As a costume dresser, Arnold, 67, embraced the high-intensity job of helping performers slip in and out of their ornate ensembles between acts. She’d kept coming to work in the weeks after New York reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus in early March, even though her degenerative lung condition made her susceptible to the disease’s deadliest complications.
Friends encouraged her to stay home, but she’d never been one to miss the action. She wore white cloth gloves to keep herself safe and washed them each night before bed.
Halfway through the March 12 performance, Arnold and the rest of the crew learned they were working Broadway’s final show for the foreseeable future. The governor had banned public gatherings over 500 people that morning, then the mayor followed with an emergency declaration — compounding blows that forced the theater district to shutter.
The curtain fell, and Arnold said her goodbyes.
Days later, she developed a fever. On March 18, she tested positive for the coronavirus, and at 10:40 that night, just before doctors took her phone, she sent a text to loved ones.
“Going to be intubated and unconscious for a few days,” she wrote.
But days turned to weeks, and Arnold never woke. On April 1, after her kidneys began to fail, her family removed her from the ventilator and she became one of nearly 20,000 New Yorkers who have now died of the virus in the country’s coronavirus hot spot. A nurse in the ICU allowed Arnold’s sister, Ariel Arnold, to say goodbye via FaceTime. There was no funeral. She was buried alone, just her body and a rabbi, who allowed the family to say the Kaddish prayer by phone.
Arnold lived a life that was “New York through and through,” her friends and family said. She spent childhood summers in a Woodstock artist’s colony with her painter father, librarian mother and two sisters, who explored the woods on their bicycles and dreamed up elaborate games starring fairies and mermaids. Wryly intelligent, Arnold skipped several grades in school and was once expelled over an incident in the girls bathroom that involved fire, a toilet and Jack Kerouac’s daughter.
As a teenager, she aspired to be a rock n’ roll groupie. Mimicking Geraldine Chaplin, the daughter of silent filmmaker Charlie Chaplin, Arnold tattooed a tiny black dot under each of her eyes — displaying a flare for the dramatic that complemented her dirty blond crown of unruly hair and rotation of eccentric outfits.
“Everything in Jen’s world had glitter on it,” said actress and friend Kelly Jeanne Grant, whom Arnold dressed for roles in “Phantom.” “Everything had a little flair.”
She traveled to Europe and South America as a dancer; to the other side of the country to attend costume design school in California; and eventually back home to the city, where she rubbed elbows with theater royalty, inherited her family’s Harlem apartment and found a job on Broadway’s longest-running show.
Faces of the dead
It’s still unclear where Arnold contracted the virus, but her death has gutted the already unsettled crew at “Phantom” — who do not know for certain when they will return to the Majestic, only that Arnold’s absence will be crushing when they do.
“She so respected those who could really light up the world with their art,” Grant said. “She was just a one-of-a-kind original. They made this lady and they broke the mold. There was nobody like Jen.”
Over a 32-year career working with the “Phantom” company, she had become an institution within the institution, colleagues said. During the holidays each year, she was among those who would draw a chalk menorah on a wall backstage to celebrate Hanukkah. At Phantom’s annual Halloween party, where the children of cast and crew go trick-or-treat at dressing rooms, Arnold was a fixture as “Tattooed Devil Lady.” She wore a full-body unitard that made her appear inked all over, then doled out spooky temporary tattoos to those who wanted them.
“I’ll just really miss that back and forth confidante type of person, willing to go past the professional and get personal with you,” said Janet Saia, a swing performer in “Phantom” who was also dressed by Arnold. “Her eyes sparkled. … There was no pretense.”
Over the years, Arnold also served as the cast’s unofficial wardrobe historian. Before the show even made its 1988 Broadway debut, she had worked at Carelli Costumes, the shop that sewed the original looks. Arnold scoured the city in search of perfect fabrics and fasteners, then watched as they were transformed by friends into “Phantom’s” elaborate, Victorian-era masterpieces.
Decades later, she could still spot an original, and would send photos to the shop’s owner and her friend of 40 years, Carolyn Kostopoulos, reminiscing on where her “Phantom” work began.
“I look at my phone and I see all these texts and pictures and funny things, and … she’s not texting me anymore,” Kostopoulos said. “She was a live wire. It’s just so wrong, this is so wrong, really. She was just a person that was so alive, I mean really alive."
To Arnold, blandness was a bore, and boredom was unacceptable. She was a liberated woman who never married, never had children and was never idle. For decades she crisscrossed the city on an old vintage Schwinn bicycle, wearing a helmet with hot-pink mohawk spikes and coercing friends into joining her for frigid rides through Central Park on New Year’s Eve. She made friends with the mounted police in the Theater District and was dismayed when city officials threatened to ban topless women in Times Square. One warm day, she posed with two of them — and flashed her breasts in solidarity.
She worked at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in her neighborhood, calling herself the “Indecent Docent.” Committed to selling her father’s art, she hosted pop-up showings all over. She followed her dear friend, Italian artist Angelo Filomeno, across Europe to see his embroidery work. When she went back to school in her 50s, she learned Italian, and at graduation she glittered in a cap and gown she bedazzled.
Arnold made clothing out of table cloths, sewed her own swimsuits and worked alongside award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long.
But several years ago, she was forced to recalibrate her life. Arnold was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis, a genetic condition that scarred her lungs and made it difficult to breathe. Still, she refused to stop, trading in her Schwinn for a bright orange electric bicycle and using a treadmill in her apartment’s gym that she could hook her oxygen to. She took yoga, jazz and swimming classes.
At “Phantom,” she shifted to part-time work, quoting the sex worker adage when she told Kostopoulos, “it’s not the work, it’s the stairs” — specifically six flights to the landing in the Majestic where she managed a host of costume changes. Before she got sick, she was in her final months of “retirement rehearsal.” She planned to say farewell to “Phantom” in June, on her 68th birthday.
She was already preparing for her next adventure.
Arnold had drawn up prototypes for headbands with built-in visors — fuchsia, orange and green for the bright colors of summer. She had planned to sew and sell them, perhaps at Coney Island, one of her favorite places to venture. Already, she was selling handcrafted matchboxes there for her business, It’s a Match.
There were naughty pinup ones on sale at the Museum of Sex and boxes covered in mermaids for Coney Island’s annual Mermaid Parade. She made customized boxes for weddings and gave them away to her Phantom “Phamily.” One of Grant’s roles is the page boy, so Arnold made her a box that had a sketch of the original costume on one side and a photo of Grant in the costume on the other. When Saia’s father and mother died, Arnold gave her matchboxes that featured vintage photos of her parents.
“It was a beautiful thing to do for someone who was grieving,” Saia said.
Each box, no matter the theme, was outlined in glitter.
When Arnold died on April 1, word spread fast throughout the “Phantom” company. By then, they had been isolated from one another for three weeks, banned from Broadway and their theater community, where even death has a tradition. On any other night, the cast and crew would have stood outside just before show time and turned the theater lights out.
But they couldn’t do that for Arnold, so the cast and crew improvised. On April 3, at what would have been their evening performance, 150 people logged onto a Zoom call.
Separately, but together, they dimmed the lights in their homes. Then they pulled out candles and lit them for Arnold — using the matchboxes she had given them as gifts.