Her story begins in midair. How could it not?
At 19, when she put off her début to join the circus, Elizabeth “Bunny” Wight promised her father that she’d never do aerial work. Seventy years later, she realized she was free to break that promise. She studied with Jessica Hentoff of Circus Harmony and trained hard, horrifying a tour bus driver in England by practicing chin-ups on the luggage rack. The sight of her on her 80th birthday—lithe and graceful in a black-sequined red leotard, hanging from her ankles and then smoothly pulling herself up to stand with her arms raised in triumph—so stunned a professor friend that he came up to her afterward. “Elizabeth,” he said, “I want you to teach me how to do that.” “Oh, you need a professional to teach you trapeze,” she said, ready to give him her teacher’s name. “No,” he said hastily. “I mean, teach me how to live like you do.”
PASTEL AND POLITE
Born in 1926, the first child of an impeccably elegant St. Louis couple, Bunny was shy but curious. She loathed her cutesy nickname and begged to be called Pearl after her grandfather, a New Orleans shipping magnate. But nobody would budge from Bunny—it was endearing and fun to say, and it fit right in with the two-syllable, deliberately slightly silly nicknames of her class.
She definitely wasn’t an Elizabeth. That was her mother: Elizabeth Forrest Wight. Beautiful and temperamental, she could be coolly serene one minute, overtaken by a mood the next. Still, she managed: organized four children and a roster full of servants and decorated and ran a huge house, never leaving without smoothing on gloves and donning a hat.
She’d broken an engagement to someone far wealthier to marry Ira Edward Wight, an investment broker who looked like Gary Cooper, played football at Yale, and served as an intelligence officer in World War II. His family descended from the Chouteaus—“the illegitimate Chouteaus, the ones fathered by Pierre Laclède,” Bunny liked to point out. She and her three younger siblings grew up in mansions that would have sat comfortably on British country estates: First in Ladue, then Westmoreland Place, then Lenox Place. In Bunny’s favorite room, real trees grew inside a giant birdcage, with tropical-bright finches chirping on the branches. That bit of life, trapped indoors, felt magical.
The rest of the house was pastel and immaculate, voices always low and polite, etiquette never breached with a foray into politics or religion. It was all so smooth and perfect, Bunny was bored out of her mind. She escaped from the children’s dining room whenever she could, tearing down to the kitchen to hang out with the servants. Even their food, greasy and spicy, had more aroma, and she listened wide-eyed to their frank sagas of boyfriend troubles and
One day a maid was rushing a mysterious package to Bunny’s mother, who was closeted in her dressing room. Bunny demanded to know what was inside. Thrown, Elizabeth made the amused maid stay by her side while she endeavored to explain menstruation.
Sex, Bunny learned about from friends at school. “Mary I.,” she adds dryly. Proper girls whose parents were desperately trying to shelter them. Bunny was bored there, too. So the Wights sent her to Garrison Forest, a boarding school outside Baltimore.
Summers in Easthampton dangled tantalizing clues to the world outside that silken cocoon. The Wights grew close to a family with four sons, and there were frequent sleepovers at a house out on a jetty, surrounded by ocean. One morning, Bunny knocked on the bedroom door of one of the older boys. “Come in,” he called, and she glimpsed his tanned olive skin and dark hair, made darker by the contrast with the strawberry-blond hair and ivory skin of the woman next to him. She was sitting up, a sheet pulled up across her breasts and a cocktail glass in one hand. They mixed Bunny a breakfast martini.
At 18, she begged to study at the School of American Ballet in New York City, co-founded 10 years earlier by George Balanchine. Her father agreed, with a caveat: She must also study at Barmore Secretarial School, because a young lady, however wealthy, should be able to support herself and maintain her dignity. So Bunny gritted her teeth through a morning steno class, then ran, light-footed as a wood nymph, to ballet. She’d loved its fairy-tale beauty since she was a child, watching the Russian ballet at Kiel Opera House.
One day, the students learned that the Ringling Bros. Circus was recruiting dancers. You didn’t have to be born into the circus? Bunny and her roommate shot each other excited looks and skipped school to audition.
A BALLET BROAD
Young women milled around the waiting area, lips painted a pouty bright red, hair deep-waved, and heels spiked high. Bunny and her roommate traded looks again, this time mortified. They’d worn jeans and sneakers. That night they set their hair on curlers, and the next day they went back, all gussied up. The recruiter groaned in dismay. “What have you done? We liked the way you looked yesterday! We want wholesome farm girls, not these chorus girls who will leave as soon as the circus gets to New York!”
