Lazy Saturday Reads: Leonard Nimoy, Son of Boston’s Old West End

Leonard Nimoy receives honorary degree from Boston University, May, 2012.

Leonard Nimoy receives honorary degree from Boston University, May, 2012.

Good Afternoon!!

JJ posted some wonderful cartoon tributes to Leonard Nimoy last night. I decided to follow her lead by posting some articles and clips I enjoyed reading and watching. Naturally, I was interested in learning more about Nimoy’s early years in Boston; so that’s what I’m going to focus on today.

I really liked the obituary in The Boston Globe (originally published in the NYT): ‘Star Trek’ icon Leonard Nimoy dies at 83. It’s a very nice piece, and it includes Nimoy’s Boston history.

Leonard Nimoy, the sonorous, gaunt-faced actor who won a worshipful global following as Mr. Spock, the resolutely logical human-alien first officer of the Starship Enterprise in the television and movie juggernaut “Star Trek,” died Friday at his home in the Bel Air section of Los Angeles. He was 83….

His artistic pursuits — poetry, photography and music in addition to acting — ranged far beyond the United Federation of Planets, but it was as Mr. Spock that Nimoy became a folk hero, bringing to life one of the most indelible characters of the last half century: a cerebral, unflappable, pointy-eared Vulcan with a signature salute and blessing, “Live long and prosper” (from the Vulcan “Dif-tor heh smusma”).

Nimoy, who was teaching Method acting at his own studio when he was cast in the original “Star Trek” television series in the mid-1960s, relished playing outsiders, and he developed what he later admitted was a mystical identification with Spock, the lone alien on the starship’s bridge.

Nimoy's high school yearbook photo

Nimoy’s high school yearbook photo

On Nimoy’s Boston background:

Martin Walsh, the mayor of Nimoy’s native Boston, called him “a proud product of Boston’s neighborhoods and English High School.”

“Mr. Nimoy never forgot his Boston roots and the spirit of his work lives on in the future generations of children who continue to be inspired by his iconic portrayal of Mr. Spock,” Walsh said.

Born in Boston on March 26, 1931, Leonard Simon Nimoy was the second son of Max and Dora Nimoy, Ukrainian immigrants and Orthodox Jews. His father worked as a barber.

From the age of 8, Leonard acted in local productions, winning parts at a community college, where he performed through his high school years. In 1949, after taking a summer course at Boston College, he traveled to Hollywood, though it wasn’t until 1951 that he landed small parts in two movies, “Queen for a Day” and “Rhubarb.”

English High School

English High School

On his connection to his Jewish ancestry:

In 2002, having illustrated his books of poetry with his photographs, Nimoy published “Shekhina,” a book devoted to photography with a Jewish theme, that of the feminine aspect of God. His black-and-white photographs of nude and seminude women struck some Orthodox Jewish leaders as heretical, but Nimoy asserted that his work was consistent with the teaching of the kabbalah.

His religious upbringing also influenced the characterization of Spock. The character’s split-fingered salute, he often explained, had been his idea: He based it on the kohanic blessing, a manual approximation of the Hebrew letter shin, which is the first letter in Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God.

“To this day, I sense Vulcan speech patterns, Vulcan social attitudes and even Vulcan patterns of logic and emotional suppression in my behavior,” Nimoy wrote years after the original series ended.

But that wasn’t such a bad thing, he discovered.

“Given the choice,” he wrote, “if I had to be someone else, I would be Spock.”

I just loved that quote at the end. There’s much more info at the link if you’re interested.

Nimoy grew up in the old West End of Boston, a multi-ethnic neighborhood filled with tenement houses that are gone now. However, there is a West End museum that preserves the neighborhood’s history.  Nimoy is listed among the important products of the neighborhood along with Charles Bullfinch, media mogul Sumner Redstone, movie producer Joseph E. Levine, and others. Here’s a photo of “Lenny” with some schoolmates. You can see the West End tenements in the background.

leonard_nimoy with schoolmates

 

At NECN, you can watch a video with interviews from West Enders.

Boston Remembers Native Leonard Nimoy, Old West End

Boston’s West End looks nothing like it did when Leonard Nimoy was born there in 1931. Then, there were half a dozen schools, 32 ethnic groups and hundreds of tenement houses.

But that is where the actor’s legacy remains.

“I think he’s just a neighborhood guy made good,” said Duane Lucia, curator of The West End Museum….

“When he came home from Hollywood, from the West Coast, he actually had to sleep in the same bed as his brother,” said Lucia. “They lived in a very crowded tenement house, like everybody else, where you might have three generations in a two-bedroom apartment.” ….

He returned to the West End to shoot a documentary, meeting with Lucia and others in the neighborhood.

“The West End is gone. He was part of the West End, now he’s gone. It’s too bad,” said Steve Zaidman, who grew up in the West End.

