Norma Shapiro

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If, 13 years ago, you told me Norma Shapiro would become one of my all-time favorite people, well, yeah. I wouldn’t have bought it.

My wife’s grandmother was unlike any elderly person I’d ever met. Hard-nosed, confident, decisive, opinionated. My grandmas were soft and cuddly and smelled of toast and chocolate. But here was Norma Shapiro the first time I laid eyes upon her, charging across a New York City street carrying two large bags. Shortly before I proposed to Catherine, Norma sat across from me in a restaurant and asked, bluntly, “What are your intentions?” One time we randomly ran into her at a furniture store—where she was seeking out ideas for our dresser. About two years into my marriage, Norma and I engaged in a heated phone conversation that I truly believed killed our relationship.

But here we are, in 2015, and I consider Norma to be both an ideal fill-in for my late grandparents (all of whom I miss dearly) and a true friend. She’s an amazing conversationalist, a terrific dinner companion and an unrivaled great-grandmother to my son and daughter (they call her “Grammie”). There are few people I love more—age be damned.

Anyhow, with her appearance today Norma Shapiro becomes the oldest (age: 95) and coolest figure to grace the series. She explains the keys to a long life (pure luck and good genes), the secrets to surviving a resort fire and the impact of losing a child. You can’t follow Norma on Twitter or Facebook, because she’d rather sit down and chat over a cup o’ tea. But if you’re ever in town, give her a ring.

Norma Shapiro, you’re the new Queen of Quaz  …

JEFF PEARLMAN: I read an essay recently by a writer named Roger Angell, who wrote of being 90 and how he didn’t like people knowing his age because when they knew how old he was they sort of dismissed his opinion. Do you feel that too, or is it the opposite and people take you more seriously because of your experiences?

NORMA SHAPIRO: Well, I think the fact that I’m of a certain age, that people respect my opinion. However, I didn’t tell my age most of the time—almost all of the time—because I didn’t look my age. And I felt people respected what I said because of the person I am. They respect what I say because of me, and it had nothing to do with my age. The reason I didn’t tell my age is because I felt people wouldn’t want to be so socially friendly.

J.P.: Why?

N.S.: It mostly happened when I was very much older. People generally don’t want to socialize with a 90-year old. And I didn’t look my age, so people didn’t know how old I was. So I thought it better not to say anything.

J.P.: When you were 75, did you not wanna associate with someone 90?

N.S.: I didn’t think of it. But when I was younger there were not many 90s around. When I was younger and someone died they were 80, 85 and you’d think, “Well, they lived a nice long life.” But people live longer now.

J.P.: It seems like getting older comes with interesting complications. On the one hand everyone is dazzled by your age and health, and yet you see people dying around you nonstop. You’re basically outliving your generation. So is that more positive, or more negative? More, “This is great!” or more, “I can’t believe this person had a stroke?”

N.S.: I think it’s remarkable I’ve lived this long in good health. But it’s difficult to watch others age, and it makes me think I’m more unusual to be at this age. And I don’t really feel this age.

J.P.: If you were to put a number on how old you feel …

N.S.: Sixty. Or even younger.

J.P.: Does 95 sound weird?

N.S.: Very weird. I almost don’t believe it.

Norma with Laura and Dick in the 1950s.
Norma with Laura and Dick in the 1950s.

J.P.: It seems people don’t understand aging. People think if someone who’s 95 is telling a childhood story, it must feel like a black-and-white image for a million years ago. But it’s not, right? The stories seem fresh?

N.S.: Right. They do seem fresh. My mind is very sharp and my memory is unusually sharp. I rarely forget anything I want to remember. If I want to remember it, I remember it. Even things that aren’t so important, I remember.

J.P.: Is that luck of the draw?

N.S.: I think so. I can’t think of anything I’ve really done to live to this age and keep this health and have my mind keen. Just luck of the draw.

J.P.: What can you tell me about your parents?