Looking as wholesome as they could, they danced the requisite steps, and when they sat down, breathless, they were each handed a contract to sign. With a shaking finger, Bunny dialed home. Mrs. Wight was in the middle of a dinner party, a maid informed her. “It’s important,” Bunny insisted, and when her mother came to the phone, she rushed into an excited cascade about having this wonderful opportunity, and how she’d be dancing and traveling and meeting people from all over the world…
“But who will you be working for, dear?” her mother kept interjecting.
Finally, Bunny couldn’t stall any longer. “Ringling Circus,” she blurted.
An aunt came on the line. “Bunny, dear, what on earth did you tell your mother?”
Ira Wright rang late that evening: “Your mother is coming to New York to bring you home.”
Ah, but when Elizabeth arrived, her daughter was ready with reinforcements: a fashion editor who sympathized with her plight—and knew all the best restaurants in Manhattan. Elizabeth adored fine dining. After a superb meal, they went to Brooks Costume Company, where Mr. Brooks kissed Mrs. Wight’s hand and told her that his own daughter had “gone to Ringling” for two years, and it was the best thing that had ever happened to her.
Elizabeth’s sigh forced the last molecules of air from her lungs. “You may go,” she told Bunny, “and stay through New York and Boston. And then we will spend the summer out west, and in fall you will make your début.”
Overjoyed, Bunny packed for Florida, where the circus trained. She would be one of 60 “ballet broads,” a phrase she omitted from her letters home. She laughed in delight at Emmett Kelly, the clown who dressed like a tramp, and at the circus hands lollygagging while the elephants pulled the tents upright. The other dancers taught her how to liven her brown hair with henna and how to use the flat top of her trunk (round tops were unlucky) as a dressing stand. She learned to make do with two buckets of water a day, taking bucket baths and drying her lingerie on the guy wires of the tent.
Before they traveled to New York, a priest sprinkled the Ringling railroad cars with holy water, and all the circus folk boarded, like rare creatures climbing onto an ark. As the train chugged through the Everglades, Bunny stood outside on the platform, listening to the long, mournful whistle. One of The Flying Wallendas joined her. “Don’t stay with the show too long,” the woman warned, “or you will never be satisfied again with an ordinary life.”
THE MANGY MOOSE
Obedient, reluctantly, Bunny went out to Wyoming with her family for the summer. One Saturday night, the Wights were playing bingo in the lodge of A Bar A Ranch, one of the oldest guest ranches in the country. Desperately bored, Bunny caught the eye of her new friend, the rancher’s daughter, and they slipped out the door and drove to the nearest town.
A copper mining town in the boom days, Encampment now felt more like a movie set: board sidewalks, hitching posts, even a swinging-door saloon. The girls pushed through those doors into The Mangy Moose, where cowboys and lumberjacks of Scandinavian descent were drinking hard and, in the backroom, playing poker. The tall blond guy dealing the cards looked up, took in Bunny in her jeans and cowboy boots, and motioned to a friend to take over for him.
Skyler “Swede” Herring wasn’t Swedish, but he looked it. He and Bunny went outside, where he formally introduced her to his horse, who was tied to the rail. Then he kissed her. Every Saturday night for the next six weeks, they saw each other. But she said a firm goodbye: “I’ve got to go home and make my début. And I don’t think I’ll ever get it out of my system unless I go back to the circus again.”
As a Veiled Prophet maid of honor, Bunny went to bed around 3 a.m., was awakened in time for a country club luncheon, napped until it was time to dress for the evening’s party. Clammy-palmed young men asked her to dance, holding her stiffly and returning her with relief, not sure what to make of this young woman who read adventure books and talked with such animation about dogs and horses.
When she couldn’t curve her lips into one more demure smile, she went back to the circus. One day, Hugo Schmidt, master of the pachyderms, told her to raise her leg in the air next to Myrtle’s trunk. The next thing Bunny knew, her thigh was between Myrtle’s warm, rough trunk and soft lower lip and she was being lifted into the air. “Point your toes!” yelled Hugo.
Soon Bunny had a chance in the center ring. At the act’s climax, she lay down, and an elephant ever so gently rested her giant foot on Bunny’s face. The world went dark. The elephant could easily have smashed her cheekbones, but Bunny had looked into those small, bright dark eyes before the show and seen tenderness there. She wasn’t one bit scared.
The next year, she learned to jump onto a horse bareback from a running start, then lie back and extend her leg with—by now it was instinctive—her toes pointed. When her mother came to visit, it was, of course, the one time Bunny missed her landing on the horse’s back. Later, they ran into a St. Louis friend in the lobby of The Plaza. When the woman asked what they were doing in New York, Elizabeth didn’t blink: “Oh, Bunny is riding horses at Madison Square Garden.”
