I am so excited about today’s post. Jeanne Stanley-Brown is one of the funniest, kindest, and most stylish women I know and my siblings, cousins, and I are so lucky to call her our Grandy. She recently turned 91 (you can see her surprise 90th birthday party here) and I figured it was high time I interview her and share some of her responses with all of you. We had a long chat in her living room here on Nantucket earlier this week and I definitely learned a few new things about her in the process! I highly encourage all of you to interview your grandparents if you they are still around (I even want to do this with my parents as well!). Without further ado, Grandy!
When and where were you born?
I was born on July 12, 1927, in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
What’s one thing you learned from your mother?
To be honest and very clean.
You are one of the cleanest people I’ve ever met. What’s one thing you learned from your father?
To stand up for what I think is right and that I could do anything I wanted if I studied hard and saved my money.
What did you do for work?
I had a job when I was 15 working in the New York Trust Company and that taught me immediately that I never wanted a 9-to-5 job. In my twenties, I worked as a registered nurse in the Babies Hospital at Columbia Presbyterian in New York City until I got married.
And weren’t you a model on the side?
Yes, I was on Fifth Avenue one day and went by the Barbizon Modeling School where they were giving a course on makeup. So I marched in thinking I would take the class and the next thing I knew I was sitting in a waiting room and the president of the modeling agency walked in and offered me a job. I did a lot of promotional work for the hospital and did covers for the American Journal of Nursing. And I walked the runway for Anne Fogarty, Ben Kahn who made fur coats, and a hat designer named Hattie Carnegie. I was about 5’4 1/2” but I think they sent me out as 5’6”. And I always weighed around 108 pounds, even after my children were born.
How did you meet your husband (my Grandpeter, who passed away in 1998)?
I met him at a dinner party at one of his fellow residents’ apartments. We were sitting at a banquet table and I didn’t even know he was there — he was at one end of the table and I was at the other. I think the dinner was nine courses and after one of the courses, we were given a finger bowl [to rinse our hands] and the man across from me drank out of his finger bowl! I must have shown absolute horror because when the dinner was over and we got up for the ladies to go to the powder room and the men to go for cigars and brandy, Dr. Stanley-Brown [her future husband, Ted] said to me, “What happened at your end of the table? You looked stricken.” And I told him about the man drinking from the finger bowl, he laughed, and that was the start of that.
When did you know he was the one?
Not right away. He came to work at Columbia Presbyterian because he was a resident at Bellevue which didn’t have a good pediatrics division. He came to work on my floor where I was the assistant head nurse and he knew nothing about pediatrics, but instead of being the show-off I thought he was, he was very humble and asked questions when he didn’t know something.
And that’s when you knew?
No, I didn’t know then, but I thought there was… hope. [Laughs.] I probably knew he was the one after he was called to go into the U.S. Army and we were separated for a year, a month, and a day. He was in Korea in a MASH [mobile army surgical hospital] unit from the end of 1951 to November of 1952.
So do you think that absence makes the heart grow fonder?
I think so, although we had an understanding that he was away, I could date other people if I wanted to. But by that time, our friends kind of knew we were an item so I went to all the dances and parties with people who knew about Ted.
How old were you when you got married?
I had just turned 25.
What’s your recipe for a healthy marriage?
Caring, communication, and thoughtfulness.
How did you know you were ready to have kids?
Most of my friends had gotten married at 21 or 22, so I felt I was ready by the time I was 25. I had my first at 27. In those days we stayed in the hospital for eight days.
And did you always want three children?
No, five, but God blessed us with three.
Where did you raise your family?
We were in Peter Cooper Village in New York City until [my eldest daughter] Jill was ready to start school and your mom [my youngest daughter] was a year old. And then we moved to Ridgewood, New Jersey, where the kids went to the Glen School. I did a lot of volunteering there and at Social Services.
And eventually you went back to school for interior design.
