Mrs. Williams in the Soviet Union, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

Mrs. Williams in Arkhangelsk, Life, July 27, 1959

When you listen to the self generated propaganda of the baby boomer generation, you might think that we were the first group ever to grow old with our legs still working and our brains more or less intact. But of course it isn’t true. In 1959, Life magazine did a four part series on aging in America.  One article in particular, “Practical Ways to be Old and Happy” (July 27, 1959), might have been plucked from the website Senior Planet. It followed four older men and women who were having the time of their lives. Their secret—they kept active refused to “retire” in conventional ways.

In Red Square

In Red Square

Because of my background as a historian of Soviet Russia, I was particularly drawn to the story of Mrs. Andrew Murray Williams (no first name mentioned), a seventy year old  leading a tour to the Soviet Union. She began working when her husband died as a way to make ends meet. Although many of her friends disapproved, she insisted that it was a way to avoid loneliness while seeing the world.

Almost everyone on the tour, mainly women judging by the photos, was over seventy. Despite the full daytime schedule, they would go out at night as well. “When people get bored, they get tired,” she opined. She was already planning a trip around the world, her third, this time including stops in India.

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

In GUM, the main department store in Moscow

I would love to have an inventory of her travel clothes. We see her in a Spring-like printed suit, hat, and jewelry on a bus; a dark suit, hat, and sensible shoes in Red Square; and a dark coat and hat in the department store. Her clothes betray no shift to looser styles already underway in 1959. Yet despite her slim skirt, she had no difficulties climbing up on a ledge to take photographs in Red Square. I wonder what the Soviets made of her and her older traveling companions.

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5 Responses to Mrs. Williams in the Soviet Union, 1959

  1. Rhoda K says:

    Very interesting story. It’s a shame our younger folks aren’t aware of some of these women from back in the day. What role models! Thanks for all you share.

  2. eimear says:

    age is really a lot about where your head is at, (and possibly having generic reading glasses in every room). most people I know still are in their mid twenties (in their own minds – myself included). my favourite story of the year is the 90 year old man breaking the record for over 90s running 200m – and the footage is worth a watch as he makes an excellent job of it. when interviewed some days later, he was describing the feeling of running and how he felt he was going at such speed, wind thru his hair etc and was a bit surprised when he saw the actual footage of the race. all said with good humour, which was the key

  3. Thanks for sharing this story. It would have been fun to hear her dinner-table conversations!

  4. Fabrickated says:

    What a lovely story and such interesting pictures. She looks so lithe and energetic. Imagine jumping up on a ledge in Red Square – for a better look perhaps, or maybe to give a short lecture. Oh for the days when we wore hats all the time.

  5. Robert Moeller says:

    1959 was also the year of the “Kitchen Debate” (http://www.c-span.org/video/?110721-1/nixonkhrushchev-kitchen-debate), and LIFE may have been trying to make clear that whatever their age, women in the U.S. could dress more fashionably than their Soviet counterparts.

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