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Local leaders Mimi Levitt, arts patron and pavilion benefactor, dies at 97

January 10, 2019

WESTPORT — Mimi Levitt lived the kind of American dream story usually consigned to movies. On Jan. 6, the story ended when Levitt, a patron of The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Westport and arts programs nationwide, died at the age of 97.

“She had a real impact on the performing arts in Westport and as a person, I always found her warm, engaging, alert and aware of the things that were taking pace, particularly at the pavilion,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said. “It always inspired me to see her attending the performances because I knew she was there because of her love of music, her love of Westport, and her desire to be a part of our community.”

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1921, Mimi’s early life was spent surrounded by opera. At the outbreak of World War II, Levitt immigrated to the United States and soon after attended Pomona College in California, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in French literature.

In the 1940s, Levitt, a linguist fluent in five languages, served as a translator for the Nuremberg trials and later worked as an assistant to Alfred Barr Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

At a Manhattan art gallery, Mimi met Mortimer Levitt, founder of The Custom Shop, which made hand-tailored shirts. The couple hit it off over their shared love of art and after a brief courtship, married in 1948. Although the Levitt’s primary residence was in New York City, they spent summers in Westport.

Together the Levitts used profits from the lucrative Custom Shop to create the Mortimer Levitt Foundation (later renamed the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation in 2012), created in 1963.

With a focus to transform public spaces into welcoming destinations for free, live, music, the Levitt foundation has supported a total of 26 music venues in cities and towns across the country as of 2018, including the first Levitt Pavilion, opening in Westport in 1974. Mimi served on the board of Westport’s Levitt Pavilion for decades and regularly attended performances at the concert venue.

“She was a great friend to us and an ally to the Levitt Pavilion. Mimi’s support of the capital campaign for the New Levitt Pavilion was generous and unstinting,” said Freda Welsh, executive director of The Levitt Pavilion for the Performing Arts in Westport, noting the Levitts’ campaign for a new Westport pavilion, which opened in 2014, represented a $9.5 million project.

After Mortimer died in 2005, Mimi became president of the Levitt Foundation and supported its growth nationwide. Levitt also contributed to arts organizations, such as the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and the School of American Ballet.

“The arts desperately need generous, philanthropic individuals like Mimi Levitt. So many have benefitted. In this current climate of reduced funding for the arts, Mimi Levitt’s philanthropy will be greatly missed,” said Andrew Wilk, executive producer of Live from Lincoln Center and a Westport resident.

In addition to her funding for arts and music programs, Mimi was also dedicated to historic preservation. In the 1970s, she spearheaded an effort to preserve the distinctive character of homes in her Upper East Side neighborhood, which led the the creation of the Metropolitan Museum Historic District in 1997.

Levitt is survived by her two children, Liz Levitt Hirsch of Los Angeles and Peter Levitt of New York, and her step-grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

svaughan@hearstmediact.com; 203-842-2638; @SophieCVaughan1

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