A top movie music editor who worked with Dave Grusin and Michel Legrand, she was haunted by the fate of her first child.
Else Blangsted, who won acclaim as a music editor, had only three credentials when she was hired for the job: She could read music and play the piano and guitar. Credit...Johanna Shapiro
Else Blangsted, who fled Nazi Germany as a teenager believing she had given birth to a stillborn child, then built a career as a leading music editor on Hollywood films, died on May 1 in Los Angeles. She was 99.
Her death was confirmed by her cousin Deborah Oppenheimer, an Oscar-winning producer.
For more than 30 years Ms. Blangsted played a major part in shaping how movie music was heard, through her work on features like “The Color Purple,” “Tootsie” and “On Golden Pond.”
She broke down film scripts to show composers precisely where to place parts of their scores, in dialogue or action, and for exactly how long. She was the composers’ representative throughout the recording sessions.
“The information that came from her was crucial,” Dave Grusin, the Oscar-winning composer who was Ms. Blangsted’s collaborator on “Tootsie” and many other films, said in a phone interview. “I knew what I was doing was working if she said I was on the right track.”
Ms. Blangsted worked with Dave Grusin, the Oscar-winning composer, on “Tootsie,” which starred Dustin Hoffman, above.Credit...Columbia Pictures
But music editing is an unsung profession. Music editors do not receive Academy Awards, as film and sound editors do. When Mr. Grusin won an Oscar for his score for “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988), Ms. Blangsted, his editor on the film, went unrecognized.
Her only major industry honor was the 2006 life achievement award from the Motion Picture Sound Editors, an industry group. In written remarks read at the ceremony, Robert Redford, who directed two of the films Ms. Blangsted worked on, “Milagro” and “Ordinary People,” said she had “the mind of an artist and the soul of a saint.”
But even as Ms. Blangsted had established her reputation as a creative and outspoken partner to composers, the story of her child was about to enter a new chapter.
Else Siegel was born on May 22, 1920, in Würzburg, Germany. Her father, Siegmund, was a horse trader, and her mother, Lilly (Oppenheimer) Siegel, was a homemaker, with whom Else had a difficult relationship. In a profile in The New Yorker in 1988, she said her mother had subjected her to “a life of misdemeanors, punishments and a lack of forgiveness.”
When she was 15, she began dating Eric Seelig, then 24. She soon after became pregnant. She told no one. With the Nuremberg Laws restricting where Jews like her could attend school, her family sent her to a Jewish boarding school in Switzerland. It was September 1936.
By January 1937, when she was seven months pregnant, the tightness of her corset was causing her to faint. Desperate and ashamed, she tried to kill herself by lying on a snowy hill near the school, hoping to freeze to death.
She was found hours later, her lower legs frostbitten. Her secret was out.
She went into labor in early March. “They used chloroform in those days, and I passed out and came to and I must have said, ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ and they put the mask back on,” she said in an interview for a documentary about her, “Looking for Else” (2007).
“Later, I demanded: ‘Where is the baby? I need somebody to take the milk.’”
“There is no baby,” a nurse told her. “The baby is dead.”
Else thought she had killed her baby by keeping the corset too tight. But her family, ashamed of her behavior and fearful of Nazi repression, had lied to her and sent the baby girl to a nursery, where a German-Swiss couple adopted her.
Knowing nothing of the deception, Else returned to Würzburg and in August boarded a luxury liner for New York City. After arriving alone, she headed to Los Angeles, where a sponsor family put her in touch with a local rabbi, who found her work as a maid and later as a nanny for Warner LeRoy, the son of the prolific director and producer Mervyn LeRoy. At 17, she had made her Hollywood connection.
But it was a modest tie at best. Mervyn LeRoy was married to Doris Warner, a daughter of Harry Warner, one of the founders of the Warner Bros. studio, and after a year as a nanny Else eventually found work as a seamstress there.
But she was lonely. She wrote to Eric, who was living in Argentina, and asked that he marry her. They wed in 1940 and had a daughter, Erica Seelig, four years later. They later divorced.
Her jobs continued: She was a wardrobe woman, helping actresses look their best in their costumes; an actress in a small role in the Cecil B. DeMille film “Samson and Delilah”; and a waxer, who protected film emulsions.
She was hired as a music editor at a postproduction house in 1960; her only credentials were being able to read music and play the piano and guitar. That led to work at Paramount and Columbia.
Ms. Blangsted also worked on “Goin’ South,” the 1978 comic western starring and directed by Jack Nicholson, above.Credit...Paramount Pictures
Her reputation was building. “Her importance to me was not only her portfolio, but her charisma, her sense of authority, her humility and her survivalism,” said the musician and composer Van Dyke Parks, who co-wrote the music for the 1978 comic western “Goin’ South,” starring and directed by Jack Nicholson. Ms. Blangsted did the music editing for that film.
By the mid-1980s her credits included “The Great Santini” (whose music was composed by Elmer Bernstein), “A Soldier’s Story” (Herbie Hancock), “Six Weeks” (Dudley Moore), and “Absence of Malice” and “ … And Justice for All” (both Mr. Grusin).
Then one day in 1984, she got a call from an aunt who had read an advertisement in Aufbau, a journal for German-speaking Jews. Her daughter was not only alive, but also wanted to meet her, the aunt said. The daughter, who went by Lily Kopitopoulos, was 47 and living in Switzerland.
Ms. Blangsted tracked down her number and called.
“This is your mama,” she said, according to The New Yorker. “Forgive me. The nurse told me you were dead.”
When they finally met, “it was the end of drama, the end of shame, the end of accusations, the end of migraines,” Ms. Blangsted said in “Looking for Else.”
Their reunion included trips to each other’s homes and several years in which Ms. Blangsted moved to Switzerland to be near Ms. Kopitopoulos. They drifted apart after about 20 years, during which one of Ms. Kopitopoulos’s sons, Sandy, directed “Looking for Else,” with Daniel Maurer.
In addition to her daughters and grandson, Ms. Blangsted is survived by another grandson and two great-grandchildren. She married Folmar Blangsted, the Danish-born film editor of “A Star Is Born” (1954), in 1960; he died in 1982.
Ms. Blangsted, a witty person known for her frequent laughter, had many actor friends, including Lee J. Cobb, Gregory Peck, James Cromwell and Mr. Moore. She met Mr. Moore, the star of “Six Weeks” (1982) as well as the composer of its score, when he was already working with a music editor. The director, Tony Bill, wanted him to meet Ms. Blangsted.
After watching the film together, she recalled in a 2011 profile of her in Patch, a local news website, “I said to him, ‘You have two and a half minutes to make up your mind that I will be your music editor.’ I went away. Came back and he nodded his head, very definitely.”
They remained friends until 2002, when, as he lay dying, she called to read him Dickens over the phone.