More at the link.

Salem St. (a Jewish area) in the Old West End

Salem St. (a Jewish area) in the Old West End

 

I found this amazing trove of photos of “Medieval Boston” before Urban Renewal at Cyburbia.org. The photo below came from that link.

Bowdoin Square, 1929, gateway to the doomed West End beyond.

Bowdoin Square, 1929, gateway to the doomed West End beyond.

Here’s some background on the documentary Nimoy shot with his son and video of the first 10 minutes.

Remembering Leonard Nimoy: A Look Back at His Time in Boston’s West End.

Nimoy visited the museum earlier this year with his son, who shot a short film for WGBH titled Leonard Nimoy’s Boston. The program brought Nimoy around to different locations in Boston, from the corner of Washington Street and Boylston Street where he sold vacuum cleaners, to the old West End, which barely resembled anything close to the neighborhood that once existed.

Nimoy was born to Max Nimoy, a barber who also worked making leather patterns for luggage. By the age of 10, young Leonard was hustling newspapers on the Boston Common. His parents would have liked him to go into a profession that would allow Nimoy to live a comfortable life, but his experiences in the West End pushed him towards theatre.

In Percy Shain’s 1963 Globe article, Nimoy talks about the time he spent at the Peabody Playhouse, where children took acting classes and put on productions for the West End community.

“I went into acting at the Playhouse more because I was an active kid and wanted something to do, than because I was stage struck.”

He told Boston University’s Class of 2012 during a commencement speech that “It was a community settlement house which was created to help immigrants find their way into the culture. They offered classes in language, cooking, shopping, kitchen sanitation, dental care and how to apply for a job. There was a gym and a sports program, and there was a small gem of a theater.” Today, the Elizabeth Peabody House is located in Somerville and continues to encourage children to let their creativity drive them.

According to BDC Wire, in 2012, Nimoy told Boston Phoenix writer S.I. Rosenbaum

how his passion for photography started after a friend gave him instructions on developing film. “There were six of us living in the apartment with one bathroom, and that was my darkroom,” he told her.

His interest in photography never waned, and in 2014 he appeared via Skype (see photo below) at a showing of his work at Boston University’s Sherman Gallery, “Leonard Nimoy: Secret Selves.”

Nimoy BU 2014

He previously had had a showing of his work in 2010 at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Here’s a brief article about that show published at The Daily Beast yesterday.

Leonard Nimoy’s ‘Secret’ Talent: A Look Back at His Intimate Photography Exhibition.

Nimoy also had a hidden talent: photography. Back in 2010, he unveiled an exhibition of photo portraits, Secret Selves, at Mass MoCA in his native Massachusetts.

When asked if he’d be appearing in other Star Trek films after 2009’s Star Trek, he laughed.

“You’re talking to a photographer! That’s all over for me,” he told our reporter at the time.

Nimoy described the photo show as a “social experiment,” urging people to pose as their “secret selves”—or alter-egos—yielding fascinating results, with several subjects going so far as posing in the nude.

“To tell you the truth, I feel like I’ve acted out every possible secret self for the last 60 years,” he said. “I’ve done vicious people, honest people, porks—I’ve done all kinds of self.”

See a gallery of Nimoy’s Selves at another Daily Beast link.

More about Nimoy’s art at Art.net News: Leonard Nimoy, Photographer, Art Collector, and Beloved Star Trek Actor, Dead at 83.

Nimoy was a photographer, poet, art collector, and musician, as well as an actor. He became fascinated with photography when he was 13 and went on to study with the photographer Robert Heinecken at UCLA (Heinecken was the subject of a solo show last year at New York’s Museum of Modern Art). His work is represented in various collections, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Bakersfield Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, and New York’s Jewish Museum. He also published several books of photography, including The Full Body Project (2007) and Shekhina (2005).

He was also a beloved patron of the arts, having donated to Asia Society Museum and the Hammer Museum, as well as other museums on the east and west coasts.

“Leonard Nimoy was everything you would imagine him to be—kind, moral, wise, loyal, and profoundly generous of spirit,” Ann Philbin, director of the Hammer Museum, told artnet News in an email. “He truly loved the arts—all of them—but he followed theater and the visual arts with a particular passion and knowledge. He and [his wife] Susan have been great philanthropists for many causes but we were truly lucky at the Hammer to have their friendship and support over the years. We will all miss him terribly.”

Richard Michelson, his Northampton, Massachusetts, dealer pointed out that he supported exhibitions of young and challenging photographers at various museums with funding from his eponymous foundation….

