Remembering A Village Icon: Otis Kidwell Burger
There were many facets to the extraordinary life of Otis Kidwell Burger. A West Village native, her experiences in the early preservation battles of our neighborhood were a part of the story of keeping the Village the Village. As the great-granddaughter of abolitionist and National Anti-Slavery Standard editor Sydney Howard Gay, and the granddaughter of noted suffragist Mary Otis Gay Wilcox, her bloodline contained prominent activists who played an essential role in defining our neighborhood. Her family of change-makers and her involvement in preserving the West Village made her a beloved and legendary figure in the neighborhood.
Otis lived on Bethune Street for 58 years with her husband Knox Burger, a literary agent and editor responsible for publishing Kurt Vonnegut’s first short story. During her time there, she interacted with some of the Village’s most fascinating and notable figures. Jane Jacobs was one of her storied guests on Bethune Street, renting a room from Otis. As per her Village Preservation oral history, Otis said of Jacobs: “she had a house around the corner and a family, but she rented a room to write.” Jacobs was drafting her highly-influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and the two became acquainted, eventually sparking a friendship.
Otis, a writer herself, was also known for publishing her poems in the New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, Gourmet Magazine, and more. Another feature of her career was her noteworthy book reviews featured in the New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Villager. Other literary works by Otis included her science-fiction short stories and several books like The String That Went Up, a children’s book, and An Interesting Condition: The Diary of a Pregnant Woman. Surrounded by her writing and the editing work of her husband Knox, literary icons became close friends and associates of Otis.
Otis held many parties in her Bethune Street home, which she purchased for $30,000 in 1959. Among the frequent attendees were Norman Mailer and several other great 20th century literary luminaries. Eventually Otis held weekly poetry gatherings, ones that were frequented by poets and writers who understood the rich history of the Village and the many characters that once walked the streets. These intimate gatherings continued until Otis’ passing in April 2021. Though the neighborhood changed throughout the decades, Otis was steadfast in holding onto her house, saying, “The good lord isn’t making any more Village townhouses.”
You can learn more about Otis Kidwell Burger from her Village Preservation Oral History, completed in 2016. You can explore sixty other Village Preservation oral histories, with luminaries from Jane Jacobs to Merce Cunningham, here.