Historical Society honors ‘Living Legend’ Esther Tuttle

KINDERHOOK — The Columbia County Historical Society will honor Esther “Faity” Tuttle for her many contributions both to their organization, where she served six years as a board member, and to other worthy causes, at its June 11 annual gathering.

Since Mrs. Tuttle, a resident of Kinderhook since 1941, will soon celebrate her 100th birthday, she would be an appropriate honoree on that basis alone, but she has done so much more in her many roles as actor, wife, mother, traveler and volunteer.

“We thought Faity was the perfect honoree for CCHS this year,” said Ann-Eliza Lewis, the organization’s executive director. “She has been a very long-time supporter of CCHS and has a strong commitment to volunteerism, which is fundamental to CCHS’ success. Perhaps more importantly, at 100, Faity is incredibly youthful and fun — what better message is there for a historical society than to show that people and things with a history are youthful, fun and intriguing.”

This year the lively and active Ms. Tuttle was profiled by Jane Brody in The New York Times, exposure that led to interviews by Martha Stewart and the BBC about the reasons for her longevity. In addition to genetics, Ms. Tuttle’s secret may be her common sense lifestyle, which includes daily exercise and healthy eating, varied and challenging activity with friends and family, and professional engagement, as well as her optimism and resilience, which have enabled her to accept life’s hard knocks and move on.

She was born into a family whose affluent lifestyle included homes in Brooklyn and Connecticut. Her childhood was carefree and idyllic until her father came home from World War I with tuberculosis and died. A successful architect, he designed the now landmarked Henri Bendel building at 712 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Her mother died three years later, succumbing to diabetes at a time before the discovery of insulin. She and her siblings moved in with a maiden aunt in New York City, and instead of going to college, found jobs.

In her twenties, while working as a sales clerk at Saks and Macy’s during the Depression, she pursued an acting career and after some perseverance, won a supporting role in Robert Sherwood’s 1936 Broadway production of “The Petrified Forest,” which featured Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Howard in leading roles. Her study of oriental dance led to the part of Azuri, a harem girl, in a summer stock production of “Desert Song.” Soon she earned membership in the actors union.

“I guess I’m the only person alive who was in that play,” she told me as we sat in her 20th floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side looking at photos of Bogey in a biography.

Ms. Tuttle stopped acting when she married and had children, but returned to it after her husband died in 1987. Her commercial work and granny modeling led to exposure on television and billboards here and abroad.

During an interview in April at her apartment, she recalled her early years in Kinderhook, where she and her husband bought a 100-acre farm to keep horses and to expose their children to country life. At the time, just after the World War II, gas was still scarce and she and her husband and sons traveled upstate on the day boat to Hudson, picking up their car there and driving on to Kinderhook.

The farmhouse had no running water or electricity and relied on a gas motor her husband, Ben, rigged up that pumped water into a tank in the basement. The house had been the home of Jesse Merwin, the school teacher who inspired Washington Irving to write the story of Ichabod Crane in “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”

Back then, she said, the village had two liquor stores, two grocery stores, a good meat market and you could walk everywhere and do all your shopping. During that time they would take a horse and carriage into town to avoid using up gas.

She remembers these events as if they took place yesterday and credits the process of learning lines for keeping her memory sharp.

One story from her more recent history, back when she was only 85, exemplifies the resilience that has sustained her during the past 100 years. It’s a story I remember her telling me when we served together on the board of the local theater group Hudson River Classics, where she performed many roles in the play readings we produced.

The story is about the October day she fell into quicksand on her property while taking her daily morning walk. It was a weekday and her farm was deserted. While inspecting a muddy dam that retained the lake, which had been drained, excavated and rebuilt, she thought she was on firm ground. Instead, her foot, and leg sank into the muck and she couldn’t free herself. She recalled seeing a horse in a similar situation. His legs sank in but his body kept him afloat. She threw her body down horizontally and tried to swim and wriggle to shore, a laborious process, even for a younger person, that involved having the presence of mind to take a break to rest and recover her energy to keep fighting.

“Looking back, I believe that losing my parents so early probably made it easier for me to cope with other tragedies later in life,” she said in her 2003 memoir “No Rocking Chair for Me.”

“I developed an intuitive understanding that I could survive anything after that… and be happy again after suffering horrendous losses,“  she said. That important lesson helped her to continuously look on the bright side, make friends and take advantage of the many opportunities that came her way.

Her optimism and generosity found expression in the volunteer work she began when her children were infants and included 43 years at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, some of them spent as chairman of the board, and board memberships at the Columbia County Historical Society, The Girl Scouts and The Shaker Museum. She also is a member of Colonial Dames of America, and The Snarks, an amateur comedy club in New York City.

“We all have to adjust to new realities when our lives enter a different phase,” wrote Mrs. Tuttle in her memoir. She now lives with her friend, writer Allene Hatch, 84, and has given up horseback riding, a life-long passion, in favor of driving a carriage drawn by Ginger the horse whose birth she assisted 30 years ago. And she still enjoys her nightly three-olive martini, “but only one.”

The June 11 event includes a cocktail party, silent auction and optional dinner. For more information about First Columbians’ celebration of Mrs. Tuttle’s life, call  518-758-9265  or check www.cchsny.org.

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