When Marlene Gelfond was dying at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, with her family all around her, a woman rabbi came to visit. She said a few prayers, then urged the 81-year-old to make her peace with the world and seek forgiveness from anyone she might have wronged.
Her family burst out laughing.
“There would be no one” to apologize to, her sister Maxine Levenbrook said.
“She was the nicest, sweetest person,” added son Dan Gelfond. “Not a mean bone in her body. She literally never harmed a human being in her life. The most moral person in the world.”
Despite being a good and moral person, Gelfond who died of cancer Dec. 14, worked at a newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, much of the time as an editorial assistant to famed film critic Roger Ebert.
“Marlene Gelfond was a culture maven who appreciated many aspects of the arts, and as such was happy to work with Roger on assignments ranging from movies to the theater and appearances to promote his books and speaking engagements,” said Chaz Ebert, the film critic’s widow.
“She genuinely cared about people,” said former arts editor Laura Emerick. “She was the sweetest person in the world, full of love.”
She was born Marlene Schultz and grew up on Chicago’s West Side. Her father was a clothing salesman; her mother, a homemaker. She loved walking to the Legler Library and grew into a fan of music, ballet and the arts.
Stunningly beautiful” in the words of one colleague, she was crowned Miss South Haven in 1956. She went to Austin High School, married at 18, to Jack Gelfond, a salesman seven years her senior.
Gelfond didn’t attend college until later in life, but as a young woman honed her secretarial skills. She was an excellent typist and proficient in both Palmer and the less common Pitman shorthand methods. But filling a traditionally female job did not make her a traditional woman.
“She was a huge feminist, always took us downtown in the 1970s with protest signs,” said Dan Gelfond. “She was into poetry and writing poetry and psychology. When we got a cat, she insisted we name him ‘Freud.’”
She worked first for the Lerner newspapers, then joined the Sun-Times around 1988.
“She loved working for Roger, loved him,” said Emerick. “Always taking phone calls from celebrities.” On Oscar nights, she would take his dictation from backstage at the Academy Awards.
In addition, she wrote dozens of travel articles and columns on culture and art.
“She was elegant, always just so pristine, the way she dressed. She was just so professional, so ladylike,” said Denise O’Neal, now an assistant to the managing editor, who was Gelfond’s supervisor back then. “She was just a great person to work with.”
Gelfond retired in 2008 and enjoyed living downtown — when she and her husband moved there from Skokie, they were pioneers in the return of residents the city. She went to shows, passing recipes and Jewish traditions on to her grandchildren. Her husband died in 2011.
“Marlene and I corresponded after her retirement, and I was pleased to see that she indulged her newfound love for poetry by actually writing poetry that was included in an anthology,” Chaz Ebert said. “Each message over the years brought news of a ballet she was attending in Saratoga Springs or some such outing with her husband Jack when his health allowed him to travel, or with friends or family afterward. Her creative spirit will be missed.”
Survivors include her children, Dan and Holly; sister Maxine; granddaughters Allison, Lindsay and Jaclyn. (Jaclyn worked in the Obama White House and later for Joe Biden; the former vice president sent Gelfond a personal letter the week before she died).
Services have been held.