Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?


God agrees to grant Hyman a wish, with the condition that whatever he asks for, his brother-in-law will get double.
“Okay,” Hyman says, “I wish I were half-dead.”

There was nothing Jewish in the Kahns’ upbringing: no Yiddish, no synagogue, no shtetl sentimentality. Saul and Mamie left Grand Street for Yorkville as quickly as possible. Helen and Peter eventually changed their last name to Keane for professional reasons—in Helen’s case when she started contributing articles about women’s fashion to Liberty magazine in 1936. The editor said the new name would sound more like a writer’s.

Perhaps, but then she’s had many names. Helen Faith Keane is the one she used professionally—not just at Liberty, but as the host of a daily TV talk show called For Your Informationin 1950, and as an instructor of costume history at NYU from 1947 to 1977. Mrs. Philip Reichert is her married name; her husband was a cardiologist who dabbled in sexology. But mostly she’s been called Happy, a nickname acquired at camp at 16 that remains apt 93 years later.

Happy explains this to me as best she can. Though she is perfectly turned out in peach slacks and a chic bouclé jacket, with her nails neatly done in Bungle Jungle red, she is hampered by speech difficulties, the result of two strokes in 2005. Her thoughts are intact, but I can’t understand her except when she puts a huge effort into producing a few clear words. Mostly she lets her live-in caretaker, Olive Villaluna, interpret, a relief apparently compromised by the rare thing Olive gets wrong. At these moments, Happy will sometimes grab my wrist—we are sitting side-by-side in wooden armchairs in her Park Avenue apartment—and wring it like a washcloth. Other times she makes a gesture that looks like she’s firing a small gun. Olive says it’s a tic of her frustration.

But for the most part, like Irving, Happy does not dwell on difficulty, or even on the past. She’d rather see whatever’s on Broadway or in the museums. “She hated that costume show at the Met,” says Olive, “you know, the guy who committed suicide”—and here Happy makes the gun gesture again. “And just recently, in June, she said, ‘Olive, there’s a new exhibition of ­Capucci’ ”—the Italian fashion designer—“ ‘in Philadelphia.’ ‘Okay,’ I said, ‘we’ll make arrangements.’ She said, ‘No! Right now!’ So we packed our bags and went the next day.”

Listening intently, Happy demands the show’s catalogue, which is brought by ­Olive’s husband, Joseph. She points at Capucci’s incredible creations, beaming with pride as others do over pictures of their children. Not having any of her own, she has suggested that ­Olive and Joseph’s baby, due in February, be named Faith.

I have sat with many old women before; it’s a professional hazard, or privilege, and my nature as well. I’ve heard their stories, patted their shocking, soft skin. I have seen them invite my pity and repel it, too. But Happy doesn’t want any of that from me. She wants me to join her in some new experience right now. Do you like Johnny Mathis? Rodgers and Hart? She points to where her piano used to be, as if inviting me to play, but she’s given it to Cornell University, of which she is, it hardly needs saying, the oldest living graduate.

“Happy, you had to stop playing after your stroke,” Olive reminds her. “Before that you played every day. We got back from Mamma Mia! and you played ‘Money, Money, Money’ from memory!”

Oh, well, Happy shrugs; what’s next?

Since she has indicated that she doesn’t believe, despite her family’s evidence, in a gene-based explanation of her longevity, I ask if “just moving on” is part of the secret everyone assumes SuperAgers must have. Can gumption trump decay even at 109?

“I don’t know anything about it,” Olive says she says. “Many people did the same things as she, but they don’t live to be so old.” Happy shrugs again.

“We went to the doctor yesterday,” Olive continues. “She mostly just goes to say hello.” Like her brothers and most SuperAgers, Happy takes few medications, and only since her stroke. “He asked her, because I mentioned that she had lost weight recently and sometimes could not sleep, ‘Are you depressed?’ And Happy said, ‘Why? Why would I be depressed?’ ”

I wonder if depression should be on Barzilai’s list of big diseases that SuperAgers escape. When her husband died, in 1985, Happy gave away her best china and took off for several years of world travel, barely stopping at home except to repack her bags. When she had her stroke twenty years later, she worked harder than anyone Olive had ever seen to restore her ability to speak and write. At first there was only one word she could form, and it’s how she addressed Olive, by her mother’s name: Mamie.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift