There aren’t many people who have led a more fabulous life than my grandma Topsy. When asked how many countries she’s been to, she laughs and responds, “Oh — almost all of them!” And she’s not exaggerating. She’s been to Antarctica twice, journeyed from Capetown to Casablanca, and explored the depths of China when it was first opened to westerners after Chairman Mao.
She’s part Grace Kelly, part Auntie Mame, and I thought it might be fun to interview her for all you adventurers out there.
What would you say is the secret to a long and happy life?
Oh, boy. There’s probably lots of secrets! I would think the most important thing is an upbeat attitude about life — being positive.
How do you think you learned that?
I think I was born with it. I really do! I think if you feel badly about yourself, you can learn to undo that. But if you’ve always felt that you were OK, it makes life a lot easier. And that’s what I mean by upbeat, I think.
Can you tell us about your upbringing?
I grew up in New York, but only until I was eight or nine. What I remember about it … I went to an incredible school. It’s the school that was described in Auntie Mame, where they played leapfrog. It was called the Froebel League.
My mother sent me to school when I was two! And the reason — this is funny — the reason was she had felt that one of the most interesting parts of her education had been the year that she spent in Switzerland. So she was planning my whole life when I was only two years old! …
Eventually my mother said four children is too many to bring up in New York City and my father found this farm in Connecticut. There weren’t any private schools around; you had to go to public school. I just flunked everything! It was so interesting, everything that was going on.
I did stay there for 5th, 6th, and 7th grade. And then my mother decided this was ridiculous — I was getting all these bad marks; I wasn’t learning anything! So she sent me to Cleveland, put me on the train in the middle of the night and sent me to Cleveland all by myself in the 8th grade…
I had a really strange kind of education — wonderful, in a way, because it was different.
Did you end up going to Switzerland when you graduated?
I graduated at the end of the war, so I never got that opportunity. I graduated in 1946 from high school. The only colleges I’d tried for were the big ones like Smith and Vassar; they all said I was too young. So I took another year at Farmington, Miss Porter’s, and took all the courses I hadn’t been able to take. So that was fun. And by the time it was time to apply to college again I’d totally changed my mind as to what I wanted. I wanted to go to Sarah Lawrence.
Why did you change your mind?
Mother had a friend, Mary Jane, who I adored. She was Rosalind Russell’s younger sister, and the oldest sister was my mother’s best friend. Mary Jane had gone to Sarah Lawrence so she said she could help me get in, and I wanted to be like her. And I loved Sarah Lawrence — it was the perfect place for me.
How did you end up getting so involved with the school, that you came to be on the board later in life?
I was planning on going to graduate school, and I remember the president, Harold Taylor, called me into his office one day and said, ‘Would I like to represent Sarah Lawrence in the rest of the country?’ He said we aren’t well-known in the schools, and so I got a job! I worked in the admissions office and went all over the United States to all the private schools and the good high schools talking about that sort of education system and the college itself. So that was great!
Then I got married and we moved out to South Dakota, where Gordy was working for a linoleum company. He had to go around to all the farmers’ houses in North Dakota and South Dakota, so he’d be gone for two weeks at a time. So I called up the college and said, ‘I’m really bored out here! I don’t know anybody in Sioux Falls. Would you like me to come back to work?’ ‘Oh, yes!’ So I went back to work and did the same thing, going all over the country to parts of the country I had never gone to.
Wow. And I know you’ve been in this house forever — when did you move to Minnesota?
We got here in ’57 when Muffy was born. I built a house first. It’s the only house like it in the whole Twin Cities, I think! It was the perfect place to bring up children because everybody on the whole block had children. … When I got divorced I moved here. So I’ve been here since 1970 — 44 years!
And I didn’t know this, but I heard you once did interior decorating?
I had my own company! I had a close friend and she called me one morning about 6 o’clock in the morning, and she said, ‘I’ve been up all night, I’ve been so excited! You and I are going into business.’ We had done a decorating job for the [Minnetonka Art Center]. … We staged the whole thing and everybody raved about how well it was done. So she got this idea that we were going to start a business, and we were going to call it ‘Act Two.’ Act One was bringing up children and being moms. Now it’s ‘Act Two: Interiors.’
We decorated for practically every friend we’ve ever had. We also did the General Mills Airplane. They had to fly us down to where the plane was being built in the middle of the night, because they had to remove everything from the plane, weigh it, and then tell us what weight we could have for the material! It was really fun — I think I did it about eight years.
If you could describe your personal style in one word, what would it be?
[A few pictures from Topsy’s house below — every ounce of it has been personalized!]
When did you start traveling?
It was 1970-something when I started traveling [after the kids had moved out]. It started small. What happened was, I decided it would be fun to go to countries that nobody else had been to yet, ones that were just opening up. And I was lucky enough, I saw a little ad in the New Yorker about a trip to Bhutan. I went with eight people in the group, and we had a van and we went all over this country called Bhutan, which nobody had ever heard of! There were no hotels. We stayed in the palace, which had rooms for itinerant people like us. The food was — they didn’t know about tourists. It was a very unusual trip, but we met the Dalai Lama, went to Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal all together.
Actually my first trip was to Kenya. … We went on a safari, a winged safari, all by plane. There were eight of us and we flew from Nairobi to all the different places in Tanzania. We spent the night in tents, most of the places. Oh, we had a great time!
When you told people you were going to Kenya or Bhutan, how did they respond?
‘Why would you want to go there?’ was usually the reaction. I managed to go to most of the places in China when it first opened up. Way in the western part of China, we were the first group to go there … We went to Kashgar, nobody goes to Kashgar. It is unbelievable — everybody comes by camel [to the market]. … It’s not like going to Hong Kong or Beijing or Shanghai.”
But the bug hit me and I’ve been traveling ever since.
Did you ever find yourself in danger?
Not really. … There were times they said it would be dangerous to go, but we went and it was no problem.
How many countries have you been to?
I did count once… Well, a lot! Almost all of them!
You’ve been to Antarctica — once or twice?
Twice! I’ve been to Antarctica twice. I went a long time ago and then about six or seven years ago again. I would love to go back to some of the places — I might like to go back to Bhutan, see what’s happened there. I know they’ve built hotels and roads; it would be very different. And I love China, but I’ve been all over China now.
Once we took a fabulous trip from Capetown to Casablanca by plane. It was about two weeks. We flew everywhere. It was an old DC-3. Oh my God, it was an old rattleship of a battleship of an airplane, terrible. But we went to every country all the way up — even Angola, countries that people don’t go to, Namibia, South Africa, Angola, and over to the Central African Republic and up to — well, everything. It was just a fabulous trip.
What is the most rewarding experience of your life?
If you could give someone just starting out in life one lesson, one piece of advice?
Be wide-eyed and open for any kind of experience that comes along. Walk right in the door and don’t be scared to try new things.