“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.
Mrs. Nef says she and Mr. Nef became great friends with the Chagalls, whom they invited to southern France to spend summers for a decade. During that time, the renowned modernist presented her with a piece of art each year for her July 24 birthday. She even writes in her book that she plans to have her ashes buried at the base of the Chagall mosaic along with Mr. Nef’s.
Along the way, she discovered her adeptness at learning languages. She had to learn Russian with her explorer husband and French with her scholar husband. Every once in a while during our visit, to tease a confused chronicler, Mrs. Nef stops to count on her fingers exactly how old she was as she attained a particular milestone in her productive life.
When she married the well-heeled John Nef in 1964, “it was the first time in my life that I didn’t have to work,” she says.
However, after she had learned to set up a house and host parties for dignitaries and “I had done the Georgetown thing” as “the wife of a famous man,” she says, she longed to go back to work and “do something useful that I might have the talent for.”
With no formal degrees, she persuaded a friend to have her enrolled in the New York Institute for the Study of Psychotherapy. She was forced to end her practice at 80 years of age, when her school’s insurer went out of business.
“I was always a good listener, having missed college,” Mrs. Nef says. It is a trait she credits for presenting her with so many varied opportunities after the sadness and “secrecy” in the Brooklyn household of her childhood.
“Perhaps this early experience of secrecy was at the root of my permanent hunger to know, my curiosity about everything,” Mrs. Nef writes in her autobiography. “Was this why I grew to be a careful listener, an intent watcher, a patient gatherer of every fragment of disparate information, someone who tried to make it all into some intelligible whole?”
In fact, Mrs. Nef says she entered psychotherapy, in part, because her mother’s muteness “was the great mystery of my life.”
Although Mrs. Nef helped set up foundations in two of her husbands’ names, her incarnation as a philanthropist began in the 1990s, after Mr. Nef took ill and she prospered even more after taking over their finances and teaching herself about investing.
Besides aiding Weave, she still serves on some charitable boards and has donated to such organizations as the Washington National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
It is with her philanthropy that Mrs. Nef is mosthumble. She has helped hundreds of people, including abused Washington women served by Weave, along that fortuitous “way” with what she calls “my little foundation.”
Weave is presenting Mrs. Nef with its annual Watts Empowerment Award on Monday at an event also featuring Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the best-seller “Crazy Love.”
Miriam Isserow, Weave’s director of development, says, “When Mrs. Nef first came to Weave, the organization was just getting off the ground, operating from the second bedroom of [a] co-founder’s apartment. Seed funding from the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Foundation allowed Weave to begin offering counseling services along with legal services to survivors of domestic violence. Thousands of survivors have now received counseling at Weave thanks to Mrs. Nef’s early and ongoing support.”
The invitation to the fundraiser states that “thanks to [Mrs. Nef’s] initial faith and passion,” survivors could “begin the process of long-term healing from the lasting emotional trauma of domestic violence.”
Weave’s stated mission is to “work closely with adult and teen survivors of relationship violence and abuse, providing an innovative range of legal, counseling, economic and educational services that leads survivors to utilize their inner and community resources, achieve safety for themselves and their children, and live empowered lives.” (Visit www.weaveincorp.org or call 202-452-9550.)
Mrs. Nef says, “Weave appealed to me because their idea was to help homeless women with the kind of help they need, and D.C. is a terrible place to be homeless. I empathize with needy women, especially abused women, who are torn in so many ways and don’t have the training and backbone to leave [their abusive situations].”
What’s next for this woman, who will turn 96 next month? She still maintains a busy social calendar.
“When you’re 65, the days go by so fast,” Mrs. Nef says jokingly and then raises her shoulder and eyebrow in a flirty gesture, as if posing for a fashion photographer.
“I can look back and be pleased with what I made of myself. There is always something opening up, some need, or some person in need of help.”
Indeed, the final sentence of her autobiography reads, “I am content.”
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