Anna Lou Dehavenon, whose first marriage to a renowned piano virtuoso was cut short by a plane crash and who later in life became a cultural anthropologist and vigorous champion of the homeless and the hungry in New York City, has died.
Dehavenon split her time between Manhattan and Greenport, where she died Tuesday at age 85. She had struggled with complications from a fall in 2010.
"She came from a very modest background, and everything she had she made for herself," said her daughter Rebecca Kapell-Leigh of Washington, D.C. "She had incredible tenacity and vision."
Dehavenon was born Nov. 24, 1926, in Bellingham, Wash., and grew up in Portland, Ore. Her father sold aluminum pots and pans door to door, and her mother was a teacher. The Depression years were difficult for the family, but Dehavenon became a talented piano player and earned a scholarship to Reed College.
While a student there, she was taken to a concert by an acclaimed young pianist from New York, William Kapell, who was establishing himself on the international classical music scene. The pair fell in love and wed in 1948.
A life of global travel focused on her husband's career and the couple's two young children came to an abrupt halt in 1953, when an airplane carrying Kapell from a concert tour in Australia crashed as it approached San Francisco, killing all on board. Dehavenon was 26 at the time.
In 2000, Dehavenon told a reporter for an alumni magazine at Reed, where she returned to give a graduation address in 1994, that New York friends of her husband came forward to find her an apartment and helped get her children scholarships to private schools. "If it weren't for these friends," she said, "we might have been homeless."
In 1955 she married Gaston de Havenon, whose last name she spelled differently. De Havenon was a perfume manufacturer and art dealer. The couple had two children and divorced in the early 1970s.
Around age 40, she began taking classes at Columbia University's School of General Studies, and at 52, she earned a doctorate in anthropology. While working on her thesis, her attention was drawn to Harlem, where she documented food shortages among the poor.
Dehavenon would continue doing field research, writing reports on hunger and homelessness and serving as an expert witness in the 1980s and '90s for the Legal Aid Society and the Coalition for the Homeless as they fought legal battles to improve treatment of the poor.
"She actually could picture herself as a woman with children and no economic security," said state Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan). "She really had a strong sense that I am them, but I've just had better luck."
For decades she was a regular presence at the Emergency Assistance Unit in the Bronx, the city's main gateway to its shelter system, where she extensively documented how cases were being handled.
Dehavenon's son David Kapell, a former mayor of Greenport, said a powerful determination guided his mother. "If there was one strategy that defined her life," he said, "it was never to take no for an answer if you believed you were right."
When she died, Kapell said, a recording of his father at the piano was playing in her room.
Dehavenon also is survived by son Alexander de Havenon of East Hampton; daughter Sarah de Havenon-Fowler of New York City, stepson Michael de Havenon of New York City; sisters Posie Conklin of San Rafael, Calif., and Marilyn Stevenson of Portland, Ore.; and 10 grandchildren.
She is predeceased by Gaston de Havenon and stepson Andre de Havenon.
A memorial is planned, but no date has yet been set. Those looking to honor Dehavenon may donate to the Homeless Rights Project, Legal Aid Society of New York, 199 Water St., New York, NY 10038.