Associated so closely with Mister Spock, Nimoy was intrigued with the notion of alternate identities, and invited volunteers from nearby Northampton to “reveal their secret selves” on film. The concept was fueled by Plato’s “Symposium,” which imagined the original humans were dual creatures then split into two by the gods. In another series, the “Full Body Project,” Nimoy photographed full-bodied women in the nude.

full body project

 

He was clearly a brilliant, sensitive, talented, and creative person.

Nimoy also had a wonderful speaking voice. From the Globe: Nimoy’s voice will live on at Boston’s Museum of Science.

Nimoy, who died Friday morning at age 83, has been opening each movie at the theater since 1988, theater manager Robin Doty said. The Boston-born actor is best known for his role as the pointy-eared Vulcan Mr. Spock on th “Star Trek” TV series.

Nimoy grew up in the city’s West End, the area where the museum is located.

Before the IMAX movies play on the giant screen, during the sound-check, Nimoy’s familiar voice comes on, and he recites some lines from the song, “Who Put the Bomp?” by Barry Mann.

“I think his voice helps acclimate guests to sound systems,” Doty said. “It’s always kind of fun and out of character for him.”

Doty said audiences enjoy Nimoy’s cameo appearance and that it is all part of the experience at the museum.

“He was very open and kind. He had a warm spot in his heart” for the museum, he said. “It’s hard to believe. … He’s such a timeless person.”

 

West End Museum curator Duane Lucia with Leonard and Adam Nimoy at the museum in 2013.

West End Museum curator Duane Lucia with Leonard and Adam Nimoy at the museum in 2013.

 

One final Boston-related story that Leonard Nimoy told during his speech at BU’s Commencement in 2012, from Business Insider.

Leonard Nimoy said a chance meeting with a young JFK changed his life.

In 2012, he reflected on his life in a commencement speech to Boston University’s College of Fine Arts. He told the story of how a chance meeting with future president John F. Kennedy inspired him when he was at a low point in his career.

In the 1950s, Nimoy was struggling in Los Angeles with a wife and two kids, he said in his speech. He spent his days in auditions and his nights driving a taxi for steady income. One night he picked up Kennedy, who was a Massachusetts senator at the time, at the Bel Air Hotel. He said:

We chatted about careers … politics and show business, and we agreed that both had a lot in common. Maybe too much in common. He said, “Lots of competition in your business, just like in mine.” And then he gave me this: “Just remember there’s always room for one more good one.”

Words to live by, and I did.

So you can see that Boston had a huge impact on Leonard Nimoy’s life, and in return he has had a powerful impact on the city of his birth and its people.

 

You can treat this as an open thread. What’s happening in the news today?


24 Comments on “Lazy Saturday Reads: Leonard Nimoy, Son of Boston’s Old West End”

  1. bostonboomer says:

    Even toward the end of his life, Nimoy was tweeting encouragement to Bostonians about football and snow.

    New England Sports Network: Leonard Nimoy, Boston Native, Never Stopped Believing In Tom Brady

    • bostonboomer says:

      I really enjoyed reading about him. He comes across as a wonderful human being with a big heart and a contagious smile.

  2. bostonboomer says:

    I found some great videos featuring Leonard Nimoy on Youtube.

  3. bostonboomer says:

    He was in one of my favorite movies, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  4. bostonboomer says:

    What Nimoy performances stick in your mind?

  5. Beata says:

    Wonderful post, BB!

    Nimoy talking about Boston’s Old West End ( from a Yiddish Book Center interview ):

  6. bostonboomer says:

  7. dakinikat says:

    Wow. He was an amazing man with a lot of substance! Thank you for spending so much time to highlight his life! He really was one of my role models as a kid as Mr. Spock. I felt really compelled by his struggles with his emotions.

  8. Fannie says:

    I mean to tell you this is a gold mine. His Jewish family, and understanding how they were part of the mix of Irish, and Italian in Boston. I loved hearing him discuss his history, and how he centered his world from the Old West Side. I was surprised to hear him say he lived in Tahoe, and named his boat Old West Side. Spruce that up with his camera, and all the shows, and I can’t think of how many people he must have known, and I feel like you, BB gave me a little chance to get to know him too. The life and times of our moments, people having their homes knocked from under them, and having to go another way. Yet the very thing we treasure is that little leather wallet, that Grandpa sold for $1. Sometimes I think we are a society living in a fishbowl.

    Thanks to you too Beata. I love his stories.

    • bostonboomer says:

      Thank you so much, Fannie. I spent hours on this post, and your comments really mean a lot to me.

    • bostonboomer says:

      You know, I moved to Boston in 1967, after the West End had already been destroyed and the Central Artery built. I remember the anger against the BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) and I knew that Scollay Square had been replaced with the ugly new Government Center, but I didn’t know all the details. But I lived in the North End and I used to shop at the Haymarket, so I can recall many of the old buildings that were down there. It’s really sad that so many people were displaced and an entire close neighborhood was just disappeared.