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October 24, 2012

Edwin Gifford Sr.


Edwin Gifford Sr., a longtime resident of East Hampton, died on October 14. He had been suffering from liver cancer.

His professional life was in New York City but in East Hampton he cherished a quieter cadence in life.

The family house on Abraham's Path was designed and constructed by Frank Dayton, a direct descendent of Ralph Dayton, the ship's carpenter credited with building Home, Sweet Home, the East Hampton landmark said to have inspired John Howard Payne's classic song.

Saturdays were spent at the jetty at Maidstone Park fishing for snapper with bamboo poles. If the fishing were good, a driftwood fire would be made for a breakfast of snapper and fried eggs.

Sundays would be spent with his family and friends at Two Mile Hollow Beach, swimming, picnicking, playing backgammon and reading the Times.

Late summer would find him foraging for beach plums off of Daniel's Hole Road with batches of beach plum jelly cooked that same day.

The 19th-century clam knife used on so many of his foraging expeditions is in the permanent collection of the East Hampton Town Marine Museum on Bluff Road.

Mr. Gifford enjoyed driving his robin's egg blue WWII surplus Willys Jeep with family in tow to the A & B Snowflake for ice cream, the BesArt gourmet shop for pate, and down to Gosman's dock in Montauk for the day's catch.

In his work life, Gifford was a mainstay of the New York theater and food scene who pioneered the practice of cultural branding.

He began his Broadway career as an actor in the comedy Southern Exposure, and later turned to directing for NBC's Kraft Television Theater. Later, as a director for ABC Sports under Roone Arledge he was given the freedom to innovate and introduced the music of David Amram to TV audiences.

He was an investor in the hit musical Hair and his firm, Gifford/Wallace, Inc., handled the show's public relations worldwide. Classically trained in theater at Carnegie-Mellon, then called Carnegie Tech, he interrupted his theater studies to serve in World War II. Gifford fought in the European theatre of operations in the Second World War under General Alexander Patch, 7th Army.

He served as a combat engineer in a pontoon bridge building outfit. Working under enemy fire, Gifford replaced bridges across the Rhine River in the Rhone Valley of France. The Nazis had blown the bridges on their retreat back into Germany.

Gifford's favorite war story was always the one about the day he single handily captured 10 German soldiers. In fact, the soldiers were all standing by the side of the road chatting, hanging out and waving white hankies as Gifford drove up in his truck. They were looking for a lift to the American base, where they had heard there were food and cigarettes for surrendering troops.

Before piling into the back of the truck Gifford made each soldier proclaim his love for America and sit on the head of a giant bust of Hitler which Gifford had recently liberated from a Vichy police station. The bust of Hitler became Gifford's traveling companion on his long drives through the Rhone valley.

Serving in France, Gifford learned the language and developed a love of the food and culture that stayed with him. Gifford's worldview was molded by the war. He developed self-confidence, optimism and a belief in the power of good that served him throughout his life. Being a believer in the use of military power, Gifford increasingly questioned the motives, and feasibility of America's involvement in South East Asia. He eventually became involved in the antiwar movement.

In the "Mad Men" era of either big ad agencies or sole practitioner press agents, Gifford/Wallace, Inc. was established in 1968 as one of the first boutique branding and strategy firms. Gifford was constantly on the lookout for avant garde causes and countercultural artists to introduce to a broader audience. Some of those included the playwright David Mamet, rock impresario Bill Graham, social critic and comedian Dick Gregory, Ellen Stewart of La MaMa, and John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner, later of "Saturday Night Live" fame.

His business was housed at 1211 Park Avenue, a five-story Georgian-style brownstone on the Upper East Side that served both as professional offices and a New York cultural salon. Gifford and his late wife and business partner Michael Gifford, rarely left the house for clients or meetings with media. Instead, their home became a destination for artists, performers and reporters, where Gifford held court, not at a desk, but while expertly cooking elaborate meals on a professional Garland restaurant range he had installed in his living room. (In 1995, the Times described Gifford "an accomplished amateur cook" and shared his recipe for scallops.)

His clients, an eclectic crowd of artists and New York go-getters and business owners, enjoyed his hospitality and his joie de vivre. Those clients included Tennessee Williams, Josephine Baker, Tom Stoppard, Geoffrey Holder, Adam D. Tihany, Eudora Welty, and Eileen Ford.

Before the days of social media, Gifford incubated connections between influencers and clients to generate buzz and influence public opinion in a way he believed advertising could not. Despite the staid white shoe Park Avenue address, Gifford relished the edgy and progressive, the farther out the client the better.

He championed Bill Graham when the West Coast music promoter first arrived in New York to rent a scruffy former movie theater in the East Village called the Fillmore East and then secured support from the administration of then New York Mayor John V. Lindsay to bring the Grateful Dead -- and Mr. Graham -- to the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park for one of the cult band's very first New York performances.

