Gray-Haired Granny? An 85-Year-Old Writer Goes Punk Rock Instead | KUOW News and Information

Gray-Haired Granny? An 85-Year-Old Writer Goes Punk Rock Instead

Nov 18, 2015
Originally published on November 19, 2015 12:14 pm

For the ongoing series The Changing Lives of Women, Morning Edition is exploring aging. We asked 85-year-old novelist Anne Bernays to reflect on the role of a woman's appearance as she grows older.

Along about the time I became a great-grandmother I dyed my white hair blue. Not a wussy "blue-rinse" blue, but eye-stabbing, punk-kid blue. At the time, I didn't do any soul-searching. I just thought, What the hell, why not?

I was surprised by how this turn went over; everyone seemed to approve it. Grouchy people smiled at me. An older woman stopped me on the street to shake my hand. I was sort of like the dog who stands up at the piano and plays "Melancholy Baby." (For you young folks, that's a reference to an ancient smutty joke.)

Now, after some introspection, I realize that I was protesting the passage of my own time here, highlighted by the great-grandmother thing. In our peculiar culture, beauty does not, as Keats claimed, equal truth. It equals youth.

While young people sparkle like diamonds, old folks are invisible — except, as I discovered, if you have bright blue hair.

I once knew a woman who was so worried that her fiance would find out she was three years older than he, that she hid her yearbooks and continued to lie to him. Pathetic, right? Probably, but it's only an extreme example of our dread of showing our age. Sadly, vanity and its companion, the compulsion to shave years off your age, do not go away as you get older.

Didn't Nora Ephron write a whole book about her neck? Didn't Marlene Dietrich seal herself up in an attic room and refuse to see anyone when she discovered her beauty had deliquesced?

I always looked younger than I actually was — a lucky throw of the genetic dice. But even if you do happen to look your age, why spend your hard-earned money getting sliced and diced, shot in the forehead with embalming fluid and contributing to the cosmetic surgery industry — worth $11 billion last year? Because we're all afraid to show our age.

A few years ago someone asked me if I'd just had a face-lift, and I was thrilled. Hard-headed, realistic I may be, but I'm fundamentally as vain as the next woman. I won't go to the market without first putting on lipstick.

Is this fixation wired into the human female? If so, then we don't have to feel guilty about it. If not, then why do we behave as if our appearance trumps kindness, intelligence, imagination, enthusiasm and humor?

I have no answers. When I was in my 20s, a much older woman told me, "Darling, your feet will be the last thing to go." She was wrong: toenail fungus. As for my hair, it's been thinning for more than 10 years, and there's a largish pink spot on the back of my head. Eyebrows and eyelashes? Gone without a trace.

I was lumpy at 11; at 85 I'm lumpy again. Of course I mind — but not all that much. I consider myself ahead of the game: I can still make the bed, walk around without mechanical assistance and instruct a roomful of students. And I just bought a second jar of hair dye, "Lagoon Blue," and plan to have it in place for the holidays.

Anne Bernays is the author of 10 novels and teaches writing at Harvard University. She has three children, six grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

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More than half a century ago in Cambridge, Mass., a young mother published her first novel. Today, Anne Bernays is 85. Her kids are grown, and she's still writing as well as teaching and throwing weekly cocktail parties in her apartment high above the Charles River. Earlier this year, Bernays wrote about making a bold fashion choice.

ANNE BERNAYS: (Reading) The same month I became a great-grandmother, I died my white hair blue - not a wussy, blue-rinse blue, but eye-stabbing, punk-kid blue. Grouchy people smiled at me. An older woman stopped me on the street to shake my hand. I was sort of like the dog who stands up at the piano and plays "Melancholy Baby." For you young folks, that's an ancient reference to a smutty joke.

INSKEEP: Now, this year we're talking at aging. And as part of our coverage of the changing lives of women, we asked Anne Bernays to think out loud about what life is like in her ninth decade.

BERNAYS: People look at you differently. And they tend to, you know, call you little lady and treat you as if, like, you were dumb. I mean, it's the attitude of a lot of young people to older people. Whereas, I feel like I'm still a teenager.


BERNAYS: I'm Anne Bernays. I'm 85 years old. I have written 10 novels and co-authored three nonfiction books. I teach, and I live day by day.


BERNAYS: Somebody looked at that picture the other day and said, who is that beautiful woman? And I said, that was me. And I didn't realize that I was OK to look at. I'll tell you, I was quite beautiful when I was young, and - but I didn't know it. And that probably saved me from being absolutely repulsive as a person.


BERNAYS: You know, at my age, you just don't know what's going to happen when. And so you make the most of every day. I'd have to say that I'm extremely fortunate. My mother lived to 88. My father lived to 103. And I have these genes that allow me not to have most of the complaints many people much younger than I have. I have a little arthritis. My eyes aren't as good as they used to be. But I walk every day for 30 minutes. I can run, if I have to. I cook. I shop. I do all the things I've ever done.


BERNAYS: My husband of 60 years died about a year and a half ago. And that was a huge blow. And I'm still not over that. I felt alternately numb and in excruciating pain. There was no - nothing in the middle. It was just horrible. And I'm slowly coming out of it. It could happen at any time of the day - there isn't any one time - when I just feel, I wish you were here. It just comes on you - (sniffling) - crying a little.


BERNAYS: His name was Justin. But I called him Joe - best sense of humor of anybody I've ever known. And it wasn't telling jokes or anything like that. It was after he would listen to a conversation - he was very shy and was a little introverted - then he would make one remark. Everybody would go (gasping) like that. He would - it was witty. And it was right to the point. And it was so funny. And he never talked about himself. He was sort of super modest, which is nice in this day of egotists and super egotists.

It's the same as if I was 50 or 40. First of all, I need somebody to bounce off - that is, conversationally. And I have several women friends I can do that with, but it's not the same thing. I also like to cook for people. And cooking just for myself is very lonesome. And also, I like sex (laughter). You know, and the thing is people think, oh, my God. People over 50 having intercourse, it seems obscene.


BERNAYS: I joined online, and, boy, there are a lot of screwballs on there. One man said he was 55, and I said, I could be your mother. And he emailed back, I like them old (laughter). I didn't - I didn't bother to meet him. Although, he was cute. That's not my thing.


BERNAYS: It's been a great pleasure. I've told you more secrets than I have anybody else (laughter).

INSKEEP: Hey, that's the writer Anne Bernays recorded in her home in Cambridge, Mass. You can see pictures of Bernays teaching at Harvard, complete with blue hair, at Anne Bernays also asked that we mention she is the mother of three, grandmother of six and the great-grandmother of one. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.