In Kathleen Stein’s Wake

Wide ranging OMNI editor turned author dies on trek

Longtime companion Douglas plays Faure

Niel Sloane mathematician and Susanna visit

At OK Harris’s opening today (3pm-5pm, Saturday, Jan 29. 2012), we ran into noted ex-Bell Labs mathematician Neil Sloane, rock climber and sphere packer extraordinaire, attending Mark Chester’s slice of the latest gallery serving, a display of Chester’s well composed parallels, double displays of two photographs in one frame of well wrought images which share a common, often whimsical visual theme.

Neil’s wife, the poet Suzanna Cuyler, told us shocking news – two months ago, Kathleen “Kathy” Ellen Stein, OMNI Magazine’s remarkable interview editor and author of The Genius Engine, a 2007 book from Wiley studying the strange ways of the prefrontal cortex, had been killed in a fall into a deep ravine while hiking in wooded Pennsylvania with her longtime companion Douglas Stein.

They invited me to join them in visiting Douglas at Kathy’s Bowery loft, where he was engaged in packing up and moving the grand piano to a new residence in New Jersey, so after saying Goodbye to K, I went along Spring Street to the Bowery, crossed amid the evening traffic clogging the street and faced a metal door, where a light on the fourth floor of the building suggested Douglas was in.

After a wait, Douglas finally opened the door and, tall and silhouetted against the light of the hallway, recognized us with surprise after more a decade since our last meeting. We both served as interviewers for OMNI Magazine’s legendary Q and A section, which Kathleen Stein edited for years. He led us up three long stairs back to the apartment with its floor painted red where Kathy had lived and worked, still graced with the brown grand, with Faure’s Nocturne #4 on the music rest, the $2000 large size iMac on the work table, the nine feet tall potted plants, and the shelved and stacked books of science and poetry, including one precious author’s copy of The Genius Engine: Where Memory, Reason, Passion, Violence, and Creativity Intersect in the Human Brain still present.

A fatal fall

Placing the mail on the table under the Tiffany lamp – the latest subscription copy of the National Association of Science Writers “Science Writers” – the still shell shocked Douglas told me the story of what had happened, the event which had suddenly ended Kathy’s life and with it, most of his own, he said. “She was my life”.

The New York Times carried the obituary on Dec 4:

“STEIN–Kathleen Ellen. Born June 9, 1944 in Chicago. Died November 13, 2011, age 67, from a fall while hiking in the Delaware Water Gap. Stein lived in New York City most of her life. Preceded in death by mother Margaret Bruce Stein and father Benjamin F. Stein, M.D., of Sarasota, Fla. Survived by longtime companion Douglas Stein of New York City, sister Julia Long (Randy) of Weekie Wachee, Fla., and brother John F. Stein (Beth) of Nashville, TN, niece Kim Long and nephews Jonathan Long (Jaime) and Tyler Stein. Stein received a B.A. from Bard College with extensive PhD work at Rutgers University, where she taught literature and writing. She began her journalism career covering rock music for Circus, Creem and others before joining Omni magazine as a founding editor and writer. Former Omni editor and friend Keith Ferrell writes, Stein, during her long tenureat Omni, became one of the very best writers on science, and particularly neuroscience, in the country. Her stewardship of the magazine’s legendary interviews is the prime reason they are legendary. She followed science with the assiduousness of a good reporter, and pursued its explication for general audiences with the enthusiasm of an evangelist. A widely published science and technology writer, Stein wrote for the New York Times, Biotechnology Newswatch and UPI, among others. Her book, The Genius Engine, on the complex role of the prefrontal cortex of the human brain was published in 2007. It received praise as a laudable work. A tremendous effort brought out with natural ease and Stein for her ability to present technical information in understandable terms, without being pedantic or overly simple. In addition to her love of writing, reading and good conversation, Stein was an avid hiker and accomplished sailor. There will be a memorial service at a later date. The family requests memorial donations be made to The Nature Conservancy, Bard College English Department or Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF).”

Douglas explained that they had both set off separately in the morning at 9.30 am, because Kathy’s recent problems with her feet had made her even less willing than usual to suffer the awkwardness of holding back her athletic partner from his natural pace. A painful bunion among other damage had compounded the lameness which marked Kathy’s life since at the age of 12, when she had fallen from a palm tree into too shallow water, resulting in a foot dragging gait which she had refused to allow to compromise her life in any way.

When she didn’t return, he went in search of her, following along the route he supposed she had taken, but in vain. He had called in the Park Rangers, who had eventually found her hat at the edge of a steep cliff abutting the nearby stream, and finally her body face down in the bottom of the ravine.

A musical link

When Neil and Suzanna arrived, Douglas invited us to rescue what we could from the books and other possessions of Stein’s which he was going to have to abandon in her apartment, and after we did so he sat down at the piano and with a gentle touch played the Faure Nocturne #4 in E flat Op 36 in a poignant farewell to Kathy and all that they had shared for some thirty years.

He broke off his playing before the virtuoso middle of the piece to talk some more, of Faure – “I think his stuff is underrated…” – and how this Nocturne seemed designed for Kathleen. “Let me see if I can play the end.”

He played to the end, only for the second time ever, he said, and he thanked us for it. “That happened! That actually happened! Thank you!”

” So you can see why I wanted play it, ” he said. He gently closed the lid. ” A number of times when I was practicing it, she was just, so present…” he said.

There was sadness in Suzanna Culyer’s voice too as she gathered her things, and declaimed:

“She will always be present in our memories. Anybody who knew Kathleen Stein took to her, and she took… as you said…if Kathy Stein liked you, you were in like Flynn. She had an uncaring knack for friendship and she was a wonderful, wonderful laconic woman, private, interesting and she will live in our memories beyond, long beyond others.”

“Yes”, said Douglas. “Exactly.”

“Maybe it was best, “said Susanna. “I mean you know, I think it is better. I mean if she was a 90 year old woman…. I mean she had a very, a very full life for 68 years.”

“So glad you could come. Great,” said Douglas.

“Glad you played, ” we said.

“Sometimes you can play it,” said Douglas.”I kind of got it at the end, it wasn’t there… but I wanted to play the end, because it was so like her.”

Much later, going through old copies of OMNI to catalog them, we found that the first issue of that remarkable science magazine, which first infused science writing with the emotional color that the female of the human species is unafraid to include, had a piece by Kathleen Stein.

Dated October 1978, its title was Some Of Us May Never Die.

(More images, and a video of the above performance, are at Onlygoodphotos: In Memoriam Kathy Stein)

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One Response to In Kathleen Stein’s Wake

  1. Esther Wanning says:

    Hi Anthony,
    I too wrote a few interviews for OMNI. I met Kathy at Bard College and thought of her as my closest friend. I continue to miss her terribly. I don’t know why this piece by you just popped up, but who knows the ways of Facebook. I think I read the piece, or something like it, earlier. At any rate, it was wonderful to read. So many times I faced that metal door. Sometimes Kathy would throw the key down; more often she would come lurching down the stairs to welcome me. God I miss her. She told me numerous funny stories about you; you entertained her tremendously. I can’t remember most of them, just the one about being thrown out of the opera. She admired your writing a lot too. You heard what happened to Douglas? This particular evening must have been a very high point for him. I love the photos too.
    Esther Wanning

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