Roberta Sari Kaplan


Oil on LinenRoberta S Kaplan, detail



Roberta Kaplan was big part of my life in the New York and Brooklyn years. We waitressed together at “Chris’s” near City Hall. I started painting billboards; Bobby drove a taxi, night shift, in all the boroughs of NY with a gentle but impressively toothy Collie asleep at her side in the front seat. Remarkable, bold, beautiful young woman. I started writing news at CBS. She opened a little shop to sell her fantabulously gorgeous hand crocheted and knit clothing on West Third Street in Greenwich Village where the bar The Purple Onion once jazzed the neighborhood. She called it “Arabella”, named after her monkey, part of the great large menagerie of cats dogs ducks sundry and a rat named Ratsina. That’s not easy in that town, even for someone incredibly beautiful, sassy, inventive, original and talented.
Bobby was a Pratt Institute graduate, industrious as hell. She got hired at swank & famous Club 21, some coupe, the only female they ever hired in a permanently male staff. She was a kind of lightning in a bottle, game for anything.
The little shop went through the usual rough first year, then she was moving into the big time with a pending contracts from Bonwit Teller and Saks Fifth. She was starting to do custom orders for some famous NYers. She kept a bowl of Oreos along with bottles of chilled champagne at the front door for visitors. Class act.
What was more exquisite? The colors she used, special French died wools she gathered from all over the city and world, antique handmade buttons that sparkled in the dark, the supreme skill of the work, the tones and shades she combined that set you aflame or brought on a faint, the designs she invented, the sweaters and hats loaded down with crocheted flowers even Louis Carroll and Salvador Dali never dared dream, or just that clear, firm look …..a no-nonsense, square jawed, titian haired beauty who illuminated the air around her.
A stranger who’s never been caught ended that March 11, l983 when Roberta was 34 years old. He walked into her Greenwich Village shop and knifed her in the heart and killed her. Front page, Daily News. Weeping that didn’t end at such an impossible end. White coffin, like you’d want for a baby.
I miss her every day of the week. I have dozens of her creations that never went out of style, that I still wear, that will never be duplicated.
She was one of a kind.
She was an original.

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24 thoughts on “Roberta Sari Kaplan

  1. Hi Nathan!
    I am a little confused, you see, I was a dancer at the Purple Onion 1968-1969. I also worked the Music Box down the street, dancing for a few years as well as Trude Heller’s. I lived in the Albert Hotel from 1967-1969. I don’t remember ANY of these people!!!!! I do remember all the owners of these clubs, bands, and dancers I worked with, but none of these other names ring a bell! Could be, I was long gone from the Village by 1970. As soon as they got permission, (NY) to go topless, I left for NJ.

    • Hi Susan, this is Barbara Sparhawk,, The Hawks Perch is my blog. I was friends with Roberta Kaplan, who rented the ground floor (once the Purple Onion) maybe in the mid or late 70’s. Roberta, and I, were friends of the building’s owner, pyschothterapist and MD, Dr Isabel Wright. None of us had much to do with the Purple Onion. Shortly after Dr Wright bought the building she did not renew their lease. I remember Trude Heller’s, and the Albert Hotel, and the Village east and west in the 60’s to the 90’s. I haven’t spoken to Nathan in awhile, he’s a tenant in that building’s current incarnation, a very extraordinary place. If he answers here you might want to contact each other directly.
      Best,
      Barbara

  2. Hi Nathan,
    I was reading this article and trying to place this woman, shop, etc. You see, I lived In the Village, a few blocks away from W. 3rd, in the late 60’s, and I was a dancer at the Purple Onion for 2 years, 1968 and 1969. Anyway, I am trying to place her and her shop, it was a long time ago, but I remember everything about the Purple Onion, as I worked there for quite awhile, 6 nights a week.

    • Hi. Nathan had responded but the painting and words are from me, Barbara Sparhawk, and my friendship with Roberta. My memories of the Purple Onion was that it was pretty intense, colorful and busy… nice to meet one of the dancers! The Village was so different then. I’m not sure all the changes are for the better. Thanks for visiting.

    • Wow — that’s fantastic! I’d love to hear stories of your time at the Purple Onion. The author of this site is a wonderful lady with amazing tales to tell of her time in NYC as well, as you may have gathered from peeking around on here. Nathan

      • Isn’t this fun! Great to hear your voice again. I was trying to figure out how to let you know someone commented directly and there you be! It’s so touching to me that Roberta’s memory remains a force, a presence in the village. I was initially reluctant to post anything but am so glad it’s all here now.
        Hope all’s really fine superbo in your life, your magnificent pup, and loved ones.

