You’re closer to her than you think. Meet the local treasure who you’re already connected to.
Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly leans in close, as if she’s going to tell me a secret. And she does. It’s a secret to living a long life; living a happy life; a healthy life. It’s one of the secrets that makes Reilly such a favorable politician.
Reilly tells me there’s somebody I should meet—a 99-year-old woman who has had a significant impact on not only Reilly, but many people in Santa Cruz, the state of California, the United States and beyond. I’m intrigued. I ask her to tell me more. Months later, I, too, am drawn into the six-degrees web that is Eleanor Wasson.
As pimply-faced teenagers, my high school friends and I would play “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” where you pick an actor and see how they are connected to the Footloose actor through six people or fewer. For example, say you’re going to see Hairspray that opens in theaters this month. John Travolta stars in it. He was also in Phenomenon, which starred Kyra Sedgwick, who is married to Bacon.
You can easily play this game using Wasson instead of Bacon. The illustrious woman has been “connected” to people across the globe—politicians, actors, bigwigs far and wide. Here in Santa Cruz, the game is even easier.
I’ve been playing it for months now, ever since Reilly told me about Wasson. Not long after I made my way back to GT after that initial meeting with the mayor, strange things began to happen. Somehow I crossed paths with many other people who knew Wasson. They raved about her.
The six degrees had begun.
One day, Dennis Morton, a long-time local and a strong fixture on the local poetry scene, walks into the office. He informs me about an upcoming poetry event. Then he slips it in: “So, you’re writing a story about Eleanor Wasson?” Did I tell him this already? What is it about this woman that everyone suddenly wants me to write about her?
Morton later tells me that Wasson is someone whose life influence has spanned the world. She started a Santa Cruz “peace movement” called WomenRise for Global Peace, acting upon the inspiration of her friend, the popular activist and author Marianne Williamson (“A Return to Love”). She has also hobnobbed with the Beverly Hills and Hollywood elite of a previous generation, and she entertained her friend Dennis Kucinich and self-help guru Deepak Chopra in her home. She took flying lessons with Jimmy Stewart in 1940, she was awarded Woman of the Year in Los Angeles and has friendships with Betty White, Celeste Holm and John Robbins.
Wasson is a networker, a motivator, an inspiration; the type of woman you want to drink a long cup of coffee with, and hope you’ll get refills so you can extend the visit.
“She’s very warm and direct and she’s gregarious,” Morton says of Wasson. “Somehow she is able to touch lives that are very different, across the wide spectrum, and bring people together. So many people have met each other through Eleanor.”
Over her 18 years here in Santa Cruz, Wasson has opened her spacious home on the Westside of Santa Cruz, perched on a delicate hill, to serve as a makeshift town hall. Two weeks ago, Ocean Robbins (son of John and Deo Robbins) held a special event there for his organization called YES!, which empowers and inspires young people to “Build a Better World.”
“She has a clear recognition of what’s not right in the world,” Morton adds. “And she’s always looking for a way to support people. She’s beloved by everyone who knows her.”
Morton recalls one of his own personal moments with Wasson, something that sent his life into an entirely different and healthier direction.
“We have dinner occasionally,” Morton says. “I remember once, she invited me up to dinner and it was just the two of us, a lovely meal. And I said, ‘Eleanor, there’s not any meat in this meal,’ and she said, ‘Yes, that’s right dear.’ And I said, ‘There’s no dairy either.’ And she said, ‘Yes dear, hold on a second.’ And she came back with a sheet of factoids about the environmental consequences of a meat-based diet. She had been a vegetarian for quite some time. Because of Eleanor, I became a vegetarian for the second time in my life. [The sheet] had devastating information that a person with half a conscience would have to think twice before eating the next mouthful of meat.”
There were other moments. Once, he told Wasson about a film he had just seen, The Aviator. He explained the harrowing and terribly realistic scene where Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, flies his small plane into a Los Angeles neighborhood and crashes into a residence. “She said, ‘Oh, that’s interesting dear,’” Morton says. Wasson continued, “I was out in our back yard in Beverly Hills and there was a Navy commander with us (she and her husband George) and we were talking and he said, ‘Quiet. Stop. Listen. A plane is coming and it’s going to crash.’ It flew right over [us] and crashed two blocks from our house. That was Howard Hughes.’”
In 1988, John Robbins hadn’t yet made it to national acclaim. His first book, “Diet for a New America” had just hit the literary landscape the year before and audiences were beginning to discover him.
