Zelda Kaplan Wore A Lot More Than Purple



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By now, you’ve heard about the passing of Zelda Kaplan, the stylish, youthful 95-year-old toast of the New York social scene who, quite literally, died in the front row at the Joanna Mastroianni show this past Wednesday. It might be in poor taste to say that the manner of her passing has already become the stuff of Fashion Week legend or to report that more than a couple of editors in our circle have said it was a fitting and even desirable way for her to shuffle off this mortal coil. Yes, poor taste – but true, nonetheless.

The sensational details of her demise aren’t why we’re writing today – nor is this an obituary. Those were filed and published on Thursday. No, we just want to take a moment here and note that Zelda Kaplan represents for us not just a legendary way to die, but an ideal way to live.

We don’t need to get into the details of her past life – certainly she didn’t like speaking about it herself – but it is important to note that Kaplan’s time as a glam, African-print-clad social butterfly began only after two marriages and hitting 50-years old. She reinvented herself as a dance instructor and art-scene favorite around the same time her peers were focusing on browbeating their boomer-generation daughters into becoming traditional wives and mothers.

It seems, at some point, she had become fed up with expectations and delayed gratification and immersed herself in New York’s vibrant creative scene, African culture and social issues, fabulousness, and whatever was happening right now...and never looked back. It’s something anyone – whether they be a fashionable 50 or a casual 22 – should embrace.

There’s a poem – you know it – “When I'm an Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple,” by Jenny Joseph. It is, supposedly, about the liberty that comes with dotage, about how older women, free of work, the expectations of society, and sexuality can be as nasty as they want to be. In truth, it’s about how one should be proper in youth and enjoy being demented and decrepit with age.

Kaplan wouldn’t want either part of that. After leaving her past life as a housewife behind, propriety was not a question and there would be no waiting, no embracing the crude or the slovenly, no walking down the street a blissful outcast. By keeping time with women young enough to be her great grandchildren at the Beatrice and out-smiling everyone at fashion week, Kaplan reminded us that though old age is a physical condition, it does not have to be a spiritual one. She was never an old woman, and she wore a lot more than purple.

Almost a decade ago, when she was a mere 87, The New York Times profiled Kaplan, who was busy bouncing between the dance floors of Lotus and Bungalow 8 (they were still cool at the time). There she was quoted saying, “I want to be an example for young people so they aren't afraid of growing old and a lesson to old people that you can be productive. You don't have to sit around and wait for death.”

Certainly, Kaplan was and is an example for us – we’re a little less afraid of aging because of her – and, even though she was seated when death came for her, it caught her mid-motion. All, things considered, it was a good way to go.

Photo: Courtesy Patrick McMullan.