Standing on a corner in Washington Heights years ago preparing to report on something for NY1 (honestly, I don’t remember what), I was approached by a woman who simply but vivaciously said, "Hi Roger." I took a closer look and realized it was Jen Arnold, who I chatted with on Facebook. Over the years, we met in person a few more times and discussed segments I had done, plus music and other topics.
A few weeks ago, I was shocked and saddened to receive a message from a mutual friend that Jen had died, succumbing to the coronavirus. I would like to tell you her story, because she was able to jam so much life into her 68 years on the planet.
Jennifer Robin Arnold was as New York as you can get. She grew up in Washington Heights, attending George Washington High School. She turned her love of sewing into a career in costume design, working on many Broadway shows, including 30 years as a dresser with The Phantom of the Opera.
Her dear friend, television producer Jane Raab, told me about their adventures at Washington High, which in some cases began with cutting school. Raab said one morning, they ventured downtown to WNEW Radio to meet the legendary disc jockey John Zacherle, who brought them into the studio and played some of their favorite records.
The two spent many Saturday nights at the old Filmore East catching their favorite bands, and took the show on the road to Europe after graduation, where they hoped to meet The Rolling Stones. They did meet up with Sylvain Sylvain and Billy Murcia, who would later form The New York Dolls. Raab said back home, she and Jen became regulars at places like the Mercer Arts Center and CBGBs, home of the New York punk rock scene.
Raab says Arnold had an adventurous spirit and fearlessness she admired, not to mention a dot tattooed under each of her eyes. She says Jen did this in high school to mimic the look of Geraldine Chaplin, daughter of silent film legend Charlie Chaplin.
Arnold’s sister Ariel says Jen was a trained dancer and traveled the world over the years. She was also always searching for venues to exhibit the art work of their late father, Ladine Arnold.
As if being an award-winning Broadway costume designer wasn’t enough, Jen went back to college in her 50s, graduating with a degree in video production in 2008. She went at the urging of Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, Jane’s sister and another friend from the old neighborhood.
"I will always remember her on our graduation stage, getting kudos as one of the oldest graduates, her eyelashes full with glitter," Jennifer Raab said.
A memorial page has been set up on Facebook to remember Jen, with photos of her at Coney Island, swimming at the Highbridge Pool, bike riding and basically having a blast.
Singer and friend Joe Hurley posted, "You are loved by so many Jen. Brilliant artist, activist, boundless lust for glitter and life, compassionate human being."
She was a docent at the Morris-Jumel Mansion historic site in Washington Heights, Manhattan’s oldest residence, where she would give tours in typical Jen fashion. There are also the matchboxes. Yes, she was famous for creating and handing out custom matchboxes for friends, colleagues, even strangers. A personal touch from a woman who touched many lives – and had a hell of a lot of fun along the way.