An interview with my 91-year-old grandy – design darling

I am so excited about today’s post. Jeanne Stanley-Brown is one of the funniest, kindest, and most stylish women I know and my siblings, cousins, and I are so lucky to call her our Grandy. She recently turned 91 (you can see her surprise 90th birthday party here) and I figured it was high time I interview her and share some of her responses with all of you. We had a long chat in her living room here on Nantucket earlier this week and I definitely learned a few new things about her in the process! I highly encourage all of you to interview your grandparents if you they are still around (I even want to do this with my parents as well!). Without further ado, Grandy!

Yes, I was on Fifth Avenue one day and went by the Barbizon Modeling School where they were giving a course on makeup.


So I marched in thinking I would take the class and the next thing I knew I was sitting in a waiting room and the president of the modeling agency walked in and offered me a job. I did a lot of promotional work for the hospital and did covers for the American Journal of Nursing. And I walked the runway for Anne Fogarty, Ben Kahn who made fur coats, and a hat designer named Hattie Carnegie. I was about 5’4 1/2” but I think they sent me out as 5’6”. And I always weighed around 108 pounds, even after my children were born.

I met him at a dinner party at one of his fellow residents’ apartments. We were sitting at a banquet table and I didn’t even know he was there — he was at one end of the table and I was at the other. I think the dinner was nine courses and after one of the courses, we were given a finger bowl [to rinse our hands] and the man across from me drank out of his finger bowl! I must have shown absolute horror because when the dinner was over and we got up for the ladies to go to the powder room and the men to go for cigars and brandy, Dr. Stanley-Brown [her future husband, Ted] said to me, “What happened at your end of the table? You looked stricken.” And I told him about the man drinking from the finger bowl, he laughed, and that was the start of that.

Not right away. He came to work at Columbia Presbyterian because he was a resident at Bellevue which didn’t have a good pediatrics division. He came to work on my floor where I was the assistant head nurse and he knew nothing about pediatrics, but instead of being the show-off I thought he was, he was very humble and asked questions when he didn’t know something.

I think most people forget to think about scale. They choose lamps that are too small, tables that are too small. But you know, everyone has their own sense of style and I don’t think there’s anything that’s right or wrong. I think there are people who are naturally good designers without any training. I have friends who decorate beautifully and friends who are a horror in the design of their homes — I often go in and all I want to do is move the furniture around.

Traditional, monochromatic, soft. I like to be able to use every kind of flower in every room — I like to change it up and have bright flowers at certain points in the year or do an all-white arrangement at other times [without the flowers clashing with the decor]. I like big lamps with white shades because I think the light is better. And I’m a great aficionado of lucite.

Many, many thanks for a perfect visit “on the isle.” I adored every moment of it — especially meeting all the Stanley-Brown friends — now I feel I really know why Teddy raves so about both Sunnycliffe and ‘Sconset. I’ll cherish every moment of the entire visit. Thanks again for making me feel like part of the family — slightly premature but a very pleasant, secure feeling. Love, Jeanne Clair Olson, July 15 – August 18, 1952.

A lot of my most fun memories were with our family friends the Benchleys. They had an old car with a rumble seat and Bobby Benchley, Jr. would hop in the car and drive us through the moors. Later once we had kids, Ted had set up his practice and would come to Nantucket for a month. We’d get up in the morning and have breakfast on the porch facing the ocean. Then the children had a kiddie pool that they played in while we did chores and then we went to the beach, which was just down the steps from Sunnycliffe. Then whoever came up first from the beach would ring the bell when lunch was made and everyone came up and ate lunch. And then the children took a nap and I don’t know what we did — probably sat down and heaved a sigh of relief that it was quiet.

My daughter Jill was in a terrible car accident in 1993 and I was staying with her outside of Boston to take care of her and her children. And at one point after about three months my friend Fifi invited me to her new home in Florida. I stayed for ten days and we looked at a little real estate. When we got to the place I now live in, I said to the realtor, “If we were ready to move to Florida now, I would buy this place this afternoon.” So when I got home I said to Ted, “Either Naples is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited or I just needed to get away so badly that Secaucus, New Jersey, would have looked equally good.” So we went down and looked — he used to say we looked at 84 places, which I can’t believe we would have done, but he was always quite truthful — and that was it.

World War II was very memorable because everybody I went to high school with had applied and been accepted to college but then joined the armed forces. Many of the pilots were 18- and 19-year-old men — there were very few gentlemen in my life at that time who weren’t called to serve. My father was not called up because he had been too young for World War I and was too old for World War II. And then everyone remembers where they were the day JFK was shot — he was so young and the Kennedys were like the royal family of the United States. I was having my hair done at a salon in Saddle River, New Jersey, and they were shampooing my hair when the news bulletin came on saying the president had been shot. Every hair dryer flew up — we had to sit underneath them in those days — and nobody dried their hair for the next few hours because we were glued to the news.

I knew I didn’t want to be Grandma, I certainly didn’t want to be Nana, my mother was Grammy, my maternal grandmother was Grammy Drake, and my paternal grandmother was Granny. So I think I picked Grandy for myself but I don’t know where I got it from. Since then a lot of my friends have changed from Grandma to Grandy so I think it’s getting quite common.

That’s a better story. He was scolding your Aunt Jill (which he seldom did) and at the end of it, she said to him, “Well, if only we could all be just like you, Peter Perfect” and he started to laugh. A few years later he was on Main Street and ran into one of his cronies, an old Nantucketer, and the fellow asked him his age. And he told him he was almost 70 and the man said, “Well, you don’t look it, sonny.” So on his 70th birthday Jill took out an ad in the Inquirer & Mirror that said, “Happy birthday, Peter! You don’t look it, sonny. Love, Jill” and he carried it in his wallet until the day he died.

That’s a completely new entity to me. People used to meet at school, in their workplace, in their neighborhood… and people entertained almost every week. We didn’t have the dating apps available to us and I’m not sure we would have trusted them if we had. A date in my day was dinner and the theater or dinner and dancing and today it seems like it’s, “Let’s grab a beer.” I used to drink Scotch sours — I wouldn’t drink a beer if my life depended on it.

I love everything about it. When I want to know something, I can look it up — I don’t have to go to an encyclopedia. I like to write on it because you can correct it, whereas when you write on stationery and make a mistake, you have to start over again. And you can communicate with people at midnight and they don’t have to read it until 10 o’clock the next morning — it’s become a great convenience to me.