Celeste Martin: November 11, 1927—December 13, 2018
By Denise Marsa
How many times have you heard about a New York City landlady giving every tenant in her multiple landmark rental buildings a special gift bag filled with Christmas goodies? Every year Celeste Martin looked forward to taking her staff, including her driver, carpenter and super, shopping at Macy’s Herald Square to help her fill 39 gift bags for her tenants. These were no ordinary gift bags, just as she was no ordinary landlady. As a tenant in one of her buildings, I was always thrilled with my gift bag’s content. One year I received a 1999 Perrier–Jouët (which I still have) and another year a 2011 Rose Veuve Clicquot. Yes, champagne! Accompanying the champagne was a bottle of Johnny Walker Black or a Johnny Walker variety pack. There were also always imported sweets and chocolates along with the spirits.
I wish to honor the memory of the late Celeste Martin, who passed away on December 13, 2018, and the enduring legacy she maintained running her landmark properties on Christopher and Gay Streets in Greenwich Village, Manhattan. She lived in a pink house on Waverly Place near Washington Square Park and also managed seven two-hundred-year-old homes that have endured intense car and truck traffic and the nearby rumbling subways for decades. (Incidentally, she stood up against, and stopped, the city’s plans to put a Path station too near her buildings for fear they would be compromised and crumble. For more about this, there is an article from the New York Times, written by Penelope Green, originally published December 21, 2003.)
Celeste also fought to keep her glorious wisteria from being cut down. It was at least 100 years old and grew abundantly from the courtyard between and over her buildings on Gay and Christopher Streets, just as it had done for decades. She put lights on the plants every Christmas, an amazing sight and a spectacular highlight in the West Village. When the wisteria was in full bloom in spring, it was as if you had stepped from the crowded streets of the most populated city in our country to a garden in seconds. It was magical and mythical and all things West Village. Unfortunately, several years ago part of the wisteria was cut down. Luckily, some of the beautiful flowers still remain outside her two commercial spaces on Christopher Street.
There are many things I do not know about Celeste and there have been stories about her going around for years—including her romances and being a Rockette. She was truly a beauty in her prime. Perhaps she trusted the wrong people in the past and that left her very mistrusting of all. Still, she often bought things for others instead of herself, unselfishly overlooking her own needs. She also held on to so many things—so many memories that filled her home from wall to wall. I heard that inside her pink townhouse on Waverly Place an original Degas was found amidst curious knick-knacks, cats, and old costumes and glorious gowns from earlier days. We often sat at her window and spoke about her father, her mother, and the nanny she had as a young girl. She adored them all. It was Celeste’s father who first invested in the West Village buildings and who inspired the landlord character Mr. Appopolous in the play “My Sister Eileen.” Featuring two Ohio transplants that moved to a small apartment on Gay Street, this work would become the basis of the musical “Wonderful Town.”
Celeste never got over the loss of her tenant David Ryan in a fire in his apartment on Gay Street. He once told me he probably would die in a fire he started by falling asleep in his favorite chair, surrounded by newspapers, with a cigarette hanging between his fingers. Sadly, his statement came true. Celeste also endured the sudden death of Nicole, her dear maintenance-super from Haiti. Over the years she had her male companions, who always helped her with her empire. She attracted men her whole life and was flirting up until the end. Her life would make an incredible movie script with plenty of history, mystery, intrigue, and interesting characters.
I am a transplant from New Jersey. I came to this amazing city over 40 years ago and looked at only one apartment, on Christopher Street, where I still live today. I met Celeste’s father Edmund Martin that one time; he was still managing all the properties back then. My studio apartment is my sanctuary, my fortress. I feature it in one of my vignettes in my new one-woman show THE PASS, A Musical, in which I speak of Celeste, my guardian angel, and how grateful I have always been to have her as part of my story. In my show, after I describe my first day of apartment hunting in the West Village, as an aspiring singer/songwriter, I perform my song, City Skies. It is an ode to this spellbinding city. I was so lucky to have Celeste as a landlady; and my studio, though small in square footage, is tremendously large when it comes to charm, character, history (including my own!), and love.
Celeste was 94 when she passed. In her final years as a landlady, reputed to be one of the most eccentric in NYC, she was unbelievably sweet, yet occasionally neglectful in the buildings’ maintenance—mostly because she was plagued by financial disarray. She’d fallen a few years prior; not only were her mobility and cognitive abilities affected, her financial situation changed drastically. (She had rarely been sick and never believed in health insurance.) Previously, when she renovated an apartment she worked with skilled individuals. The most recent had been Robert, a carpenter from Poland. Together they planned how they would renew, yet maintain, the charm, details, and history of each small apartment they worked on. She oversaw all his work, which was comparable to photographs I have seen in Architectural Digest. After her financial circumstances changed Celeste did her best and still handled emergencies promptly and with grace. But some tenants took advantage of her kindness, and some took her to court for her neglect. There were others, including myself, however, who helped her and did our best to comfort her, bring her food, and get support for her during the final months before she was taken from her home.
Court-appointed guardians were in control of her life and property during her final months. She did not live very long after she was taken away. The course of events that led to that state of affairs started with Celeste being removed from her home, involuntarily and against her will, by Adult Protective Services in March, 2018. She was placed in a nursing home, the Hebrew Home in Riverdale, where I visited her several times. The last time, she sat with me at the piano in a communal area and I quietly played and sang City Skies, which I dedicate to her in my show. We were both moved to tears, an ever-lasting moment between us.
During our visits she would always tell me she had to get home and look after her business—her buildings. These had been her life for dozens of years. The current circumstances have presented us, her tenants and staff, with many questions that we are still trying to answer. I have been told so many things and I am not sure what the truth is. When a lawyer first had temporary guardianship, we were told she had relatives who were to inherit the buildings. Now it seems they will not, as the city is in control of her estate. Her own home on Waverly Place was totally cleaned out and then put up for sale while she was still alive in the nursing home. The communication from the once temporarily appointed guardian, who then became the court-appointed guardian, has pretty much stopped since Celeste passed. I hear there is another guardian. There is also a management company involved now, appointed by the first guardian. Her tenants wonder, with great trepidation, what will happen to her buildings, where many of us have made long-term homes. She did not make any plans regarding her estate from December 14, 2018 onward. She did not put together a will or living will. Our fate as tenants who wish to honor Celeste’s legacy, and stay in our homes, lies in the hands of the City of New York. Just before I finished this story I saw on the real estate website that is handling Celeste’s estate that her buildings on Gay and Christopher Streets have “contracts out.”
Celeste told so many of her tenants that she loved us. And we told her we loved her back—because we really did! It was impossible not to love this one-of-a-kind, beautiful, charming, strong and stubborn lady. She is laid to rest with her father in Green-Wood Cemetery.
Regardless of what will happen in the future, I already miss Celeste terribly and will always celebrate her life. Things aren’t the same without her smile, charm, and child-like magical ways. Celeste Martin and her spirit will live on forever on these city streets in the heart of the West Village.
Watching how the end of her life played out was horribly frustrating and an eye-opening experience. My only consolation is remembering that until her last months she was accountable for her life and no one was going to alter what she would or would not do. That is who she always was.
Update: As of the time of this article being published, sadly, almost all the wisteria on Christopher Street, that brilliantly glorified our little block, has been cut down. There is, nevertheless, a shadow of its former self still left on Gay Street.