Eva Ballantine

Eva Ballantine returned to Woodstock

Shortly before dawn on Mother’s Day (May 8) Eva Ballantine, of 270 West Chestnut Street, Kingston, succumbed to systemic failure. Family alerted to her rapid decline rushed to complete last visits of all four of her children and two of four grandchildren.

Eva Ballantine, ten or so years ago in her mid-80s. (Photo by Tad Wise)

95 years earlier, on October 10, 1926, she was born Eva Maria Korst. Her grandfather, Hugo Heermann — one of Brahms’s favored violinists — had retired with his wife to Merano, Italy. Then, much to the sprawling family’s surprise, the oldest daughter, Maya, returned from touring America as cellist, married the Wagnerian tenor, Robert Korst, and, upon becoming pregnant at the advanced age of 38, joined her parents in Merono for her confinement and the birth. 

In 1934 a position at Interlaken, the American music school, was arranged for Eva’s father, Robert (who as a Jew, was endangered in Germany). The next autumn Maya and Eva crossed the Atlantic to join him. First, however, they were met at the dock by Maya’s brother, the painter Norbert Herrmann, who drove them straight to Woodstock, its mountains spangled with never-before-witnessed color. So it would be in Cincinnati and Manhattan that young Eva endured the cruelty of American school children, while Woodstock became her sanctuary and salvation.

Every summer for the next decade, under the watchful eye of Norbert’s wife (the increasingly successful author Elizabeth Alexander,) “Evie” Korst blossomed into a striking beauty, though not until after — back when they were both a mere ten years old — she met her Heathcliff. 

The ever-precocious David Ballantine had a small part in “Up Pops The Devil,” (directed by his father) at the Maverick theater. Eva asked her Aunt Elizabeth if they could go backstage to meet him. Davy came for lunch the next day whereupon he and Eva became inseparable. Legend has it, in fact, that “little Evie Korst” promised to marry David in a cornfield when they were still children — a vow she would eventually keep.

First, however, she wore dashing Harvey Fite’s engagement ring for an entire night, after the future builder of Opus 40 proposed, following a particularly drunken pool party. Evie was 16 and he, 30. Though secretly pleased, “Aunt Elizabeth” — who had by then bought the old Dutch farmhouse in Zena — made her niece promptly return the ring. 

Elizabeth took Eva to a Broadway show several times a summer. The night they saw Katherine Cornell in “The Little Foxes,” Eva was stage-struck. Elsewhere, Elizabeth’s gardener had by then taught Evie the difference between a flower and a weed, and the girl’s fascination with every sort of blooming plant began.

Yet it was Eva’s other wealthy, childless aunt — exiled star of Berlin’s cabaret and operetta, Bella Herrmann — who procured her niece an internship at Newport, RI, where destiny fast struck. A summer stock actress lost her voice, the intern replaced her, but by the time vocal cords had healed the show’s director preferred Miss Korst in the role. Thus Eva earned her equity card at 16. 

She got her first big laugh playing the maid in “Blithe Spirit.”

One of the leads watched from the wings. “You were good!” a gravel-voiced Joe Leon shouted after curtain call, before stepping closer to whisper, “…but I can make you better.” The two became life-long friends.

Back in Woodstock two years later, at another of Elizabeth’s parties, a ridiculously handsome young Irish-American named Terry dropped the date he’d come with and danced with Eva the whole night. The following year, after being kicked out of the Navy, Terry rang up Eva, (who had by then come to the attention of Diana Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar, after Aunt Bella got her a job modeling hats).    

“Guess who!” the brash youth demanded.

“I haven’t the slightest …”

“It’s Terry — Terry Wise.”

Within the year their marriage party, of course, was at Elizabeth’s in Woodstock; she was 20, he, 21. The newlyweds returned to New York where Terry attended night school and worked days and Eva was instantly pregnant — her dreams of becoming an actress or working for the great Diana Vreeland evaporating like rain on a steaming sidewalk. 

Kitty was born in ’47, Miranda in ‘52; Tad in ’56 — shortly after which, Eva’s first experiment in matrimony ended and she returned to Woodstock…and to David.

But Heathcliff proved a lousy husband and David was only slightly better; even if the appearance of his daughter, Lucy, in the crowded little house atop Bearsville’s “Ballantine Lane” did pacify him long enough to finish his eccentrically beautiful home on the shoulder of the hill. Weekending on the opposing slope, however, David’s brother — paperback pioneer, Ian Ballantine — soon accused Eva of marrying into the family for money. “That’s right,” she scoffed, “All the books I can eat!” 

She took to gardening for wealthy Woodstockers, including the Berkowitzes, the Towbins, the Needles, the Dylans, and eventually, her old friend from theater days, Joe Leon. Another of her favorites was the famous Brooklyn lawyer, Isadore Halpern, who once chauffeured Eva in his Rolls Royce to the home of a client slow in paying their gardening bill. She emerged, check in hand, in seconds. 

Isadore’s niece, Hope, married the immensely likable English prof, Murray Prosky. Along with the Haneys (it being Bob Haney who co-authored Woodstock Handmade Houses with David) the Proskys became the Ballantines best “couple” friends, and stuck by them both when the final of several separations proved their last. (Though Eva saw the writing on the wall years earlier and had prepared to, alone, raise her youngest daughter, Lucy — who would reappear to tirelessly nurse her mother, Eva, to the end.)

While filling out the application to Ulster County Community College, Eva explained her lack of a high school diploma with, “Destroyed in bombardment of Dresden.” She re-used the same lie to gain acceptance to Goddard’s Adult Education Program, and again to earn her Masters Degree in Social Work in Stony Brook, Long Island.

Her first job was as social worker at The Children’s Home of Kingston and — amicable at last — David provided down payment on her purchase of 270 W. Chestnut Street. Here Eva would nurse first her mother, and then her Aunt Bella (both of whom lived to a hundred and three.) A happy later chapter in Eva’s life involved a Kingston middle-school principal of color named Bythema Bagley, who, in the middle of Eva’s interview, called through the open door to her secretary, “You can cancel that ad — I just found the woman I was looking for!”

Even so, Eva never quite got over Woodstock. Indeed, the last time her only son took her to the town’s Artist’s Association they toured “The Towbin Wing” — lavish gift of long-dead employers. Eva grew misty-eye viewing a portrait by Speicher, whose wife, she recalled, “drank gin by the quart with Aunt Elizabeth and had a laugh like the caw of a crow.” Leaning heavily on her grey-haired boy’s arm while descending the grand bluestone steps outside, she recognized Woodstock’s oldest living painter, climbing up the steps with his only daughter on his arm.

“Hello, Manny,” Eva said, smiling “you don’t remember me but—”

“Yes, I do! I know you!” a one hundred-and-two-year-old Manuel Bromberg exclaimed with signature enthusiasm, “You’re the flower gardener!”

Eva Ballantine is survived by her four children: Kitty, Miranda, Tad, and Lucy; by four grandchildren: Sax, Riley, Sam and Anna; and by her great grandchild, Frances. Her ashes were interred last week atop Woodstock’s Artists’ Graveyard. Her grave stone (presently being carved) will tacitly announce that both to the Earth, itself, and to the town which was the great love of her life, she has at last, “Returned.”   

Eva’s family would like to thank Hospice of Ulster County.

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