N.S.: Their names were Leah and Harry. We lived in Brooklyn, at 4334 Avenue I. I remember the house. I lived there until I got married. My father was in the steel business, and my mother was a stay-at-home mother, but she was really not much of a stay-at-home type. She was always there for the children, but she was very active in charity. And she was one of the only women in her time who drove her own car and went to her charities. I remember my mother driving home at the same time as my father. She was always busy with her charities. We had very good help when my sister Myra was born and I was about 7. I actually almost mothered my sister. I took care of her a lot.

J.P.: Did you know what you were doing?

N.S.: I dressed her pretty and did the ribbons in her hair.

J.P.: You were pretty young when you got married …

N.S.: It was a month before I was 18.

J.P.: You’re a kid, in high school, good student—how does someone get married at 17?

N.S.: My parents didn’t think I was that attractive. They thought I was bright but they didn’t think I was that attractive. I got that impression. My brother Noel was very handsome and my sister Myra was very adorable. She was younger and very cute and she had dimples. But they never said anything about me. It hurt later on in life.

They knew this family of professional people. They were all dentists well thought of in the community. And my aunt knew them and they sent me in to have my teeth cleaned. And the man who would be my husband thought my legs were very beautiful. When I walked out of the office he said to himself, “Those legs will belong to me someday.” I was in college already at Adelphi. Because I graduated high school when I was 16 ½. So I was a college freshman when I met him. Then I became engaged in a few months. Those days you didn’t go together for so long because you didn’t live together.

J.P.: Wait. You’re 17. At 17, I hadn’t even kissed a girl …

N.S.: I hadn’t gone on a date, either.

J.P.: Right. So are you aware the family is trying to set you up?

N.S.: I think so. They sent me there to get my teeth cleaned and they were very impressed with my mouth because I have something very rare to be born with—something called balanced occlusion. Which means no matter how you move your jaw, all 32 teeth touch at the same time. That was very rare, and my father in law was very impressed by it. He had a machine he invented, and he had some very prominent dentists look. They said, “That’s not a normal mouth.” But the truth of the matter is, I have all my original teeth at this age.


J.P.: Leo was how much older than you?

N.S.: He was 30 and I was 17 when I met him. It’s a very huge age gap. I had never been out on dates. I think I was out on one date. I’d never kissed a boy.

J.P.: Did you even want to get married?

N.S.: My parents didn’t make me do it. But they did everything they could to encourage it. As an engagement gift my father bought Leo a Chevrolet. It about $700—in those days that was a fortune. He didn’t have his own car, so my father bought him a car as an engagement gift. And his parents gave me a beautiful diamond pin. And my parents made this huge wedding for 300 people.

J.P.: How much time had passed from the first time you met him?

N.S.: Maybe six months.

J.P.: Am I missing something generational, or is there a part of you going, “What the hell is happening here? Six months ago I was a 17-year-old college freshman going about my life and now I’m married to a dentist I barely know …”

N.S.: I didn’t think about it. It didn’t enter my thoughts. In those days you got married young anyway. Not that young, but people married young. If you were waiting until 29 or 30, you’re old. No, you got married young. Nineteen, 20. Most people did. It was more or less expected. And I took marriage as a serious responsibility. My husband had to build a practice. Now you practice with a lot of people. Back then you had to socialize to build the practice, and I worked really hard doing it. I joined organizations where I was the youngest person they ever had in the organization. I was a kid, and they were all established. I joined charitable organizations, the temple. I learned how to cook and entertain, and I really built the practice by doing that.

J.P.: Are you not the kind of person who was ever like, “How did my life get here?” Does your brain not work that way? Were you never shocked or confused?

N.S.: I never thought about it.

J.P.: Were you happy?

N.S.: [Long pause]. I was happy. By nature, I’m happy. And I know it’s the strongest instinct within me—being a mother. So I was very happy being a mother. I was 21 when my son Richard was born.

J.P.: Do you remember the birth?

