Obituary: Oscar Joseph Berlin

Sat, 12/01/2012 - 2:20pm

Oscar Joseph “OJ” Berlin, beloved and familiar Block Island cab driver, died November 21 at South County Hospital after a recent illness. He was 94, and had lived a storied life, having travelled all over the world and — an artist and raconteur himself — spent much of his working life with famous performers.

OJ was born in the United Kingdom, although his parents were Russian. Manya and Muron Berlin fled the Ukraine in the days before World War I and crossed the continent to find safety in Britain. Muron served in the British Royal Fusiliers, and Oscar Joseph was born in the last months of his service, on April 18, 1918, in Devon.

Some seven years after the war, the family moved to the United States so that Muron could concentrate on his true calling as a cellist. They came over on the Belgiumland, arriving in the middle of the Great Depression. Muron found a job with the Works Progress Administration and Oscar, he told a reporter this summer, remembers the family falling in love with New York City.

Money was scarce. Oscar went to a professional children’s school and helped the family by working as a child actor in his early teens. Then global turmoil struck once more, and he was drafted to the United States Army to serve in the Pacific theater, including two years in Calcutta reconditioning tanks for the Allies in World War II.

After his service, Berlin returned to a more prosperous New York City. He found a job working in management for one of the big theatrical agencies in Manhattan. There he rubbed elbows with the greats, including violinist Jascha Heifetz, pianist Arthur Rubinstein and singer Marion Andrews. Often he would travel with his clients to different theater venues to make sure all was in order for a performance: in Rubinstein’s case, for instance, a Steinway piano was required — but only certain Steinways. OJ had a numbered list of pianos the maestro liked. It was his job to check them prior to the concert and to make sure they were tuned correctly.

Then there were the orchestras, ballet companies and theatrical troops that visited from around the world. OJ spoke Russian and lent his language skills — and ability to charm anyone he encountered — to Sol Hurok, the legendary impresario renowned for bringing the Bolshoi, Moiseyev and Kirov ballet companies to the United States. In a time when relations between Russia and the United States were frosty at best, the arts community was at the forefront of change, beginning a dialogue between the two countries through these interchanges.

And as always throughout his life, he had a gift for friendship. “People like Margot Fonteyne were his friends,” recalled his wife, Mitzi Berlin, this week. He hung out with Elizabeth Taylor and countless other stars of the day. But it was a woman on Broadway who would catch his eye.

OJ met his wife Mitzi, or Margaret Black Wilson, some 60 years ago while on the job in Manhattan. The two first caught one another’s eye at the Santa Lucia restaurant bar on 54th Street and Seventh, a favorite place to unwind at the end of the day. Mitzi was a celebrated singer and artist.

The couple never had children. “I was married before and so was he,” said Mitzi. “I had my career, and so did he. At first we just kind of hung around, and then we decided we made each other happy and we got married at City Hall in New York.”

One day, while reading an ad placed in The New York Times by Dorothy Sullivan, founder of Block Island’s Sullivan Real Estate, the couple became curious about Block Island. They traveled north and boarded a ferry for the 13-mile journey. They booked a room at The Surf, walked the beaches and the quiet roads, and decided that the island felt like home. There would be many vacations and visits through the years, mostly in the off-season, before deciding to move permanently offshore in 1976.

“We fell madly in love with Block Island,” says Mitzi. “We both loved it here and I’m glad we moved here.”

A self-taught artist, OJ had begun drawing and designing jewelry in his late teens and had always made jewelry on the side. A hobby at first, his pieces caught the eye of fine jewelry makers Black Starr and Gorham. His work was purchased by the likes of John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State under President Eisenhower; Arthur Rubinstein’s wife Nela, (who was a former Polish ballerina) and Fontaine, for whom he made a gold ballerina.

Once on Block Island, OJ threw himself into his jewelry making, founding his company Isle of Mist and designing island-inspired pieces that sold at Distant Shores, as well as custom pieces of all kinds.

And he discovered cabbing, an occupation for which, with his love of meeting people and his great stock of tall (but true) tales, he was particularly well suited. He would croon “Smilin’ Through” to his passengers as he cruised past the pretty cottage where Arthur A. Penn composed it in 1918, and his active mind stored an encylopedia of trivia and bits of history about his adopted home, which he would use to regale travellers. His white Dodge Caravan was one of the few cabs island residents could rely to be driving all year round. Periodically, someone would worry that as he rode, energy unabated, into his 90s, he might be getting too old to drive safely. But OJ kept his wits about him until the very end, and passed every driving test with flying colors.

He had a sister, Vera Jessup — she also had a fascinating life, having married screenwriter Richard Jessup — who died before him. A neice, Marina, lives in Mexico City.

“I’m going to have a hard time being without him,” said Mitzi. “I loved him very much, and I admired his talents. The phone has not stopped ringing since he died — people have called from Canada, everywhere.”

His gift for connecting with people was not dimmed, even by his last few weeks in hospital. Mitzi says a nurse from South County Hospital stopped by her house the other day because she had to tell Mitzi what OJ had said to her, right before he died. He told her that he loved Mitzi very much, and always had. “I was very moved that she took the time to come and tell me that,” said Mitzi — but no one who knew OJ can be surprised that he made such an impression.

A celebration of his life for all his many friends and fans will be held next spring or summer; details will be published as they become available.

In lieue of flowers, donations may be made to the Oscar J. Berlin Art Scholarship Fund for graduating arts students. Send checks, made out to the Block Island School’s Student Activities Fund, to Box 1890, Block Island, RI 02807.