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Thelma Siben, 'vibrant' arts patron and entrepreneur, dies at 91

The Bronx native often defied the norm, her family said, becoming a performer as a child, attending college as a young woman in the 1940s, and practicing yoga long before it became popular.

Thelma Siben, 91, formerly of Bay Shore, died

Thelma Siben, 91, formerly of Bay Shore, died on Feb. 20. Photo Credit: Siben family

There was a "diva-esque" thirst to the way Thelma Siben pursued the world, from attending college in the 1940s to dashing onto the stage of the famed La Scala opera house to sing soprano.

The 91-year-old arts patron, activist and entrepreneur, who suffered from cancer for 12 years, would not be confined, her family said. On weekend drives with her son, she would go on nostalgia tours of her life around New York City, like the building where she collected rent as a kid for her father, and she would have the window down so she could breathe in the city that was as vibrant as her life had been.

"She just loved the air of the city . . . the great views of the city and changes that took place," said son Andrew Siben of Manhattan, the chauffeur on those jaunts. "This thirst to learn was such a joy for her to undertake. She was forever a student."

The Long Island and Manhattan resident died Wednesday of melanoma cancer, after defying the odds by living so many years past her initial, dire diagnosis, her children said.

The Bronx native had often defied the norm, her family said. Upon falling in love at age 7 with the opera "La Traviata" at the famous Hippodrome Theater, she demanded singing and music lessons, and her performances around town were compared to child star Shirley Temple. 

She won her businessman father's support to go to college, her children said, and her love of things Latin guided her to the University of Mexico, where she hobnobbed with intellectual and artistic luminaries such as painter Diego Rivera. Decades before yoga was a household word, she was doing it, her family said. And long before experts warned of nitrates and white bread, she was avoiding them. 

Siben was taking flying lessons after World War II when she met her future husband, Aaron Siben, on a blind date, her family said. Aaron, a stocky University of Alabama football player, was smitten and asked her out again. 

Thelma, already a healthy eating enthusiast, said she would love to but that he was too "obese" for her, her children recounted. When he lost more than 20 pounds three weeks later, he called her up, saying he had a ticket to the opera, and she accepted.

After he committed to healthy eating and she dropped the flying lessons, they married in 1950, her family said.

Thelma was the fiery one and Aaron was like a Buddha, but this balance worked in their marriage, their children said. Whether it was the trips to the Metropolitan Opera, global travel or even bringing jeans and black market items to Jews in the Soviet Union to sell under an anti-Semitic Stalinist regime, Thelma and Aaron were together.

"They would wake up in the middle of the night and my mother would say 'Who is my best friend?'" said eldest daughter Andrea Siben of Manhattan. "My father was so adoring."

As Aaron and his three brothers managed one of the Island's best known law firms, Siben and Siben in Bay Shore, Thelma dropped any plans for an opera career to focus on raising her four children in the same community. But in family travels around the world, if Thelma saw a stage in one of her travels, she would dash onto it and burst into song, her children said.

 Siben had no trouble starting and succeeding in two business ventures with friends, one that priced and sold items in high-end estate sales and another in which she designed jewelry, her family said.

"Most people truly fell in love with my mother because she had this vibrant energy," said daughter Melanie Siben of Manhattan. "Her smile just seemed to be much bigger than most people can manage to make. And I think you have to be brave in order to smile at everybody and she did." 

The elder Sibens moved to Manhattan 20 years ago and retired into a lifestyle of opera shows, museums, global politic classes and other daily activities. They spent summers in Westhampton, with Thelma going on daily ocean swims. Aaron died in 2009.

In 2007, Thelma Siben learned she had end-stage melanoma. But her children believe positivity was the "elixir" that allowed her to thrive long past what doctors expected. She became a guinea pig for melanoma-fighting drugs, her family said, and in 2010, the Melanoma Research Foundation gave her the Courage Award. 

It seemed like  Siben's positivity was a prime ingredient to anything she touched, cooking for her children even as she was dying.

"Up until about a month ago, she used to make me soups, winter soup particularly," Andrew Siben said. "They were so hearty and wholesome. You could tell they were made with so much love."

Siben is also survived by a fourth child, Lawrence Siben of Manhattan. Her funeral will be at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Jewish Center of Bay Shore. An opera singer will perform.

Shiva will be 5 to 8 p.m. Monday at a relative's Islip home and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Thelma Siben's Manhattan home.

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