Martin Segal: 1916 - 2012

Posted by Eugene Hernandez on 8.9.2012


Martin E. Segal in his high-rise apartment above Lincoln Center two weeks ago. Photo by Eugene Hernandez

Even at 96 years old, Martin E. Segal was a passionate Film Society patron, an active voice until the very end. The founding President and chief executive of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Segal served for ten years from the moment the Film Society was formed back in 1968. Our president emeritus and a member of the board of directors since then, Marty Segal died yesterday at his New York City home.

Hailed as a 'titan of the arts" by the New York Times in an obituary, Marty Segal was a Lincoln Center fixture, serving as chairman of the entire organization from 1981 - 1986 when he became chairman emeritus of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

In the late 60s, when the New York Film Festival was just a toddler, Martin Segal joined composer William Schuman, then President of Lincoln Center, in bolstering the festival by establishing the Film Society as its parent organization. Segal and his late wife Edith, who died last year, would join Bill Schuman and his wife at the movies every other weekend. A movie fan since he was a kid in the 1920s, Marty Segal was easily convinced by Schuman to join him in creating the Film Society and recognizing cinema as a legitimate art form.

Over the years, Martin E. Segal made tremendous contributions to the Film Society and Lincoln Center. He also served on many Boards and committees of major civic, cultural, health, and educational organizations, including being the first chairman of New York’s Commission for Cultural Affairs, from 1975-1977 and founding the International Festival of the Arts, which ran from 1985-2002. He was also vice chairman of the Graduate Center Foundation of The City University of New York from 2003-2008. Segal received numerous awards and honors as well as seven honorary degrees.

Born on July 4, 1916 in Vitebsk, Russia, Martin E. Segal was the founder of The Segal Company in 1939, retiring as its chairman in 1991.

Martin and Edith Segal lived in a high rise above Lincoln Center in recent years, just one elevator ride away from the Lincoln Center campus on West 65th St. It was in that apartment just two weeks ago where he related how he developed his passion for movies and talked about the early days of the New York Film Festival, the formation of the Film Society and his own interest for the arts.

"I’m an arts person," Martin Segal explained, sitting next to his late wife's piano. "The arts have been a very important part of my life from the time I was a kid painting, or tried to paint, when I was five years old, to still being an amateur painter now, going to painting class. The arts were an escape. I was poor, working, had to help support a family from a very early age, and the arts did for me what painting did. When you’re painting you can’t be thinking about anything else. Consciously or unconsciously I appreciated the role and the product of what others were creating: musicians, painters, sculptors, writers, photographers, filmmakers, they became a world in which I felt I belonged. Since I was moderately successful and lucky financially, I was able to participate."

Reacting today to Martin E. Segal’s passing, the Film Society of Lincoln Center issued a statement:

“The Board and the staff of the Film Society of Lincoln Center are deeply saddened by the death of its founding President, Martin E. Segal, who devotedly guided our organization through its formative years and beyond. Marty's generosity and enthusiastic involvement created the foundation for the Film Society's growth and stability for more than four decades. Most notably, his brilliant initiative in arranging for the Film Society's tribute for Charlie Chaplin on the occasion of his return to the United States resulted in a historic event. His creative mind, quick wit and charm will be missed by all of us.”

UPDATE: In celebration of the upcoming 50th Anniversary of the New York Film Festival (September 28 – October 14), filmmaker Jamie Stuart has recorded a number of interviews with filmmakers, luminaries, notables and additional NYFF and Film Society of Lincoln Center alums to get their thoughts and remembrances of the storied film festival through the years.

The following interview with the late Martin E. Segal, one of the founders and the president emeritus of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, was recorded on July 24. The arts culture impresario held forth on the influence of arts on his life from the time he was a boy as well as his work with Film Society and the New York Film Festival:


Video and edit by Jamie Stuart.

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