Calendar Close-up: Westporters share their experience with death in new book

Peritz Levinson led a very interesting life.

Born and educated in Cincinnati, he began his psychiatric practice there. Moving to New York – the center of the psychiatric world – in the 1950s, he saw 30 to 40 patients a week, and was beloved by them. He joined the staff at Greenwich Hospital, and continued his private practice. He read voraciously, followed world events, played golf into his 80s, and always ate healthily. When his wife developed Alzheimer’s he became interested in Exit International, a global organization that advocates for a person’s right to determine the time and place of their own death.

Shortly after his 90th birthday, Levinson was diagnosed with prostate cancer. His son Dan – a Westporter active in a variety of town affairs – invited him to live with him, in his home not far from Compo Beach.

His father was concerned he would be an imposition. He need not have worried.

Peritz had prepared well to die. During his final months, Dan says, he “became transcendent. He was less present, but more brilliant.”

He and Dan quickly developed a routine. They had breakfast at Elvira’s near Old Mill Beach, chatting with the owners and regulars. They drove through the Longshore golf course. Along the way, father and son talked. Their conversations were not dramatic. But they were “deep, personal and funny,” Dan recalls.

Peritz Levinson died peacefully in his room at Dan’s home. An opera played in the background; candles burned gently. It was as good a death as anyone could wish for.

After Peritz died, people who had befriended him — Sue Pfister at the Senior Center, Bill Harmer at the Westport Library, Sharon Bradley of Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County – encouraged Dan to write about the experience.

He realized that “living well can also mean dying well.” He realized too that his father was not alone in having had a “good death.” In fact, right in his hometown of Westport, he was surrounded by people who, despite losing loved ones, had been inspired, even transcended, by the way they died.

The result is a book. “In Death, The Gift of Life” tells the stories of 10 local residents. All lived life – and met death – on their own terms.

Each chapter is written by a different writer. Just as every life and death is different, so is every author’s style. But taken together, they provide a broad and deep portrait of something that human beings have known for millennia, but seem to have forgotten with the advancement of technology and medicine: that death is a part of life. There are other ways to die, besides fighting to deny the inevitable.

The 10 men and women whose stories fill “In Death, The Gift of Life” represent a wide range of lives, and deaths. Estelle Margolis was a social justice advocate who sang with Pete Seeger, befriended Paul Robeson, and had a long career as a noted architect. She left the world on her own terms, following a stroke. Pamela Naughton was, like her husband James, an actress; she went back to school to get a social work degree, then was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Charlie Karp left Staples High School at 16 to play guitar with Buddy Miles. He worked with Jimi Hendrix; fronted several impressive bands; was a revered teacher, and was surrounded by love as cancer overcame him.

One chapter anticipates death. Frank Hall is minister emeritus of the Unitarian Church in Westport. Writing with his wife Lory Nurenberg, he recounts his ongoing experience with Parkinson’s disease.

Like that one, the chapters of “good deaths” are told by men and women who knew and loved their relatives and friends. Author Mary-Lou Weisman wrote about Naughton. Karp's sister Eleanor Duffy writes about him. Other familiar author names include Sarah Gross, Jarret Liotta, Robin Weinberg and Craig D.B. Patton.

I was honored to be asked to write Peritz Levinson’s chapter. I never had the good fortune to meet him. But thanks to Dan Levinson’s words – and those of Peritz’s other son, grandchildren, friends and admirers – his spirit and wisdom live on.

On Oct. 13, the book launches officially, at the Westport Library. There's a 6:30 p.m., reception; remarks from Levinson, Liotta, Weisman, Naughton (and me), and music by The Name Droppers, Charlie Karp's band.

The public is invited. It will be a joyful celebration of this book — and of the joys of good, meaningful deaths.

Visit the Westport Library's website for more information on the Oct. 13 event.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. His column ‘Calendar Close-up’ appears each Friday and dives into one of the upcoming community events in Westport. He can be reached at His personal blog is