Mimi Levitt (1921–2019)
An iconic patron of the arts and historic preservation, Annemarie “Mimi” Gratzinger Levitt was best known for her intelligence, grace and hands-on approach to philanthropy and activism. She believed in the arts as a source for positive social change and left a lasting legacy of generosity and service to the causes she supported. In 1966, Mimi and her husband Mortimer established the Mortimer Levitt Foundation to support the arts, culture and education, which was later renamed the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation in 2012 in honor of her contributions.
Early years and meeting Mortimer
Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1921, the daughter of a prominent dentist, Mimi’s childhood was filled with opera and other musical experiences. Her parents later divorced and she emigrated to the United States with her mother at the outbreak of World War II, and soon after attended Pomona College in California, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in French Literature. A linguist fluent in five languages, she was one of the translators at the Nuremberg trials in the late 1940s. In 1947, Mimi accepted a position as senior assistant to Alfred Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mimi met Mortimer Levitt at a Manhattan art gallery opening, where they had a spirited debate over a painting (Mimi favored abstraction; Mortimer preferred realism). Following a brief courtship, they married on June 18, 1948, and together became philanthropists supporting youth music programs, performing arts organizations and educational institutions. Mimi and Mortimer were known for promoting aspiring young musicians by hosting salons at their Manhattan brownstone. An imaginative and meticulous hostess, Mimi was also known to throw memorable charity events and family celebrations, and she often opened the Levitt family home to artists and musicians.
“Champion of the Arts”
As summer residents of Westport, Connecticut, the Levitts were approached by community and civic leaders in the early 1970s to support a local effort to build an outdoor music venue that would transform the town dump into a gathering place in the heart of town. As the campaign’s largest private contributors, the Levitts were nevertheless surprised when the town named its new pavilion after them upon opening in 1974: The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts. Mimi served on the Levitt Pavilion board for decades, helping the nonprofit flourish and become a community treasure. “She had a real impact on the performing arts in Westport…It always inspired me to see her attending the performances because I knew she was there because of her love of music, her love of Westport, and her desire to be a part of our community,” said Jim Marpe, a local Westport official in a 2019 Westport News article.
By the late 1990s, the ongoing success of the Westport pavilion inspired the idea for the Levitts to support Levitt music venues across the country. Following her husband’s passing in 2005, Mimi became board president of the Levitt Foundation and supported the growth of the Levitt program nationwide, while remaining committed that the original pavilion continued to thrive. In 2006, Mimi was honored by Levitt Pavilion Westport with the Annual SuperStar Award. In 2011, she was honored at the Westport Arts Awards as a “Champion of the Arts.” Family friend Louise Kerz Hirschfeld remarked at her memorial, “The network of Levitt music venues that bring joy to people across the country is a beautiful testament to Mimi’s generous spirit of love and music.”
An active and loyal benefactor of the Bard Music Festival, Mimi served on the board of directors for 15 years (1998–2013), and for many years underwrote the Festival’s annual opening night dinner. An avid lover of opera, she supported opera workshops in the Conservatory’s Vocal Arts Program directed by acclaimed soprano Dawn Upshaw and helped commission one act operas. Mimi also funded scholarships for Conservatory students and started the first endowment for the Bard Music Festival in 2005. In 2006, Mimi received the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters in recognition for her longstanding support of the Festival.
“A great activist” and “thoughtful philanthropist”
Mimi was also passionately committed to historic preservation; in the 1970s she spearheaded the Neighborhood Association to Preserve Fifth Avenue Houses that successfully championed the creation of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District in New York City, designated in 1977. Her involvement grew from concern about protecting the distinctive character of her Upper East Side neighborhood, which in the 1970s was undergoing significant change. Mimi also served on the board of the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District.
As was one of the earliest supporters of the New York Landmarks Conservancy, Mimi served on its board from 1978–2014. In addition to being a generous patron to the Conservancy’s endowment and annual Living Landmarks gala, Mimi was an effective fundraiserconnecting people to the cause. “She was a great activist and thoughtful philanthropist,” said Scott Leurquin of the New York Landmarks Conservancy. “She wrote numerous letters asking friends and acquaintances for donations, made fundraising calls, paid for committee lunches and underwrote table arrangements for several of our galas.” As a Conservancy board member, she even wrote a poem dedicated to famed architect and then board chair John Belle, which was read at his memorial service. Mimi was honored by the Conservancy in 2011 for her 30 years of service.
In 1995, reflecting her love of natural habitats and preservation, Mimi along with Mortimer donated 564 acres of wildlife habitat near Half Moon Bay in San Mateo County, California to the Peninsula Open Space Trust—at that time, the second-largest gift in the county’s history—providing an invaluable boost to ecological conservation efforts dedicated to preserving the beauty and character of the region’s natural resources.
Together with Mortimer, Mimi also supported the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Mercy College, Museum of Television and Radio, New York City Opera, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Central Park Conservancy, The Joyce Theater, New Victory Theater, Lincoln Center’s Film Society, Hunter College, The Music Center of Los Angeles, School of American Ballet, American Red Cross and Young Concert Artists. She was a member of the Mayor’s Commission on Drug Addiction under Mayor Koch, a former trustee of the Town School in Manhattan and the Branch Libraries of the New York Public Library. She also was a children’s literacy volunteer in Harlem. Butzi Moffitt, a dear friend for many decades shared at her memorial, “Mimi was one of the most generous, positive, and thoughtful individuals I have ever known. She was beautiful inside and out.”
Mimi was a beloved mother, aunt, step-grandmother and step-great-grandmother, who cherished her family and the time they spent together. Daughter Liz Levitt Hirsch remembers her as a “master locksmith, able to unlock doors to give people opportunities. When I think of all the people whose lives have been enriched by my mother’s thoughtfulness and generosity, my heart bursts with pride.”