Yes, I went to the New York School of Interior Design when your mother was in high school.
What do you think is a common mistake when it comes to decorating?
I think most people forget to think about scale. They choose lamps that are too small, tables that are too small. But you know, everyone has their own sense of style and I don’t think there’s anything that’s right or wrong. I think there are people who are naturally good designers without any training. I have friends who decorate beautifully and friends who are a horror in the design of their homes — I often go in and all I want to do is move the furniture around.
What’s one decorating tip you would offer my readers?
Make sure you have height in your space, like bookcases from the floor to the ceiling or a large armoire. People tend to decorate at eye level but I think your eye needs to go up and down as it scans a room.
How would you describe your decorating style?
Traditional, monochromatic, soft. I like to be able to use every kind of flower in every room — I like to change it up and have bright flowers at certain points in the year or do an all-white arrangement at other times [without the flowers clashing with the decor]. I like big lamps with white shades because I think the light is better. And I’m a great aficionado of lucite.
Grandy’s first entry in the guest book at Sunnycliffe, which reads:
Many, many thanks for a perfect visit “on the isle.” I adored every moment of it — especially meeting all the Stanley-Brown friends — now I feel I really know why Teddy raves so about both Sunnycliffe and ‘Sconset. I’ll cherish every moment of the entire visit. Thanks again for making me feel like part of the family — slightly premature but a very pleasant, secure feeling. Love, Jeanne Clair Olson, July 15 – August 18, 1952.
When did you first come to Nantucket?
In 1952 when I was engaged to Ted. He brought me to Nantucket with the understanding that if I didn’t like it, the engagement was off. [Laughs.]
What are your favorite memories from that time?
A lot of my most fun memories were with our family friends the Benchleys. They had an old car with a rumble seat and Bobby Benchley, Jr. would hop in the car and drive us through the moors. Later once we had kids, Ted had set up his practice and would come to Nantucket for a month. We’d get up in the morning and have breakfast on the porch facing the ocean. Then the children had a kiddie pool that they played in while we did chores and then we went to the beach, which was just down the steps from Sunnycliffe. Then whoever came up first from the beach would ring the bell when lunch was made and everyone came up and ate lunch. And then the children took a nap and I don’t know what we did — probably sat down and heaved a sigh of relief that it was quiet.
I’ve shared the story of Sunnycliffe on my blog before and several of my readers commented how hard it must have been for you and Grandpeter to sell the family home.
It was the worst moment of our lives. Just heartwrenching. It still makes me want to cry today. We made a terrible mistake — we never, ever, ever should have allowed that. But we weren’t given any choice and it was all so sudden. It was awful.
Did you buy your current home on Nantucket that same year (1980)?
Yes. I didn’t really fall in love with this house right away — we wanted Sunnycliffe and we couldn’t have that so this was the next best thing.
When did you move from New Jersey to Florida for the other half of the year?
My daughter Jill was in a terrible car accident in 1993 and I was staying with her outside of Boston to take care of her and her children. And at one point after about three months my friend Fifi invited me to her new home in Florida. I stayed for ten days and we looked at a little real estate. When we got to the place I now live in, I said to the realtor, “If we were ready to move to Florida now, I would buy this place this afternoon.” So when I got home I said to Ted, “Either Naples is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited or I just needed to get away so badly that Secaucus, New Jersey, would have looked equally good.” So we went down and looked — he used to say we looked at 84 places, which I can’t believe we would have done, but he was always quite truthful — and that was it.
You recently turned 91. What’s your secret to good health?
Mercy me. I don’t believe I have a secret — just good genes. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, exercise, drink lots of water, and enjoy the sun… but only with sun lotion.
What do you think is the secret to your memory? You remember more names and dates than anyone I know.
I don’t know but my friends ask me that too because most of them can’t remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.
Speaking of lunch, what’s your favorite food?
Just one? I love fruit, I love a good steak, I’m very fond of fish…
And you like your steak still mooing.