N.S.: I think I was in Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. And I had a very, very, very bad time. Oh, it was like 42 hours of labor. And the truth of the matter is they should have done a Caesarean, and by the time they realized that it was too late. He was an 8 ½-poind baby. He was a very beautiful child and it was fine, and I loved being a mother. Just loved it. The maternal instinct was strong.

J.P.: Did you care—boy or girl?

N.S.: The first time I didn’t. The second, I was desperate—just desperate—to have a girl. If it had been a boy, I would have kept trying. I had to have a daughter. I was very close to my mother, and I just needed a daughter. So when she came out, I didn’t believe it. They said, “Mrs. Stoll, you have a little girl.” I said, “Are you sure? Are you sure?” I really didn’t believe it. In those days you never knew in advance.

J.P.: Do you remember the drive home from the hospital?

N.S.: No. But I didn’t even drive when we were married. Remember, I wasn’t 18. And then when I was desperate to drive my husband was teaching me and every time I wanted him to teach me he was busy. So one day I was really angry and I took the car and drove off. He saw it and he ran out with his dental coat on after me. I said, “If you don’t teach me I’m gonna do it again.” He taught me and I got my license. It was very important to me. My mother drove a car, which was unusual in those days. I was a little kid when my mom drove her own car. No women drove their own cars.

With Phil Shapiro, her late husband.
With Phil Shapiro, her late husband.

J.P.: What was your role in the family dental business?

N.S.: Oh, I did everything. Not merely billing. Almost everything I did was to make it easy for my husband. I shoveled the snow because I was afraid he’d have a heart attack. I was afraid if he got a heart attack he couldn’t practice, so I shoveled the snow. I did a lot of things. Everything I did was behind the scenes so that no one would know. Because I had to protect his image of success.

J.P.: Was it, “Here’s this confident, successful man!”?

N.S.: He was not a very overly ambitious type of person. He was a very skilled dentist. I would say he was an excellent dentist. But a good businessman? No. He would just as soon do it for nothing. He was not financially at all attuned to the world.

J.P.: So you were pushed to get married. Did you love him at the time? Did you learn to love him? Does that even matter?

N.S.: Of course it matters. I mean, I thought I loved him. And I guess I did. But I was a child when I got married and as I developed as a person he was not the person I would have married. That doesn’t mean I didn’t respect him or didn’t like him. It doesn’t mean that at all. But he was not the person I would have married. I would have married someone who had more ambition; who was interested more in finance and doing well and making more money. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a very fine man, or that I disliked him as a person. It doesn’t mean that at all.

J.P.: Was the Great Depression a big factor in your life?

N.S.: It was a very big factor. I was supposed to go to a sleep-away college. But first my father thought I was too young, so I traveled four hours per day to go to college. Two hours to get there, two hours home. First I got up and took the bus. At 7 in the morning in the cold waiting for the bus. That bus took me to the subway. Then there was a 20-minute subway ride. Then there was the Long Island Railroad. And then I took the Long Island Railroad, and then I walked from the Long Island Railroad to the college. It was hard. But whatever my parents said, I did. I didn’t question.

J.P.: Was your dad a nice guy?

N.S.: He was a very nice guy in that he … he was a good provider, a good father and a nice guy. In his later years he had dementia and was difficult. He adored my mother, and the sun always set on her. She was very beautiful and very bright and very talented. Everyone adored her and thought well of her. And when she got sick he couldn’t handle her. Even before she died, when she was not well, she couldn’t do the things he needed to do. She was more educated than he was. He was smarter. She was really, really smart. She was behind him all the time. You know, a successful man has a woman pushing him.

Leo Stoll: Norma's first husband and favorite dentist.
Leo Stoll: Norma’s first husband and favorite dentist.

J.P.: You said you never felt beautiful as a child, and now you take pride in how you look. Is that a direct connection?

N.S.: I have to tell you—I was trained through life that I wasn’t beautiful. In the twilight of my life, almost on a daily basis, and I’m not exaggerating, almost daily somebody will say to me, “You’re very beautiful” or “You’re so pretty.” Daily. Either at a bridge club, on the bus. It doesn’t matter where I go. I hear it every day.

