Audrey Berman: 1934-2021In Memoriam | Thu Jul 22, 2021 | 9:35am
Audrey Berman arrived in Santa Barbara from the East Coast already tempest-tossed through several eras. She could remember as a little girl the chaos of the Great Depression, and as a teenager the fears of the WWII years, when her Jewish parents changed their name and instructed Audrey to tell schoolmates she was Protestant. At the age of 19, in 1954, she married an upwardly mobile attorney, and then she lived the life of a homemaker, giving dinner parties, spending summers at Fire Island, playing a lot of tennis, reading a lot, and raising two excellent children.
Audrey took a secretarial job in the late 1960s at New York’s iconic weekly, the Village Voice. She rose to become its managing editor under editor in chief Marianne Partridge, who discovered Audrey the way Hollywood stars are sometimes discovered. Audrey went on to work as managing editor for two more publications before re-joining Marianne, who had just purchased a weekly paper in Santa Barbara.
She found Marianne surrounded by a tiny editorial crew, including some brilliant, idealistic young people (among them Nick Welsh), who’d struggled to keep the worker-owned News & Review afloat and stayed on after selling it to her. Soon thereafter, the N&R and a rival publication dissolved themselves to be reborn in 1986 as The Santa Barbara Independent. Audrey brought into the mix a certain cool sophistication, a loving nature, and iron-clad journalistic standards with which she helped Marianne guide the paper for the next two decades.
The cover story for the paper’s inaugural issue came straight out of Audrey’s heart and mind. Sitting around a table in new digs on lower State Street, the uneasily combined editorial staff was tossing a lot of smart ideas into the ring for a Thanksgiving issue that could be completed ahead of time so employees could take time off for the holiday. Some were geared to generate much-needed advertising, such as a survey of local bars. It’s easy to picture Audrey swinging a well-shod foot, like a cat switching her tail, as she took notes. Suddenly she spoke up with a proposal to give thanks for the unsung heroes of Santa Barbara. The idea was a natural. The whole group embraced it, and Marianne even waived her curiously strong prejudice against the word “local” to allow it in this case, “unsung” being too limiting, even marginalizing — which was also, of course, exactly right.
Local Heroes hit the newsstands on Thanksgiving, 1986, and local heroes have filled the pages of the Thanksgiving issue every year since. And not only in the Santa Barbara Independent; it spread like starlings so that now you see annual local heroes features not just in weeklies throughout the state and nation, probably the world, but in all types of publications.
Audrey worked behind the scenes. Among her responsibilities were Special Issues, so when you saw an annual cover story like Back to School, Best of Santa Barbara, or the Indy Theater Awards (which by the way she also initiated), it was thanks to Audrey orchestrating it — the editorial side of it, as she protected the wall between advertising and editorial. The Independent’s editions started out small, meaning hardly any advertising was sold; it was lean times for staff, and stories were slashed. But through thin issues and thick, Audrey kept it classy.
Possibly her greatest accomplishment was the esprit de corps that reigned during her years as executive editor. Keeping office politics kind is no easy feat, as anybody who has ever worked can tell you. But people notice who is given respect, and who is not, and tend to follow suit — there have been studies. Because Audrey treated each of her coworkers with respect, that’s how they treated each other. Not that she never met a person she didn’t like, but, recognizing a personal problem when she saw one — even if it was her own — she kept it in perspective. It’s true that there were others equally gracious, but Audrey’s influence was felt in every department, daily, constantly.
She could also wrap herself in a chilly professionalism that maintained punctuality in a weekly regimen prone to sliding into just-under-the-wire chaos. At some point, she cut her shoulder-length flip into a short bouffant that gave a vaguely military aspect to her regal posture. A reporter nearing deadline might find Audrey pacing back and forth in front of their desk, pointedly checking her watch. It focused the mind wonderfully.
Courteous though she was, Audrey did not do polite laughter. Unless it was a guffaw or snort, she did not laugh on purpose. But when her guard was brought down by a witticism, or when she was at ease, her laughter was long and full of starry-eyed delight. She laughed frequently, because besides being decent to everyone, she was admiring and loyal to a degree that shaded into a strong sense of family. It’s a gift to be able to love people and at the same time see their flaws, and she had that gift. It’s another thing that made her such a good editor: Criticism is easier to accept from somebody who’s clearly in your corner.
Audrey was one of the last of the great sit-down editors, meaning that if you were a writer, you’d sit in her office and go over your copy together. She worked with seasoned reporters writing long features, and neophytes writing blurbs — also seasoned reporters writing blurbs, and neophytes writing long pieces. These days, an editor may take your copy, have their way with it, and pass it down the line. The writer might never see it again until it’s published in one form or another. They’re lucky if they get the courtesy of a marked-up version before it goes to press so they can catch added errors.
But those writing for Audrey were treated to her discernment, her insistence on explicit transitions — and her endless questions. Questioning was one of her trademarks, and it took courage on her part because it was annoying. She demanded clarity of expression. She probed for clear thinking. She unflinchingly challenged the favorite conceits not only of staff writers, accustomed to such abuse, but of coddled freelancers, proud department heads, and of course her editor in chief.
The steel in Audrey’s backbone was not mere posturing to maintain order. She had seen enough of history to take journalism very seriously. In any field, from national politics to the hyperlocal, lapses of probity embarrassed her. She did not let them pass unchallenged. It’s horrible to imagine how the disgracefulness of the recent one-term presidential administration would have depressed her. But she was spared that by the onset of dementia, which forced her to resign from the paper in 2004.
It’s funny how that affliction hits. At the same time that she was first announcing to friends that her brain was “full of holes,” and making plans for moving into assisted living, she was still completing the New York Times crossword puzzle on Sunday mornings, in pen.
The last years of her life were not all sorrow. Her daughter, Sharon Berman, moved her close and hung out with her often, giving Audrey unflaggingly affectionate, long-form attention and companionship. In photos and videos Sharon frequently posted, heartfelt laughter and smiles prevail. It’s amazing how present a person can be even when their memory is absolutely shot.
August 6, 2019: “Mom was in a giggly mood yesterday. She can no longer make conversation, but she did tell me, clear as a bell, ‘You’re a good person.’ I’m not crying,” Sharon quipped to her friends. “YOU’RE crying.”
August 2, 2020, six months into the pandemic: “Finally got to see mom … I got to give her a squeeze and she blew me a kiss.”
Audrey died on March 24 at Shalom House in San Rafael, California. “My beautiful mom, Audrey Berman, passed away in her sleep last night,” Sharon wrote. “The last 10 years have been rough, but she had wonderful caregivers, and she was never alone.”
Audrey Berman was a local hero. Her legacy is a blessing, and our memories of her are blessings. We offer our deepest gratitude and respect.