By Karsten Thormaehlen
When I met Betty and Morrie Markoff at the end of October 2015 in their Los Angeles downtown high-rise condo, they impersonated the last two protagonists for my book “Aging Gracefully – Portraits of People Over 100” (Chronicle Books, 2017). For this long-term project, I’ve traveled the world to meet and photograph centenarians – people who are close or above the age of 100 years.
For more than a decade, I have been producing exhibitions and books on the theme of prolonged life, longevity and so-called “Successful Aging.” Among more than 120 centenarians I’ve photographed, I’ve met the “oldest family in the world,” nine Sardinian siblings with a combined age of 818 years (Guinness Book of World Records), and two “oldest women in the world,” Susannah Mushatt Jones (1899–2016) and Emma Morano (*1899). The Markoffs represent another personal record of this endeavor: a couple with a combined age of 200 years married for almost eight decades!
Before the meeting, I was a bit nervous because I had read a few web articles about Morris’ various talents, especially about his recent and first show in an art gallery exhibiting scrap-metal sculptures he built after WWII from air-conditioner parts in his appliance shop. The show also featured some of his photographs and paintings.
Morrie was a passionate photographer, too. Most of the photographs, which he used to print himself in self-built darkrooms, he took on many trips with Betty around the world. All of them, as he convinced me by flipping through bound books made from black and white prints on baryta paper, were of extraordinary, conceptually composed and technical quality.
As a trained machinist, he also knows the mechanics of medium format, viewfinder and SLR-cameras and tried out many different models from manufacturers like Hasselblad, Rolleiflex, Contax and Leica. Regarding analogue photography, he is much more an expert in the field than myself and – he’s double my age!
All of this made me feel like a freshman, my respect got out of measure... Nevertheless, he says, “Photography was a most challenging and pleasurable part of my life.”
When he opened the door to his apartment, smiling, invited me in and started to give me a tour, all my fuss disappeared into thin air. Betty was on the phone when I entered, she interrupted Morrie’s presentation and asked, “Excuse me, what’s our neighbor’s last name? Placido... the guy living next door?”
“Domingo!“ he answered, and turning to me, “very nice guy, I meet him sometimes in the elevator, always says ‘Hello.’ ”
In his memoirs, Morrie takes you on a rollercoaster ride through almost 100 years of his life. He literally invites you to travel back in time. From his early childhood as a street kid on East Harlem’s 101st Street, growing up in a tenement, his “bare ass” swims in a rubbish-strewn Hudson River, the bloody batteries in gang fights with the Irish boys from 3rd Avenue, the afternoons collaborating at his parents’ candy store, to the rare moments of leisure time he enjoyed at the movies or in Broadway theaters, revealing his tactics on how to sneak in without buying a ticket he never could afford.
He gives firsthand insights and interpretations of his own, sometimes complicated relationships to his parents, his beloved mother and to his tight-lipped father he’d “... rather stood out of his way,” his two brothers and his younger sister, who died tragically at the age of 27.
How he and Betty later, as loving and caring parents, successfully provided their two children Judith and Steven a better life – economically and emotionally, with many travels and adventurous camper trips through US National Parks and abandoned gold miner cities (i.e. Bodie).
All of this will keep your inner cinema running while you’re enjoying Morrie’s style of writing, his warm heartedness, slyness and his special sense of humor. You just don’t believe him when he tells you with a twinkle in his eye – as he did lately to a reporter from the British Guardian – he’s thinking “... of trading Betty in for two 50-year-old women.” Many of his stories remind us wondrously on experiences from years back of our own, some feeling astoundingly up to date.
With this book, Morrie has just another coming out, after his near-death experience from a heart attack when he was 99, of his many talents. He proves that one is never too old for anything, not for being a sculptor, an artist nor an excellent novelist and a chronologist of a whole century as long as you love living and are still curious for the next day. “I’m just too busy to die,” he jokes.
My cozy and informative afternoon at their place, just a few days before their 77th anniversary, ended with a lovely shot of Morrie kissing Betty on her cheek. He commentated later, “As an old photographer, the uniqueness of that kissing shot, the exuberance and joy you caught in two old people, 99 and 101, is a first. Make the most of it. We can only wish our good fortune happens to everyone.”
It’s definitely good fortune to have met this wonderful couple and to carry them in my heart for the rest of my life!
Wiesbaden, February 19, 2017
Karsten Thormaehlen has recently published a book of photographs and biographies titled, “Aging Gracefully – Portraits of People Over 100,” Chronicle Books, 2017.
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Markoff reached out to me in 2012, when I wrote about flat-lining after a knee replacement only to be resuscitated by a nurse. In an email, Markoff said we should hang around together because he had come back from the dead too. In his case, it happened the day before he turned 99.
Not only is Markoff still kicking, four years after defying death, but he continues to branch out. At 100, he had his first art exhibit, a collection of sculpture he created years ago with metal scraps during down times in his job at an appliance shop.
At 101, he got a letter from President and Michelle Obama, wishing him a happy birthday.
At 102, he helped Betty celebrate her 100th birthday, and they’ve now been married 77 years.
So how could he add to his resume?
Markoff told me a few years ago that he wanted to write a book.
What kind of book?
A memoir, he said. He’s seen and done a few things, so why not? He’d struggled in the tenements of New York. He’d married a wonderful woman and they’d survived their differences. They’d raised a successful son and daughter. They’d traveled the world. And Morrie had gone from machinist to vacuum cleaner salesman to appliance man to amateur photographer to sculptor.
The problem, he said, was that he wasn’t a writer. But he hadn’t thought of himself as an artist, and yet a Chinatown gallery operator scooped up his creations and sponsored his art show.
As the early draft began coming together, Markoff occasionally would leave copies of his rewrites at my office. The young man had talent, in my humble opinion, and his prologue began like this:
“I am not a writer. Am I deluding myself? Do I really think… I will live long enough to tell my story? Who knows?”
The answer is yes.
Markoff did live long enough to tell his story, muse on a century of global triumphs and tragedies, and touch on the value of good friends, the lessons learned after a mugging, the importance of senior centers, the glory of world travels and local discoveries, and the joy of being engaged, connected, curious and alive.
For the title, he used his secret to a long life.
Markoff’s book is not perfect (there’s a typo here and there), Philip Roth has not been dethroned (although this was only Markoff’s first try), and he didn’t land a contract with a big publisher (it’s essentially one of those self-published deals, with help from Beverly Palm Books).
But so what? ...