March 1, 2001

Elizabeth Lorentz Obituary

On January 27, Elizabeth Meyer Lorentz died at age 87, in hospital at Mt. Kisco, New York, following a long illness. The New York Times ran an obituary calling her "a movie scriptwriter and author of a book on networking." To anyone who cares about documentary film, Elizabeth was much more important than that brief description implies. In our community, she was the wife of filmmaker Pare Lorentz Sr. Known as "FDR’s moviemaker," Pare was responsible for the classic American documentaries The River, The Plow That Broke The Plains, Nuremberg and others, including the film on which he and Elizabeth collaborated, The Fight For Life. Elizabeth is survived by her stepchildren—Pare Lorentz Jr., a notable figure in the documentary field in his own right, and Tilly Grey.

She is also survived by many others who were fortunate to know her during her long, interesting life. Most famous among these is her sister Kathryn Graham, the former publisher of the Washington Post. Eugene Meyer, Elizabeth and Kathryn’s father, bought the Post in 1933, and insight into their highly privileged upbringing can be found in Mrs. Graham’s fascinating memoir, Personal History. A feisty and sometimes imperious older woman, Elizabeth saw fit to establish the first endowment for the International Documentary Association. Honoring her husband, the Pare Lorentz award includes a cash prize that is given each year to the filmmaker whose entry best expresses the spirit of Pare Lorentz’ work. Elizabeth attended the IDA Gala to present the award (a beautiful carved Lucite tree, designed by Erik Barnouw), until her failing health prevented her from traveling.

It was during these visits, and a few memorable meetings at Elizabeth’s club in New York, that I came to appreciate her. Her stories were wonderful, including accounts of Hollywood evenings spent with the likes of Oscar Levant, and early memories of Downtown Los Angeles as a dusty backwater town. The Meyer family lived in LA, but was forced to move to San Francisco to be near a school that could provide the children an adequate education. Elizabeth in her mid-eighties still had an edge. When an IDA staffer escorting her at the Gala mentioned a new romance, Elizabeth’s first question was "How’s the sex?" As I pursued her money for the IDA endowment, she reminded me, "Remember, I’m not as rich as my sister Kathryn."

Those who were fond of her will miss her. Pare Lorentz’ published collection of scripts and memoirs is dedicated to Elizabeth, with a poem that is cited below. It says a great deal about the relationship they shared, and it also says something important to everyone who makes documentary films:

Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet

Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

--W.B. Yeats "Adam's Curse"

 

Betsy McLane is Director Emeritus of International Documentary Association.

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