Kató Mendelssohn Reis passes away at age 98

by Contributed Content on August 22, 2017

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Kató Mendelssohn Reis, the great-great granddaughter of composer Felix Mendelssohn, passed away peacefully on August 15, 2017, surrounded by family and the sounds of her own piano recordings of the music of Chopin, Liszt, and of course Mendelssohn.

Born in Budapest, Hungary, on January 29, 1919, to Gabor and Klari Mendelssohn Székely, Kató demonstrated her musical gifts at an early age. Guided by her mother (a talented pianist in her own right), Kató began her formal musical training at age six.

By the age of eight she was offered a full scholarship to the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where she spent the ensuing decade refining her talent. In addition to the many hours of lessons and piano practice at the Liszt Academy, Kató pursued a rigorous academic education with tutors at home.

At the age of 14, Kató was offered a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but the family decided to wait until she graduated from the Franz Liszt Academy before immigrating to the U.S. Kato completed both her musical and academic education in 1938, and her parents — with the encouragement of two of her father’s brothers already in the U.S. — decided to come with their only child to Los Angeles to allow Kató’s musical career to flourish.

Kató began giving piano lessons and performing for schools, civic organizations and private parties. Shortly thereafter, she came to the attention of the Hollywood elite, becoming their teacher and pianist of choice. Celebrity Mary Pickford regularly invited Kató to entertain at her estate, Pickfair. Using her great-great grandfather’s surname (Mendelssohn), Kató began playing concerts with world-class orchestras (including the San Francisco Symphony).

In 1940, a dashing Stanford student, Robert Stanley Reis, saw Kato performing a concerto at Memorial Auditorium, and a double date with a friend soon followed. Robert was destined to be the love of her life.

When the U.S. entered into World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Kató immediately volunteered her talent, giving concerts for the troops at USO venues and military hospitals. From 1940 to 1943, Kató made many recordings —  more than  two and one-half hours of classical piano favorites — for broadcast to the troops. These recordings have been restored and many can be found on You Tube under the search phrase “Kató plays.”

While Kató performed concerts for the troops, Bob served in the Army, and they ultimately married at Stanford Chapel in 1946. After a lengthy honeymoon traveling throughout the U.S. and Canada, the couple settled in Atherton. Bob purchased a business in San Francisco, which continues to this day, and Kató resumed teaching piano. She and Bob soon had four sons, and Kató included each of them in her full roster of piano students. Kató continued teaching piano into her 70s.

Once her sons were grown, she added volunteer work to her busy schedule. Allied Arts, the Mid-Peninsula League of the San Francisco Symphony, Peninsula Family Service, and Peninsula Volunteers Little House and Meals on Wheels (she delivered meals well into her 80s!) all benefitted from her generosity and boundless energy.

Kató and Bob moved into the Vi in Palo Alto soon after it opened in 2005. After Bob passed away in 2008, Kató filled her days spending time with her family, playing bridge, and delighting her fellow Vi residents with frequent impromptu concerts on the grand piano in the lobby.

Kató was preceded in death by her beloved husband, Robert. She is survived by her children, Ronald and his wife Barbara, their children Klari, Peter and Michael; Tom and his wife Julie, their children Annie, Robert and Scott; Brian and his wife Prudence, their children Ryan, David and Julia; and John and his wife Karen, and their children Nicholas and Jack, and nine great-grandchildren. Her love of music and appreciation for the fullness of life lives on in all of them. Friends and family will forever be grateful for her example of a long life well lived.

Kató’s life will be celebrated at a private family gathering. Anyone who wishes to honor Kató is encouraged to donate to either Peninsula Family Service, 24 Second Avenue, San Mateo, CA, 94401 or the Mid-Peninsula League of the San Francisco Symphony, 201 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco, CA 94102.

Photos supplied by the family; photo of Kató at the piano at the Vi taken by Veronica Weber of the Palo Alto Weekly, which featured a story about the pianist last year; used with permission

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vicki Welch August 22, 2017 at 11:47 am

I loved hearing her play in the great room of the VI as I was coming or going from visiting my parents. I would always stop mid step to listen when she was seated at the keyboard. That will be missed.

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Leanne and Don Bly August 23, 2017 at 10:19 am

Don’s mom, Ginny, and we always enjoyed Kato’s piano in the Vi living room. It brightened the day for many. Ginny felt privileged to be her friend.

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