David Stone
Maurice and Nina in Romania when she returned from 20 years in exile.
Maurice and Nina in Romania when she returned from 20 years in exile.

Life's abundant with surprises waiting to be discovered. Writers get more than their share. I was lucky to stumble into this one on a routine assignment for the Main Street WIRE. It's the story of unforgettable characters who, after leading remarkable personal and professional lives, started all over, falling in love, inspiring each other and marrying on Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island's been and continues to be home to history making individuals - U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, groundbreaking African-American playwright Alice Childress, Roy Eaton, the Jackie Robinson of Advertising, and international philanthropist Jim Luce. But although you may not know their names, Wisconsin born Maurice Edwards and Romanian-American Nina Cassian can match them, note for note, achievement for achievement.

Cassian published more 50 books in her native country before seeking political asylum in the United States in 1985, children's stories, poetry and translations of English classics, a lot of Shakespeare.

Confined to publishing work acceptable to the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceaușescu, Cassian privately wrote satirical poetry. 

She was working in New York when her friend Gheorghe Ursu was arrested for keeping a secret diary. It contained some of her forbidden verses. When Ursu died from injuries inflicted during interrogation, she knew she could not return to Romania after finishing up a visiting professorship at NYU.

She was impoverished, she told me, without income, a place to stay permanently or an appropriate wardrobe.

“I didn’t even have any spring or summer dresses.”

Finding her way to Roosevelt Island, Cassian moved into the Senior Center, dependent on charity, and later into the apartment in Island House where I met her in 2013.

Giants: The Roosevelt Island Love Story of Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian

By then, she'd learned to write in English and published six new books of poetry, the most recent, Continuum, was dedicated  “To Maurice Edwards, my husband, who almost forced this book out of me, helping my essential survival.”

In 1998, Cassian met and married Edwards, a Renaissance man of the arts with a history to match her own.

Fortunate to be born in the U.S., Maurice Edwards never suffered under a communist dictatorship.

Leaving Wisconsin for Europe to serve in World War II, after the battle of the bulge, Edwards stayed on after the armistice. In his Proust-like memoir Revelatory Letters to Nina Cassian: A Memoir, Edwards recalls joining the literary and artistic circle of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris. 

He remembers seeing Stein in the exact pose in which Pablo Picasso painted her. The Met owns the portrait, and it's frequently on display.

Giants: The Roosevelt Island Love Story of Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian

Something that marks Edwards as a rare observer of humanity is that his treasured memories are not so much about the art luminaries and American expats that circulated in Stein's powerful gravity field but of quirkier moments.

“She (Stein) used to take me shopping,” he told me, with Cassian smiling, listening to an oft told tale, on the couch nearby. “She had a Ford from the Thirties, and she drove me down the Rue de Rivoli to buy patisseries for her Sunday matinees. She was a pretty good driver.”

Edwards also remembers Toklas, but not for her famous hashish brownies - "hachich fudge" in her cookbook.

“One day, I found Alice crying. Gertrude had ordered her to get rid of her cat because her dog didn’t like cats. And she needed it, then. For the rats. All over Paris, there were huge rats.”

He last saw Stein when she was recovering from surgery for stomach cancer. She'd die in July, 1946, but by then Edwards had returned to the U.S., enrolling at NYU to study philosophy and comparative literature.

Live theatre he was exposed to in New York captured his heart instead. Within five years, he landed a role in Happy As Larry, a Broadway show with Burgess Meredith.

“But I call it ‘Unhappy As Larry.’ It only lasted three performances. It was too sophisticated,” Edwards remembers.

Undaunted, he went on to work alongside Lotte Lenya in her husband Kurt Weill's Three Penny Opera, fondly remembering being kissed by Lenya's friend "divine" Marlene Dietrich.

He also played the beggar in the original cast of Fidler on the Roof with Zero Mostel and helped found an off-Broadway theatre group Cubiculo.

Giants: The Roosevelt Island Love Story of Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian

In spite of all that, Edwards is best known for his work in various managerial roles with the Brooklyn Philharmonic where he rose to artistic director before retiring, his days split between concert music in the morning and theatre at night.

He recalls it all in his 2006 book How Music Grew in Brooklyn: A Biography of the Brooklyn Philharmonic

On a fortuitous day in 1998, Maurice Edwards met Nina Cassian, introduced by a mutual friend who thought he might be able to help the poet with her second passion, musical composition. That didn't work out, but this pair of elite creative artists found a special harmony.

They married in 1998 when Cassian was 73, Edwards 75. 

Their time together ended in 2013 when Cassian died at 89, but the connections are not severed. 

When Edwards, now 95, autographed his latest book for me, he included the "Spirit of Nina Cassian" as co-creator.

In Continuum, Nina Cassian wrote...

“Just like that, just like that, twisting, shrinking, flinching,
distorted like a length of yarn on fire –
that’s how I’m supposed to climb the so-called steps to
          perfection...”

Climb them, she did. With Maurice Edwards at her side in the last chapter.