Sharon Litwin, a charming and unfailing advocate for New Orleans culture and communities , died Friday in Chicago, where she was being treated for pancreatic cancer. She was 75.
Even over the past year, while flying periodically to Chicago for chemotherapy and other cancer treatments, Litwin continued her work. She continued to record weekly interviews with cultural leaders for WWNO public radio and wrote a weekly “CultureWatch” column for NolaVie.com, the nonprofit cultural website she co-founded in 2011.
A skilled interviewer who easily earned the trust of her subjects, Litwin had worked in the past as an executive producer at WYES-TV and later as a features writer at The States-Item and The Times-Picayune newspapers.
She also held prominent positions in the city’s cultural world as well, as a top administrator at the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, credited with bringing the musician-owned symphony back after Hurricane Katrina; as an assistant director at the New Orleans of Art, where she headed up a $27 million expansion project; and as an early president of the Contemporary Arts Center’s volunteer board of directors.
Yet she wasn’t one to boast about the breadth of her accomplishments.
“She got things done. But she never sat and talked about what she’d done,” said Renee Peck, who met Litwin in the late 1970s when both were writing for the features section of The States-Item.
“We were seen as the women’s section, and we wrote about items like the first woman firefighter,” said Peck, noting that Litwin had “a very vested interest in that voice even then” and continued to emphasize the achievements of women throughout her lifetime.
Litwin was born as Sharon Robinson in Blackpool, England, where her parents had relocated from London because of the German bombing of the city during World War II. She earned a bachelor’s degree in French and business from Kilburn Polytechnic Institute in London in 1959 and began her career at BBC radio as an assistant producer.
She married Martin Litwin, an American surgeon she had met while producing a radio segment, and the couple moved to the United States, first to Boston and then in 1966 to New Orleans.
A civic leader, she also was active in a group formed to get women elected to office at a time when nearly all elected officials were men. The Committee of 21, a diverse group of 21 women, included another founder, Verna Landrieu, who famously summed up the concept: “Give me a handful of women, and any job can get done.” Peck said the concept was “very Sharon,” very practical — “if women needed a bigger say, let’s make that happen,” she said.
She worked at whatever needed doing, to repair streetlights, clear storm drains, educate children or promote the city’s famous culture.
“She wanted New Orleans to be a better place to live, though she would not have lived anywhere else,” Peck said of Litwin’s adopted city, which she had “adopted fiercely.”
Yet Litwin also cared about the city’s famous street culture. In 2007, she told Times-Picayune reporter Frank Donze that she missed the young musicians who had once plied the street below the LPO offices before Katrina. “Twenty-one floors up, I could hear them as they cracked a note or busted a rhythm. Toward the end they were getting a little better, but sometimes it sounded like they were playing four different songs at once.”
At the time, Litwin was trying to get the symphony fully recovered in a functional venue post-Katrina, but she wondered what happened to those off-key youngsters, she told Donze.
“What breaks my heart is I don’t know where those kids are now,” she said. “I’d venture a guess they haven’t returned, but I would give anything to get them back because that’s what the street band sound of New Orleans is all about.”
One of her proudest accomplishments was helping to start the Crescent City Farmers Market, which she helped to put into its longtime home at Magazine and Girod streets.
When a New York City group sued over the use of its original name, the Green Market, she refused to spend money on lawsuits and said the local group should move forward and focus on its mission. “The most important thing was to get corn from farms and into people’s bags,” she said.
Litwin is survived by a sister, Carole Streat, of London; two daughters, Anna-Marie Jene, of San Francisco, and Dr. Rebecca Litwin Newman, of Glenview, Illinois; and two grandsons, Jake and Scott Newman.
Close family will gather in London soon to celebrate Litwin’s life. A New Orleans memorial service will be held Aug. 21, though the location has not yet been set.