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Henry Steinway, last to run family's piano factory, dies

Henry Steinway, the last Steinway to run the piano-making company his family started in 1853, died Thursday at his home in Manhattan. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by a daughter, Susan Steinway.

Steinway once said he had taken countless piano lessons but never knew “which is Beethoven's this or Beethoven's that.” He remained proficient on a typewriter's keys, however; long after the world had adopted computers, he was still pounding away on his Smith-Corona manual.

Henry Ziegler Steinway – named for an uncle, and not to be confused with a cousin, Henry Steinway Ziegler – was the great-grandson of Heinrich Engelhard Steinway, the illiterate German immigrant before the ampersand in Steinway & Sons. Henry was born Aug. 23, 1915, in his parents' apartment on Park Avenue, between East 52nd and 53rd Streets.

The location was important to his tradition-minded father, Theodore Steinway. The Steinways' factory, the largest piano plant in New York when it opened, had occupied that site from just before the Civil War until about 1910. Theodore rented an apartment in the building that took the factory's place.

By the time Henry was a boy, the name Steinway had become almost synonymous with pianos, famous on concert stages as well as in Tin Pan Alley. Irving Berlin paid homage in “I Love a Piano” with the lyric “I know a fine way to treat a Steinway.”

After shuttering its Manhattan factory, Steinway & Sons moved its manufacturing operations to Queens, and as a child Henry wandered through a labyrinth of sawdust-strewn workrooms. He joined the company after graduating from Harvard in 1937 and began his career by building pianos, just as his father and uncles had.

He became the factory manager after World War II and president of the company in 1955, when his father made a surprise announcement that he was stepping down.

By then the piano business was struggling against changing technologies and tastes. Phonographs and radios had displaced pianos as home entertainment choices, and television was on the rise. As Steinway recalled in 2003: “People would say: ‘You're in the piano business? That doesn't exist anymore.'”

So he downsized the company – he preferred the term “right-sized” – closing two of the plants in Queens. He decided that concert artists to whom the company had lent pianos would have to return them, unless they bought them.

In 1972, he sold the company itself. “It was the hippie time,” he recalled in 2003. “Nobody in the next generation …”

He left the rest of the sentence unsaid. He said he did not believe that any of his younger relatives could take over, so he proposed a $20.1 million stock swap with CBS.

CBS replaced him as president in 1977, naming him chairman. He gave up that title when he retired at 65, but he never really left. Until a few months ago, he went to Steinway Hall most days. He also went to the factory to autograph just-finished pianos, signing the cast-iron plates with felt-tip pens. At times he served as a goodwill ambassador, visiting piano dealers and attending music-industry conventions.

Last year, President Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts, government's highest arts award.

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