By Stephanie Cavanaugh
MY SISTER JEANIE once had a summer job, sleeping on a sofa bed in the window of a New York City department store. Talk about exhausting work.
This was in the late 1940s, before I was born. While many of our family stories extend the truth with, shall we say, a few alternative facts, this one is real.
The Prince and I have always visited her a few times a year, and always on her birthday, in early September. We were there, along with Baby, her personal Prince Pete, and their baby, Wes, for the last birthday, Jeanie’s 90th. A big bash was held in her condo pool house, ocean in the background doing its thing as Sinatra sang in what we hoped would be a year of revival—she was dancing, for goodness’ sake.
Jeanie passed away last week, which was both expected and a shock. She’d been in and out of hospitals and nursing homes for the last few years with a variety of non-Covid-related, yet dramatic, ailments. Our family is also big on drama.
She was home from her most recent trauma, with sister Bonnie alternating care with Donna, Jeanie’s fiery Irish-Puerto Rican aide, when her heart simply stopped. Bonnie found her quickly, revived her with help from 911, and the EMTs raced her to the hospital.
She lasted long enough for the Prince and me to arrive, then was gone.
When I was a kid, Jeanie reminded me of glamorous comic-strip reporter Brenda Starr, though with light brown hair, not red. She wore high-heeled backless sandals called Spring-O-Lators (I won’t say what they’re more crudely called) with a magical strip of elastic at the arch that prevented them from falling off, even with the slipperiness of sheer stockings. These she had in every candy color, including licorice, in row upon row on her closet floor. They also gave her terrible corns, but what price beauty?
Every night she’d set her hair in a hundred pin curls, brushing it out each morning in Lauren Bacall waves. She wore mink stoles, turquoise eyeshadow, bold lipstick and drifts of Arpège. There were hat boxes and a flashy convertible.
Dad was a furniture designer and manufacturer of sofa beds, with a showroom in New York. Jeanie’s first job was no doubt his doing; she was a home-furnishings nepo-baby. For many years she worked with him, picking fabrics, designing vignettes, flirting with department-store buyers as she sold them the moon.
When her husband, Lou, retired, they moved to Florida, to an oceanfront condo with terraces north and east, high enough up that when sitting down you feel as if you’re on a cruise ship. When Lou passed away, she took up with Jack, a handsome widower who lived across the hall in an apartment the mirror image of hers. They were together 12 years but kept both places—one for living, the other for entertaining. An admirable setup, I think.
When Jack passed away, she decided she was done with men. The only ones left, she said, are looking for a nurse. She played mah-jongg, learned calligraphy, and served on the condo board as president and chief designer. She turned into a reader, loved movies, meals out with friends, and happy hour (note: since the Boomers hit 65, the term “early bird special” has been retired). And she watched the endlessly changing ocean, visible from every room. That, and a bourbon old-fashioned, was enough.
We held a celebration of her life on January 22nd, in the pool house.
There were plump, bejeweled matrons, helmet hair thick with spray, with a remaining few of their spouses—what happens to men in South Florida?—desiccated and bent, crumbled at tables while their wives jingle-jangled over with pastrami sandwiches.
They’re so old, said My Prince, who’s no spring chicken—though he sure looked like one that night.
Alexandra, Bonnie’s daughter, came from a couple of miles away, and Jeremy, her son, flew in from LA. Lou’s son Jay came from San Francisco, Jack’s son John from Syracuse; Damon, her health insurance adviser, came with a huge orchid; Donna, the aide, blew out her black mane and put in her teeth. Angel, her fix-it man, came late.
We spoke, we toasted, we danced. The stars glittered, palm trees swayed. Gosha, her Polish cleaning woman, brought white balloons and, after a largely incomprehensible but moving speech, released them to float out over the ocean. Not the best idea when Jeanie’s charity of choice was the Loggerhead Marinelife Center, which protects turtles from death by balloon, among other things. But it’s the thought.
Baby had the last words. As Jeanie said when her husband passed away, “Lou’s in heaven and I’m in paradise.”
We’re not sure whether heaven was a promotion or a demotion, but it’s the thought . . .
Note: Much of this is modified from a piece I wrote for Jeanie’s 88th birthday. She called it her obituary. And, sadly, so it is.