Editor’s Note: Renee Peck and WWNO’s Jack Hopke talk about all the wonderful aspects of Sharon Litwin and the role she played in New Orleans. A big thanks to Thomas Walsh, a dear friend to Sharon as well, for editing and engineering this piece.
When Sharon Litwin, NolaVie co-founder and president, passed away Friday after a long battle with cancer, New Orleans lost a great friend.
So did I.
Our friendship spanned four decades and was rooted not only in a shared predilection for the written word — we met as fellow feature writers at The States-Item newspaper in 1978 — but also in our mutual love of all things New Orleans.
Sharon hailed from the UK — here at NolaVie we fondly referred to her as The Queen — but she was as quintessentially New Orleans as Monday red beans or Fat Tuesday revelry. Her tireless enthusiasm for any New Orleans cause that skewed toward culture or community made her a force with whom to be reckoned. Over the years she did too many things to enumerate in detail here, but they included founding the Contemporary Arts Center and the Crescent City Farmers Market, rallying women to elect more women to office with The Committee of 21, serving as Zagat restaurant guide editor, well, you get the idea.
When I retired in 2009 after 32 years at The Times-Picayune, Sharon came to me with a suggestion. “Let’s start a website,” she said.
It was such a Sharon thing: an idea at once so simple and so complex that I found myself readily agreeing. As one friend commented in John Pope’s lovely obituary, Sharon was someone it was impossible to say no to.
So in 2011 we launched this boat and have piloted it together since. Sharon was the big-picture person — the one with the ideas, the connections, the vision. She always looked toward the horizon, her gaze unwaveringly focused on what was out there, what could be. I was her Oz behind the green curtain, orchestrating the details that would take us toward that ambitious future she foresaw. She was a back-of-the-napkin planner, jotting down story ideas and budget items with a fountain pen and a racing brain.
And she made it fun. Her events captured the whimsy of her website and her town: A pop-up party with emerging fashionistas dancing in multicolored catsuits atop pillars in a Carnival warehouse. A video/player piano art installation cooked up with MIT Media Lab grad Xiao Xiao. A Healing Center performance piece with artist friend Dawn Dideaux. Her writing equally showcased her curiosity about and passion for her adopted city. In her Culture Watch column, she pondered gun violence and education, interviewed museum directors and street performers. Covering, always, the state of the arts.
Sharon knew everybody. Or maybe it was that everyone knew her. She didn’t work a room; it worked her. You couldn’t get from door to table in any eatery in town without her being hailed by half a dozen people, drawn from every nook and cranny of the city. It might be a former Rex here, a crusading nun she’d advocated with there. Once, on a wing tour of New Orleans, we walked into a wing place on Broad Avenue, where an older black man strode across the room and embraced Sharon with a warm hug. A Mardi Gras Indian chieftain, who knew her from way back when.
That reach into so many disparate New Orleans communities gave Sharon a unique and unerring ability to connect people, often people who never would have otherwise sat down together at the table. It’s all about connecting the dots, she would say. About starting conversations.
I don’t know what New Orleans — or I — will do without Sharon around to plot and dream, cajole and negotiate, and get things done. NolaVie has a wonderful team of writers and editors, and managing editor Kelley Crawford has stepped in to adeptly keep things on course. NolaVie is a place designed for inclusivity, for sharing ideas and opinions, for brainstorming ways to cover those many quirky cultural stories that bubble up from the ground here. Sharon saw to that.
The last time I saw Sharon, she had her eye resolutely on that horizon. We talked about future projects, goals, transitions. Plotting, starting conversations. NolaVie will live on with Sharon’s sure vision; what she sowed and nurtured will flower as surely as if she were still tending this garden.
What, I asked her, has she been most proud of? She answered without hesitation.
“I am most proud of those things I started,” she told me. “And I am most proud of those things I finished.”
All of us here at NolaVie are proud, too. Of what she, and we, have accomplished. And because she was a great friend.
For the next month, NolaVie will repost a story each day by Sharon Litwin. We can think of no better way to remember her, to appreciate her wit and talent, and to reacquaint her readers and friends with her strong and passionate voice.