Not quite mooing — I like it warm but I like it rare and juicy.
If you could throw a dinner party with any five guests dead or alive, who would be there?
The Pope, Queen Victoria, Franklin Delano Roosevelt… I don’t know, there are a lot of people who interest me. Maybe John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy. And I think I would have liked the whole Garfield family, but you said I could only have five. [President James A. Garfield was her husband’s great-grandfather.]
What are some of the most memorable historic events from your lifetime?
World War II was very memorable because everybody I went to high school with had applied and been accepted to college but then joined the armed forces. Many of the pilots were 18- and 19-year-old men — there were very few gentlemen in my life at that time who weren’t called to serve. My father was not called up because he had been too young for World War I and was too old for World War II. And then everyone remembers where they were the day JFK was shot — he was so young and the Kennedys were like the royal family of the United States. I was having my hair done at a salon in Saddle River, New Jersey, and they were shampooing my hair when the news bulletin came on saying the president had been shot. Every hair dryer flew up — we had to sit underneath them in those days — and nobody dried their hair for the next few hours because we were glued to the news.
Are there any major sporting events you remember?
I loved going to the U.S. Open when it was at Forest Hills and I remember going to see my Mets play at Shea Stadium. The Mets won the pennant in 1969 and nobody was happier than I was. I used to close the windows when I watched them play because I would yell so loudly and didn’t want the neighbors to think I was being hurt.
What are three words you’d use to describe yourself?
I think I have good common sense, I think I’m loyal, and I hope I’m kind.
You are definitely all three of those things! How would you describe your personal style?
Clean, classic, not trendy at all.
What’s your favorite thing to wear?
It used to be a bathing suit — I could have lived in one 24 hours a day. Now, something that zips up the front and is easy to get in and out of. [Laughs.]
And you don’t go anywhere without your hat.
That’s because I moved to Florida where the sun was so strong, so I kept buying hats until I found one that I liked and wore that one all the time. Now it’s becoming my signature.
I think it’s been your signature at least the entire time I’ve been alive. What are three things every woman should have in her wardrobe?
A basic black dress, a well-tailored coat in any color of her choosing, and shoes that are stylish but comfortable.
What’s your favorite color?
Almost any shade of blue.
What’s your favorite flower?
I love lilies, roses, freesia, stephanotis, and hydrangeas. My favorite arrangements are all white or cream.
Where is your favorite place you’ve traveled?
I’m going to say London, England. The first time I went there was on my honeymoon so that always made it special. My honeymoon was three weeks in England and three weeks in France — we traveled there and back on the S.S. Liberté.
When did you start needlepointing?
My mother taught me when I was a little girl but she only taught me one stitch. I would see things that I admired in museums or on house tours and thought, I think I could do that if someone would teach me a different approach. So I took a needlepoint class at our church and the rest is history.
What’s your all-time favorite book?
I’ve had so many. I think maybe Gone With The Wind. I read it for the first time when I was 12 — it was a very heavy book and I used to walk all over Ridgewood with it. I didn’t identify much with Scarlett O’Hara but I thought her adventures were spectacular.
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
Oh, that’s even harder. We had really good movies in those days. I would go for The Sound of Music. I liked The Sound of Music a great deal.
Let’s do a rapid fire round. Chocolate or vanilla?
Lobster or steak?
Oh, a tie.
Coffee or tea?
Dogs or cats?
Blazer or sweater?
It depends on the occasion.
Dress or pants?
Pants or jeans?
Nantucket lightship basket or silk evening clutch?
Nantucket lightship basket, mine. [Laughs.]
What’s one quote that resonates with you?
Now you’ve really got me because I have a million of those.
I know you do — they’re taped all over your refrigerator!
They’re all over; they’re inspirational to me. If I see one in print, I’ll cut it out. Or sometimes I see something in a book that stays with me so I’ll write that down.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I don’t know, because I was never disappointed in my younger self!
