Since Zelda Kaplan’s death on Wednesday, she has been eulogized for her great style, humor, energy, and commitment to women’s rights. These qualities, along with her wisdom, shine forth in this never-before-published interview, conducted over a glass of wine (of course!) just months before Kaplan’s death. Between sips, she commented on a “strapping lad” who walked past and gabbed about an upcoming trip to Cuba she was planning — she even invited us to come along, so long as we’d dance a little mambo with her. She was, and will remain, one of New York’s greatest treasures.
What’s your daily schedule like?
I am a night person. I wake up around 5 p.m. and come down to my local café for dinner. I eat one meal a day, dinner. I start my day with dinner and feel great. If I wake up early I might have some orange juice. Actually, I always have orange juice. That’s the only thing in my refrigerator. And anyway, I don’t do enough to be really hungry! Because I’m a night person, I go out a lot. I like to go to a bar and have a nice glass of very good red wine. I love meeting people. I don’t care what age they are. They are always younger that me.
Where did you grow up?
I was raised on a farm just outside of New York, in New Jersey. I had a lovely childhood. My father was a businessman who dealt with everything from cattle to whatever. I had my own pony at 8 years old and taught him all kinds of tricks. I was very talented with my horses. I also love to dance. I rumba, cha cha, dance merengue. I taught dance for years, and after I divorced my first husband. Right after him, I had a very famous Cuban singer as my boyfriend. With him I got to teach for dance competitions. I do a great cha cha.
What made you come to New York?
After I left my husband, I came to New York. I think it was 1960, and I never turned back. I was married twice and divorced twice. The first one I met when we both were in law school. It was a lawyer first and a doctor second. I left the lawyer after I discovered he was unfaithful. I was different than the other girls who stayed and were afraid to leave their husbands. When I discovered he was unfaithful, I packed up my bags and left. I took marriage seriously. I always wanted to maintain those agreements of love. When you don’t want to maintain it, you shouldn’t stick around. He was the love of my life for ten years. I think those were some of my happiest years.
Do you go on dates?
I date now and then, but it’s not the same thing. Can you see me dating someone my age? It would be so boring. I feel like I am in my forties! I don’t think I could ever be as attracted to anyone at my age. I like a man with a sense of friendship. That is very important for couples to have, first with each other and then to discover more together the longer they are together. Sex is wonderful, but friendship is eternal. Also, friendship can last 24 hours a day.
How do you keep up your health?
You know, I could have another twenty years ahead of me. I have no idea. I actually don’t have a doctor. I feel great and don’t have any complaints. I don’t know what my blood pressure is and I really don’t care. I exercise for about two minutes every day — a little running in place and then bending down and touching the floor — not much, but I do it. I watch my diet. I don’t eat a lot. I eat a lot of vegetables and stay away from fried foods. I also have good genes. I had twin younger sisters, who are five years younger. One just died last year and the other lives in Martha’s Vineyard. We don’t see each other that much because we’ve never had anything in common. We enjoy each other’s company, but we’re very different.
Do you regret anything?
I should have finished law school and not stopped because my husband wanted me to. After I left my husband, I didn’t have that many options. I worked with a family and got a job through them at an art gallery. I supported myself. I got alimony. I had to work for money and was lucky I found a nice apartment that was dirt cheap.
How do you hope to be remembered?
I hope people remember me as an intelligent and respectful person who was interested in the world, and especially women’s human rights. I spent a lot of time in Africa, in villages. Margaret Mead was a big inspiration to me. I met her twice. She showed me a lot about how I wanted to live. When we spoke, I was struck by how she listened to my questions and how she concentrated so much on me when she answered them. I felt how nonjudgmental she was. My first trip was to Mali and I learned about many different culture and tribes. This was about 55 years ago. I decided on my own to go, just like she did. I bought a ticket. I didn’t go with an organization. I just did my own research and went.
Do you still travel alone?
For years I would go on these big, long trips around the world alone and have a wonderful time, but now I can’t do that — my short-term memory isn’t as good, so it’s better that I travel with someone. Traveling alone is the best, because if you’re with someone then no one comes over to meet you. My rule with travel was to never go away for less than four months and it was usually traveling for seven months. I never have a timetable. If I go somewhere interesting and I feel comfortable, I just hang out. Maybe four weeks later I’ll pack and go to another town. I like doing that. Just sitting around listening to the music and watching the people dance. I always look for the best dancers on a dance floor and go up to them and dance with them.