hang pictures to the best advantage) to the serious (the effect of stress on the immune system). I'll never forget her joy and pride when she asked me if I had met her two sons. We did share a wonderful lunch, but the dinner that we said would happen, never did.
Peggy wrote wonderful notes in a totally legible hand. The letters of her script were full and broad and beautiful— no hidden messages, nothing confusing or impossible to decipher, an accurate reflection of a woman larger than life.
In her last weeks I left flowers and soups at her door. The last thing I left, not realizing how close to death she was (or perhaps in denial), was a copy of her Inquirer op-ed essay, "Philadelphia arts create real jobs"— published on December 23, just three days before she died.
Peggy Amsterdam died too young, but I've sadly learned that the very pure among us— those committed totally to what is good and true— often die long before their time. But oh, how she fought— against a voracious cancer, and also for the heart and future of a city she cherished. Her legacy and her light remain.♦
To read another commentary abut Peggy Amsterdam by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a response, click here.