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2024 Brendan Gill Lecture: Ken Burns in Conversation with David Westin

Photo by Allison Hill-Edgar

By Lorraine Shanley, Member, Board of Trustees, The Bronxville Historical Conservancy

Feb. 22, 2024: On Friday, February 9, the Bronxville Historical Conservancy presented a conversation between Ken Burns, renowned filmmaker and documentarian of American life and history, and David Westin, anchor of Bloomberg Wall Street Week, and a local resident.  A capacity crowd attended the event held in Sarah Lawrence’s Reisinger Concert Hall. Bronxville Historical Conservancy co-chair, Erin Saluti, welcomed the audience and introduced Marilynn Hill, chair of BHC’s Brendan Gill Lecture series.

In a glowing introduction, Hill told the audience about the many accolades and accomplishments of both Burns and his interviewer, Westin. She mentioned having met Burns at the National Archives, where they both served on the Archives foundation board, and where he is designated a National Archives’ Distinguished Historian.  It took her almost twenty years, she admitted, to turn his promise to come to the BHC’s annual community lecture someday into a reality. By the end of the evening, everyone knew the wait had been worth it.

Photo by Kalil Salkey

When Burns and Westin began to talk, the filmmaker brought up the death of his mother when he was eleven as a seminal event that led to his choosing his life’s path.  Left as a family of three, Burns’ father watched movies with his two sons, and showed emotions that weren’t apparent at any other times: “He kind of lived in films and I sort of vowed at that time that I would become a filmmaker.”

Burns claims that “The laws of storytelling are exactly the same for fiction and nonfiction:  I’ve sat on the stage with Steven Spielberg.  They are exactly the same for him as they are for me.  He can make stuff up, I can't.  And the effect is still the same.” He proceeded to talk about one of his newest projects, The American Revolution, and the importance Westchester and the Bronx River played in those years. He spoke with such passion that most of the audience probably hoped they could go home that night to watch the series (coming in 2025).

But his passion encompasses many projects, from The Civil War (1990) – still PBS’s most popular series – to Benjamin Franklin, Vietnam (ten-and-a-half years in the making) and his first non-American project, Leonardo da Vinci, which is slated for broadcast on PBS in November, 2024. This decision to digress from American themes came about after he had lunch with his old friend, Walter Isaacson (a former Brendan Gill speaker), who wrote a bestselling biography of Leonardo that was published in 2017.  The author urged him to consider Leonardo, and when he mentioned this to his daughter, Sarah Burns, she was equally enthusiastic.  Both she and husband, David McMahon, became co-directors of the film. 

David Westin’s experience in television (he ran ABC and has anchored shows on Bloomberg since 2015) was evident in his ability to ask thoughtful questions and sometimes trade jokes with Burns, especially about some of their mutual media colleagues. But he kept the spotlight on Burns, who spoke with such fluidity and flair that it was difficult to believe it was extemporaneous.  His ability to quote – Ecclesiastes, Mark Twain, Robert Penn Warren, and most affectingly, composer Gene Scheer – was notable.  As Burns ended his extraordinary recitation of the influences in his life that helped create his prodigious body of work, he summed it up with the words from American Anthem: “I was one who believed in sharing the blessings I have received. Let me know in my heart when my days are through, America, America, I did my best for you.”

It brought the house down. 



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Bronxville Adult School

About the Bronxville Adult School & Contacts

The Bronxville Adult School is a not-for-profit organization incorporated in 1957 and chartered by the New York State Board of Regents. The School "offers all adults of Bronxville and surrounding communities the opportunity for personal growth through life enhancing skills and provides cultural, intellectual and recreational stimulation at a nominal cost."

The Bronxville Adult School
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Bronxville Public Library

Bronxville Public Library

The Bronxville Public Library traces its origins back to 1875, when it was a small lending library housed in a room attached to the “Bronxville Model School.” The Library was officially chartered in 1906 and moved into the Village Hall Building. The needs of the library grew with the town and, in 1942, a new standalone building was erected, which is where the Library is today. Over the years, the Library was renovated and expanded to meet the needs of the community.

The Library has wonderful resources for adults and children and offers a comfortable and relaxing environment. The Library also houses a fine art collection, consisting principally of Bronxville painters and sculptors.

The Library offers special events, art exhibitions, and programs for adults, young adults and children.  All events are open to the public, unless otherwise indicated.

The Bronxville Public Library
201 Pondfield Road (Midland Avenue & Pondfield Road)

Concordia College

Concordia College Adult Education

Concordia College was founded in 1881. It is a four-year, co-educational liberal arts college located in Bronxville. Concordia's Accelerated Degree Programs are designed to give you the skills to be competitive in your chosen career or in graduate school. 

Concordia College - New York
171 White Plains Road
Bronxville, New York 10708

Sarah Lawrence College

Sarah Lawrence College 

1 Mead Way
Bronxville, New York 10708

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