The first time thousands of New Yorkers were introduced to Lyric Benson ’02, she was playing an appropriate role — an aspiring actress waiting tables.
Today, as family and friends mourn Benson’s death at a memorial service in Brooklyn, the American Express advertisements featuring Benson remain plastered throughout the city, now serving as a sad reminder of a life cut tragically short last week.
Benson, 22, had come to New York soon after graduating from Yale, seeking acting work wherever she could find it while earning a paycheck at a trendy SoHo restaurant. In the last two months, Benson was finally starting to make it — receiving a part in a recently-filmed episode of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” as well as several commercial roles.
But at about 1:15 a.m. last Thursday, police say Benson was shot by her ex-fiance, Robert Ambrosino, who attacked Benson as she entered her apartment and then killed himself. After she was kept on life-support so that her organs could be transplanted, Benson died on Friday morning at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.
For those who knew Benson at Yale, her emerging success added to the sense of tragedy that surrounded her death, Pierson Master Harvey Goldblatt wrote in an e-mail to Pierson College students and alumni last Friday.
“Lyric was going to be a big star, another one of our great ‘moments of pride’ in Pierson, but now that will never come to pass,” Goldblatt wrote. “We are all devastated at this senseless loss of someone who was so special. There are no words, there are only dreams and wonder at what might have been. And yet — despite all the grief and sorrow — there is her vision and all her beauty.”
Benson, who graduated with a degree in theater studies last spring, went to New York with dreams of acting in movies or on Broadway, said her commercial agent, Michael Raymen. But Raymen said that when Benson’s theatrical agents introduced his office to the recent Yale graduate, she stood out from most other young actresses.
“One of them called up and said, ‘We just signed this great new girl who is graduating from Yale and we’d like you to see her,'” Raymen said. “She had this sparkle and aura about her, and she had a phenomenal voice. Everybody was crazy about her.”
Sticking out in a crowd had always been easy for Benson. Kathleen Robbins ’02 said Benson, who she met on the first day of school at the Holiday Inn, captivated others with her humor and energy.
“I felt like a real schlump next to her, because I had just gotten out of driving a U-Haul all day, and she was beautiful,” Robbins said of her first encounter with Benson. “She was just this person who you looked at when you came into the room, and she just filled it up and made it glow.”
But beyond her natural talent, Benson’s ability to connect with other people gave her a presence both on- and off-stage. Nell Rutledge-Leverenz ’03, who shared a role with Benson in the Dramat’s production of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle,” said she got bored at rehearsals that Benson had to miss. Whether speaking to her closest friends or new acquaintances, Benson had a unique ability to engage other people, Rutledge-Leverenz said.
“She loved to laugh and she loved to make people laugh,” Rutledge-Leverenz said. “It wasn’t an overly performative thing, but she knew how to get the best out of people and the best out of herself.”
Rutledge-Leverenz also said Benson displayed a remarkable inquisitiveness about other people — a trait that may have emerged in part from a high school career far different from the average Yalie’s. While Benson’s hometown was Beaufort, N.C., she lived in Casablanca, Morocco, for five years before entering Yale.
At the Casablanca American School, where Benson’s mother taught, Benson was valedictorian of her class and considered a “brilliant” student, said Anne Osman, the school’s director. And while Benson did not speak French when she came to Morocco, she quickly and eagerly learned the language — spoken by many Moroccans in addition to Arabic — and integrated herself into the school community.
“She threw herself right into it,” Osman said. “She was the type who tried to make the best of everything she was into.”
Osman said that when Benson prepared a resume during her junior year of high school, she thought she might want to study industrial design. But while she worked as an intern for an architect in Casablanca, Benson, who performed in numerous theatrical productions inside and outside of school, began thinking more seriously about a career in drama by her senior year in high school.
“I think everybody was telling her, ‘By God, you’re an excellent actress,'” Osman said.
At Yale, Benson immersed herself in theatre, playing a wide range of roles in shows like “A Chorus Line” and “Miss Margarida’s Way.” The latter play, a one-woman show Benson performed for her senior project, featured Benson in an unconventional role — a grotesque, enraged, middle-aged woman.
But English professor Joseph Roach, who advised Benson on the project, said she wanted to test her abilities and see what she could do with a part few New York casting agents would have envisioned for her.
“Lyric wanted to do it because it stretched her,” Roach said. “She didn’t want to do something that was obvious and within the ordinary range of how she was likely to be cast in other things.”
Roach said Benson’s ability to apply her talent and dedication to a challenging role like Miss Margarida suggested that she could succeed professionally as an actress.
“You have to be really good, and you have to be really ambitious,” Roach said. “She was both of those things — she was good to the highest degree and ambitious in the highest sense.”
A memorial service in Benson’s honor is scheduled for 3 p.m. today at the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church. An additional service at Yale is being planned for May 4 at a location to be announced.