Bea Slater was born on May 21, 1927—the day that Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis in Paris to become the first man to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. “My mother always told me how she was on the delivery table and the doctors were so excited. They were all talking about Lindbergh, not the fact that she was having a baby,” Slater laughed. Looking back on the past 90 years, the day of her birth is something of a symbol of the way she’s lived her life. Now into her tenth decade, her favorite phrase, “You never know” has taken her somewhere she never expected—a massive billboard above Junior’s Cheesecake in Brooklyn. Slater is featured in Jdate’s new “Powered by Yentas” advertising campaign.
“I think you just have to say to yourself, ‘I’m not just going to sit on a chair.’ It’s not that I do a lot of things, but I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’ve been a widow for nine years, and I had a wonderful, wonderful husband. We did a lot of things, and I felt that I’d done plenty,” she said. Little did she know how much more there was to come.
Slater says she’s always been game. She couldn’t wait to ride a bike and recalled that her mother had ridden a motorcycle. “So I must have something from my mother.” She loved her childhood growing up in West Philidelphia during the Great Depression. Her father was George Ginsberg, a commercial photographer known affectionately as the “Penny Philanthropist” for his many modest donations to local charities. Ginsberg learned the photography business from his uncle who had brought him to the U.S. from Russia as a ten-year-old after he’d lost both his parents. “I was young, I had no idea what the Depression was. My father had a business so we always had food on the table and my mother dressed my sister and me beautifully.”
Photography ran in the family, and as a young woman, she followed in her father’s footsteps and worked as a children’s photographer until she got married. She didn’t have a car, so she took the trolley car and walked to her clients’ homes. “When I met my husband the first thing my father gave him was a camera. He said, ‘You’ve got to have a camera,’” Slater recalled. Now she manages her own Twitter account and now takes most of her photos with her phone “like the kids,” but she still has a camera her father gave her. “It’s an antique by now like me,” she joked.
As outlandish as it might sound to launch a modeling career at the sophisticated age of 90, it’s even more incredible that the whole thing started with Steve Van Zandt, or Little Stevie as Slater calls him (he calls her Grandma Bea). Slater’s son Mitchell is a long-time Bruce Springsteen fan, and he wanted to take her to a Steve Van Zandt concert on Staten Island. “He came over one Sunday, and he brought me a t-shirt. He said, ‘You’re going to wear it to the concert.’ He likes making little videos of stuff I want to tell and leave for the family, so we made a video and put it on Facebook. Stevie saw it, and he said to Mitchell, ‘Do you think your mother would want to introduce me at the concert?’ When he asked me, I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll do it.’”
At the theater, Slater took the stage to introduce the band. She got a huge round of applause and a shout-out from Van Zandt midway through the concert. “That was a wonderful night. It was just thrilling. But I figured that’s it, that’s the end.” The concert, it turns out, was just the beginning.
This might be a good time to point out that when Slater was growing up, there was no YouTube or internet or smartphones. “We had a party line on our phone—you would get a party line until you can afford to get your own phone—and when you picked up the phone to make a call, someone would be on the phone,” she recalled. “I have a six-year-old great-granddaughter that sends me texts and does FaceTime with me all on her own phone. Times have really changed.”
Mitchell posted a video of his mother’s introduction at the concert, which was making its way around the internet. It popped up in the feed of a casting director looking for Jewish grandmothers to appear in Jdate’s new advertising campaign. Thanks to the video, Facebook, and a neighbor, a few days later Mitchell was driving his 90-year-old mother to her first casting call. She was selected as a finalist from a few dozen other women, most of whom had some previous experience with acting or modeling. “I was so excited. I’ve never done anything like that, never. Somebody asked me if I was very nervous, but I wasn’t nervous because they were all so nice.”
The shoot was all day in Brooklyn, with hair, makeup, wardrobe—the whole bit. “I have good hair, they didn’t have to do much with my hair, but they gave me false eyelashes. I was hysterical!” she laughed. During one of the last shots of the day of one of the other women riding around the office on a hoverboard, Slater had to sit in the corner and pretend she was coding. “I fell asleep! The photographer came over after and I said, ‘I think I fell asleep,’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s good.’ And when I looked at the picture my eyes are closed!” she exclaimed. “It was a wonderful day, a long day, and now I’m all over New York.”
Her Twitter feed is full of photos posted by friends and family who’ve seen her billboards. “The funniest part is, I have some family in Russia on my father’s side. They saw the ads on Facebook. They call me the model. ‘My 90-year-old cousin is a model in New York they say.’”
As a girl, Slater was a tomboy, and her sister was the beauty of the family. Her father took her to baseball games and her sister to the ballet. “That never fazed me, but it’s so funny that everything is the reverse now. I can’t believe what I’m doing at my stage of life. Of course, I don’t think I’ll do any more of this; I just hope I stay well, in good health, so I can enjoy it.”
The world has seen startling changes during Slater’s lifetime. She remembers the day Amelia Earhart disappeared, and she remembers Pearl Harbor very clearly. “That was a day I will never forget. Nobody knew Pearl Harbor. It was a Sunday, and one of my cousins took my sister and me to the movies. I don’t remember the picture I saw, but I remember coming home from the movie and people were outside, and everybody was talking about Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt made that speech, and it changed everything,” she said. “Now my 4-year-old great-grandson takes yoga. Can you believe that?”
Slater’s modeling career may have been short-lived, but in February she’ll make her television debut on the Food Network’s The Best Thing I Ever Ate. She’ll be highlighting the Millburn Deli in New Jersey, a family favorite, alongside her granddaughter Fanny, author of the cookbook Orange, Lavender & Figs. The cookbook was Slater’s idea. She’d seen an advertisement for the Rachel Ray Cookbook Competition and sent Fanny a text telling her to try out. She said, “You never know.”
“I don’t consider myself famous, I just consider myself lucky,” concluded Bea. “I count my blessings, and as long as I’m on this Earth, I try to just live every day,” she said.
Mitchell is taking her to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway—a treat from all her children. And after that? She’d love to jump out of an airplane. She told me that if George Bush can do it, she certainly could. “At that age, what have you got to lose?” Besides skydiving, the number one thing on her bucket list would be to throw out the first pitch at a Mets game. She’s a life-long Mets fan. I told her, “You never know!”
Jenn Virškus is a storyteller, content marketing expert, and novelist. Find more of her writing at https://jenn.virskus.com/.