“I’m a bit of a showoff about this,” Washington philanthropist Evelyn Stefansson Nef says as she springs up and down from her salon chair and intermittently raises her arms high above her head like a ballerina to demonstrate her atypical agility.
“How many 95-year-old people have you seen get up from a chair without having to bend way over, hold on and move up very slowly?” this extraordinary nonagenarian asks as she mimics her contemporaries’ stiff movements.
Then again, Mrs. Nef - who will be honored tomorrow for her vital contributions to Weave (Women Empowered Against Violence Inc.) at its summer fundraiser, Stronger for the Struggle: an Evening of Stories - has never lived an ordinary life.
Two seconds with the petite Mrs. Nef make it apparent immediately that she should brag about much more than her capability to climb the narrow stairs in her elegant Georgetown home (better than a visitor). Or to rise at 7 .a.m. each morning and walk three blocks to endure exercise and training sessions at this stage in her phenomenal adventures.
“All my life experiences turned out to be very valuable,” the gracious Mrs. Nef said during an interview in her home last week.
“Starting with nothing and making it, I have to give back,” she says. “My own wants are relatively simple.”
Having never had children, she says it gives her happiness to help people in need. She knows firsthand about overcoming poverty and psychological obstacles.
Apparently, achieving against considerable odds is par for the course for Mrs. Nef, not only as gleaned from her engaging conversation, but also as documented in her 2002 book, “Finding My Way: The Autobiography of an Optimist.” In it, this self-educated child born of Hungarian Jews, Jeno and Bella Schwartz, who migrated to New York at the beginning of the 20th century, humbly writes that “most of my life has been lived ‘finding my way’ in trial-and-error fashion.”
“Evvie,” as she was known, and her three siblings (one became a Ziegfeld Follies girl) were virtually orphaned after their 47-year-old father, a prosperous furrier, died of a heart attack and their mother’s grief was so overwhelming she never spoke again and had to be hospitalized.
Undaunted and “wanting to learn about everything,” Mrs. Nef says, “I was somewhat of an explorer.”
This once-budding fashion designer studying near Greenwich Village and hanging out in Romany Marie’s bohemian haunt of artists and writers became a puppeteer with her first husband, Bil Baird. He was fun to be with after such a sad childhood, but she “got tired of partying,” and “I left him.” The marriage lasted three years.
After that, she was an Arctic explorer, Far North expert, best-selling writer, one of two female Dartmouth professors and librarian for the donated collected works of her second husband, famed explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, to whom she was married for 25 years.
“It was very unusual for a woman to be an Arctic expert, but I wasn’t discriminated [against] as far as I could tell,” she says. During her husband’s heyday, “I had the life of being the wife of a celebrity,” she says, adding that he held her to high expectations, which encouraged her to attempt new tasks, including writing books.
Eventually, Mrs. Nef became a philanthropist and patron to students, musicians and artists, including Marc Chagall. His wedding gift to her and her third husband, Chicago University scholar John Nef, to whom she was married 25 years, is a breathtaking 10-foot mosaic erected on her garden wall.