By Mark Hallum
Flushing artist Adele Lerner had seen New York City life from the Lower East Side when it was booming with immigrant life to the day the Twin Towers fell. She died just short of her 110th birthday Dec. 18.
Born Dec. 28, 1906 as Adele Millman, she was the daughter of Romanian emigres and one of nine children.
“When I was a girl, we had nickel hot dogs and open streetcars, and the Third Avenue el.” Lerner told The New York Times in a 2008 interview about her life and art. “But we walked everywhere. We’d go up to 59th Street to see the Easter parade or go ice skating in Central Park… Of course, there are so many more big buildings downtown than when I was young… In some ways, the city is entirely different, but some things haven’t changed a bit.”
Her eldest daughter, Harriet Kaufman, 80, described her mother during her youth as a flapper girl, a woman of the Jazz Age who challenged the status quo with short skirts and bobbed hair. She would go on to marry Julius Lerner in 1933, who was also Romanian and had been born aboard ship on the passage over. He was a telegraph operator for news wire services such as United Press International.
Kaufman said Lerner’s teachers in school feared she had a learning disability. Lerner never finished high school, but she became a highly skilled secretary and moved to Parkchester in the Bronx in 1942.
At the age of 60, after the death of her husband from heart problems, Lerner picked up the paint brush for the first time. She never sold her art, according to Kaufman, but she saved every piece to give to her family.
A tireless worker, Lerner would retire for the third time by the time she reached her 70s as her skill with art picked up momentum.
After moving from Parkchester in the late ‘90s, Lerner relocated to an apartment in Flushing with stunning views of the city skyline. Former Selfhelp Community Services volunteer and Queens historian Sergey Kadinsky said Lerner often painted cityscapes.
But Lerner’s art would eventually find an unexpected source of inspiration. The nightmare of 9/11 could be viewed from her window and affected her deeply. She would later go on to write a poem about the way painting enabled her to deal with traumatic event.
“Painting always helped before/Pick up the brush and paint away/Maybe it will help my aching heart,” she wrote.
One painting depicting firefighters at ground zero went on display in a statewide exhibition tour, her daughter said.
According to Kadinsky, Lerner never stopped applying herself to new concepts. She was able to instant message and email relatives in her later years and enjoyed picking up new skills.
“I’m a very slow learner,” Lerner told The Times in 2008. “I learn at my own pace. I feel that it’s never too late. If you don’t know something, go and try to learn it every day until it comes to you.”
Kaufman attributed this trait in her mother to rare moments when she reminisced about the past.
“She was the kind of person who very rarely looked back, except for family and people,” Kaufman said. “She always looked forward. She watched the news, she wanted to know what was going on. She looked forward rather than backwards.”
Lerner lived in her home with a full-time aide until her death.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall