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Gene Ritvo, photographer and lover of antique cars, 74

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / November 21, 2009

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In the world of antique and high-end sports car photography, from Pebble Beach, Calif., to Newport, R.I., Gene Ritvo was as well regarded as the vehicles he memorialized.

There was a certain mystique, fans said, about his Morgans, his Alfa Romeos, his antique Rolls-Royces, his Bentleys, his Pierce-Arrows, his Duesenbergs that evoked an earlier, more placid age.

His films and lectures of the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance at the Larz Anderson Auto Museum in Brookline were always well attended. His last lecture, held in August, was titled “The Grand Marques.’’

For Mr. Ritvo, beauty was all around us if we looked through his camera lens.

“Gene recognized art, class, and beauty, whether it was a pretty woman, an automobile, or a toaster,’’ said John Lawlor of East Bridgewater, technical adviser for WBUR’s “Car Talk.’’

“I have photos he took of vacuum cleaners, toasters, and other household appliances which he made beautiful.’’

While Mr. Ritvo appreciated the classic car and the modern design in autos, “he loved the traditional,’’ Lawlor said.

He was meticulous about the venue of his car shoot, checking it out at different times of the day, setting the scene while focusing on color combinations and design. “Gene was a big guy, but appreciated things that were different and beautiful,’’ Lawlor said. “He thought of cars as rolling pieces of sculpture.’’

Bill Griffith, retired assistant sports editor for The Boston Globe, said Mr. Ritvo’s photos “were so great they could be found in a museum.’’

Mr. Ritvo, whose life was filled with successful entrepreneurial ventures, died on Oct. 14 at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston after suffering a heart attack in his Newtonville office. He was 74 and lived in Weston.

He was a renaissance man, said his sister, Janice Marcus of West Falmouth.

Cars and photography were his legacy, but he was at times a stockbroker, a partner in a chain of steakhouses, and a distributor and designer of Fuji bicycles.

His latest work was as copartner with Ralph Spear in Spearit Sound, a specialty audio firm in Newtonville. The two were friends for 20 years, and Spear recalled his partner as “a very compassionate individual, concerned with fair play.’’

“Gene was an industrious person who created many businesses that supported a lot of people.’’

Eleven days before he died, Mr. Ritvo took the photos and videorecorded the wedding of his daughter Susan and Frank B. Falvey Jr. of Norwell.

“Gene lived his life fully, the way he wanted to, and died the way most of us would want to go,’’ his wife, Phyllis, said in her eulogy.

“He was lucky in many ways: He had good health, a creative and intelligent mind, tremendous articulateness, social ability, good looks, a loving family, and lots of friends of enormous importance.’’

The night before he died, Mr. Ritvo attended the monthly meeting of the New England Motor Press Association, where he was known as “The Ritvo.’’

He was still driving, either his black Mercedes-Benz, his teal Porsche, or his silver Ducati.

NEMPA cofounder John White of Wolfeboro, N.H., said members welcomed Mr. Ritvo’s “mischievous streak.’’

“When we were about to vote a plan into action,’’ White said, “Gene would rise to the occasion and throw out a totally new alternative wrapped in rhetoric, either bearing no relation to the item under discussion or totally the opposite, instantly evoking fresh debate.’’

“By popular consent,’’ White said, “Gene was assigned the last question of the evening, and it was known as ‘The Ritvo,’ the equivalent of ‘Thank you, Mr. President’ in Washington.’’

The group has established an annual style award, “The Ritvo,’’ to be given annually to a manufacturer exemplifying the best in automobile styling that year, White said.

Eugene Ritvo was born in Cambridge and raised in Malden and Milton. His sister said their father, a lawyer, had been interested in sports cars and taught Gene to drive at 12.

The first car he owned was a Chevrolet convertible. He acquired his first Morgan after he married.

His passion for photography bloomed in his teens after an uncle gave him a Kodak camera. He graduated from the old Huntington Prep School in Boston in 1953 and attended Brandeis University, majoring in economics, but left before graduating to join the US Army with friends, his wife said. He served stateside for two years.

He and Phyllis Tater met as students while she was at Wellesley College and he was at Brandeis. They married in 1959.

His first job was heading up a branch office with the brokerage firm of Wainwright & Co. He then became a manager for a steakhouse in Hyannis.

There, he met Tom Manning of Yarmouth Port. The two had an interest in bicycles and cofounded a shop in Cambridge that sold only Fuji bicycles, Manning said.

“We were there for 17 years, and Gene would ride back and forth from Weston on a bike. He was in great shape. He never smoked, barely drank. He was tireless and an honest man.’’

Mr. Ritvo cofounded the Motorheads, a group of men who love bikes and motorcycles. Peter Bourassa of Wayland, another cofounder, recalled Mr. Ritvo’s “love of mechanical precision.’’

“Gene was curious about everything and simply fascinated by how things evolved and functioned,’’ Bourassa said. “Preowned Gene Ritvo vehicles were sought after because he had researched and documented all possible improvements. His cars and motorcycles were always better than when they left the factory.’’

For his wife, Mr. Ritvo took the photographs for her book on Gouda pottery.

In the 1960s, they were among the founders of the Roxbury Weston Programs, which started as a summer retreat for Roxbury children and continues today as a preschool program for them.

In 2001, Mr. Ritvo traveled to Cuba with a group from the Massachusetts College of Art. He looked at Cuba’s cars, mostly antique American ones.

“These cars are indicative of the ingenuity and creative mechanical abilities of the Cuban people who keep them running,’’ he told the Globe.

In addition to his wife, his daughter, and his sister, Mr. Ritvo leaves another daughter, Karen of Los Angeles.

There will be a private gathering.