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Arnie Reisman remembered for his wit and community leadership

by Rich Salzberg, The MV Times

Vineyard Haven resident Arnold (“Arnie”) Reisman, active in Island nonprofits such as Vineyard Conservation Society, the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation, and the Vineyard Playhouse, died unexpectedly on Oct. 4. Reisman’s wife, Paula Lyons, confirmed his death, saying he passed at about 1 am Monday morning, and that she was staggered by his loss. 

Reisman, 79, was also active in the Vineyard’s writing communities and served as the Island’s poet laureate. He wrote across several genres, including poetry, plays, screenplays, and columns. He was a member of the Cleaveland House Poets and the Martha’s Vineyard Poetry Society, and published “Light Headed in the Dark Ages: Selected Poems and Photographs” last year. He was a frequent panelist at Islanders Write, which is hosted annually by The Times.

His screenplay for ”Rembrandt Has Left the Building,” co-written with Nat Segaloff, explored the notorious Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings heist through comedy, and sought to solve the mystery of who was responsible for the thefts. Reisman wrote the script for the Oscar-nominated documentary “Hollywood on Trial,” which explored the blacklisting of filmmakers. Reisman wrote the PBS documentary “The Other Side of the Moon,” about the experiences of Apollo astronauts, and co-produced the film with Mickey Lemle. With Ann Carol Grossman, Reisman wrote, produced, and directed “The Powder & the Glory,” a documentary about the rivalry between cosmetics magnates Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. Reisman was most widely known for his wit and intellect on the NPR quiz show “Says You!” where he regularly appeared as a panelist alongside his wife, Paula.

In a 2015 interview for Arts & Ideas magazine by Jack Shea, Reisman said, “I’ve never believed life was about what you did. Life is about who you are. So I’ve reinvented myself all along.”

Reisman was former vice president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Massachusetts, and had long co-chaired the ACLU Bill of Rights benefit dinner. 

On the Vineyard, Reisman wrote “The Washashore Chronicles,” a column for the Vineyard Gazette, for many years. Following Lee McCormack, Reisman was named the Vineyard’s second poet laureate. Reisman served on the boards of Vineyard Conservation Society, the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, and the Martha’s Vineyard Social Justice Leadership Foundation. 

MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, worked with Reisman for more than a decade when he served as president of the Playhouse board. Munafo said it was hard for her to believe when she heard of Reisman’s passing. “He was so full of life, and we were in the middle of a lot of projects at the theater,” Munafo said. “I’m still in complete shock that he’s gone.”

She said Reisman will always be remembered for his kindness, his creativity, his constant flow of new ideas for the Playhouse, and his ceaseless sense of humor. “He was still in the midst of his life — still creating, still coming up with new ideas. Isn’t that what we all hope for, that we live so fully right till the last second?” Munafo said.

Times columnist Valerie Sonnenthal said she met Reisman through the Cleaveland House Poets group when he became poet laureate of Martha’s Vineyard. “Arnie is a little bit like a cross between Zelig and a walking encyclopedia,” Sonnenthal said. She noted that the strength of his poetry and prose always relied on his geniality and breadth of experience. 

“He was present at so many moments, and met so many amazing people in history, and of course all his poems tell these incredible stories. I loved Arnie, partly because he always made you laugh. No matter how serious his poems or something he was writing, he still injected humor into it. He will be so missed by so many.”

In a written statement to The Times, Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O’Neill said Reisman was a beloved personal friend of his, and a strong member of the VCS board of directors. “He served as past chair of our nominating committee, a role in which his depth of knowledge of the community and his interpersonal skills really shone. We are all the richer for having known him, and will miss him very much. He was extremely funny, too,” O’Neill said.

During a board meeting Tuesday evening, Chilmark select board chair Jim Malkin acknowledged Reisman’s passing, remembering him as a “good friend” and a “great dinner and wine companion.” Malkin went on to say with a touch of geographical humor that Reisman and Lyons spent “many happy years in Menemsha before going to the City of Tisbury later in life.” 

Malkin said Reisman had “contributed a tremendous amount to the Island, and was fond of sharing stories of Chilmark …” 
Linsey Lee, oral history curator at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and longtime friend of Reisman, wrote in a statement to The Times that she was always inspired by his wit, energy, humor, insightfulness, and love. “Arnie pushed you to do your best. He was always there to help and take charge,” Lee wrote.

When a major bike accident landed Lee in the hospital, Reisman “took on the task of chief communications officer,” for her — keeping all her friends and relatives informed of her daily and weekly medical progress.

“Arnie had so much to give, and he gave it unstintingly, to the benefit of us all on the Vineyard and around the world. We will miss him so,” Lee wrote. 

Doug West, who worked with Reisman on the VCS board, said he was getting ready for a Zoom call with his fellow board members when he received the news.

“Arnie was, of course, a great contributor to the Vineyard Conservation Society, as well as many other organizations, as I understand it,” West said. “His wit and wisdom were so important and so valuable in all the work that he did.”

“Arnie’s death is just terrible, a loss for Paula, of course, and for the community and for his countless friends,” Peter Oberfest, co-publisher of the Martha’s Vineyard Times, wrote. “His death leaves a gap across the Island, most significantly in his tireless commitment to the causes of social justice seemingly baked into his DNA. He was also a quick and playful wit: One-liner texts flew between us, always with his heart in the right place. To which Arnie would have immediately fired back, ‘Except for last night.’”

A graveside service will be held on Friday, Oct. 8, 12 pm, at Abel’s Hill Cemetery in Chilmark. In lieu of flowers, donations in Arnie’s memory can be made to the ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts, 211 Congress St., Boston, MA 02110, online at aclum.org, or to the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, P.O. Box 2452, Vineyard Haven, MA 02568, online at mvplayhouse.org.

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