At 102, She’s West Windsor’s Oldest Known Resident
by Euna Kwon Brossman
She came to America before the Titanic, when Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, and Russia was ruled by Nicholas II, the last czar of Russia, who would be overthrown in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Barely 4-foot-6, with eyes of blue that are faded but still full of life, Jean Zellars, at 102, is the oldest known resident of West Windsor. Her skin is beautiful, a velvety peaches and cream complexion that bears the wrinkles you would expect over a lifetime, but you can tell great care was given to protect it from the sun. When a reporter comes to call, she is wearing a softly scented powder, lipstick artfully applied, with attention to detail. Gold earrings and a gold brooch accent the lovely silk dress she has chosen to wear for the interview.
""Look at that,"" she says, kicking off her shoe and pointing her foot in a dancer’s arch. ""I still have it."" She demurely lifts her skirt to the knee and shows me the muscles in her calf, delicate but firm, still very much there. ""I was a dancer, you know.""
Indeed, she was a dancer – a vaudeville dancer who remembers the days of Prohibition, who lived life on the road and hoofed it on the stage. Zellars is a living link to all 100 years of the 20th century. A woman of character, she is the matriarch of the house in the Sherbrooke Estates neighborhood where she lives with her grandson, Steven Ianacone, 53, a tax attorney who works for the IRS in Newark. His wife, Frances, worked as a PR executive in New York and Princeton prior to 9/11 and now teaches preschool at the Princeton YWCA while she is looking to get back into PR work. His son, Ned, 11, will be a sixth grader at Grover Middle School in the fall.
Ned, who sings, dances, and plays the piano, loves the stories his great-grandmother tells, especially about her singing and dancing. ""It must run in the blood,"" he says.
Zellars was born Genevieve Pearlmutter to Louis and Sarah Pearlmutter in Grodno, a small village on the Russian-Polish border, on October 5, 1901. Her parents were Orthodox Jews, a group who regularly faced religious persecution under the Czarist regime. Genevieve, who would adopt the name Jean later in America, was an infant when her father, Louis Pearlmutter, left her and her mother to seek a new life in America because he did not want to serve under the Czar.
""He came in through Ellis Island,"" says Zellars. ""He was very patriotic. He wanted to learn English as quickly as possible, so he got an English tutor. He loved his new country."" Her father settled in St. Louis, Missouri, opened a tailoring business, and then, finally, after saving some money and getting on his feet, sent for his family.
""I was three years old,"" says Zellars of her arrival in the United States. ""We traveled in steerage with all the pots and pans down below, but I made my way up to first class, and I danced and sang on that boat. And everybody asked, who is that pretty little girl with the blue eyes and the beautiful soprano voice?""
In St. Louis she danced and sang for neighbors while a family friend played the piano. ""Everybody on the street would come over to hear little Jeannie sing,"" Zellars says.
Her parents had eight more children, including three brothers who would serve the United States in World War II. Her youngest brother, Harry, eventually helped liberate the concentration camps.
They all grew up in the area of St. Louis that became known as the Jewish ghetto. Says Zellars: ""They put me in the back row in school, and I learned some hard lessons about discrimination. One day there was a little sick boy from a poor family. My mother fixed up a basket of food for me to take over to their house, and other people asked her, `Why are you doing that?’ And she said, `We are all God’s creatures, and we have to help each other.’ I learned that everyone should accept each other for whoever they are.""
Zellars discovered that her childhood passion for singing and dancing grew stronger with time, so when she was only 14 years old, she made the decision to leave the safety of her home to go out into the world to find work. It took her three days to get to Texas on a train. There, she was offered a contract with a Jewish theater company to be the leading lady in vaudeville acts. It was a courageous career to pursue at a time when Orthodox Jewish women didn’t make money outside the house, much less on the stage.
After she joined the theater, Jean traveled with the troupe from state to state, living out of hotels. She was 19 years old when she met the first of three husbands, Matthew Belmont, in the theater and married him. A year later she gave birth to a girl, Terry, Steven Ianacone’s mother. A short time later, tragically, her husband caught pneumonia and died. ""He was only 33 years old, so strong, tall, a beautiful actor. He had never been sick a day in his life, and within a week he was dead,"" Zellars says, adding that this was a very difficult period in her life. She was a young widow with a tiny baby, who had to work to support herself. Her mother, Sarah, stepped in to help raise Terry so she could work.
When Terry was three years old, Jean met her second husband, a part of her life she doesn’t discuss in detail, only to say that he gave her her son, Irving White, who died in Colorado last year at the age of 78.
