Robert S. Greene

Writer and Musician
Robert S. Greene

    Robert S. Greene, a writer, New Orleans jazz musician, documentarian, and historian, died of lung cancer on Oct. 13 at home on Red Dirt Road in Springs at the age of 91. The illness had been recently diagnosed.

    Born to Oscar Greenstein and the former Else Stern in Manhattan on Sept. 4, 1922, Mr. Greene grew up on the Upper East Side, attending P.S. 6. His family traveled to Europe when he was a child, and at the age of 3, he developed a love for France that stayed with him for the rest of his life. Besides his love of France, he found himself drawn to music at a young age.

    “He used chopsticks to direct the orchestra when music played on the radio,” Diane Fehring Reynolds, a close friend who was by his side at the end of his life, said yesterday. “He began to play on the lamps as drums. He always loved music,” she said.

    Mr. Greene graduated from Columbia College in 1943, and went to work at the CBS Radio Network, for which he wrote documentaries. He was nominated for three and won two Writers Guild of America documentary awards, for “Decision for Freedom” in 1957 and “The Lincoln Story” in 1962. He then taught script writing at Columbia and his book “Television Writing” became a standard during the early days of television. He was also the author of “Blum-san! Scholar, Soldier, Gentleman, Spy — Many Lives of Paul Blum,” a biography about an uncle, and the family’s ties to Japan. More recently he wrote “Letter to Max,” about a 75-year search for family who disappeared during World War II.

    Mr. Greene never stopped pursuing music. He attended the School of the Arts at Columbia University and earned Master of Fine Arts in 1958. He sat in at the piano at some of the West Village’s top jazz clubs. His introduction to Amagansett was also because of music. He came east in the early 1950s to play weekend sets at the  Elm Tree Inn, a popular tavern adjacent to the Amagansett Firehouse.

    In an extraordinary writing career, he joined the Voice of America network as a writer during the height of the cold war, worked under Edward R. Murrow during the Kennedy administration, and then joined Lyndon Johnson’s administration as a speechwriter. At the time, he lived in Alexandria, Va., a city he loved and lived in for many years. When Johnson left office, Mr. Greene redoubled his focus on music, exploring the artistry of Jelly Roll Morton and making regular trips to New Orleans, where he played and soaked in the music. The documentarian and historian in Mr. Greene came to the fore there, and he contributed regularly to George H. Buck Jr.’s GHB Records, to document and preserve traditional New Orleans jazz.

    In 1973, at the Newport Jazz Festival, Mr. Greene launched a recreation of Jelly Roll’s seven-piece band, which included three of the original musicians. The band played such venues as Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Royal Festival Hall in London. It also toured the world with a program that included narration he had written. Mr. Greene also played piano for the score of Louis Malle’s film “Pretty Baby” in 1978, and recorded for RCA Victor.

    He loved traveling, particularly to Japan and France, Ms. Fehring Reynolds said. “He spoke French like a native,” and was a speaker at meetings of the Asiatic Society of Japan, she said.

    Eventually, he left New Orleans and settled on the East End in 2000. In recent years, his New Orleans Society Orchestra performed at the Mulford Farm in East Hampton, the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Bridgehampton, and Sag Harbor’s Estia’s Little Kitchen.

    In his final days, Ms. Fehring Reynolds played recordings of Bix Beiderbecke for Mr. Greene, which, she said, filled him with joy.

    Mr. Greene was cremated and his ashes were buried at Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn. Not wanting a memorial, his final wish was that he be remembered by “playing pretty, any time.”