  3. Hello, I am writing with an odd request. I’m researching the history of the building where your friend was murdered. I currently live in it, and myself and my neighbors are trying to piece together the building’s long and, as you unfortunately witnessed yourself, dark history since it was built around the turn of the 20th century. I’d love to hear any stories you can share about the space and your friend’s business. I’d also love to see any photos you may have of her shop. Thank you so much for any help you can offer. I’m truly sorry for the loss of your friend, but I think you are expressing it in a beautiful way! — Nathan

    • Hello, Nathan. Thanks for the visit here and comment. I know that building intimately, I was good friends with the owner, Dr Isabel Wright. Also Roberta Kaplan, there at Arabella, and her home in Brooklyn.
      What part of the seven stories are you in?
      I met Dr Wright about a year before she bought that building at 135 West 3rd, mid 60’s I think, and knew her until her death in 1991. Roberta was murdered in her shop, Arabella, in 1983.
      There’s a lot to say, and I’m glad the interest in that important place lingers. It’s an extraordinary building with the richest of histories. But I am very protective of the memory of two really good friends who will always mean the world to me. Please telll me a bit more about what you’re up to.
      Best,
      Barbara Sparhawk

      • Hi Barbara,

        Thank you for your quick reply! We live on the 4th floor and have since 1998, when most of our neighbors moved in here as well. Currently the 2nd – 7th floors are all single unit loft spaces owned individually, with the commercial space being separate. That space changes often, with the most current renter being a 711 preparing to move in (we aren’t thrilled at all and fear they signed a decades long lease). My purpose is simply to try to connect the various people, businesses and stories together for myself and my neighbors, who have long been fascinated by the stories of not only this property, but the neighborhood as a whole. We had an idea to put together a scrapbook for the building from beginning until now and I’ve just begun the process. We know your friend was murdered on March 11, 1983 from various articles online. I’m also intrigued to know more about Isabel Wright. She was the last person to own this property before it was renovated several years after her death. We know she collected 18th century antiques and occupied the entire building, but other than that it’s all a mystery. I know I’m jumping subjects frequently, but there are many questions … would you by chance have frequented the Purple Onion in the 1960’s? We are curious to hear what it was like inside. From the photo we have (I can email you our few photo finds from the internet of our building), it looks like the space took up the entire storefront, including what is now our building entrance.

        Anyway, much to ask. Thank you so much for your help!

        Nathan

  4. I remember the store and was saddened (and angry) when she was killed. I lived in the Village at the time and the store stayed empty for some time even though it was across the street from the Waverly Theatre–an excellent location. I remember that someone would put fresh flowers on the storefront for years. She was clearly loved and a valued member of the community. While I didn’t know her personally I knew others who had. I’m glad that she is remembered.

    • Oh Jason, thank you for your words. I’m still angry, I hope her killer is caught. 1983, March. The building owner kept her store empty. She thought it couldn’t be rented to anyone again, too dangerous. I was one of dozens of friends who put flowers above the door in containers we kept freshly watered, and it took a ladder, and the bouquets were constant and numerous and many annonymous. It went on for years. Yes, much loved and admired, 34 years old and beautiful. I’m glad you remember her too.

      • I wasn’t sure that leaving a comment on your post written in March would still be seen by you. I’m not sure why Roberta come to mind recently but I’d thought I’d google and see what was online and came across your remembrance. I hadn’t realized so many contributed flowers over those years. And to find a tribute to this vibrant woman after all these years! Thank you.

        • New comments come in real time, and I get notices.
          I’m so glad you thought to write your memories of Roberta. Very touching. She was quite a presence in life, and few who met or even knew of her ever forgot her, which you proved true. It seems to me much of the time she’s still here and I have a great many things to remember her by.
          Thanks for the visit and your words.

  5. I knew Roberta Kaplan from my Pratt days. Once I ran into her on the subway sometime
    around 1980. I was surprised to learn that she lived on the same block, just a few doors down. I took many photos of her at Pratt and had one of them up in a recent show of the Lower East Side. The photo was made in 1969. I am now 64 and am so puzzeled by the people who have come into and gone out of my life.

    • Hello, John, I’ve been hoping that people who knew Roberta would find her here. Was it Brooklyn where you were neighbors? I remember that old brownstone well. I’d love to see the l969 photo you took, she’d have been about 20. And yes, me too, I miss my friends. Thanks for the visit.

      • The brownstone was on Bergen Street Brooklyn, between Hoyt and Bond.
        In 1969 I was a photo technician at Pratt Institute. Roberta was a photography
        student at that time. I made many friends with students who used the photo lab.
        I am in still touch with many of them today. I don’t know who to mail you a
        photograph in this format.

        • I had an old carriage house around the corner, Bond Street between Pacific and Dean, moved in c.1976, bought it in ’78. What years those were. I’ve just visited your wonderful website, John, incredible. I landed in the lower east side around 1964, lived on 9th between 1st and A, then moved up a block to between 1st and 2nd. I still have the palette I got from Kamenstein’s on Third. And all those great Russian and Polish coffee shops there, the egg cream/pretzel/newsstand guy on First and 9th or St Marks? Your photographs are wonderful, rich and beautiful documents of the time and people. If you’d like to post a link to your website I’d be delighted to have it here for others to visit.
          I don’t mean for you to go to any trouble with the photo of Roberta, if you CAN send it by email it would be great. Either directly to hawk@hawksperch.com, or bdsparhawk@yahoo.com. The first one sometimes sends back a mailer daemon but I always get the mail anyway. I knew a lot of her friends.Roberta was taking photography from Arthur Freed at Pratt. Marty Barkin was a student. Owen Butler another teacher. So glad you took the time to write. Roberta was a very rare bird, totally unique, remarkable young woman.

    • Lovely of you to say this. Thank you. All these years later I’m so angry at the s.o.b. who took her from us all. Sad and so angry she’s not here. A friend said at the time: Roberta left a large footprint. Indeed she did. I’m still planning a small book about her big life with photographs of her remarkable body of work.

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