If Sophie Gerber seems like the kind of person who has a century’s worth of stories to tell, it’s because she does — the 102-year-old Hell’s Kitchen resident who has seen the likes of everything from Prohibition to Pearl Harbor to the COVID-19 pandemic is also a published author who plans to celebrate the release of her new memoir, The Trunk in the Attic: Memories and Musings of a Hundred-Year-Old Broad, in a debut talkback this week at Veritas Studio Wines.
The release party for the book that she began writing at the ripe age of 90 will be held on Wednesday June 21 and is hosted by one of Sophie’s more recent neighborhood pals, Veritas owner Jeremy Kaplan, who described his first experience with the centenarian —who lives in a senior residence around the corner from Veritas — as representative of her reputation as a vibrant “broad.”
“One Sunday around 2018, I’m sitting in the shop and I hear this scraping noise — the sound of aluminum meeting concrete,” said Jeremy. “I look around the corner, and there is Sophie with her walker. She was looking for a kosher wine, and we ended up talking quite a bit. I walked her home — and around four hours later,” he laughed, “ I got her home safely and we’ve had a friendship ever since!”
“He’s my sommelier, what can I say?” answered Sophie. Jeremy and Sophie stayed in frequent touch, even keeping up through the dark first days of the COVID-19 lockdown. “I went to bring Sophie a bottle of wine for her birthday, and when I got to [the senior care center] they said, ‘Sophie’s in the ICU with COVID-19,’” said Jeremy. “I have to admit — for a moment, I questioned whether I should leave the bottle, but I did. A week or so later, I got a lovely voicemail from Sophie. She survived,” he added. “I’ve had COVID-19 twice,” quipped Sophie, “but something in me is refusing to let go, so I’m here!” Sophie celebrated her 100th birthday on Sunday April 25, 2021 — and said at the time that her secret was “don’t let a day go by without laughing!”
It was a story of grit and survival that began more than 100 years ago, when Sophie Gerber was born in New York City on April 25, 1921. The youngest child by 18 years, “I was an unexpected entry into the family,” she mused. “My parents hadn’t wanted another child — and I think that does something to you. It colors the way that you look at things.”
Sophie grew up and lived in New York before marrying and moving to New Jersey with her husband Murray. “He dragged me kicking and screaming to New Jersey,” she laughed, “but we raised our children and did live a really nice life there for many years.” It would be her husband’s illness and untimely death that brought Sophie back to the city she loved, she told W42ST. “I asked my husband, ‘If you died, where would I go?’ and he would say, ‘ Well, I guess you’d move back to New York.’”
Several years after her husband passed, Sophie, now in her sixties, moved back to New York to an apartment on the Upper West Side and started “doing all kinds of things I’d never done before,” she said. “I learned how to tap dance during this period — and I still have the shoes in my closet. I don’t know what I’m hoping for there,” she laughed. She began singing in nightclubs “wherever they would let me,” as well as taking acting classes from fellow Upper West Sider and member of the Actors Studio Scott Klavan. “I took part in his class at this bookstore on W72nd Street, and he started helping me put together monologues about my life that I could orate,” said Sophie.
She performed her original works to much public acclaim, quickly becoming hooked on acting. “I started looking for other places to perform my monologues and answering ads in the trade newspapers,” said Sophie. “And I ended up performing at all kinds of places,” including Off- and Off-Off Broadway houses in Hell’s Kitchen. “I remember this one play called Father Was a Peculiar Man, and it was a street theater piece. I told the director, ‘I’m not a spring chicken’ — I was in my sixties then — and he hired me anyway,” said Sophie. “I was the oldest person in the cast, but there was one other older actress, Irma. And I learned that it was very rare for a play to have two character actresses in the same show, because they’ll be enemies,” she added, slyly noting: “Irma once read my palm and told me, ‘Oh this is terrible — you have a very short life line!’”
Both Sophie’s life and second career as an actor would be anything but short, however, as she fondly recalled playing, as she put it, “a dissolute whore” in a play at Columbia University well into her golden years. “One night, I had a very good friend of mine come to see me, and as I bared my shoulder, she averted her eyes — she wanted nothing to do with me!” she laughed. “I really don’t know where it came from — I was always so shy growing up. I didn’t speak until I was spoken to. I was an innocent about almost anything you could name —and yet here I was, doing this fantastical material!”
And as she approached the fourth decade of her creative renaissance, Sophie began to consider putting her fantastical adventures into print more permanently. “When I was around 90, I thought, ‘Well, I should start pulling something together,’” she said. Combing through the decades of her life, Sophie found it easy to recall details and dialogue from many years past, as she vividly retold her experiences of visiting the Borscht Belt-era Catskills with her mother, acting in Hell’s Kitchen – “Irma actually got some parts!” she noted — or hosting a raucous New Year’s Eve party more than half a century ago. “I astound myself — because I remember details of whole conversations going back 40 or 50 years,” said Sophie. “I didn’t know that I had this, but I’ve been blessed with a really hard-working prefrontal cortex.”
The process of writing proved harder. Though she was a seasoned author with many published articles to her name, the exercise of structuring the story of her 100-plus years proved a formidable challenge, said Sophie. “I don’t know if Ernest Hemingway ever said he hated it,” she laughed, “but I just wrote and wrote and wrote.” Harder still was the journey of reliving the memories of the many people that Sophie has outlived, she told us. “Writing started saddening me,” she said. “I was the last surviving member of my family. My husband died so young that I lived a couple of lives after him.”
But the privilege of putting her friends and family into print proved worthwhile, she reflected. “It lets me relive things — I still think about my husband all the time,” said Sophie. “I always visualize him sitting in a room much like our old den, where he’d sit and wait for me to get ready – because he was always dressed and ready to go in 10 minutes, and it used to take me a lot longer, and he was patient,” she added. “Now he’s sitting somewhere waiting for me to turn up, and I’m showing him that I’ll meet him somewhere, somehow, but I’m not sure when.”
And after finishing her piéce de resistance, Sophie said she came to know even more about herself — reflecting that “what I think is interesting about getting older is that I don’t think you change very much — your attitudes don’t change much. I still hold onto old dislikes, like cauliflower,” she laughed. “I think I’m pretty much the same person. There are very few things I think I would redo – well, no, there’s a lot of stuff I’d redo, but only a few places I would like to go back to,” she added, recalling the joy of visiting Barcelona and noting that she “never made it” to bucket list destinations India and Egypt. “I never got there,” said Sophie, “but Barcelona was beautiful – it was one of my early loves.”
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Sophie’s fellow residents at her senior center have also taken to her book, telling the staff that after reading her memoirs that they’re eager to meet her and learn more. As she recalled her requests for more appearances, she smiled. “In my next book,” she said, “you’ll read stories about my fans!”
Looking ahead to her chance to share more of her stories with Hell’s Kitchen patrons, Sophie demurred at the interest surrounding her novel-worthy life. “I’m enormously flattered that anyone wants to hear this — it seems kind of miraculous to me, but I feel very honored,” she said. “I had COVID-19 twice, have had major surgeries, suffered losses — and for me to sit here and be honored for survival is really unthinkable, in a way,” she said, pensively. “But people are honored for survival all the time — I always see these World War II veterans who survive to 108, but I don’t want anything to do with them,” she added, laughing, “because they’re my competition!”
You can order The Trunk in the Attic: Memories and Musings of a Hundred-Year-Old Broad through Amazon, and if you’re interested in attending Sophie’s book release party at Veritas (527 W45th Street between 10/11th Avenue) on June 21, email Jeremy to reserve your spot at firstname.lastname@example.org.