Remembering Lucy Jarvis

Lucy Jarvis, photo by Lynn Gilbert

Lucy Jarvis ’38, the trailblazing television, film and theater producer who defied gender barriers and used her platform to promote social and cultural understanding, passed away in Manhattan on January 26 at the age of 102.

In her seven-decade long career, Jarvis was known for securing access to film in places previously barred to Western filmmakers, breaking into a male-dominated field and bringing other women with her and being tough as nails in the face of any obstacle.

She was an active member of the College of Human Ecology (CHE) community, volunteering her time, knowledge and vision for the college in her roles on the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW) and the CHE Alumni Association Board. Friends and colleagues remember Jarvis often shared the lasting impact of attending CHE (the College of Home Economics at the time) in an era of far fewer possibilities for women seeking higher education.

“I can’t say enough about the opportunities at the college and across Cornell—the sense that the world was open to us young people and ours to seek out and examine,” Jarvis said in a 2013 interview for this publication. “We were made to feel that there was nothing we could not do if we really applied ourselves.”

Jarvis majored in nutrition, took classes in economics, public speaking and architecture, and was the president of the drama club. Her first job after graduation was as a dietician at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

Jarvis left that position to become a food editor at McCall’s magazine and it was there that she saw how television in its infancy was reaching a much larger audience than magazines and the written media ever would.

“I had a lot to say,” Jarvis recalled in the same interview, “and if I wanted to say something, I was wasting my time working on a magazine that had 1 million to 2 million readers. I wanted to be in broadcast where I could hit 10 million.”

Jarvis left the workforce in the 1940’s after marrying Serge Jarvis and having two children.

While volunteering with the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training, Jarvis produced her first documentary, Passport to Freedom. In the early 1950’s she returned to work taking jobs at radio and television stations; her breakthrough came in 1959 when she became an associate producer at NBC.

Scott McArthur, Jarvis’ producing partner for 30 years, said it was her tenacity and belief in herself that enabled Jarvis to gain entrance to the all-male profession.

“She had to be tough in order to get anything done because the men wouldn’t take her seriously, she had to stand toe-to-toe with them to make them respect her. Lucy had to be ten times better than anyone in her position in order to get anything done. She said she would go into the president of the news department at NBC and offer him all of these ideas that were amazing, and they would look at her like she just peed on the floor. She was a force of nature.”

Jarvis turned that determination toward producing Emmy-winning documentaries that introduced Americans to strictly guarded places. In 1962—during the Cuban missile crisis—Jarvis was filming inside the Kremlin. When the special aired, Jarvis became the first woman to produce a documentary for a television network. In 1972, when no other Western news crews were able to get into China, Jarvis began filming in Beijing for her documentary, “The Forbidden City.”

Edith Lederer ’63, the Associated Press chief correspondent at the United Nations, met Jarvis in 1998 when Lederer joined the PCCW.

“Lucy was someone who never took ‘no’ for an answer. If she wanted something and she wanted to talk to someone, she would go to every length, use every contact, every friend she had to get to that person or to visit that place. She was that determined in what she wanted to do,” Lederer said.

In 1976, Jarvis left NBC to form her own production company, which produced several specials with Barbara Walters for ABC. In 1988, Jarvis brought a production of “Sophisticated Ladies,” a Broadway Duke Ellington revue, to Moscow. Two years later she brought the first Soviet rock opera, “Junon and Avos,” to the United States.

“Lucy believed that exposing people to other cultures was the only way to create peace,” McArthur said. “That was a motivating factor behind her classic documentaries. She did things like that because she wanted to bring foreign cultures to Americans and show them that deep down, we’re all the same. Families want the same thing, parents want the best for their children everywhere, human beings are human beings and cultural differences should not separate us. She always felt she was building a bridge to the world for American audiences.”

Former Dean Alan Mathios got to know Jarvis well over the 11 years he served as interim dean and dean and would frequently cite her work, such as specials she produced on the first heart transplant, mental health, and drug abuse, in his commencement addresses.

“What was remarkable about getting to know Lucy was how her work continued to represent so much of the mission of CHE and stood the test of time,” Mathios said. “One of her documentaries, for example, was on the inequities of who had access to dialysis. Her insights in her career were not only relevant at the time but were fundamentally broader questions about society that we grapple with today.”

Jarvis was working up to a few months before her death. Her husband died in 1999 and her daughter, Barbara Ann, died in 2001. She is survived by her son and granddaughter.

When asked what advice Jarvis would have for women working to bust through the glass ceiling today, Lederer, a ground-breaking woman in her own right, replied: “Lucy would say go for it. Never let yourself think that anything any man says about women not being able to do the job was true. She would say they were only trying to protect themselves. If you believe you have the talent and the drive to do it, then do it.”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia: Lucy Jarvis in her home, photographed by Lynn Gilbert, Copyright, 1980

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