Bert Milstone Cohen Hirshberg was an activist and truly a "Bostonian's Bostonian." She cared passionately about the arts, Boston, literature, politics, and her family and friends. She had strong opinions which she acted upon, and always followed through with charismatic energy and a ready grin.
Born in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Bert was one of four children. Her immigrant father owned a small department store. When Bert was a girl, few Jewish women could aspire to the sort of cultural maven role which she achieved in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. She was one of those Jewish women who helped pry the door open continually so that others less assertive than she could follow.
Bert married Milton Cohen during World War II. They met while Milton was in Art School and while Bert was attending Boston University. Together they spent time combing the shores of Cape Ann as Civilian Plane Spotters. After they were married, two children, Jane and Alan, soon followed.
Milton was head of advertising for Filene's Basement in the 1950s while Bert was—at least on the surface—a typical Jewish suburban 1950s housewife; she was very active in Newton's League of Women's Voters, a life member of the Museum of Fine Arts, and devoted congregant at Temple Israel of Boston. She was also a member of the Boston Symphony where she helped spearhead a project for inner city children to learn music by acquiring used instruments for them to play. She was a member of the Association of Friends of Boston Public Library, a member of BU's Friends of Libraries, Director of the Woman's Committee of the National Jewish Hospital Denver, an organizer of art exhibits and urban art projects here in Boston, and an Associate at the Brandeis University Library. Bert was a frequent patron of the eclectic group of bohemian artists in East Gloucester, and also made pottery in her home. Bert's daughter recalls that Milton made her mother a special wheel out of an old refrigerator motor that lived in the basement of their home. Bert spent several hours of the day making art in this basement.
When Milton died of cancer in 1965, Bert – at age 47 – moved from Newton to Brookline, and then to Harbor Towers in the 1970s. Bert went to work in the Development Office at Radcliffe College, and also became active in the Boston art scene. She acted as a Sales Agent for the internationally known painter Joan Miro, and was also friendly with Sister Corrita who did the political painting on the sides of the Boston Gas Company's large gas tank on the Southeast Expressway.
Bert and famed Boston newspaper (Post and Herald) sportswriter, Al Hirshberg, married in 1970; Bert enjoyed traveling with him to cover the World Series and loved being a part of Boston's journalist culture. But it was not to last; Al died just a few years after their marriage.
Bert was tremendously invested in the lives of her children. When Bert's son Alan graduated from Newton South High School ('65), he enlisted in the U.S. army at age 19 and was assigned to East Africa. In early 1968, the Army reassigned him to go to Vietnam. He returned to Boston and made a hard moral decision. He went AWOL, going into exile in Sweden, after seeking counsel from Temple Israel's progressive rabbi, Roland B. Gittlesohn. Alan publicly testified for what he had done at the Bertram Russell Hearings in Stockholm in the late 1960s. In late 1973, after the end of the War, he came back to the U.S. and served a year in military prison, and proudly received a Bad Conduct Discharge. Bert was with him all the way, traveling to Stockholm many times.
Bert also understood her daughter Jane's decision to go to the Bay Area of San Francisco in the days when it was the hip thing to do. A singer and free spirit, Jane moved into a communal house. Eventually, through Jane, Bert became a grandmother and great grandmother; she was devoted to her three grandchildren, and later her great grandchildren, always wanting to open them to new horizons in the arts and in music.
Bert continued her career in college development; she went to work for her alma mater. She spent more than a decade there, before retiring, working in various roles. She was the copy editor for Bostonia Magazine for much of this time. In this context and as a BU alumna, Bert was an active board member of BU's Woman's Council and Guild and the National Woman's Publishing Association. She was always a good writer and a good editor.
As endless were her contributions to Boston's cultural life, she continued to add to them by helping to found the Literary Trail of Greater Boston in 1999 with Susan Wilson, Bob Krim, and Jayne Gordon. Her incredible knowledge of Boston literary history, of geography, her unbelievable anecdotes, and her ability to attract funders, enabled this vision to become a reality.
Bert died tragically a few months short of her 90th birthday. On her way to a movie on a Friday evening, she pushed her walker out between two cars on a busy street and was hit by a car that tried to avoid her. She died the next day (February 2, 2008). In a way, she died as she lived, pushing the envelope, always into new territory and taking a risk. She died "doing."