George Schiffer, 73, Was Active in Tisbury Politics
George Schiffer, a resident of Vineyard Haven who was active in town affairs, died suddenly at home Dec. 12 of massive heart failure. He was 73.
A year-round resident of the Vineyard since 1983, Mr. Schiffer was an independent spirit and a shrewd observer of the world around him. He led an unusual life.
He was born in Vienna, Austria, on August 24, 1929, the second child and only son of Ludwig and Olga (Gruenberger) Schiffer. His father was an attorney. After the Nazis marched into Austria on March 12, 1938, George and his sister Eva were sent by their parents to live with family friends in Holland. Two weeks later, his father was arrested by the Nazis and interned in concentration camps, where he spent six months before being released. Later that year, with documents painstakingly assembled by his mother during Ludwig Schiffer's internment, and with the help of their friends, the Schiffers were able to leave Austria for Holland.
Having escaped from Austria, and as the Nazi threat to the rest of Europe continued to grow, the Schiffers were determined, like so many others, to go to America if they could obtain immigration visas. The prerequisite was an "affidavit" from an American resident willing to assume complete financial responsibility as their sponsor. Miraculously, the offer of such an affidavit reached them in Holland, cabled by casual acquaintances from a summer vacation.
Meanwhile, the headmaster of a British boarding school who wanted to repay a personal debt of hospitality decided to help save a Jewish refugee child from Austria, and selected the young Mr. Schiffer, who was nine years old, for enrollment at his boarding school. George was in England when the American visas for his parents and his sister arrived. Mr. Schiffer's parents made the difficult decision to sail to America without him. They traveled to London to say goodbye to him and prepared to board their boat in Southampton on the same day that war was declared.
The Schiffers sailed to America, eventually settling in Cambridge, and three months later nine-year-old George sailed across the Atlantic alone to join his family. His sister recalled that they received a report on his behavior during the trip and learned that he had tried smoking.
As a young boy he obtained a scholarship to attend Browne and Nichols School in Cambridge, and later also obtained a scholarship to attend Phillips Andover Academy. He graduated from Andover in 1946 and enrolled at Harvard College, followed by Harvard Law School. George's best friend at law school was Theodore Roessel, and he was later on hand for the birth of Ted and Mary Roessel's daughter, Kathryn; he chose her middle name, Anne.
After law school he decided to take up copyright law and took a job with Warner Brothers at Rockefeller Center in New York city. From there he went into private practice, and his earliest clients included singer Buddy Holly and Motown Records. He was the first attorney for Motown and had a strong rapport with founder Berry Gordy. At some point in the 1960s he went in-house and became the general counsel for Motown, although he was based in Los Angeles, where he lived from 1973 to 1982, rather than in Detroit. His long relationship with Motown extended from 1959 to 1975, and he was instrumental in helping to shape the company over the years.
During the protests of the 1960s he was lead attorney for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in New York city. He later decided to leave Motown and the field of law and become a personal manager for singer-songwriters Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. At various times he also represented Dee Dee Bridgewater, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye.
In 1982, he suffered a stroke and came to the Vineyard to recuperate, spending a summer in the guest house owned by film composer Bob Prince and his wife, Arlene. Mr. Schiffer decided he loved the Vineyard and wanted to stay. He bought Shirley Frisch's house on State Road in Vineyard Haven, where he would live for almost 20 years. He was active in town politics and was a member of the Tisbury finance committee. He served on a subcommittee to monitor the regional high school budget and over the years became a well-known presence at the monthly school committee meetings.
He suffered from a number of illnesses, included emphysema and cancer, and faithfully attended therapy sessions at the cardiac pulmonary rehabilitation center at Martha's Vineyard Hospital.
He is survived by his sister, Eva Schiffer, a retired German professor who is a resident and selectman in Amherst, and by his devoted friend, Kathryn Roessel of Vineyard Haven.
A celebration of his life will be held at a later date. Contributions may be made in his memory to the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center, c/o Development Office, Martha's Vineyard Hospital, P.O. Box 1477, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.