At the same time, Wasson was 79 years old and was working on a committee for a group called Physicians for Social Responsibility in the Los Angeles area. The organization was planning a large-scale conference, but their luncheon speaker, Robert Redford, had to bow out. In a bind, Wasson, as chairperson for the committee, went on a determined search to find Redford’s replacement. She stumbled upon Robbins and asked him to replace Redford. Little did Wasson know that this man, Robbins, was about to become one of the world’s forerunners in the health and diet industry. And little did she know that he would be the reason that she would pick up her life in the Los Angeles area, sell her beautiful home in the Santa Monica Canyon, and move to Santa Cruz.
Following that meeting with Robbins, Wasson was inundated with surprise conversations about Santa Cruz, for two straight weeks. Someone was going there on a vacation and another had a child there at the university—that sort of thing.
“The only people I knew in Santa Cruz were John Robbins and his family whom I had just met, my friend who was volunteering for John, and Mr. Gil-Osorio, my real-estate agent who is now my neighbor and very good friend,” Wasson writes in her autobiography, “28,000 Martinis and Counting,” which she penned and self-published in 2004.
Convinced that she was supposed to move to Santa Cruz and volunteer for Robbins’ organization EarthSave, which works to explain the principles from “Diet for a New America,” Wasson put her house on the market. While she was convinced that the decision was the right one, she admits in her book to having some anxiety.
She addresses in her book the pivotal point in overcoming that anxiety and moving on to the next stage of her life. “The message I had received from my own consciousness or from a higher source was, ‘Never look backward, always look forward. You can stay in your little house here and lead a good life, but down the road you will live to regret it.’ From that day on, I have moved with joy in my heart which has never left me.”
“We began to work together right away,” Robbins says of Wasson moving to Santa Cruz and volunteering as an assistant to him, writing letters to people who had written to Robbins. It was an enormous job. She also went on to serve on his board of directors.
“She has an emotional intelligence at a genius level,” he adds. “Our instincts and values are very similar, and the kind of world we want to see. The principles out of which we operate are very similar and our visions for what kind of communities we want to build, so we were a natural fit, although we’re almost 40 years apart. I think … we’ve been together in past lives.”
The idea of reincarnation is something that Wasson definitely believes in. “Eleanor Wasson is one of the most profoundly spiritual people I know,” Robbins says. ” And I don’t mean anything sanctimonious or holier than thou. What I mean is she is illumined. She has wisdom and a grace about her. And she has a connection inside her that everyone who knows her senses.”
In Robbins’ book that he released last year, “Healthy at 100,” which is already a best seller, he talks about Wasson being an “elder.” He remembers asking her what she would consider is the secret to a long and healthy life. “She said having loving parents and feeling loved as a child, and maintaining friendships, deep and lasting friendships that are precious beyond words,” Robbins says.
I recall my initial meeting with Emily Reilly. “I find myself in most public meetings, asking myself, ‘Would I say this if Eleanor were in the room?’” Reilly says. “If I wouldn’t say it if Eleanor was in the room, then why would I say it at all? She has helped me learn and remember that I can do this.”
The pair has known each other for 15 years and Reilly was one of the first people to attend the WomenRise meetings. “WomenRise gets each woman to go out and make her own difference so that collectively they’re all making a difference,” she says.
As Robbins’ writes in his book, living a long and healthy life is achieved using myriad principles. It’s the combination of things like eating your quinoa and dried apricots, exercising, changing your mind-set, respecting and loving others, while being respected and loved.
In America, we are quick to throw the elderly in rest homes and we’re remiss in visiting our grandparents. But if people could age like Wasson has, and if their friends and family treated them as Wasson’s do, perhaps America would learn its lesson on how to age gracefully.
3, 2, 1
It’s 4 p.m. on a breezy Santa Cruz day. The weather is perfect. I’m in for some exercise because there’s a long hill of a driveway ahead of me. At the top of the hill is a yard overflowing with green foliage, and a rushing creek that makes it seem like we’re out in the country. At the top of the steps to Wasson’s house is a stunning view of Santa Cruz and the Pacific Ocean. There is a peaceful presence about this place. I’m not sure what to expect when I go to visit her.
Her friend answers the door and walking down the hall is Eleanor Wasson. Frankly, she’s not what I expected. She has no cane and needs no assistance in walking. She’s able-bodied, wearing black from head to toe. A colorful scarf hangs around her neck. While her palette is muted, she is a woman of many colors, and many stories. With the kindness of a gracious host, she ushers me into the spacious living room and we sit for a while as she tells story after story. Our time is limited, as WomenRise for Global Peace will begin a meeting at 5:30, where nearly 20 women will gather in this home.
