Irma Lazarus


Women who shaped Cincinnati’s cultural landscape

A few months ago, it struck me that, in my career writing about and participating in the arts in Greater Cincinnati, I had crossed paths with many women who, in the middle to late part of the last century, were strong forces in shaping the cultural landscape.

They were powerhouses. They had vision and the chutzpah to match. If they were living today, they would be CEOs or ranking legislators. At the very least, they would be recognized for their formidable influence in the community.

But because society was what it was back then, they headed up ladies’ auxiliaries and, if they were in the paper, it was in fashionable photos, sipping tea with other women.

Despite all their good work, many people wrote them off as divas, or as women who were spoiled and had too much time on their hands. They were often regarded as amateurs who knew nothing of the real world.

They were, after all, “just women.”

No one responded to those attitudes quite so succinctly – on the record, at least – as the late Peggy Kahn, who was particularly known for her work with the Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet.

“Everyone thought I was a stupid ass because they couldn’t imagine that a woman would know what she was doing,” Kahn said in a 2012 interview. “But they had no idea who they were dealing with.”

We owe these women an enormous debt. So over the course of the next year or so, we will occasionally revisit a few of those women and recall what it was about them that so profoundly enriched our lives and our communities.

– David Lyman

Undated photo of Irma Lazarus, local arts leader Dorothy “Dot” Visser, first publicity director for the Cincinnati Zoo, and Lazarus’ twin sister, Eleanor Strauss.
Undated photo of Irma Lazarus, local arts leader Dorothy “Dot” Visser, first publicity director for the Cincinnati Zoo, and Lazarus’ twin sister, Eleanor Strauss.

Arts visionary Irma Lazarus was ‘completely unafraid of change’

Where to start? There are several candidates, women whose names are carved into the edifices of major arts organizations all around Cincinnati.

But Irma Lazarus was different. She and her husband, Fred Lazarus III, did give money to the arts. But the money came more quietly. If anything, you probably remember the Lazarus name from the chain of department stores that got folded into the Macy’s chain in 2005. 

“Quiet” is not a word you’ll hear very often about Irma.

She was brash, opinionated, tenacious and, much to her detractors’ dismay, very smart. She had a regal bearing, an air of elegance and chiseled features. She also had an aura of confidence about her that made her look as if she had just stepped off a Cinerama movie screen. She was, in every way, larger than life.

And she always had something to say.

In 1990, when national news outlets were filled with stories about a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition leading to the Contemporary Arts Center being charged with pandering obscenity, the Washington Post sought out Lazarus. They knew she would have something pithy to say. She didn’t let them down.

“I’m really, truly embarrassed by the city that has taken an attitude that it isn’t our constitutional right to see what may be interesting and challenging,” she told the Post’s Kim Masters, who noted that the 77-year-old Lazarus’ “family owns a Midwest department store chain,” but neglected to say that she was a founder and former chair of the Ohio Arts Council.

Irma Mendelsohn was not a native Cincinnatian. She was raised in Brooklyn with her twin sister, Eleanor – later, Eleanor Strauss, herself a legendarily powerful arts patron. After attending Smith College, Irma married a young Swiss businessman named Jurg Rau in a ceremony officiated by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

The newlyweds lived in a Swiss town nearly an hour away from the German border. With the threat of war and virulently anti-Jewish legislation in such close proximity – Lazarus was Jewish – she and the couple’s two children sailed from Genoa on what was said to be the last passenger ship to Boston. It was the spring of 1940.

“The boat was filled with refugees,” recalls Irma’s daughter, Betsy Block. “We were classified as refugees, too. But we were lucky refugees. My mother had grown up in New York. The United States was home to her.” For most of the passengers, this new world was an unknown.

Within a year, Irma’s marriage to Rau was over. At her sister’s insistence, she came to Cincinnati, where she was re-introduced to Fred. The two had met while Irma was in college. But this time, a romance blossomed and they were soon married in Florida.

When their husbands departed to join the war effort, Irma and Eleanor – and their children – shared a large house on Keys Crescent in East Walnut Hills. The women supported the war effort by joining the Bundles for Britain campaign.

But that wasn’t enough for Irma.

She started volunteering for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Within a few years, she became the youngest-ever president of the orchestra’s Women’s Committee. And when she felt that more people needed to know about the CSO, she launched an orchestra-themed radio game show called “Symformation, Quiz” on WSAI in 1945. There were similar national shows, but Irma wanted something less stuffy and more local.  And she got it.

“She was such a force,” says Rosemary Schlachter, who got her first job out of college at Young Friends of the Arts – today Enjoy the Arts – which was co-founded by Lazarus and her friend, Phyllis Weston. Today, Schlachter is a noted fundraiser and the president of the Contemporary Arts Center board. “When Irma was determined to make something happen, you just knew that it would. She was so passionate about everything she did.”

Irma was audacious. And fearless. And had a charisma that others could only dream of.

“She also had a vision of what could be,” says Schlachter. “She was completely unafraid of change.”