J.P.: And what does it mean to you?

N.S.: Every time I hear it I think about what I went through. I remember during the war when my husband was overseas and I had to live with my parents, my mother bought me a dress. She was looking at it on me, and she said, “You know, Myra is taller and the dress is too long-waisted on you.” I started to cry, and I said, “That’s the last time you’re going to tell me something looks better on Myra.” She said, “But you’re the smartest of my children.” I said, “I don’t want to be smart, I just want to be pretty.” I remember the words distinctly. And my mother felt so bad that when I was president of a charitable organization she was the installing organization and she said, “When Norma was born the sun rose and set” because she was so proud. But she felt so bad about what she said. She didn’t say those things to be mean. But even other people that came, “Oh, Myra, you’re so beautiful. Where did you get those dimples?” She was adorable, my brother was very handsome. Nobody said anything about me. But before I go to sleep for good, everybody tells me.

J.P.: It’s like Norma’s revenge.

N.S.: Ha. It’s amazing. When I say amazing, I’m not kidding.

J.P.: Did you graduate college?

N.S.: No. My job in those days was to build my husband’s practice. And I worked really, really hard to do it. I had constant dinner parties, I joined every organization. The truth is, that’s what his practice was built on.

J.P.: Would he acknowledge your efforts?

N.S.: I don’t know if he was fully aware of all I did. But that was my job. As soon as I got married, I knew that was my job. If I had to live my life over again, I wouldn’t do that. I would want to develop myself as a person and explore life. I would want to explore more of life. We didn’t travel very much. We were comfortable, but not wealthy. I think I went to Europe once when I was married to him. Summer vacations, we went to the beach. The kids went to camp. We had a cabana at the beach. But we didn’t go away.

J.P.: Do you at all feel like times were better then than now? You know, people look back like, “Ah, the good ol’ days …”

N.S.: I think it was easier living. Look, there are always hard times. I lived through the war with rationing—gas rationing, food rationing. But now young people are living through terrorism. I think these are hard times. I don’t know how young people feel about it, but I feel it’s tough now. And scary. I think the fact we have people in Iraq, the weapons with Iran. And I like Obama, but I don’t like what he’s doing with Iran. It scares me. You’re dealing with horrible people and I think we’re in bad times. I remember the war and rationing and all that, but you knew we would win the war. We were a powerful country and you looked forward to winning. I don’t see that now.

Toasting at her 95th birthday celebration.
Toasting at her 95th birthday celebration.

J.P.: Here’s a random one—you hear rap music, what do you think?

N.S.: I don’t relate to it.

J.P.: How do you feel about laptops, iPhones …

N.S.: I think they’re wonderful things. I don’t use them. I think some of the stuff is terrific. I do think there are things, because we have all these wonderful things, I think some of the art of niceties of living is lost.

J.P.: Like what?

N.S.: I think the art of conversation is lost. I think people are very much attuned to their iPhones and so forth and texting. Because there’s so much texting people hardly call and talk on the phone. And I think the art of conversation, the art of being in contact with someone on a real-life basis instead of all these instruments, I think that’s definitely lost. I think the art of handwriting, penmanship is lost completely. I think the art of letter writing is a terrible loss because those things really can be precious in our lifetime. I kept letters that were written 50, 60 years ago. I still have them, and they were really very precious. I kept letters that my daughter wrote on her honeymoon. Even letters my that my son in law wrote. And he’s not a very verbal person. But he did write me a very special letter while he was on his honeymoon. You won’t have that in years to come. I saved the letter my brother wrote to my parents about 60, 70 years ago, and I gave it to him and he was shocked I had it. And I remarked on how beautiful his penmanship was. You see men now, you can’t even read their handwriting. Men and women and children. Children are not even taught penmanship. Which I think is terrible.

