Many Americans seek professional reinvention as a way to animate their lives. For Beryl Bernay, her life was defined by it.
Bernay — an actor, fashion designer, photographer, journalist, painter and amateur anthropologist — died March 29 in Manhattan. She was 94. The cause was complications of the coronavirus, her niece, Carol Gonzalez, said.
Beryl Bernstein was born March 2, 1926, in Brooklyn, New York, to Russian émigré parents. Her father, Barney, who changed the family name to Berney when she was a child, was a garment worker, and her mother, Sade Berney, sold stockings and taught kindergarten. (Their daughter began spelling her name Bernay in adulthood.)
She graduated from George Washington High School in Manhattan at 15. Too young to attend college, she worked at Franklin Simon & Co. as a draper and designer for teen and preteen fashions, Gonzalez said. She went on to attend Pennsylvania State University.
Bernay took acting classes with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof and appeared in several shows, including a 1955 production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” in Paris with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin.
During her time in Paris, she drove to the south of France to seek out Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, whom she captured in photographic portraits which she sent to Harper’s Weekly, along with an article, which published them.
Then there was a foray into children’s programming. Between 1962 and 1965, she was the creative force behind “All Join Hands,” a program produced by the United Nations Children’s Fund in which she and her puppet co-hosts, Miss Bookworm and Doodle the Travel Bug, narrated a show highlighting different countries.
Bernay held a number of jobs at U.N. agencies, often as a communications official. In those positions she frequently visited Indonesia.
“Beryl Bernay was an astute observer of not only the political situation in Indonesia,” said Wayne Forrest, president of the American Indonesian Chamber of Commerce, “she also had an abiding interest in the culture of Bali, which she helped introduce to American audiences.”
In July 1977, she accompanied Margaret Mead, whom she had met in a class at Columbia University, to work as her assistant on the anthropologist’s last field trip to the Balinese mountain village of Bayung Gede. Her photographs from that trip were displayed at the Museum of Natural History in New York. Through it all, she also painted.
Bernay’s two marriages ended in divorce.
In 2011, she told a reporter she was reluctant to give up any of her interests, all of which she dabbled in late into her life. “I really enjoy each one of my things when I’m doing it,” she said, “and when I’m not doing it, I miss it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .