Part One of this column will chronicle some of the extraordinary life of Esther Leeming Tuttle. Part Two will give her personal retrospective of the 18 US Presidents during her life.
"The older the fiddler, the sweeter the tune."
The woman walked around and around the rooftop of the huge, Manhattan apartment building for a good, long time.
Dressed impeccably, fashionable hat jauntily perched to protect her from the elements, she was slightly hunched over and using a cane. She reminded me of a marathon runner or the Energizer Bunny; she just kept right on going.
I saw her there every morning, rain or shine, snow or sleet.
Finally, after watching her morning routine for more than a year, I went outside to introduce myself and find out her story. It turned out to be a great story, perhaps one of the best I've ever heard.
"Good morning," I said as cheerily as I could muster. "Well how are you?" she shot back with all the vigor of a teenager greeting a stranger. Her energy put me to shame.
She told me her name was Esther Tuttle, hastening to add with a massive grin, "I just turned 100!!" It was an electrifying moment. Like a small child volunteering to a disinterested bystander, "I got a new doll," all wide-eyed, Mrs. Tuttle was excited, proud and a little surprised; all rolled into one.
When I asked her to what she attributed her longevity, she didn't hesitate for an instant: "It's in the walking," she said conspiratorially, big smile enveloping her face and eyes a twinkle. In the walking indeed, I thought to myself in an 'eureka' moment. My mother had fallen, badly fracturing her leg at age 72, so my family and I well knew how lack of mobility can ruin a senior's quality of life.
I was already thinking she'd be a great lady to discuss politics with and then when I saw her downstairs by the mailboxes, I asked her if she would like to spend some time with me being interviewed about the political history she's witnessed. After all, she's seen so much more than anybody else I've ever met; where else and when else would I be able to hear the political wisdom of a person 100 years old?
So when I asked her if she would chat with me, she was all-in. Adding, "I was on the front page of The New York Times," gleefully. Sure enough, there she was beaming on Page One from 2010.
She also handed me a letter she had just opened, saying, "I can't figure out what this is." On NBC letterhead, I immediately recognized it as a personal note from NBC weatherman and 'centenarian-congratulator' Willard Scott. Oh brother, more media attention for Mrs. Tuttle, I thought making myself laugh internally.
As we sat down for the interview in the same rooftop club she regularly encircles in the mornings, Mrs. Tuttle was resplendent and as always immaculately dressed. It was if she was going on her first job interview.
Here's how Mrs. Tuttle presented herself to me that recent morning:
"Tell me about your life, Mrs. Tuttle," I started off cagily, completely unaware of the dazzling conversation we were about to have.
"I never went to school; it was the Depression," Mrs. Tuttle offered up smiling, "I was an actress." I immediately asked, "Were you in anything we might know?" "Oh no," she replied, "I was really struggling."
Turns out though, that Mrs. Tuttle (maiden name "Leeming") was on Broadway in 1935 with Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard in Petrified Forest--I don't know why she would've thought I hadn't heard of Bogart and Howard.
Playing the role of "Duke Mantee," this role was one of the earliest to help jumpstart Bogart's career.
Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee
This excerpt from the biography, "Humphrey" by Nathaniel Benchley, describes an encounter with Bogart that Mrs. Tuttle didn't mention to me at all:
For two reasons, Humphrey disdained the use of makeup. The first was that the desired effect of prison pallor made makeup unnecessary, and the second was that to fake a two-days' beard would be obvious. His was his real beard, and he kept it trimmed during the week with electric clippers, thereby becoming one of the earlier electric shavers. After the Saturday night performance he would shave, singing and lathering himself and having a grand old time, and he would come into Miss Leeming's dressing room, which adjoined his, and spread his good cheer around with a lavish hand. She remembers him as being generally quiet and gentle, and scrupulous in his behavior to the female members of the cast - a trait that was by no means shared by the star.
Mrs. Tuttle has also appeared more recently on "The Martha Stewart Show," several times in skits on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," AARP promotional videos, Jeep commercials and even in an MTV "Beavis & Butthead" commercial.
Here's a brief clip of the inimitable Mrs. Tuttle being interviewed about a NYC bridge which has been closed for decades.
"I should get you a copy of my book," Mrs. Tuttle suggested. "You mean you have a book too?" I responded flabbergasted. The aptly chosen name for Mrs. Tuttle's book is "No Rocking Chair for Me."
Is there nothing this marvelous centenarian doesn't get up to?
Esther Tuttle has seen a lot of history. After all, she turned 100 years old on July 1st of this year.
"Mother was a suffragette," Mrs. Tuttle recalled fondly with a schoolgirl smile, "so I grew up very interested in politics. I was very conscious of the Presidents from a young age. I remember in school we used to rhyme out, 'Up with Harding, down with Cox, put him in the garbage box.'"
Mrs. Tuttle's father died in World War I and her mother passed away a few years later, so as she says, "I was an orphan." Raised by a great aunt, Mrs. Tuttle seems like a prize fighter much like the entire generation that had the two World Wars and The Great Depression to face head-on.
My mind flashed back to kids nowadays complaining about having to pay for school, get a job or not having the latest sneakers or an expensive cell phone; what crybabies. Mrs. Tuttle and her peers would've eaten them for lunch, that's how tough she and her generation are.