J.P.: Does it drive you crazy when you’re out to dinner with people and they’re checking their phone?

N.S.: I think it’s terribly, terribly rude. I really do. Terribly rude. And I think some families, within the same house, they’re texting back and forth. How sad that is. It’s a big loss. I think some of these things are wonderful, but a lot is lost.

J.P.: So I showed you the different Q&As I did, and one involved a woman dying of cancer. And you lost your son Dick to cancer. How, as a mother, do you overcome that? Do you ever?

N.S.: No. It’s out of the sequence of life. You don’t live to bury a child. It can be the birth parent has to go, a spouse has to go. A spouse can be replaced—a spouse can pass away and you meet someone else and live a happy life. I did. But a child is irreplaceable. A part of you is gone and it is never coming back. [She starts crying].

J.P.: It wasn’t my goal to make you cry. I’m sorry I …

N.S.: It never comes back. Irreplaceable. Out of the sequence of life.

J.P.: So how as a parent are you able to move forward? You’ve gone on to have a fruitful life …

N.S.: In the early part, you have to try and be strong for the other people who are suffering. And so you try and be strong for them and then you gradually have to keep yourself very busy and try to live a life because people who are living really have to live. In my case I had just married my husband Phil, and he really wanted to live. It was hard to punish him with my sadness. I had to do things to keep him happy because it wasn’t his loss and it wasn’t fair to make him suffer like that. He wanted to live and enjoy life. I always thought God gave me this man and this marriage to help me through it. I don’t think I could have made it.


J.P.: You come from an era where people didn’t put their emotions on a platter. Was it OK to grieve publicly and let people know how you were feeling?

N.S.: Not publicly. I never grieved publicly. Because you know what—people do not want to listen to your sorrow. Most people want to be amongst people who are chipper, happy, and most do not want to be around someone who is sad or unhappy. People are that way. And in a way, they can’t feel your pain. So you have to keep it more or less to yourself really.

J.P.: What was Dick like?

N.S.: He was a very special person. He was tall, handsome, very ambitious. And became quite successful with his own self. No one helped him and he really got there. He was going to be president of the company all on his own. He didn’t have help from anyone. And he was really close to me. He adored me like I adored him. And when he first got out of college and he lived at home I told him he had to pay rent. He couldn’t get over that. My theory was that someday he would be married and he’d have to pay rent and he’d have to pay expenses. And he may as well not live for free. So I charged him rent. He had a very minimal salary and I charged him a minimal rent. And every week he came home with his check and he’d come to me and say, “Sigh—here’s your rent money.” He would do it teasingly. And he would say, “What are you doing with the rent money? Going to Loehmann’s to buy yourself a new dress?” And every time he got a raise in salary I raised the rent. After a while he said to me, “You know what? You keep raising the rent, I think I’ll move to New York.” I said—“Fine.”

J.P.: Do you remember how much you charged him?

N.S.: In the beginning he was making $100 a week. I charged him $10. Every time he got a raise I raised the rent. The end of the story–when he was getting married, the night before the wedding we had the prenuptial dinner I gave him the check with all the rent money he’d paid me. I saved it. He said he thought I was doing that all along. I gave him the check for the rent money. It was quite a bit of money.

We had an extremely close relationship. Very unusual for a mother and son. He called me every single day of his life. Even after his marriage. He was an exceptionally devoted son and a very devoted brother to Laura.

I drove him hard with love. His father was very, very easygoing on the kids. Never disciplined them at all. I was the disciplinarian for both of them, but they knew I did it with love. His father did not. Because of that, they both had greater respect for me. I drove a hard bargain, but they knew. So I remember distinctly once when he got a very big raise and a promotion, and he was taking the Long Island Railroad and he was excited, and he called from the station. His father answered and he said, “Let me speak to mother.” He was that close to me. He knew I drove him hard. He was not easy to bring up because I always felt he should study more and work harder. One time I locked up the television. Television was very new at the time. He spent the whole night while I was gone picking the lock. But everything I did was for his good, and he knew it. So they didn’t resent me. They acted like they resented me, but they did not.