The activist Dick Gregory, in his 1976 autobiography, credited Gifford with helping to give him a national platform.

A pioneer in recognizing the moral power of cause marketing, in 1970 during the Nixon administration, Gifford arranged for the producer of Hair to step in to provide direct financial support to the United Nations when U.N. Secretary U Thant reported the organization was short monies needed for a global U.N. Youth gathering. This bold move made front-page news around the world and encouraged theatergoers to take the show's message to heart.

Gifford began sending the cast to perform at anti-war rallies. Later, as U.S. casualties grew steeper in Vietnam, Gifford began making ad buys for the musical, not in the entertainment pages of newspapers, but rather on the obituary pages, as a reminder of the show's serious message.

In 1969, when CBS pulled an anti-war segment on the Smothers Brothers television show, the brothers turned to Gifford to make their case to the media. When mainstream theater critics slammed David Mamet's first Broadway show American Buffalo for vulgarity Gifford went directly to a different generation -- high school and college journalists across the city. He invited them to cover the show, meet with Mamet, and encouraged them to look beyond the profane language for the deeper meaning of Mamet's social commentary. Godspell and over two-dozen other Broadway shows were represented by his agency.

Long before the invention of the "pop up" store, Gifford gave his client, TDF, the Theater Development Fund, a boost by staging a temporary kiosk in Father Duffy Square that became so successful that it remains in use, known as TKTS.

Later, at the dawn of the age of disco, Gifford's work in the early days of television came in handy when he offered branding expertise to the owners of a new nightclub. It turned out that Gifford had worked as an assistant director on the CBS children's show "Captain Kangaroo" when the space was called Studio 52. Gifford changed the name to match the street the studio was on.

Gifford had worked with Jules Fisher on the original cast production of Hair and also Lenny, the play about the comedian Lenny Bruce, and he tapped Fisher to create lights and an innovative set design. The Gifford/Wallace conception and launch of Studio 54 is chronicled in the Anthony Haden-Guest book, The Last Party, but Gifford saw the nightclub only as a footnote. According to a 1978 piece in New York Magazine about Mr. Gifford and his wife, "Actually, Studio 54 was merely the latest 'phenomenological piece' in the Giffords' shop." Ed and Michael Gifford's former business partner, David Wallace, a writer and author now living in Palm Springs, California recalls the firm being dubbed "suavely hip" by Esquire Magazine.

By that time, Gifford's trend spotting had captured media interest. He helped to start Food & Wine magazine as an adviser to Michael and Ariane Batterbery and Gifford/Wallace took on Cue magazine. And he began consulting television for Westinghouse Broadcasting, WBZ-TV in Boston and New York 's Channel Five, then called WNYW.

Never a conformist, Gifford could not resist tweaking his corporate clients. As a consultant to Channel Five, Gifford initiated a kite-flying extravaganza in Central Park. Said Gifford in the August 22, 1988 edition of The New York Times: "The whole idea is to get people to turn off their TV sets and go outside." Despite the quote, he kept the account.

Other clients included The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, and South Street Seaport.

Gifford was a lifetime member of The Players, the club founded by Mark Twain and Edwin Booth overlooking Gramercy Park. After the unexpected death of his wife Michael in 1988, he retired. Their files were acquired by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University, a research library dedicated to preserving the archives of those "whose lives and careers contributed to the growth of the film industry and to the history of the theater" and which includes the papers of Samuel Beckett, Sam Shepherd, and Orson Welles.

In the 1960s after a number of fatal accidents at unmarked Long Island Rail Road crossings in East Hampton he organized a protest. He "borrowed" a casket and placed it on the tracks at the Amagansett station while local young mothers held picket signs demanding safety. Spot news photos of the smashed casket hit the front pages of the New York metro papers and the next day, then-LIRR chairman William Ronin announced a change of policy and the crossing bars were installed directly after.

In East Hampton, he was an early convert to organic gardening, harvesting seaweed from the beach as mulch and keeping a compost heap. In the late 1970s he grew marijuana there after reading a Time magazine article about an herbicide called Paraquat that was being sprayed on pot plants in Mexico. He did so, he said, because his children were teenagers at the time.

Those teenagers are now adults -- Mary-Elizabeth Gifford of Washington D.C., a former reporter for the East Hampton Star, Edwin Gifford Jr. of Washington, D.C., a photographer for the East Hampton Independent, and Tierney Horne, of London. His wife, Joan Thorne Gifford, also survives Gifford.

His sons-in-law are Adam Horne of London and Uri Berliner of Washington, a former reporter for the Star now with NPR, National Public Radio. Two stepchildren and four step-grandchildren also survive him. The deceased had five grandchildren: Theresa Madeline Horne, Michael Elizabeth Horne, Charles Brooke Taylor Horne, and Benjamin Michael Berliner.

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