Bunny was riding, all right—bareback, with Giustino Loyal’s Italian troupe—and her social circle included a snake charmer, several clowns, and a fire-eater. This time, when the circus left the East Coast and went under canvas, Bunny was with them.
Conditioning, though, dies hard: She decorated her 2-by-6-foot train compartment with a flowered bedspread and pale-blue contact paper. In that tiny, utterly private space, more hers than her bedroom at home had ever felt, she dreamed about her cowboy. But she also dreamed about the elephants. She’d seen them when they were a little stir-crazy, trumpeting and pounding their trunks on the ground. She imagined riding one right out the door and racing through Manhattan.
RUNNING AWAY FROM THE CIRCUS
Ringling chugged its way across the country and, in the summer of 1949, reached Wyoming. Bunny and another dancer sat in a rough bar in Cheyenne, chasing shots of whiskey with beer and feeling maudlin. Swede wasn’t far away. Eyes closed, Bunny could feel his warm breath on her cheek, picture his muscles rippling as he cut timber from the forests above Encampment. It wasn’t like she’d ever planned to stay with the circus forever…
They hopped on a bus, hitchhiked the rest of the way, and reached Encampment before the sun did.
And by late autumn, Bunny and Swede were in St. Louis, hastily arranging a Christmas Eve wedding.
“No previous announcement had been made of her plans,” wrote a miffed Post-Dispatch society columnist. “The bride’s veil, in keeping with the informality of the occasion, reached only to her fingertips.”
Ever courteous, the Wights made the best of it. “Bunny dear, I think this may be a very good thing,” her father said. “It will bring new blood into one of these old St. Louis families who are so interrelated.”
“And since Swede is a cowboy, he can run the family farms,” her mother added.
The young couple moved out to California, where Swede studied agriculture at Cal Poly until, chafing at the need to accept his in-laws’ support, he went back to the Wyoming timber. He and Bunny lived in a two-room house in a meadow with no indoor plumbing, just a well and an outhouse. Oh, well. She’d gotten used to bucket baths in the circus. The easy life her St. Louis friends lived had always felt flat to her, drained of experience. Being a frontier wife was glorious, different than anything she’d ever done. She decided she’d have her baby in a mountain cabin in Purgatory Gulch.
Halfway up the rutted road, Bunny ordered Swede to turn around and take her to the hospital. Drenched in sweat and clutching the sheets, she screamed at the nurses, “Get a hammer and kill me!” Banned from his wife’s side, her nervous but stoic husband went off to ride in the annual Wood Choppers Jamboree & Rodeo. Bunny never forgave him. She was—until tiny Holly was placed in her arms—all alone.
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE FARM
“Now bend your knees…see? Plié!” Bunny had eight bowlegged cowboys and two stiff-shouldered lumberjacks lined up in front of the bar, which, in a moment of inspiration, she’d realized could be a barre. Drunk on boilermakers, they were all laughing past self-control.
There wasn’t much to do in Wyoming but drink. Bunny took care of her three (soon to be four) small children and worried about the quality of the schools, so often closed for blizzards. When Swede sliced off a few toes with a bulldozer blade, they accepted the Wights’ offer of the family farm, in Pike County, Missouri.
Bunny dived into her new role of farm wife. One day the kids peered into a simmering stockpot and saw a hog’s empty eyes staring back at them. Their mother was making head cheese.
She also learned to make her own sausage—and, being Bunny, elegant French pastry as well. On drives with Swede, she scanned for roadkill to feed to Clopton, her baby hawk. Life on the farm wasn’t as isolated as it had been in Wyoming, but it was still a lot lonelier than boarding school or the circus. So Bunny entertained, throwing parties that were like nothing in Ladue. A parakeet might swoop down and perch on the rim of a guest’s cocktail glass, or Flora and Fauna, the goats, might leap over the sofa without warning.
Bunny’s circle included Anne Kennett Farrar Desloge Werner Bates, dubbed the queen of St. Louis society, and a handful of weatherbeaten farmers, and two pigs, Hamlet and Pig Newton, the latter of whom she dove into a swimming pool to save. She drew no lines between classes or species. When she loved, she loved exuberantly, and she never apologized for it.
The Herrings’ annual goat roast lasted well into the night, music and chatter bubbling around the ceremonial pit of coals. The kids—Holly, Skyler Jr., Tim, and Heather—were now all in their teens or early twenties, and they invited dates and friends.