J.P.: Dick had two children and great-grandchildren. Is there joy in them carrying him on, or pain in …

N.S.: A pain that he didn’t see them. That he didn’t see his children grow up and he didn’t see his grandchildren and he missed a lot. Really, he missed all of this because of smoking. He died of lung cancer. He had a cough when he was in his 20s, 30s. And his uncles were all doctors and they told him his lungs were like a man of 60. Everyone begged him to give up smoking. At one time when he was in college he wanted a car. My father offered him a car if he quit smoking, and he did, he got the car and not long after he smoked again. His smoking just killed him. It doesn’t kill everybody at that age, but it killed him. Everyone has a weakness. That was his weakness. And it killed him.

J.P.: Do you think of him every day? Or over time …

N.S.: I don’t think of him every day. But a lot of things set me off. If I see a mother playing golf with her son, I think how excited he would be if he knew I played golf. I know when he sees me playing up there … I didn’t play at the time he was alive. But he would be so excited. I played bridge with him. He always teased me about my age, because he knew I never wanted him to tell. So he would always joke about it.

J.P.: You recently had a 95th birthday party, and it was almost like you were gay and coming out of the closet.

N.S.: I was gay and I came out! No one ever knew my age, and I didn’t want a party, didn’t want a party, didn’t want a party. And Laura said, “It won’t be a birthday party, just a celebration. There will be no singing “Happy Birthday,” there will be no birthday cake. She talked me into it. And the invitations came out and all they said was, “Celebrating Norma.” But soon a few people found out, and then 150 people found out.

J.P.: How did that make you feel?

N.S.: At first I was upset, but now it’s almost an excitement. Because I was a celebrity at my club before, I’m more of a celebrity. They treat me like an oddity of nature; something that’s a freak of nature. People look at me every day with awe. In a way now, I’m OK with it. Even though they know my age now, I’m OK with it. Because I’m a phenomenon right now.

Back in the day with her grandchildren (from left) Robin, Deborah, Catherine and Leah
Back in the day with grandchildren (from left) Robin, Deborah, Catherine and Leah

J.P.: So in this interview I can put that you’re 70?

N.S.: Yes you can. Actually, if you had asked me previous to this I would have said no. But I got used to the number 95. I don’t feel 95. I feel as young as you do. I don’t feel any different than you do. That this will last—I don’t know. But I hope it will last a while.

J.P.: When you reach an age like 95, do you worry about your own mortality? Or is it more about getting sick and struggling?

N.S.: I don’t want to be sick. I hope I don’t have any serious ailments, and I just go to sleep and don’t wake up. Just because they say old generals never die, they just fade away. Maybe that will happen to me. I’ll just fade away. What I do worry about is the world and my grandchildren and great grandchildren. I do think a lot about what they have. I worry that it’s a tough world, and I worry about the world in general they’re living in. With the Middle East and the bombs and … I worry about the life they have to lead. I think about that. For me, it’s over. But what they have to look forward to—I hope it’s good times. But I don’t know.

Back in the 1990s, alongside her siblings, Noel and Myra.
Back in the 1990s, alongside her siblings, Noel and Myra.

J.P.: Do you believe in an afterlife? Or don’t care?

N.S.: I can’t think about that. I don’t know. Look, I’ll be looking down at you and seeing that you behave. [LAUGHS] I don’t know. Right now I’m just happy I get up every day. I think how lucky I am that I can get up, drive myself where I want, go where I want, do what I want. The main thing I think of is I want to be able to take care of myself. I’m very independent, and it’s important to me to take care of myself.

J.P.: It seems the day you go into an assisted living facility is the day you say, “I’m not down with this.”

N.S.: I wouldn’t be happy. I’m not sure I could live in an assisted living facility. I might just have to stay home with help. That could be very lonely. Because a lot of people my vintage are going. A lot have gone already. I now have friends who are much younger than me. I don’t have any friends my age. No, I don’t. I have some who are maybe 90, but not 95.

