Judy Feiffer died peacefully at her home in New York City on June 27. She was 87.
Judy was born Judy Sheftel on March 30, 1929, to Claire and Dr. Abraham George Sheftel in New York City. Judy’s father, a research physician, invented the first urine sugar test kit for home use for diabetics. A great lover of Italian opera, he moved the family to Italy in 1932 to fulfill his dream of composing an opera. In 1933, Claire gave birth to Judy’s brother, the pianist Paul Sheftel. His birth coincided with the exodus of German Jews through Italy, which prompted the family to return to America.
Judy attended Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, and would skip school to hear Frank Sinatra sing. Her mother Claire, a classical musician, played with various Jewish and other émigré musicians in film studio orchestras, and thus became privy to the Hollywood émigré community of artists and writers who had fled Nazi Germany and formed a bohemian enclave in Beverly Hills, into which Judy was invited as a protégé/mascot, and it was with these outsider-insiders that her tastes and sensibility took a Euro-bohemian turn. Her love of classical music was equal to her love of Sinatra.
In her early 20s Judy lived in England, Israel, and Paris, and studied photography under Gjon Mili. Back in the States, she started her career as a photographer. Novelists such as Alberto Moravia, Norman Mailer, Meyer Levin, and Aldous Huxley sought her out for book-jacket photographs. A photograph she took of Norman Mailer appeared on the first-edition cover of his 1959 book, “Advertisement for Myself.”
In 1959, she met Jules Feiffer, the Village Voice’s satirical cartoonist. They married in 1963, and Kate, their only child, now an Oak Bluffs resident and children’s book author, was born in 1964.
Judy and Jules were introduced to the Vineyard by their old friends Bob and Norma Brustein, and in 1966 began renting a summer house in Chilmark, settling down two years later into a home of their own on Lambert’s Cove Road, where Judy was an active participant in the Island’s heady literary life.
An avid reader, Judy was always drawn to writers. She played an instrumental role in getting several literary classics published, and later became a writer herself.
It was before Kate’s birth, while Jules and Judy were still living in Brooklyn Heights, that Jules collaborated with his former roommate, Norton Juster, by illustrating what was to become the children’s classic “The Phantom Tollbooth.” Neither author or illustrator had a clue as to how to get this unlikely work published, and it was Judy’s idea to take it to a mutual friend, Jason Epstein at Random House.
In the late 1960s, Judy met the poet Maya Angelou, and after hearing her tell stories about her life, encouraged Angelou to write a memoir. She introduced Angelou to Bob Loomis, another top editor at Random House. In 1969, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” was published.
After her marriage to Jules ended in 1971, Judy worked in the movie industry as a story editor and executive at Warner Brothers and Orion Pictures. After corporate cutbacks cut her out of a job, she became an editor at William Morrow Books. While at Morrow, she convinced Christina Crawford to write about her relationship with her mother, Joan Crawford. That book, which Judy edited, became the cult classic “Mommie Dearest.” She eventually decided to focus on her own writing, and had four novels published: “A Hot Property,” “Flame,” “Lovecrazy,” and “My Passionate Mother.”
Judy was great beauty with a fiery personality and fierce intelligence. During the last few years of her life, dementia stole her drive to write and read, but it never interfered with her love of her family, friends, classic movies, classical music, or Frank Sinatra. As her decline advanced, Judy was cared for by wonderful and compassionate people, including Alain Tagne, Emily Winton, and Noteljah Waldropt, who was with her throughout her last few months and provided the most dedicated and loving care. She remained at home until the end, surrounded by her books and records, manuscripts and memorabilia, and by the sound she loved, Sinatra’s voice.
Judy is survived by her daughter Kate and her son-in-law Chris Alley; her beloved granddaughter Madeline Alley; her brother Paul Sheftel and sister-in-law Sara Sheftel; and her nieces Claudia and Gigi and their families. A private gathering in her memory will be held at a later date.