Long Live Mary of Tribeca

Back before Tribeca became the sun-dappled playground of New York’s Hollywood-on-the-Hudson set, Mary Parvin was running things down there. And when news of her death from cancer early Sunday morning at the Beth Israel Medical Center at age 58 spread through downtown’s literary and artistic community, the grief sounded a particularly deep note, as if Tribeca had lost not just one of its most beloved citizens, but that, with her loss, the city had edged another giant step away from a certain way of life which valued intelligence, passionate argument and unquestioned friendship.

For years, Mary had run an intense daily salon that masqueraded as a small, cluttered, glass-fronted newspaper and magazine shop. Her husband, Fred, sold carpets from the Middle East in the back. And there was a couch. And a piano. Cigarettes. And plenty of white wine. It had various locations and names over the years—it was known as the Fourth Estate for its run at 112 Hudson Street, but neighbors referred to it just as “Mary’s,” for its large, stubborn, glorious white-haired mistress.

What was so wonderful about that salon was that you’d have the local cop as well as a writer, a journalist, an artist, an out-of-work dancer and local property owner, all exchanging a mixture of gossip and political views,” said Jonathan Burnham, senior vice president and publisher of Harper Collins. “It was this mixture of local gossip and larger questions that made it a strangely exhilarating group of people. And Mary was the beating heart of it.”

“Just as Greenwich Village, before it was gentrified, was filled with all kinds of great characters, I think Mary and Fred were two of the last truly great Tribeca characters,” said the actor and producer Andre Gregory. “Their place was sort of like one of the great old places you used to get in Paris, where intellectuals, filmmakers, radicals would meet. She was sort of like this grand hostess, like a queen sitting at the center of this beautiful, funky newspaper place.”

“Mary Parvin is just one of the amazing people of New York,” said the actor and playwright Wallace Shawn. “She’s one of those people that we were lucky to have; she could have been in a lot of different places.”

“In the various places she had stores over years—there was the rug place, the news-cum-coffee place, then the current place—they all were centers for the local community,” said the writer Zoe Heller. “And Mary attracted to her every element of high and low New York. She fed the homeless people; she had actors and artists and real-estate magnates and directors and playwrights. This is not to say she was a beacon of sweetness and light; she had an amazing temper and no embarrassment about dressing people down in public. But she inspired enormous love and loyalty. Her passions ran high, so she loved people passionately and she fought with people passionately, and she often reconciled with people passionately.”

Parvin was also an adopter of people, large and small, who arrived on the shores of Manhattan to make something of themselves.

“It’s very hard to imagine New York with no Mary in it,” said the writer Nick Cohn, his voice scratchy with emotion. “She was just fascinated with the doings of the world. I don’t think that I’ve ever known anyone with a greater appetite for the business of being alive, the daily business of being alive. Which makes it all the harder to do without her.”

Parvin had a way of taking in fledgling New Yorkers and putting the city to work for them.

“I was introduced to her by Nik Cohn, who is a writer who is an old friend of mine from London,” remembered Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta. “I was working with Nik on a book called The Heart of the World, and I’d just come to New York and we were spending a lot of time together, and he said, ‘You really must meet Mary.’”

It’s difficult to imagine Mr. Mehta needing a leg up in the city, even 17 years ago.

“She came by to have a drink, and we kind of talked about what it was going to be like living in New York, and I guess other things,” he said.

“Any question I had about my New York growing-up, Mary helped me to answer,” said Rebecca Traister, who is now a writer for Salon. “And we’re talking about stuff like teaching me how to dress to go to weddings or on job interviews. I believe one day she actually literally dressed me in the back of the old shop, when for one reason or another I had to attend the Marine Corps Ball—which was hilarious, since the idea of Mary packing me off to some glorious celebration of the American military is extremely twisted in retrospect. But she did it.”

Steven Van Zandt, who plays Silvio Dante on The Sopranos when he’s not playing guitar for Bruce Springsteen, worked with Mary organizing a benefit in Tribeca for Nelson Mandela when he was first released from prison. “Mary was my favorite revolutionary conspirator, irrepressible and irredeemably uncompromising, unforgiving and unbowed,” he said. “It was easy making history with her. She won’t be missed: Her spirit is alive and well in every cobblestone of downtown Manhattan.”

Mary Hynes Parvin was born on Sept. 16, 1947, in Croydon, a busy backwater on the outskirts of London in Surrey. The daughter of Irish immigrants—her mother was a school cook, her father a miner and construction foreman—she grew up in public housing, a voraciously smart kid. At the age of 11, she won a scholarship to the prestigious Caloma public school.