J.P.: And it’s true the key to your longevity is that you never drank, never smoked and only had sex twice?

N.S.: The first two are true. But I don’t think that contributed to my longevity. I just think it’s the luck of the draw. The genes were right and my sister Myra died at a young age, around 80, but she was a very heavy smoker. My brother Noel is 94. He was 13 months younger than me. My mother did not want him. She actually had lost a child before me during the war. She was very ill. The child hadn’t been born. They had to take the child from her.

J.P.: Was it polio?

N.S.: No. I lived with polio with a fire and my children. That was very bad. That year polio was very prevalent and they said people who could get out of the city should. So I took a place in the summer in the Catskill Mountains at a country club. With my kids. And my husband Leo was working but he’d come up every weekend. We were there and one night my parents came up on a Thursday for the weekend with my husband and with Myra’s husband. And we put the kids to bed, it was very hot, you didn’t have air conditioning. The kids were in the room sleeping and we were having tea and cake. We went to bed. And then all of a sudden, Dick had a habit of sleepwalking. I get to the room and he’s not in the room. And I was hysterical. I thought maybe he was sleepwalking down to the lake and he drowned. So happens they found him in another person’s room. So I barely got to sleep when two in the morning I heard, “Fire! Fire!” And so we had to run. My sister, she was able to go down the stairs with her husband and the baby. By the time I got to the stairs there was too much smoke. So we had to go the fire escape. Leo is carrying Laura, who is a little kid. And I’m going down the stairs with Dick. I didn’t know what to grab. We had no clothes and it was a hot night. There was something I grabbed, and it was the sheets Myra’s baby had thrown up in. That’s what I was carrying down the fire escape. And when we got down my parents were hysterical because we weren’t down as fast as Myra. And the fire went down with everything I possessed. I was there for the summer. Anyway, we got back to New York with no clothes, a hot summer. I had a lot of trouble finding clothes in the stores for the kids. We went to another country place, and Dick had terrible nightmares about the fire. He would scream a lot. That was the worst.

J.P.: Were you paranoid about your kids getting polio?

N.S.: Everybody was. Everybody. It was really bad. My doctor’s wife got it. I knew several people who got it. It was a bad time. A really bad time. When people say these times are bad, we had bad times, too.

With her 451 great-grandchildren.
With her 451 great-grandchildren.

J.P.: How did 9.11 affect you?

N.S.: I was having breakfast with someone when it happened. That was terrible, because where I lived in Manhattan you could see what was going on. The Queensboro Bridge, I could see. And the people walking and walking. That’s why these times frighten me. You didn’t have this sort of thing. You didn’t have terrorism. Now it’s everywhere. And ISIS is a cancer. There’s no way to get rid of it.

Back when I was younger I felt my country was the best. It could win a war, it could do everything. I’m not so sure we’re top of the world now. I was sure my whole lifetime the United States of America was the best, and we could beat anyone.

J.P.: Which president gave you the most confidence?

N.S.: I thought Franklin Roosevelt was wonderful. My parents thought he was a God. I thought he was a remarkable man. All the things he had to overcome. He did a lot for this country.

J.P.: I have a good one for you–you were married to Leo for more than 30 years. Usually when people divorce it’s after, oh, five, six years. How did you decide you wanted something different?

N.S.: It’s not an easy decision. Leo was very much older than me. Age like that doesn’t matter so much when you’re very young. When you get older it matters a lot. He was very old and I was in my prime. It matters a lot. But I was very conscious I wanted the kids to get married and I wanted them to have a stable life. That was my primary thought about everything. As he got older we were not on the same wavelength about anything. First of all, he was an extremely heavy smoker. At least three packs per day. And he actually went into a tailspin when he tried to give up. They have to give him shots because he had tremors and couldn’t work for several months. And because he was a very oral person, he drank a lot. When he gave up smoking he drank a lot. He drank a lot before, but he had tolerance. As you get older you don’t tolerate it the same way. His body did not tolerate it. He would have a couple of drinks and he would fall asleep. He just wasn’t right. I couldn’t see myself the end of my life living this way. I was still young—50-something. Maybe 52. And the kids were both married, and I felt I had done my share. Both my kids were married, both had children, both were on their feet. And I did something for myself.

