Photos and story by Herb Bardavid, photographer and contributor to New York for Seniors
I met Helen-Jean through my friend, Jeff, who plays with her in the Greenwich Village Orchestra. I went to her apartment in the West Village where she has lived since 1963 when she and her husband bought their three-story brownstone building. She originally lived in Chicago but left in the 1950s at the age of 19 to become an actress. She performed on and off-Broadway, in local theaters and summer stock. She loved working in the theater and described it as different from film, in which she also worked. Film is preserved, theater is instantaneous and gone. She said her list of credits is so long ago that very few people alive today would have seen the plays she was in. She is also a violinist and has traveled all over the world with many orchestras. Helen-Jean also did the spoken work with symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles.
Back then she cooked on a hot plate that was prohibited and lived on $5 a week, eating rice and beans for four months. They then found a place on W. 82nd Street. She described it as West Side Story, but between the Irish and the Puerto Ricans. She lived there until she discovered the Village which she described as magical. She remembers MacDougal Street as being nothing but coffee houses. This is when she studied acting, including Stanislavsky method.
Helen-Jean married her husband, Michael, in 1962 and they bought their house together in 1963. They bought the house because they wanted to raise a family in the city. They had three daughters and a son, all of whom are professionals. Soon, she will be traveling to Hawaii to visit her daughter Gillian, who now is teaching climate change and public health. She has 4 grandchildren and is taking all of them with her to Hawaii. What a terrific grandmother.
Helen-Jean’s husband started the Greenwich Village Orchestra 30 years ago. She played violin then and continues to this day. I had the opportunity to hear the orchestra rehearse and marveled at its professional quality.
What Helen-Jean likes most about NYC is the energy of the people. She gets out often, but the heat and the humidity of summer have been difficult for her.
When Helen-Jean, now age 87, moved to New York with her boyfriend at the time, they lived at a hotel between 46th and 47th Streets called The Flanders, which no longer exists. A room cost $18 a week in 1953.
Helen-Jean remains active, involved, curious, with a busy schedule. Her life in the city is full of culture, friends and the orchestra. This has kept this 87-year old woman young and vibrant.