Philanthropist, arts advocate and retired journalist Lyn Tornabene died of natural causes at her Tucson home Sept. 25. She was 86.
Tornabene had long been a supporter of the University of Arizona Libraries and the UA School of Theatre, Film and Television. The school’s black box theater, the Tornabene, is named in memory of her late daughter, Wendy Lyn, and her husband, Frank, who died three months after their daughter.
Tornabene had a rich life. As a writer for such magazines as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal and Cosmopolitan, she lunched with Jack Benny (she paid, she would quip about the famous penny pincher), skied with French World Cup alpine skier Jean-Claude Killy and golfed with Arnold Palmer — all in pursuit of a good story.
While women of her era generally stayed home and kept house, Tornabene would have none of that. Her reporting took her around the world and sat her across from some of the biggest names in the news in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. She interviewed actor Marcello Mastroianni on the Italian set of “8½” while director Federico Fellini stood by waiting to have lunch with her. She passed out while observing pioneering heart surgeon Dr. Michael DeBakey perform an operation. And she inched away from actor Marlon Brando as he tried to make one of his famous moves on her during an interview.
Tornabene wrote three books: “Long Live the King,” a biography of actor Clark Gable, “What’s a Jewish Girl?,” a slim comic volume with pithy insights such as “A Jewish girl never sits in the bleachers,” and “I Passed as a Teenager.” The latter was written after Tornabene, 33 at the time, enrolled undercover in a high school to try to gauge what teens in the mid-1960s were really like.
It was a dizzying career, all the more remarkable given that when she graduated as an English major from Penn State University, she said she had two strikes against her.
“I had a hard time getting a job out of college,” she said in a 2016 talk at the UA Library’s Special Collections, which houses her papers. “I was a woman and I was Jewish.”
And it was a career that impressed and inspired her niece, Carolyn Rosenbaum. “I didn’t know any other career women back then,” said Rosenbaum from her New York City office. “She was an amazing storyteller and she had a career that was really unique for a woman in those days. … When her career was at its prime, the larger women’s magazines would do all-out bios of stars. Lyn always did them because she was so charismatic. She would spend two weeks with her subjects and she always had these amazing stories. ”
Tornabene and her husband left their Connecticut home and retired to Tucson in the mid-1990s. Their daughter died in late 2004, and her husband in early 2005. Not long after that, the family friends who had adopted her daughter’s 2-year-old son refused to allow the visits she had been promised (her struggle to get the rights to see him were the subject of a 2009 Star story).
Tornabene threw herself into supporting the arts, the UA and such groups as the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
“It would have been easy to just shut the door and go into the dark,” said Tornabene’s friend, stage director Carol Calkins.
“But she had the strength in her to find a new place for her love and passion, and wasn’t the city lucky? She really stepped out of a deep hole to do that.”
Bruce Brockman, director of the UA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, said the loss will be deeply felt by students and faculty.
“She was incredibly important to the school,” he said. “She was such a supporter and a real champion for the students.”
When Tornabene donated the money to name the smaller theater in the UA Fine Arts Complex, she didn’t consider her job done.
“She vowed that no theater student would ever pay for tickets when they went to her theater,” says Brockman. “At the end of a performance, we counted the number of theater majors in attendance and she wrote a check for the tickets.”
And, added Brockman, “At the end of one performance of every show, she would host a pizza party for the cast and crew. The students loved and appreciated it. She meant the world to all of us.”
Tornabene’s generosity was often done quietly, and her passion for the arts was never stilled.
“She really did care about the arts,” said Calkins. “She didn’t give just to get her name in a program or a tax deduction; she really cared.”
Tornabene is survived by nieces Carolyn Rosenbaum of New York City, Andrea Gowland and Leslie Leddo, both of Santa Barbara, California, and a nephew, Arthur Pomerantz of New York.
Brockman said the UA is planning a memorial in her honor, but no date has been set.