Barbara Maier Gustern, a celebrated Broadway singing coach who worked with the likes of Debbie Harry, Justin Vivian Bond and Taylor Mac, has died after being shoved to the ground in Manhattan last week. She was 87.
“Today, at 11:15 am, we have lost one of the brightest little flames to ever grace this world,” her family wrote on Facebook. “I ask that you all give me a little time and space, but I want to make time for anyone and everyone who wants to know more about her final moments.”
During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Chief of Detectives James Essig called it an unprovoked and senseless attack.
“A short time ago today, [Gustern] died from her injuries,” he said. “We’re asking the public’s help in solving this disgusting and disgraceful offense committed against a vulnerable, elderly female who was doing nothing but walking down the streets of NYC.”
The attack occurred just before 8:30 pm on March 10 as Gustern was walking near West 28th Street between 8th and 9th avenues, close to her apartment in Chelsea. Police told Gothamist that a female suspect shoved Gustern to the ground where she hit her head, then fled the scene.
Deadline reported that Gustern had been rehearsing an upcoming cabaret show in her apartment with collaborators Barbara Bleier, Paul Greenwood and actor/playwright Austin Pendleton on the night of the incident. She had left to go to Joe’s Pub for a performance by one of her students when she was shoved.
According to The New York Times, Gustern was awake initially after the attack, telling a friend at the scene, “I’ve never been hit so hard in my life.” She also reportedly told police that her assailant “shouted a derogatory term before assaulting her.” She was initially taken to a nearby hospital, then transferred to Bellevue Medical Center, where she underwent emergency surgery.
On Saturday, Gustern’s grandson AJ Gustern wrote on Facebook that she had suffered “traumatic damage to the left side of her brain, and has been unconscious the entire time” since reaching the hospital.
“I apologize if it takes me awhile to respond, but I am incomprehensibly broken inside,” he added. “I struggle to understand and cope with this world on a daily basis, and frankly this is beyond my ability to bear.”
As she recounted to the New York Post in 2020, Gustern grew up in Indiana, came to NYC with Broadway aspirations, and ended up becoming a celebrated vocal coach. In the 1980s, she worked with singer and performance artist Diamanda Galás, which led to her coaching Blondie’s Debbie Harry and being introduced to the downtown NYC cabaret scene. Her career eventually led to her working with the cast of Daniel Fish’s 2019 Broadway revival of Oklahoma!
Earlier in the day on March 10, Gustern wrote on Facebook that she was feeling optimistic about the future.
“Is there a sudden shift in planetary alignment?” she wrote. “Something is cosmically different for me. I went through a period of feeling detached. I couldn’t remember lyrics. I felt like my voice had totally abandoned me. The thought of doing a show was like sentencing me to be tortured. But as of today all that is reversed. I feel full of creativity, joy at working on a beautiful show with people I adore and totally respect. I feel like a singer again for the first time in forever. What happened? I haven’t a clue But whatever it is I am more than grateful. [sic].”
Police say the suspect, who has long, curly hair, was last seen wearing a black jacket, black leggings, a white skirt or dress and dark shoes. Anyone with information on the suspect is asked to call the NYPD’s Crime Stoppers hotline at 1-800-577-TIPS.