J.P.: Was it hard to say, “I want a divorce” to your husband of 30-plus years?

N.S.: It was very hard. More hard for me. I had nothing and no training of any kind. Never worked a day in my life, and I had to do something. I took a course, became a travel agent, got a job working for nothing so I could get experience. Then I decided I would sell real estate. I took the courses, started to sell real estate. And I did well. One of my first clients was Ben Gazzara, the actor. And I did well. Then I met Phil and I stopped doing that. I learned to do things and I had no experience doing anything.

J.P.: The game of bridge seems particularly important to you …

N.S.: Hugely so. I play bridge because it’s wonderful for my mind, I love it. I play at least four times a week. I love to play. It keeps my mind sharp—I have to remember cards, I have to remember a lot. And it fills three hours of time in the afternoon. I also go to the gym three-to-four times per week. I have a trainer, and he says I’m the only one who goes in between sessions. By the time I come home I’ve been out with people, working my mind, my day has been taken up. I come home, finish with the bills, letter writing. I read a book, I read the newspaper. Then I go to bed.

J.P.: What time?

N.S.: Twelve. One.

J.P.: Whoa. Why so late?

N.S.: Because I have so much to do.

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Do you know who LeBron James is?: Who?

• Who’s your favorite actor of all time?: I loved Cary Grant. When I think of the actors of my day, they were so memorable. I don’t feel that way about the people today. I hardly remember the names of the ones I see now.

• How do you feel about gay marriage?: I feel fine with it. If that’s what they want to do, I have no objection. I have quite a few gay friends. I’m very comfortable with gay people, I have them over for dinner, we socialize. If they want to be married, I completely support it.

• What’s your favorite place in the world?: I love Venice. It’s a very romantic spot. I loved Egypt. I thougt the antiquities were very memorable. I loved Israel. Wherever I went, I enjoyed.

• What’s the most annoying characteristic a person can have?: One of the things I always like to be is a good listener. And I will say that almost any time I’m out with anyone, I always learn something. I don’t always use it right away, but it’s in my head and at some time it becomes useful. And it almost happens every time I’m with someone. Including when I’m with you.

Another annoying trait is someone who doesn’t have an open mind. Who isn’t receptive to anything new.

• Who’s our next president?: At first I thought Hillary, but I’m not sure. I think I would vote for her, but I did read a very unflattering article about her in Time. It was quite unflattering.

• What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in life?: There were some mistakes, but … I can’t even say my marriage was a mistake, because I was not unhappy for a lot of years and it produced two children I love. The one mistake is I married a very young age. That’s a mistake. But my marriage in general? No. The mistake was being too young.

• You’ve lived a comfortable life, but you’ll still cross town with a 30-cent coupon for the roast turkey. You could get the turkey down the street for only a bit more money—but you don’t. How do you explain that?: I think I explain it from early in my life. For one thing, I didn’t have a lot when I got married. If I tell you I kept a budget on my honeymoon—I never told anyone that, but I’m telling you. We just drove down to one of the mountains down on the east coast. Nothing really exciting. And I kept a budget—how much the gas cost and everything. Because when we married we had nothing. When I say nothing I mean nothing. But my parents always saw to it we had enough. For instance, my father would look at my bank account and if we were short he would put some money into it. But I always had to be thrifty. I was trained that way. And while my father was a very comfortable man, during the crash he paid off his mortgage. He was always very thrifty. But if you asked my father for $20,000 he’d give it to you. But if you talked too long on the telephone, which in those days was expensive, he couldn’t stand it. I picked up those traits.