Obituary: Caro Heller, Brooklyn artist who reunited families, dies at 80
Adventurous and genteel, touched people 'from park benches to Park Avenue’
Caroline Watkins Heller, known as Caro, died Sunday, August 17 at her home in Fulton Ferry Landing, Brooklyn. She was recognized as a remarkable, multifaceted and even magical person who touched hundreds of lives from Brooklyn Heights to far flung locales, including Haiti.
She died from emphysema at the age of 80, surrounded by her children, grandchildren and husband Lowell “Pete” Beveridge.
A petite and elegant woman, Caro was described by family members as an adventurous “people magnet” whose home was filled with her children’s friends, visiting artists, animals and “lost souls” who might stay for months or even years.
“She was a rare woman,” said daughter Leslie Heller. “Mombo touched people from park benches to Park Avenue. We always had other people living with us,” she said, including a Buddhist monk who trained wild animals for Broadway shows, a man who had been homeless, young friends, and “a menagerie – three dogs, four cats, two birds and mice.”
“You could be destitute — she saw the divine light in everyone,” said her son Peter Heller.
Daughter Callie French said that when she was growing up, “I never knew who would be in the house when I got home. She spent hours around the kitchen table talking to people. Our home was theirs.”
Her mother was “all about service, community and people, and her grandchildren and family were the core,” Callie said. “Like a flower, it starts with the family and builds its way out. Her granddaughters were the most important thing in her life.”
Caro served on the Board of Governors at Saint Ann’s Episcopal School in Brooklyn Heights, now known as Saint Ann’s School, from 1966 to 1976. Working closely with founding headmaster Stanley Bosworth, she founded and directed the scholarship program and worked to diversify the student body.
“It was a smaller school back then,” said Linda Kaufman, senior adviser to the head of school and archivist at Saint Ann’s. “Caro was extraordinary. She was very instrumental in getting more scholarship kids, and made arrangements with a number of summer camps so African-American children on financial aid would be able to go away for the summer.”
“She had a very good relationship with Stanley,” she added. “He counted on her.”
Art: ‘Powerful and dark’
Caro was a prolific and accomplished sculptor, whose themes centered upon love, death, and voodoo. She displayed her work in Soho in 1982 at the Atlantic gallery in an exhibit entitled, “Rituals in mixed media sculpture.”
“Her work was powerful and dark, and also had a wicked sense of humor,” son Peter said. One piece features a “taxidermy armature of an ermine looking over a cliff at its own hide,” he said. At the bottom, bones are scattered on the rocks.
Her former studio at 146 Pierrepont Street was filled with skeletons, taxidermy and voodoo altars, which sometimes triggered a state of possession in Haitian visitors. “They started talking in tongues, talking as gods,” Peter said.
She made frequent visits to Haiti, starting in 1972, accompanied by her children.
“Her work is inspired by Haiti, including the ‘Voodoo Altar of Life’ and the ‘Voodoo Altar of Death,’” said daughter Callie. “That’s why she’s called Mombo. When we were in Haiti, somebody renamed her the ‘White Voodoo Princess.’”
People she met during the course of her day would deliver material to be used in her artwork. “A window washer dropped off a skull,” Peter recalled. A man who ran a gas station in Colorado “sent her a full-size foam deer target because she mentioned it would make a wonderful sculpture,” he said.
Courage, and a hidden passion
Caro’s family and friends describe her as physically and spiritually courageous. There was the time she stopped a riderless horse charging up a busy Manhattan street. And the time she befriended two muggers who jumped in front of her at 2 a.m. in Morningside Heights.
One man’s shirt was ripped, Peter said. “She looked at the big one and said, ‘You must be freezing.’ She opened her purse and dug around, then pulled out a safety pin, which she used to close his shirt.
“They were so dumbfounded, they insisted on walking her to the corner and waiting with her for a cab,” he said.
