I just learned that an old friend of mine had died at 88. What may seem odd to many is that I never met her, but knowing her was good news for me and my family. Her name was Ilona Albok Vitarius, and she was, in her early years, an aspiring theater performer. She grew up poor in N.Y.C. the only daughter of a Hungarian immigrant tailor -- John Albok -- who became notable for photographing the city, particularly Harlem and its residents, during the Depression years, as well as Central Park and the '39-'40 World's Fair in Queens. Before I knew Ilona, I had read Albok's obituary years before in the NY Times, and wrote a musical about him with Wally Harper called Say Yes (now This Fair World) which appeared at the Berkshire Theater Festival. Ilona learned of this through an article I had written for the NY Times about the '39 Fair, and we became pen pals.
Ilona, when I came to know her in her later years, lived in Dallas, Texas, surrounded by her rescue cats and dogs, and never traveled -- spending much of her time advancing her father's art photography, which now holds a place of honor in several city museums. We spoke often on the phone and wrote to each other, growing closer every year, until we felt that she was a part of our family. She didn't email or have a computer, but she had something better than that for communicating: a generous heart. She was a woman of enormous compassion with a wide range of understanding of human beings, and a love for abandoned animals. Early in life she was a cabaret singer, mostly Hungarian songs, later she appeared in a few Broadway shows in the ensemble, and also at the World's Fair in some entertainments. But while her theatrical career never soared, her life was marked by infinite kindness towards people and animals -- she was the original animal rescue lady. Odd to feel such love and loss for someone you never met, but my wife and I do. We mourn her passing. Rest in peace, dear Ilona, it can truly be said that the world is a better place for you having been in it, and we are the better for having known you.