Searching for a role model for longevity as I approach my 91st birthday, I wanted to find one advocating a diet I could actually abide. So, I carefully read reports of some of the world’s oldest citizens and their explanatory regimes. Recently the New York Times reported on two such old-old-timers: One is part of a community in the southern Italian town of Acciaroli where an unusually large portion of the population is past 90. Credit seems to go to not only the general fish-and-vegetable based Mediterranean diet, but to a specific variety of local rosemary that is an almost ubiquitous seasoning in the area.
Shortly after, there was the story of Emma Morano, a native of Rome who celebrated her 117th birthday, making her the oldest known person living on earth. Her lifelong diet consisted of three raw eggs a day (now down to two), fleshed out with a few bananas and spongey oblong ladyfinger cookies. (Maybe the real secret is being Italian and pursuing la dolce vita? My late husband, Richard Falcone, lived to 96 and ate everything in sight.)
With due respect and given my passions, I instead decided to go with Mrs. Juliana Koo, widow of the distinguished diplomat, V.K. Wellington Koo who was the Chinese ambassador to the first United Nations, as well as to the U.S. among other auspicious postings. I attended Mrs. Koo’s 111th birthday party in October, after having been at most such celebrations since she reached 105. Her eldest daughter, Genevieve “Gene” Young, became a friend after editing one of my books, and I am fortunate to now be on her mother’s birthday guest list, especially as she is the one who makes all of the complex arrangements.
The galas are attended by 200 elegantly dressed celebrants, including Mrs. Koo’s ever-expanding family and are most often held in the ballroom of the Pierre Hotel. By her report, the diet that has sustained her is foie gras, beef, pork belly and “as much butter as you like.” Coupled with advice against exercise and vegetables, she might also suggest regular bouts of mahjong, the game she still plays cannily.
Impeccably dressed in black and red, she held court in a wheeled desk chair as the dozens of grand, great, and great-great grandchildren approached one-by-one, each depositing a kiss on a cheek and a long-stemmed red rose.
That sweet ceremony, and a group photo of all the attendees, are traditional parts of the event and take place each year.
Afterward, there was a lovely piano concert by Lang Lang during a dinner of braised short ribs (!) and then dancing, as Mrs. Koo circled with her son-in-law, financier and philanthropist, Oscar L. Tang, the widower of Mrs. Koo’s youngest daughter, called Baby. Her middle daughter, Shirley Young who represented General Motors in China and is a founding member and former governor of the Committee of 100, a group fostering relations between China and the U.S., is also always part of the birthday celebration.
Perhaps what might have helped Mrs. Koo’s successful ageing is a fortitude developed by fast-changing life circumstances. Born to a wealthy business family in Tientsin in 1905, she first married a diplomat, Clarence Kuangsin Young who was eventually posted to the Philippines, only to be executed by the Japanese as they took over the territory during the early days of World War II. That left the young mother and her three young daughters under dismal house arrest for the rest of the war. The four of them were fortunately able to grow vegetables, which supplemented their meager diets. (Maybe that association explains Mrs. Koo’s aversion to things that grow in the ground.)
At war’s end, she was given the choice of returning to China or going to the U.S., the latter being her very wise choice, given the government that was to follow in China. She was a gifted hostess at the United Nations where her diplomatic and language skills were welcomed and where she ran into Ambassador Koo whom she had known before and eventually married.
And so, I will try to sustain my so-far lucky life by relying on Mrs. Koo’s meaty menu, always heeding her final piece of advice, “Never look back.”
Because, as Satchel Paige might have added, “Somebody might be gaining on you.”