Belying her genteel appearance, Caro was a combat-trained pistol shooter, earning certification from the Lethal Force Institute in New Hampshire. She worked for a period for a private investigator doing stakeouts.
Her skill with weaponry was legendary. Once, while visiting a family member in rural South Valley, Idaho she and son Peter stopped to visit a gun store. The proprietor was “a guy wearing a cowboy hat and overalls. She was interested in a Navy Colt .45 automatic,” Peter said. “He was being patronizing to mom, telling her the gun was ‘a little big for you.’”
Caro and the owner piled into an old Bronco and headed for a gulley to do some shooting. Along the way the man explained to Caro how to load the gun. “Mom was polite,” Peter said.
The owner lined up seven beer bottles on a log and invited Caro to try to hit one. Within seconds, there were seven loud bangs and all of the bottles went flying. “You should have seen his face,” Peter said. “He called her Caro on the way home.”
Caro was once hired by the FBI to bring in a bank fraud perpetrator. Her upper-crust background allowed her to blend in with the gentry.
“They needed someone who knew the Blue Book [socially prominent names] in Connecticut. She spied on this guy with her opera glasses, parked herself up in trees, and followed him around in her old Volvo,” Peter said. “Finally, he pulled over and asked, ‘Who are you?’”
Caro was “so morally sure,” she talked the young man into turning himself in, Peter said. “You can make this right,” she told him. “He felt like a little kid, and turned himself in the next day.”
One of Caro’s most lasting contributions, however, involves a passion she shared with her husband Pete Beveridge. As a team, they became adept at investigation, and worked pro bono to reunite over 80 birth families split apart by adoption.
A typical case might involve helping out a former drug addict whose child was taken away years ago by the state. “They mounted extensive investigations, spent hours, days, nights doing it. Everywhere, whatever it took,” Callie said.
“It was very difficult,” son Peter said. “Adoption records are sealed.” People were so taken with Caro, however, they sometimes “turned their back” while she glanced at confidential documents. “It was the respect and the interest she gave people” that enabled the team’s success, he said.
“Now there are people with full siblings who didn’t have any families before,” Peter said. “The letters she got on Christmas are unbelievable.”
Caroline Watkins Heller was born in in Paris to mother Barbara Cheney Watkins and Harry Ashton Watkins in 1933. Her father was a partner at JP Morgan.
Caro told her children that she recalled standing on a balcony of a chalet one night in 1938 while on a skiing trip in Austria with her mother. She was five years old. “The Austrian ski instructors were skiing with torches, in perfect formation down the side of the mountain,” Peter relates. “They formed a big swastika.”
A year later the family fled Paris.
Caro attended The Brearley School, graduated from The Garrison Forest School and earned a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence in 1956.
She studied painting in Paris when she was twenty-one. “It was one of the greatest years of her life,” Peter said. “She was proposed to by a duke. She was a beautiful waltzer, a great skier. She had a perfect French accent; it was her first language.”
“She was so game, so adventurous, and the most doting and supportive mother,” Peter, himself an adventure writer and expedition kayaker, said.
“She adored all of us,” Leslie said. “She let us fly.”
“She shared that sense of fun and adventure with her grandchildren,” Leslie added. “She was the most fun person to hang out with hands down.”
Caro is survived by her husband Pete Beveridge, and her grandchildren Caila and Cammi French, Zoë Heller, Ines Manuel, and Rachel and Pierson Beveridge. She is also survived by her former husband John Heller, and their children Peter Heller, Leslie Heller-Manuel, and Callie French; by her stepson Jesse Beveridge; by her sons in law John French and JP Manuel; and by her daughters-in-law Kim Yan and Briana Beveridge. She is also survived by other family members Robby and Lisa French; and by the family’s dear friend Marie St. Juste.
A memorial will be held on Saturday, August 23 at 3 p.m. at Brooklyn Friends Meetinghouse, 110 Schermerhorn St, Brooklyn, NY 11201. Reception to follow.
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