“At Caloma, she was a riot—very into drama. She would be in a yearly play and would often have a major role,” recalled her younger sister, Madeleine Whale. “And she was very into politics.”

Mary’s daughter, Margaret, traces her mother’s passion for protest politics to her experience as the child of Irish immigrants in 1960’s England.

“I guess that originally we bonded politically, because she identified with Northern Ireland, and it was that time—it was the mid-70’s, so it was a very political time,” said her friend Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a defense attorney and wife of the late civil-rights lawyer William Kunstler.

“In 1968, I had this phone call,” recalled John Cowley, a retired professor of sociology who taught Mary at London’s City University. “I was in this office, and I think I was expecting Mary to come in, and she was calling from Paris, saying, ‘We’ve occupied the British consulate in Paris, so I won’t be seeing you today.’”

Soon Mary uprooted herself and moved to New York. She studied sociology at the New School and waited tables at a pizza joint, Emilio’s, where she fell in love with one of her customers, Fred Parvin. She was the “cute British waitress in a miniskirt,” her daughter recalled; he was the guy who kept coming in to order dessert.

They were married in Fred’s native Tehran in 1971. They had two children as Mary hopped careers, from teacher at St. Joseph’s church to one of Tribeca’s very first real-estate wheeler-dealers. During that time, she helped put Robert De Niro into the Tribeca Film Center —a move that would anchor and inspire the explosion of development that has transformed Tribeca over the past 20 years. Later, as she and Fred focused on their shop, Mary kept a hand in real estate, helping friends find apartments in the area’s rapidly vanishing supply.

But it was as a fiery and charming presence on the perch behind the desk in her shop that Mary burned brightest. “She was just the worst businessperson in the world,” said Mr. Burnham. “They just didn’t take money; they didn’t care about money. It wasn’t a business—or maybe it was a business, but obviously the business didn’t interest them that much. It was a place where you could hold court.”

“I walked in the store,” said Joe Dolce, editor in chief of Star Magazine, “and there was Fred, and she sitting there talking about some event of the day in a very heated way. And I just thought, ‘Who are these two?’ And we just started talking and became fast friends.”

While she cast a jaundiced eye at some of the neighborhood’s glitzy late arrivals, more established celebrities felt comfortable with her.

“John Kennedy Jr. used to hang out there all the time. I think it was one of the few places where he could really relax and feel at home,” said Daily News gossip columnist Joanna Molloy. “When he died, and there was like a flying wedge of reporters all around that store, she wouldn’t say a peep. She was very loyal to him, even in death.”

And when it came to gossip, she knew it all—or indicated that she did.

“I think she knew every local lawyer, every cop, every senior policeman, every property broker,” said Mr. Burnham. “So she would know, before everybody else, who had bought an apartment, or who had lost an apartment, or whose marriage had broken up. Any local news, Mary had it first—she knew way before the media, and she would parcel it out very carefully to people in her store. I knew a good number of journalists who used to come in and hang around and say, ‘Mary, Mary I need something …. ’”

Russ Smith, a columnist for The New York Press, said, “Her friends were legion. She and Fred didn’t have much money, but had tons of friends and were extremely well read. At the time my family lived across the street, in the building where Nobu is the ground tenant. I’m an early bird, and I’d be going down to the deli to get coffee, and she’d be opening up about 6 a.m., and a lot of times I’d help her bring in the newspapers. That was the best time to catch her, because I had her to myself.”

“Her store became this incredible refuge after 9/11,” recalled Mr. Burnham. “A lot of us spent a lot of time in that store in those days, and it became increasingly important to check in each day, to learn what was happening locally. Mary sort of sat there like this Buddha and was the still center of the whirl.”

Not long after 9/11, the Parvins found a new home for their business several blocks up Hudson Street.

And then, at some point along the way, friends became aware that she was ill.

“She was a really courageous woman—and I hesitate to use that word, because these days if you get measles, you’re ‘brave,’” said Ms. Heller. “But she sort of restored some proper meaning to that word. She remained absolutely her kind of ferocious, clever, battling self right up until the end.”

Mary died with her husband by her side on Fidel Castro’s 80th birthday, a fact “she would have loved,” her daughter Margaret said. Her funeral will be held Friday morning at St. Joseph’s church.

There will be a rousing rendition of “The Internationale” and speeches by friends—though those who know her best are all too aware that her fiery eloquence and raw storytelling powers will be a hard performance to match.

“If only she could come back and do it herself,” said Margaret, “because nobody will measure up.”

—Additional reporting by Anna Schneider-Mayerson and Rebecca Dana. Long Live Mary of Tribeca