All of this combined to make her a formidable force in the city. And because of her powerful connections, she was able to open doors for anything and anyone she believed in.

“It was more than just opening doors,” says Wayne Lawson, the former director of the Ohio Arts Council. “She would open the door and then invite you in. She didn’t care who you were or what you did. If she liked your ideas, she was ready to listen.”

“It was more than just opening doors. She would open the door and then invite you in. She didn’t care who you were or what you did. If she liked your ideas, she was ready to listen.”

Wayne Lawson, the former director of the Ohio Arts Council

In 1958, when three local ballet teachers were trying to launch the Cincinnati Civic Ballet, they quickly realized they needed allies with far more clout than they had. A friend suggested they reach out to Irma.

Irma was intrigued by the idea, but felt they could use the assistance of someone who knew more about dance. She put them in touch with Peggy Kahn, who would become one of the company’s first board members and, in turn, recruit a raft of other Cincinnati area power brokers to the board.

A few years later, Irma would convince her friend Stanley Aronoff, a member of the state legislature, that Ohio needed a statewide arts council. In 1965, she was a founding board member of the Ohio Arts Council and would later become its chairwoman. (She also served on the boards of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Cincinnati Opera and the American Symphony Orchestra League, among others.)

Not everything she touched resulted in longtime success.

In the early 1960s, attendance was dropping precipitously at the Shubert Theatre, home of the Theater Guild-American Theater Society subscription series. Things had gotten so bad that there was a proposal to raze the theater and replace it with a parking lot. 

As head of the women’s committee of the Friends of Theater Inc. Irma persuaded the theater series’ director, former TV personality Len Goorian, to broaden the Shubert’s push for subscribers. 

Instead of limiting subscription campaigns to Cincinnati’s “best” neighborhoods, they expanded it to approach people within 100 miles of the city. In 1961, when Irma’s campaign began, the society had just 3,700 subscribers. Within two years, that number had climbed to 6,000. And what had been eight weeks of theater was now 20.

It was a noble campaign. And for a brief time, it was successful. But there was no way that Irma could stanch the decline of downtown Cincinnati. In 1976, the Shubert was leveled and replaced with a parking lot. Today, located kitty-corner from the Aronoff Center, it is a CVS pharmacy topped by a towering office building.

The problem of writing anything less than a full-length book about Irma is that her life was so abundant that the anecdotes are endless:  

She taught her good friend Leonard Bernstein how to ski.

Her radio show had been so successful that in the mid-1950s, Irma moved over to WCET-Channel 48 and hosted arts luminaries on a weekly show called “Conversations with Irma.” It ran a staggering 35 years.

During the gas shortage of 1974, she set an example for others by taking Greyhound buses around the state for all of her OAC business.

She taught the OAC’s Wayne Lawson to ski, too. The first time they skied together in Colorado, Fred told Lawson “Do not follow her down the hill. You’ll die.” Irma, it seemed, was as aggressive in her skiing as she was with everything else.

There is more, too. Cincinnati’s “Lazarus Lizard” even has a connection to her.

It was Irma’s son, George Rau – Fred III’s stepson – who hid several lizards in a sock when the family returned from an Italian holiday. Once back in Cincinnati, he released them. The landscape of the family Torrence Court home proved a hospitable micro-climate and now, much of Cincinnati is overrun with the critters.

“I know that there were people who felt Irma could be quick and too short with them,” says Kitty Strauss Rosenthal, the daughter-in-law of Eleanor Strauss and deeply involved in arts and culture in her own right. “But that was only because she was always moving – she was involved in more things than anyone could possibly realize.”

She and Fred loved to entertain in their home, designed by Eleanor’s architect husband Carl Strauss, overlooking the Ohio River. They loved to dance, too, and made regular appearances among the crowds of much-younger patrons at downtown dance clubs.

They occasionally frequented drag shows in a now-defunct club called The Metro, located in what was a dank and gritty alley that has since been cleaned up and named Gano Street.

“I could not have been luckier to be a part of her world,” says Lawson, now OAC’s director emeritus. “I think you could say that for anyone who knew her. The woman was relentless in pursuing the support mechanism of the arts. I know – some people thought she could be a bully. Not me. I would hear people say ‘Oh, God – it’s Irma Lazarus.’ And I would just say ‘Yeah – I like her.’ ”

When Lazarus died on Aug. 26, 1993, her children erected a panel in a wall at the corner of Torrence Parkway and Torrence Court – just down the hill from the home Fred and Irma shared for so many decades. The panel carried an excerpt from one of Irma’s poems.

“My mother wrote poems for every occasion,” says Betsy Block. “A birthday, a party – anytime – she would write a poem.” There was no reason her death shouldn’t get its own poem: 

Do not grieve for me when I go
I am where the first violets grow
I am where a redbud seedling starts
And the wren’s morning song breaks all hearts
And the apple tree before the blossoms fall
I am the horn in Mahler’s Third
And listening to Lenny’s every word
With Ellie’s anemones in our china bowl
– Irma M. Lazarus, August 1993

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