Wasson’s first story is about a producer friend of hers named Earl Katz, who, along with his wife, recently visited Wasson. “He’s just produced a film showing that 150 congressional representatives are fundamentalists,” she says. “Can you believe that?” As a Democrat and an activist, those types of statistics obviously are bothersome to her. But she doesn’t dwell on it for long.
Instead, we transition into storytime. Myself and a few small dogs are the captive audience.
Wasson was born on the 28th of February, 20 minutes before midnight during a leap year, in 1908. Already, that marks her as a woman who goes against the tide, someone who has plowed her own way through life. She was married to George Wasson for 53 years, whose high-profile job as the head of the legal department for 20th Century Fox introduced the couple to many famous people. When he passed away in 1985, he was struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. She has two daughters, eight grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
Wasson recalls that memorable first meeting with Robbins and the influence he had on her life. She shares about being a vegetarian: “If you really knew what we’re doing in the way of cattle raising, you wouldn’t eat meat,” she says.
We talk about the book she published in 2004, called “28,000 Martinis and Counting,” which was named for her favorite and only indulgence—drinking a martini every evening. In it, Wasson shares even more stories, like learning to fly, her father’s friend Mr. Wrigley (yes, that Mr. Wrigley), meeting her husband, traveling abroad, their good friend Will Rogers, taking her daughter to Shirley Temple’s fifth birthday party, how she established the concept of “volunteerism” overseas, her work as the president of the American Society Directors of Volunteers Services for the American Hospital Association, and as the coordinator of Volunteer Services for the UCLA Center for Health Sciences. Wasson explains in painful reality about what it was like watching her precious husband fall into the grip of Alzheimer’s. She shares the tale of how she and her famous opera singer friend and actress, Dorothy Kirsten French approached Richard Eamer, who at the time was reported to be “one of the nine wealthiest men in the U.S.A.,” she writes in her book, and asked him to fork over some money to build a hospital for Alzheimer’s patients.
“Dorothy was so nervous,” Wasson says. “I said, ‘Don’t be nervous, he’s a wonderful man. He has pictures of dogs and horses on his wall.’ He sat down and said, ‘What do you want of me? To be a board member, give you money, or build you a hospital?’ Dorothy said, ‘All three.’” And the women got just what they had come there for. Because of their work, “The first hospital for Alzheimer’s disease opened in November of 1987 in a small community near Long Beach, California,” she writes.
Then there’s the tale of how she met actress Celeste Holm (All About Eve) in the 1940s. The two were at a cocktail party in Beverly Hills, at a house across the street from where Wasson lived. Idle chit chat was in full swing and Holm said, “My goodness, there’s no intellectual talk here.” Wasson said to her new friend, “Let’s go across the street to my house and have a drink.” No doubt that “drink” was a martini, and the two struck up a long and lovely friendship.
Many of these stories are told in much more detail in her book. But in addition to 164 pages of colorful adventures, told by a master storyteller, there are the musings of this wise soul and her take on the world, politics and her concerns for the future.
Wasson writes: “Now once again our country is engaged in a war against ‘terrorism.’ Have we so soon forgotten those words of Martin Luther King, who said, ‘Terrorism only begets terrorism? Can we not see that the elimination of terrorism can only be taught with understanding; just as Albert Einstein said ‘Peace cannot be kept by force, it can only be achieved by understanding.’”
Or, “Thousands of children die of starvation each day and over 200 million people have died in wars during the 20th century. When will we be able to make the lives of others as important as our own? I believe that then, and only then, will we be able to eliminate acts of terrorism in our world.”
It’s nearly 5:30 and women start to roll into Wasson’s house. Soon, it’s brimming with all ages, all looks, all styles, a mish-mash of females, gathered to participate in WomenRise. Wasson’s long-time friend and former co-worker for EarthSave, Patricia Carney, calls it “A loose group of women, not a group of loose women.” I’ve agreed to not write about what they talk about, out of respect for their privacy, as the women have a joint agreement that anything said here at WomenRise, stays here. I can, however, mention some of the members. There’s the mayor, Carney, Wasson of course, and a gaggle of others including someone I met a while back when I first began this story—Regina O’Riley. She was pregnant then and now has finally had her baby; the women coo over it.
The meeting is casual, and lightly structured. The women, all mostly liberal in their politics, are there to connect, share with one another, “check-in” and as a united force, hope for and seek change and peace in the world.
After more than 36,000 days of life, it’s something Wasson feels strongly about: “I think whenever people share to the extent that they truly love one another, that’s peace.”
For more information about WomenRise for Global Peace, visit womenrise.org. To purchase Eleanor Wasson’s book, “28,000 Martinis and Counting,” visit amazon.com.