Maggie Berkvist, Goodbye Dear Friend

by Caroline Benveniste

MAGGIE BERKVIST, celebrating her birthday a few years ago at Left Bank, surrounded by friends.

Maggie Berkvist (née Bellward) passed away at Bellevue Hospital on December 9, 2022, after surgery to repair a broken hip. She was 94 years old. Born in Leicester, England on September 17, 1928, she was an only child, born to parents who were both only children. Her maternal grandmother died in childbirth, so Maggie’s mother was raised by a friend of her grandmother’s. Maggie’s mother left her husband when Maggie was eight years old. Maggie said of this period of her life, “Aunt Nell was the one who took us in when my mother left my father. Auntie was really a second mum to me. My father was bright and well educated (he got a scholarship to Cambridge!)—but a bad news bear and a rotten father!” In a 2014 interview with Michael Minichiello, she explained how her family situation had shaped her future life: “So I have no connections! I guess that’s what made it easier for me to be footloose and fancy-free.” While she did not have many blood relatives, over her lifetime she amassed a large collection of friends, many of whom considered her family.

She was at boarding school in England during WWII and remembered an incident where a bomb dropped near her school, and as she and the other schoolgirls watched, soldiers arrived to detonate it. She moved to London at 16 and lived there on her own until she married her first husband, Mr. Robin. Together they traveled to Canada on the QE2 in 1952. In 1954 she left him and moved to the United States.

After arriving in the US, she floated around for a bit (including a x-country camping trip) and then landed in New York and got a job at McCann Erickson, an ad agency in 50 Rock that she likened to Mad Men. Two years later she moved to the West Village and started working at the New York Times as a photographer (she had been taking photographs since her mother gave her a camera when she was 12). She was a photo editor there (Book Review Section and the Magazine) from 1960 to 1979. From 1980 to 2013, she was a freelance photo editor and researcher at The Times and at LIFE magazine, and afterwards took photographs for WestView News, a monthly publication covering her West Village neighborhood.

Her first stop in the West Village was a basement apartment at 315 West 4th where she paid $35 a month (just a tad over the “$30 pays your rent” in Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bleecker Street”). She remained in the same neighborhood except for a brief period when she was married to Bob Berkvist and lived in Brooklyn Heights and the Upper West Side. When they split in 1965, she returned to the Village, moved to her building on Bank Street in 1967, and in 1969, to the apartment where she lived until her death.

She often spoke of the importance of having a local, i.e., a local pub like folks in England have. One of her first locals was Louie’s, a bar in Sheridan Square. She recollected, “It was my nightly hangout in those days, with good old time Villagers Mike and Red behind the bar, and Louie himself (Mafia, we always thought) lurking. I drank tumblers of ‘cheap white wine’, 25 cents, I think?” Later when Louie’s disappeared, she moved on to the 12th Street Bar (now the Cubbyhole) owned by her friend Paula, where she briefly bartended during the newspaper strike of 1979.

Over the years she frequented several other spots, including Hudson Hound on Hudson Street, but her final (and most cherished) local was The Left Bank. It opened in 2011 a couple of blocks from her apartment and almost immediately became her “watering hole”. But as she described to Michael Minichiello, things changed after Hurricane Sandy: “The Left Bank managed to stay open all those nights with just candlelight. We were all hanging out like the good old days, talking to one another and giving each other tips on how to survive until the electricity came back on.” She would appear at Left Bank every evening for cocktail hour. Her pour of choice was a pale rosé from Provence (she started drinking this after it was recommended to her by her cousin Patrick from France), and when her doctor told her she could only have one glass of wine a day, she would have her glass and then receive a small top up which somehow still counted as part of the first glass. She was loved by the staff and other customers, and she had her own seat near the door facing the window so she could watch the world and dogs go by. Her love of dogs knew no bounds—she stopped and spoke to their owners and photographed them, and it was not unusual for dogs to stop in to greet her when they were out on their walks. In 2018 at her birthday party at Left Bank, a plaque was installed at her spot.

In March 2020 when New York started shutting down, Maggie set out to document the changes to the neighborhood with pictures she would take on her “walkabouts”. She described the genesis of the bulletin thus: “Without the wonderful comfort of being able to get together with friends—for a hug and a drink(!!), I started out sending a bulletin to my LEFT BANK family last Tuesday (after the shutdown).” Soon her bulletin expanded to over 50 recipients. Remarkably, Maggie kept the daily bulletins coming for over 6 months, and after that continued them with decreased frequency (the last one arrived on Thanksgiving 2022). During those difficult times, Maggie’s emails were sometimes the only bright spot in the day. She continued her nightly rosé cocktail hour, but her companion was now her stalwart cat Jefferson, usually pictured sleeping. She meticulously chronicled the changing streetscape. She highlighted openings and closings. She contrasted the early scenes of deserted streets with the incipient activity once the city started to open up again. She met even more dogs, stopping to talk to all their owners. And there was a plethora of flower photos, their riotous colors jumping out from the screen. Soon many of her readers started to send their own stories and photos to Maggie who would expertly weave them into her missives. We had news from abroad, e.g., Iceland, the UK, France, and heard how COVID was changing life there. We followed the saga of Peter the peacock in Provence, his capers, his disappearance, and various rumors concerning his fate. Keith Michaels, an avid birder was able to spend more time birding and his fantastic avian photos made their way into the bulletin. Certain themes recurred—Maggie’s problems with her “old Mac” which would sometimes eat her photos, Miss Mac, her tech consultant who caught COVID early on and then moved to New Mexico, a mysterious gentleman who had a gym set-up on the street, a runner who passed by Left Bank every day at the same time, a woman who collected bottles. We followed the saga of Myers of Keswick, worrying through its protracted and unexpected closure that Maggie would no longer be able to purchase her sausage rolls, hob-nobs and ginger nuts. (They did re-open, better than ever.). There were “trips down memory lane”, where Maggie photographed landmarks from her early days in NY. Sometimes, lines from songs would set the tone for the stories, e.g., “Those were the days, my friend,” and “drop a line, to say you’re feeling fine” and were often accompanied by the disclaimer “that was from before your time.”

Fortunately, by the summer of 2020, restaurants began to open up for outdoor dining, and Maggie claimed a spot in the Washington Street shed at Left Bank (never the Perry Street shed which she dismissively said was only for tourists). And from her spot in the shed she met even more people and dogs, and it was not unusual to walk by at cocktail hour and see Maggie surrounded by a jolly crowd.

Maggie is survived by her beloved cat Jefferson, who is still looking for his new forever home. She truly fostered a sense of community in our neighborhood, and she will be missed by many.