So looking back you wouldn’t change a thing?
Not that I can think of.
What’s the best thing about being a mother?
The whole thing is great. I don’t think there’s just one thing; I think it’s a series of things.
What’s the best thing about being a grandmother?
Oh, being a grandmother is complete joy. You have all the fun of the children and none of the responsibility.
What’s your favorite memory with me as a little kid?
Once I took you for a walk around the block that lasted two and a half hours because you wanted to stop and examine every stone and every leaf. I was fascinated by all the things that interested you.
How did you get the name Grandy?
I knew I didn’t want to be Grandma, I certainly didn’t want to be Nana, my mother was Grammy, my maternal grandmother was Grammy Drake, and my paternal grandmother was Granny. So I think I picked Grandy for myself but I don’t know where I got it from. Since then a lot of my friends have changed from Grandma to Grandy so I think it’s getting quite common.
How did your husband Ted get the name Grandpeter?
That’s a better story. He was scolding your Aunt Jill (which he seldom did) and at the end of it, she said to him, “Well, if only we could all be just like you, Peter Perfect” and he started to laugh. A few years later he was on Main Street and ran into one of his cronies, an old Nantucketer, and the fellow asked him his age. And he told him he was almost 70 and the man said, “Well, you don’t look it, sonny.” So on his 70th birthday Jill took out an ad in the Inquirer & Mirror that said, “Happy birthday, Peter! You don’t look it, sonny. Love, Jill” and he carried it in his wallet until the day he died.
What do you think of the way people date nowadays?
That’s a completely new entity to me. People used to meet at school, in their workplace, in their neighborhood… and people entertained almost every week. We didn’t have the dating apps available to us and I’m not sure we would have trusted them if we had. A date in my day was dinner and the theater or dinner and dancing and today it seems like it’s, “Let’s grab a beer.” I used to drink Scotch sours — I wouldn’t drink a beer if my life depended on it.
Well, the nice thing about a drinks date is that it can last 30 minutes or three hours. What if you don’t like the person and want to go home?
I never went on a date with anyone I didn’t want to spend more time with.
But what if it’s a blind date or you met on a dating app?
Then I’d say, “Let’s get a coffee and a muffin at the corner bakeshop.”
What advice would you give to young women who are dating today?
Be careful — know where you’re going and tell someone who you’re with. And never settle. Life’s too long to settle.
Would you recommend that they give dating apps a try?
Yes, because it’s been successful for you and some of your friends. Why not? I’m not averse to anything new — I’m not one of those people who thinks everything was better in the old days.
You got a computer a few years ago and picked it up very quickly.
I love everything about it. When I want to know something, I can look it up — I don’t have to go to an encyclopedia. I like to write on it because you can correct it, whereas when you write on stationery and make a mistake, you have to start over again. And you can communicate with people at midnight and they don’t have to read it until 10 o’clock the next morning — it’s become a great convenience to me.
What’s your ideal bedtime?
I’m usually up by 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning. And ideally I think I’m most tired at 9:30 p.m. and should probably go to bed then, but I usually go to bed between 10:00 and 11:00.
What’s the hardest thing about getting older?
Your inability to do things that were completely natural and normal in the years preceding old age. It’s frustrating and I’m not doing it well.
Yes, you are!
Old age settled in at 89. 87 was a little iffy at times, but I didn’t actually feel old until 89. I mean, don’t you think I was pretty good when we went to Paris when I was 81?
Yes! And when you came dogsledding in Alaska at 78. You could still go dogsledding right now.
Well, I guess I could if there was a seat. I miss the things I could do when I was younger, like getting up and getting out of the house in 15 minutes. Now it takes me 15 minutes to sit up on the side of the bed. [Laughs.] I have no patience for that.
Is there anything in particular you’d like to be remembered for, even though we plan on having you around for another 30 years?
My smile and a good laugh. I would like that.