During the roaring ’20s, when liquor was forbidden under the Prohibition, Zellars ran a tearoom in Boston. She reveals her feisty side when she relates the story of a man who drank too much and got fresh with one of her waitresses. ""I walked over to him and demanded, did you pay for that. He squirmed. Did you pay for that, I asked again. When he squirmed again, I picked him up by the scruff of his neck, put the other hand on the small of his back, and pitched him out the door. He probably had a full head of height on me but I wasn’t going to stand for any nonsense. I wasn’t scared because God always loved me and took care of me.""
Zellars was in her 40s looking for a job as a cosmetician in Philadelphia when she encountered another episode of discrimination because of her religion. ""I checked Jewish on the application form and the woman said, `The job’s been filled.’ `You’re taking the food out of my children’s mouths,’ I told her.""
She applied again years later, this time not checking anything in the religion box. Not only did she get the job, she ended up becoming one of the store’s highest performers. Then one day she was called up to the front office.
""Everybody in that room applauded. They gave me a citation and gifts. And I told a story. I told them there was once a woman who came here for a job and because she was Jewish, and they wouldn’t hire her. And that woman was me. The woman who hadn’t hired me before turned as red as fire. And every time she had to pass by my cosmetics counter, she would turn and go the other way.""
Through the 1940s and ’50s, when women wore high heels and gloves to shop in department stores, Zellars worked as a cosmetician, representing beauty products, traveling to all the leading department stores in major cities, setting up cosmetics counters, training saleswomen, and giving demonstrations.
Around 1945, when she had settled in Bakersfield, California, she met her third husband, Arthur Zellars. ""We `went’ together many years before marrying,"" she says. They were married 20 years when he died suddenly in 1973. About 1979 she went to the doctor for a cough and sore throat and was told that she had throat cancer and had three months to live. So she packed her belongings and moved back east to be closer to family.
""The doctor who gave me that diagnosis is no longer here, and I still am,"" says Zellars. As independent as ever, she lived by herself in a Jewish neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia until April, 2003, when she moved in with her grandson and his family.
For a woman who will be 103 in October, Zellars is in remarkable health, with no major medical problems, except for high blood pressure, which is checked every three months. Sometimes she doesn’t sleep well at night and ends up catching up on her sleep in the morning, from 6 a.m. to about 10 a.m. Though she needs a cane to walk, for balance, she is fastidious about the way she appears. She has her hair permed regularly, every three months, to keep her gray curls soft and fine.
Frances Ianacone says Zellars has a highly refined sense for fashion. ""Every outfit has jewelry, shoes, and a purse to go with it. In her day and age, of course, every outfit also had matching gloves and a hat. She is definitely the VIP in our house. She rules the roost.""
How does a centenarian spend her day? Zellars enjoys her breakfast, and she has a sweet tooth. She likes to read love stories, though she has to read books in large print with a magnifying glass. She borrows books from the New Jersey Library for the Blind, which loans books through the mail at no charge. She never misses a single episode of Oprah. ""I love her for her heart,"" Zellars says. She watches movies with Frances, most recently ""Chicago,"" which she loved. She often plays cards, especially solitaire to keep her mind and hands busy. And every Thursday, a paid companion from a company called Home Instead spends three hours with her. They go out for lunch or stay at home to chat.
When asked about the challenges of caring for a centenarian, Frances says, ""It’s never difficult to have someone like that in your home. We love her. When you love someone, it’s never a burden to take care of them. Ned also gets to know his great-grandmother and to spend time with her. She’s mentally sharp, a great life force. Everybody wants to be around her. She draws people to her.""
Zellars says she owes her longevity, in part, to good genes. ""My great-grandmother lived to be 110,"" she says. ""The best thing about living so long is that it’s joyful to see my family, but I don’t recommend that everybody live this long."" She also credits the love of family and friends for keeping her going, including her conversations with an old friend in California who still calls her once a week.
Her daughter is now 83, her son-in-law 87. They both live in the southern part of the state and she sees them at least every other month. She has nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren from California to New Mexico to New Jersey.
""She never smoked or drank,"" says Frances, ""though now she’ll have an occasional glass of champage on special occasions to get a buzz along with the rest of us. She’s really stayed physically active all her life.""
Zellars says what she remembers about her life is that life pressed her into working hard, but she is not bitter about any of it. ""My children’s father died so I took care of them. My children meant my life. You love your blood. You love your family. You’d do anything to keep them and keep them happy. You think of serving your family and God. In every part of the world the beauty is where people are, where the conversation starts, where you make friends.""
It seems a natural question to ask a centenarian about the meaning of life. Zellars doesn’t skip a beat. ""Do the best you can. Make friends, not enemies. Have sympathy for people. If you can help them, do it. Helping others makes you happy, makes them happy, and makes our heavenly Father, the creator of us all, happy.""