Big Apple Benefactor

March/April 2011

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Big Apple Benefactor

Courtesy Straus Family

During the past half century, millions of visitors to the New York Botanical Garden have enjoyed what Elizabeth Allen Straus helped transform: a world-class educational institution that grew from a dilapidated garden.

Straus, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the class of 1938, died December 6, at her home on Mount Desert Island in Maine. She was 94.

At Stanford, she studied literature and poetry when one major seemed closed to her. "She was a really good mathematician, but she felt she was laughed out of the department," says her daughter, Sara Straus Byruck. "In 1934 that was just the way it was."

Straus found myriad other ways to make her mark. Friends and family remember her ability to recognize need—and to meet it with force of personality and great practicality. After moving in the 1940s to New York City, she became a "catalytic figure" at the Botanical Garden, where she served on the board for more than 40 years. A life trustee of New York's Museum of Modern Art, she encouraged the development of international exhibits.

She founded the Cultural Council Foundation, which bolstered hundreds of NYC arts and cultural groups in the 1970s and '80s, before it merged with the New York State Council on the Arts.

"She was the godmother of downtown arts," says Halsey North, the foundation's executive director from 1983 to 1987. Beth could charm her way through the New York City bureaucracy because people knew that she worked harder than anyone else."

Fund-raising came naturally to Straus, who enjoyed hosting dinner parties for New York society with her husband, Donald, a grandson of Macy's founder Isador Straus (who perished on the Titanic). "She liked to set the stage," Byruck says. "It was like living theater, a dinner party in those days."

After her husband died in 2007 following a five-year struggle with Alzheimer's disease, Beth Straus endowed the Straus Center in Southwest Harbor, Maine, to provide support for people with Alzheimer's and other conditions of old age.

Straus is survived by her daughter and sons David and Robert Straus; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

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