Of the two boys, Skyler Jr. was the wild one, brilliant but indifferent to the routine of school. Tim was the high achiever: athlete, good student, easy temperament. He kissed his folks goodbye and left to drive his girlfriend home. The road wound through the hills, and Tim, who rarely drank more than two beers, was clearheaded and driving fast. He crested a hill and came upon a car parked in the middle of the two-lane road, its passengers busy throwing up the excess alcohol they’d consumed.
Fighting to miss them, Tim veered off the highway, and the car tumbled downhill and flipped. His girlfriend was unscathed, but he landed on his head, crushing his skull. Pike County Memorial Hospital alerted brain trauma experts at Saint Louis University Hospital.
Bunny rode with her son in the ambulance, listening to his moans. At the hospital, a neurosurgeon said that theoretically they could save his life—but he’d never be Tim again. His brain was too gravely damaged.
Bunny and Swede let him go.
She would spend the rest of her life wondering: What if the doctor was wrong? What if Tim could have had a life he would have wanted to live, and they’d refused him that chance?
He was 21, the same age her beloved brother had been when his plane crashed. Her father had been at the Nantucket airport that day, waiting to meet the plane when it came in from New York. Standing at the glass window, he’d caught sight of the plane, maybe even had that absurd desire we feel, when we know a loved one is aboard, to wave. Without warning, the plane went into freefall, crashed into the ground, and burst into flames.
Bunny had always wondered how her father bore that pain.
Now it was her turn.
She managed in the worst and only way she could: by drinking glass after glass of wine at night, soaking the pain numb. By day, she tried the other famous cure for grief: keeping busy. When the kids left home, she’d gotten herself licensed as a practical nurse. She signed up for hours upon hours of work, bathing pain-wracked bodies, fetching spit-up buckets, trying not to forget which patients she’d already given an enema... Holly graduated from nursing school and wound up her mother’s boss, an arrangement that felt all too familiar. Young Holly had always been more sensible than her openhearted, impulsive mother.
Who continued to drink.
The habit had started early, when Bunny was a shy young teenager trying to navigate social occasions. It had crested in Wyoming, then eased a bit. When she realized that Tim’s death wasn’t going to kill her outright, alcohol took over.
Finally, sick of doing its bidding, Bunny checked herself into a hospital for rehab. Swede, she thought privately, should do the same. Instead, he showed up sloshed, visiting her on his way home from a Bridlespur Hunt Club dinner. She was humiliated—and jealous.
But by the time she left rehab, alcohol wasn’t making her decisions for her.
REBEL WITH A CAUSE
After her stint as Florence Nightingale, Bunny earned a master’s in liberal arts at Washington University and began working with Prison Performing Arts.
“I immediately disliked all the guards and officials and loved all the prisoners,” she admits, adding wryly, “I perhaps wasn’t best suited for the job.” Her instinctive sympathy made her curious about the inmates’ lives—especially the African-American men who would have made her New Orleans–born father so uncomfortable—and appalled by the injustices they’d experienced.
The inmates were charmed by Bunny—and gobsmacked to see her tattoo: Esse quam videre, her boarding school’s Latin motto, in elegant cursive on her ankle. Its translation, she informed them, is “To be rather than seem.”
They taught her to love rap. She taught them a little French. Together, they all learned Shakespeare, each resonating with the tragedies in their own way.
Pulled over for speeding one morning, Bunny explained her work to the officer, adding hopefully, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth like the gentle rain from heaven.” Shaking his head, he tore up the ticket.
When she swears she’s still a little shy, friends snort. “I guess my head was full of ideas and dreams, but it was all kept inside me,” she says, adding that it wasn’t until her seventies, when she started acting, that she really opened up.
In her seventies, Bunny steered a boat down the Nile, swam in fjords in Scandinavia; went to Snake Alley in Taipei; stripped naked in a 500-year-old Turkish bathhouse; saw a white tiger swimming in a lake; saw an entire town painted blue; danced around a campfire with Roma; spent two weeks crossing the desert of Rajasthan on horseback.
When her tour group was thrown out of a camel fair because their smell was disturbing the camels, she just shrugged; she’d been thrown out of lots of places. After her brother’s wedding, she and a few other guests showed up at the airport with bottles of champagne—“dancing and singing, making joy everywhere we went.” A man in a suit approached, lips pressed tight, and forbade them ever to return. “I think that one’s expired; it was probably 40 years ago,” she drawls. “But the first time we flew after that, I wore dark glasses and a scarf.”
Decades later, she was banned from the Missouri prison system because she cheerfully broke the rules by continuing to correspond with an inmate—under an assumed name, from a post office box—after he was transferred to another prison. And when she was practicing her trapeze drills for her 80th birthday, she was kicked out of an exercise room in England because what she was attempting was too dangerous.
