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How a Grieving Daughter Led a Theater Reporter to an Unexpected Story


Family photos, part of the treasures share by Lily Houghton that had been collected by her father, James, the founding artistic director of the Signature Theater, who died last year.

David Brandon Geeting for The New York Times

The note arrived late one afternoon three months ago via one of those online forms filled out by readers who don’t have my contact information. “This might be a strange email to get,” it said, “and I am still unsure how to write down what I am trying to get across, but I thought I would give it a try.”

The correspondent was Lily Houghton, a 22-year-old senior at Bennington College, whom I had never met. But I had met her dad, James Houghton, a major figure in the nonprofit theater world who had died last summer, and that’s what prompted her to reach out to me, the theater reporter at The New York Times. She wanted to talk.

It was an unusual request — I don’t often hear from the children of deceased public figures — and I wasn’t sure I could be of much assistance because at first I thought she wanted to write a tribute to her father, and I didn’t think The Times would be interested. But I remembered my lost-ness after the death of my own father. “Not sure what you’re envisioning,” I responded, “or whether this is the place for it, but happy to try to help you think that through.”

Then began weeks of emails, phone calls, and meetings that led to our publication (online last week, in print on Sunday) of striking photographs of a few of the hundreds of objects that Lily’s father had left to her, keepsakes from his remarkable career. James Houghton was the founding artistic director of Signature Theater, an Off Broadway nonprofit and a noted champion of many of the most significant playwrights of the last few decades; the objects included gifts from famous writers including Arthur Miller, August Wilson, and Athol Fugard.

We moved slowly, in part because Lily was simultaneously finishing college (she graduated last month) and in part because I wanted to be sure she was ready to share with the public. But when she put a bunch of items into tote bags and brought them to the Times cafeteria to show me, I was certain there was a story for us. I was compelled by the idea of a grieving daughter going through her father’s boxed up treasures in the theater that made his name, and I thought some of our readers would be too.

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