Mrs. Tuttle remembers every President from Taft on (she was about 2 when Taft left The White House) through Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, FDR, Harry Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, LBJ, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and now Obama.
"I was raised in a strict Republican household," she says, "being New Yorkers, we were very angry about Tammany Hall and the Democrats."
The Presidents Mrs. Tuttle "loved" were: FDR. Truman, Eisenhower, JFK, Carter and Reagan. An eclectic bunch if ever there was one.
Although raised in a Conservative household, Mrs. Tuttle was turned Democrat after she got a job acting in the WPA Theater in NYC. The WPA (Works Progress Administration) was an FDR project and a key part of the New Deal. "In 1932, I voted for a Republican, but later after I saw all the actors getting work in the WPA Theater, I voted for FDR after that," Mrs. Tuttle told me honestly, "I was a real mugwamp."
According to Mrs. Tuttle, "The New Deal programs were necessary and made this country great." I spared her the Conservative position on that. "FDR is now looked back on as a great President but at the time, he wasn't."
Once in the mid 1930s, Mrs. Tuttle was picking up a friend at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel on Park Avenue in her "little MG" which she just loved. As she and her friend departed and tooled up Park, a light changed to red in front of her unexpectedly. "Now, my MG didn't have the best brakes," she said ominously, "and I really had to slam my foot on them to stop the car. There was a man who had started to step off the curb and whom I would've certainly hit and hurt badly but a man next to him grabbed his jacket collar and jerked him back on to the sidewalk safely by inches."
It turned out the man was former President Herbert Hoover, whom Mrs. Tuttle had voted for in 1932 during his losing run to FDR. Hoover was just out taking a walk around Manhattan with his one bodyguard.
Mrs. Tuttle uses this story as an effective tool to show how different things were in general and particularly with respect to Presidential security back in her day.
She goes on to recount another story about how when she was living across from FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt in the east 60s of New York, the Roosevelts were well-known to everybody in the neighborhood and would often be seen chatting with passersby while walking their dogs. One story she heard was a caller to the FDR home asking for "Mrs. Roosevelt's secretary." No she wasn't there came the reply from the Roosevelt side of the phone, could she take a message? A message was taken and before hanging up the caller asked to whom they were speaking--the reply came, "This is Eleanor Roosevelt taking a message for my secretary."
Then Mrs. Tuttle moves right along on to JFK. "I remember, as everybody remembers, that I was having lunch at the Cosmopolitan Club and the head waiter came in to a make an announcement that Kennedy had been shot. What a shock. We all gathered around a small TV set and watched in horror." There was no doubt from our conversation that Mrs. Tuttle loved JFK.
With regard to LBJ, Mrs. Tuttle has a different take: "At first I thought he was ok, but then I read more about him and thought he was awful," she said and when pressed, zeroed in, "he was sneaky."
"I liked Ford," Mrs. Tuttle summoned up, "but he never amounted to much," she said grimacing a bit, then calling Jimmy Carter "a decent man."
Mrs. Tuttle liked Ronald Reagan the only Republican other than Eisenhower she tolerated. "Maybe it's because he was an actor like me," she chuckled.
"Bill Clinton was kind of like one of my grandchildren: youthful and daring." I got the distinct feeling she felt a little about Clinton as she did about JFK. She voted for Bob Dole during Clinton's second election win because as she says, "Clinton had a certain immaturity."
When it came to George W. Bush, Mrs. Tuttle was clear and decisive. "I think he was inept. This business of taking us into terrible wars was dreadful. Iraq and Afghanistan were equally bad," she spared no rod. Though, she admits to voting for Bush the first time; she unequivocally did not the second time.
With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan, Mrs. Tuttle sadly commented, "We never seem to be capturing anything or making any progress. For us to try and put anything into their government, well ... it's a sinkhole."
As far as President Obama is concerned, Mrs. Tuttle says, "I voted for McCain. I was not very enthusiastic about either of them. It's very sad President Obama's administration hasn't been more serious," she said regretfully. When I asked her if she thought Obama could turn the economy and America's ills around to get re-elected, her answer was a succinct "no ... these Chicago political people remind me of Tammany Hall," she drove home the analogy forcefully.
When I asked her my final question, she gave me an answer which I think sums up who Esther Leeming Tuttle really is, her defining moment, if you will. I said, "Mrs. Tuttle. You've seen so much in your life: newspapers to the Internet; and trains to supersonic jets. What's the best, grandest, most important development during your lifetime?" She didn't miss a beat. "The healthiest thing to come along is the accepting of color; the Civil Rights movement." To me it was a perfect conclusion to a splendid chat.
Mrs. Tuttle's children (3), grandchildren (11), great grandchildren (24) and great, great grandchild (1) insisted a while back that Mrs. Tuttle stop venturing into the NYC subway and start taking cabs. The reason? Mrs. Tuttle had fallen down some subway stairs--a metaphor for her toughness which she laughs off condescendingly.
I thought how great it would be to have my grandmother back; the things she'd tell me and share with me. And then Esther told me one of the shortest and sweetest stories I'd ever heard.
One time not too long ago, Mrs. Tuttle and a few members of her extended family were in a New York City cab. As a 5th avenue bus rolled by with an ad picturing Mrs. Tuttle on it, her granddaughter exclaimed, "Look! There goes granny!"
Here's to Mrs. Tuttle going on for a long time to come.
"To know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."
Henri Frederic Amiel (1821-1881)