By Pam Hanlon
The Turtle Bay Association mourns the passing of composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a resident and ardent supporter of the neighborhood of Turtle Bay for more than 60 years.
Sondheim moved to Turtle Bay in mid-1960, to a townhouse on East 49th Street in the complex of houses called Turtle Bay Gardens. He still owned the house at the time of his death, and through all the years, remained a loyal TBA member and donor to the Turtle Bay Tree Fund, a group that provides plantings in area tree beds.
Sondheim’s list of musical credits includes eight Tony Awards, eight Grammy Awards, an Academy Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Still, despite all his success, he remained a loyal neighbor. In a 2008 interview for the book Manhattan’s Turtle Bay, Sondheim said, “I’ve always loved our neighborhood. It’s got personality and people who really care about it.”
In that interview, Sondheim talked about first moving to Turtle Bay. He explained that when he considered buying his five-story townhouse, at the age of 30, he was still an aspiring young composer, and not yet financially secure. But neighbors in the Upper East Side apartment building where he rented were complaining about his loud piano music. So he thought he needed a house. “After a friend gave me an economics lesson in real estate,” he said, “I realized that with the royalties from the recent success of Gypsy (a Broadway hit for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics), I could afford a down payment. And then I rented out the top three floors of the townhouse to help me pay the mortgage.”
By 1973, Sondheim no longer needed to rent out the upper floors of his house. By then, his credits included A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Anyone Can Whistle, Company, and Follies, and he had received his first two Tony Awards. He determined he was now financially secure enough to live in the entire five-story house, without renters.
Sondheim said his initial interest in the area was the fact that Turtle Bay, with its Midtown location, was a convenient “commute” to the Broadway theatre district. And for years, he bicycled from his townhouse to Broadway. A friend, actor Anthony Perkins, had given him his bicycle as a present. “I came home one Christmas Eve to find a bike outside my house on 49th Street, all wrapped up with a big red ribbon,” he recalled.
Many longtime neighbors remember Sondheim on his bike, which he said he only stopped riding in the mid-1970s when friends convinced him that worsening midtown traffic posed too great a risk.
In 2007, the 50th anniversary year of the Turtle Bay Association, he served as honorary chairman of the Turtle Bay Association’s membership drive. And he was a guest of honor at the TBA’s 50th anniversary gathering at the Japan Society, where members remember him generously sharing neighborhood stories over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.
“We will always remember Stephen for his extraordinary gift to us of music and song, but also for his many contributions to our neighborhood,” said Bill Curtis, head of the Turtle Bay Tree Fund and president of the TBA for some 50 years.
Current TBA president Dolores Marsh said, “We were honored to have Stephen Sondheim as our neighbor. His support of our area never wavered, and we will be forever grateful for that.”
Since the Covid pandemic, Sondheim had been spending most of his time at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut. But he was in Manhattan occasionally, and as recently as November 14 and 15, 2021, he was in the City to attend the opening night of “Assassins” and a preview of “Company.” He died at his Roxbury home on November 26.
Sondheim will be remembered by many throughout the world, but for Turtle Bay residents, he will always have a special place in our hearts.
REMEMBERING STEPHEN SONDHEIM
The Board of Directors of the Turtle Bay Tree Fund is saddened by the loss of composer and lyricist Steven Sondheim, one of the theater’s greatest geniuses, and our longtime friend and neighbor in the Manhattan neighborhood of Turtle Bay, He was called one of the most important figures in 20th century American Musical Theater, though he said “All I want to do is tell stories, have people laugh and cry, and have a good time.” Modest intentions aside, we rise to celebrate Stephen’s life work in music and song that has come to be shared around the world.
Then too, Stephen’s influence can be seen on a smaller scale in the neighborhood of Turtle Bay. As a resident, he was a longtime supporter, and founding member, of the Turtle Bay Tree Fund, a donor supported group that organizes and plants flowers in close to 300 tree beds throughout the Turtle Bay community every year. We will always remember Stephen for his extraordinary gift to us of music and song — and for all of those flowers.
Turtle Bay Tree Fund