Activist, Aunt to Boston Spirit publisher David Zimmerman
The LGBT community of Greater Boston and Provincetown lost one of its most colorful personalities last Wednesday (March 6) when Helaine Zimmerman, 75, died of cancer at her home in Mashpee with her spouse Thalia Verros and several friends by her side.
Helaine was a social worker for more than 50 years for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Social Services and later for Communities for People (CFP), a private agency. She also instructed young social workers for CFP in how to do their job as effectively as she had in helping troubled youth find safety via
She was all about giving back to society, with a demanding professional life and rich personal life that involved fighting for gay and women’s rights as a proud lesbian who had lived through the bad old days before Stonewall when lesbians and gay men were targeted in clubs. She told stories about being at the old Midtown bar in Boston when the police would suddenly arrive and lesbians and gay men would grab a partner of the opposite sex on the dance floor to keep the Boston Police from harassing them. She met several of her male friends in this random fashion.
Helaine was a person who laughed easily, enjoyed life to the fullest and had enormous influence on everyone she met, impressing all with her vivacious personality, savvy, sense of humor, and especially her swirling energy. “Grass never grew under her feet,” her friend Eileen Ricci observed.
Her nephew David Zimmerman, who is the publisher of Boston Spirit magazine, recalls his aunt’s influence on his life. “People often ask how I, a straight guy, came to publish a magazine for the LBGT community. It all started with my Aunt Helaine. Because of her, the community has been a part of my life since I was a small child.”
Helaine and Thalia , a retired director of guidance at Barnstable Middle School, and now an artist, began their 23-year relationship in 1989 and married in March of 2006, two years after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal. They were perfect complements, enjoying cultural events and dinner parties as well as outdoor activities such as kayaking and hiking.
They were curious about how people lived in far-away parts of the world and traveled extensively – to the Greek Islands, India, China, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Bali, Israel, Costa Rica, Honduras, Peru, Italy, France, and the Netherlands. While they loved traveling together, Thalia remembered that they weren’t always on the same page. “On a trip to the high altitudes of Tibet, I was in our hotel room getting oxygen while she was downstairs in the lounge smoking cigarettes.”
Helaine always wanted to take a trip to Russia, but as her condition worsened, it became clear that she wouldn’t be traveling again. “We decided to take her anyway,” said Bonnie Heller, who with her partner, Eileen Ricci, set up a virtual trip to St. Petersburg on her computer that they watched from Helaine’s bed. The four “flew” first class and “visited” the Hermitage, the Hotel Europa, Catherine the Great’s Palace, and other places, led by “Olga,” their virtual tour guide.
Helaine and Thalia were fixtures at fundraising events, being early participants at The Dinner Party sponsored by the Fenway Health Center that benefits women’s health. These dinners, which began 22 years ago, were attended by upwards of 2,000 people. (can trim)They have been models for fundraisers all over the country.(end trim) “The Dinner Party was a perfect event for them,” said Deborah Heller, cofounder of the event with her partner Ann Sanders. And Ann finished the thought: “Because they both loved to get dressed up and go dancing.”
Her friendships were the glue in her life – and she nourished them. And she had dozens of devoted pals – women and men – who will sorely miss her laugh, political pronouncements, and the updates on her active life with Thalia. She nourished friendships, and if she didn’t hear from you for a couple of weeks, you’d get a call and probably a gentle lecture about the importance of staying in touch. Dozens of friends who couldn’t visit to say a last goodbye sent loving emails, which Thalia read to her because Helaine was too sick to read them herself.
Helaine thrived on gatherings, communing with old friends and making new ones, especially at dinner parties, where political pontificating – she was a lifelong liberal Democrat -- and talk of movies and news dominated. There was also the annual Zimmerman/Verros Greek picnic, with a 40-pound lamb roasting on a spit in the backyard in Mashpee as well as trips to Foxwoods, the Berkshires, the theaters of Boston, and hiking trails of New England./
Provincetown was special for Helaine, who began visiting in the ‘50s and eventually bought a condominium on Bradford Street. She enjoyed Herring Cove Beach, the clubs, shows, and simply being around friends who lived there. She loved to dance, and if a Barry White song came on, she was on the dance floor in a flash. For her, P’town glowed with excitement. She often talked about seeing the dunes pop up along both sides of Route 6 as she was driving there and knowing she had arrived at her second home.
Peter Accardi, a former editor at The Boston Globe, met Helaine in 1974, and remembers being struck by her openness, and generosity in helping him come out as a gay man. “She was proud of being who she was, and that rubbed off on a young man getting comfortable with his sexuality. She arranged my first trip to Provincetown and showed me the sights. She wanted me to see it all in five minutes – the Boat Slip Resort, the Pilgrim House, the Lobster Pot, the Back Room club for a show starring impersonator Craig Russell, the Pied Piper bar. Even though I was exhausted keeping up with her, it was an eye opener.”
Over the years, Helaine developed a following as a stand-up comic, doing routines – some in Provincetown clubs -- that commemorated special events in friends’ lives. She seemed born for the stage, with a relaxed and easy style, her unmistakable voice – deep and throaty -- that carried across a large room, her curly blonde hair, and her girlish enthusiasm that let it be known that she was having a wonderful time. Often, she wore her signature tuxedo.
Her presence was commanding, despite her size – 5 feet 2 -- and slender build. She perhaps learned something about performing from an early love of movies and theater – having seen and re-seen every Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner film and making a point to see most new movies right up to this year’s Oscar nominees. She appreciated all of the performing arts and was a patron at Boston’s Huntington Theater and a regular attendee at the Speakeasy Productions in Boston’s South End. She also enjoyed comedy, especially ‘60s social commentator Lenny Bruce, for whom she named her dog, and Jackie Mason, whose ethnic humor made her laugh.
A service will be held at the Falmouth Jewish Congregation, the Goode Chapel, on Friday, March 15 at 1 p.m. Shiva will be observed on Saturday, March 16, from 4-7 p.m. and on Sunday, March 17, from 2-5 p.m. at the Zimmerman/Verros home in
Mashpee. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute Melanoma Center, 10 Brookline West, Brookline MA 02445, or the charity of your choice. A celebration of her life is planned this spring.