Yet she’s never hurt herself on the trapeze. Her broken ankle, shoulder, collarbone, and wrist all came from riding accidents. And she crushed her knee in what she calls “a Shakespeare accident,” trying to show friends in her Shakespeare dinner club how to do a clown walk on slick hardwood. Football players have been known to lose consciousness with that kind of pain, but Bunny managed a few jokes, and her friends had to stop her from driving herself to the hospital.
She is fearless not because she expects to escape risk’s consequences, but because embarrassment and pain never outweigh the blaze of wonder.
A PASSAGE TO INDIA
When Bunny broke her ankle at 80, Swede proved a reluctant and frankly lousy nursemaid. “Go,” she urged him, knowing that he was hankering for their annual trip back west.
He grinned and went to pack. A week or so later, the phone rang late at night. Swede had died. Simply, with no fuss, sitting in a chair by his bed.
It shouldn’t have been such a shock; he was 81, with heart trouble and emphysema. But the loss was an eclipse, chilling and darkening her world. Like any couple married half a century, they’d had rough years, times they’d felt lonelier together than apart, temperamental differences that’d kept them out of sync. But they’d fought their way through to peace and a tenderness born of shared experience. Now, she was alone again, and for the first time in her life, she wanted to die.
When her prayers went unanswered, she pulled herself together and resolved to live whatever life she had left. For starters, she booked a trip to India, a land of strong sun and vibrant colors and—
Death was everywhere. Swirls of white smoke from the funeral pyres, sidewalks lined with bodies covered in white cloths… She panicked until a fellow traveler assured her that they weren’t dead, just homeless. Tears still streamed down Bunny’s cheeks anyway, strangers’ suffering unlocking her own grief.
Slowly, though, India began to work its magic. Bunny’s parents had never spoken about death, and the Herrings had prided themselves on their stoicism. She’d sought small outlets for her emotional sensitivity in the arts, in friendship, in volunteer work. But here was an entire country where people lived with suffering and death and never tried to deny or ignore or push past it. In India, pain and joy didn’t cancel each other out; they intensified each other.
THE GREATEST OF EASE
Not long ago, Bunny and her friend Lana Pepper stood on the top floor of the City Museum, staring at a barricade: The stairs were being repaired. “We could take the slide,” Pepper joked.
“Sure!” Bunny said, and three seconds later, she was a blur of thick blond hair and a vintage suit, zooming past the second story.
She no longer needs a drink to face a party; she laughs often and easily. Sometimes the laughter does seem a little shy, a nervous filling of space. But more often, she’s laughing freely at herself, wry about the vagaries of old age. She loathes being partially deaf—“It makes people think you’re on the dumb side”—but the accidental wit of her mishearings cracks her up. And she’s tickled by human nature, delighted by all the clown acts and poodle tricks we do for one another.
Burlesque artist Lola van Ella, who met Bunny at a trapeze class, remembers how “she started bringing her friends after the opera or a symphony. They’d show up at midnight at the nightclub where I was performing, and her friends would just look bewildered.”
The two women, generations apart, became friends. “Don’t meet Bunny all locked up,” van Ella warns, “because she will open you. If you have secrets, they won’t be secrets for long. Bunny has a real way of getting inside—but never from a place of judgment. She will ask you questions you never thought you would have to answer. She will make you an open book.”
After Bunny descended from the trapeze at her 80th birthday fundraiser—a point at which most people would have collapsed in relief—she and her grandson checked out a tattooing party in another part of City Museum. Bunny left with a tiny moon and star on her other ankle. Her son Skyler, who’s grown more conservative in his middle years, noticed the tat one morning as they were walking into church. “He said, ‘Mother! Only a certain type of person gets tattoos!’” she recalls, and rolls her eyes. “Where does he live?!”
Where does she? Her firstborn, Holly Maffitt, says she’s spent “too many hours” trying to figure her mother out. “The Bunny,” as Holly fondly calls her, is more complicated than she seems: a hopeless romantic with practical grit; brave and kind and indulgent of her own whims, blithe and carefree and tormented by guilt. When her rescued teacup poodle, Mimi, lost her balance on a ledge, Bunny was beside herself for weeks, because she was the one who’d shown Mimi how much fun it was to walk along a ledge. The risk-taker’s dilemma: Do you share your enthusiasm if someone else might pay a price?
“Bri! Heaven! Molly!” Bunny hugs the girls, who are clad in the gray T-shirts of juvenile detention.
“You remembered our names!” Bri exclaims. (Here, they are pseudonyms.)
“So, how long ago did ballet start?” Bunny begins, wasting no time.
“Five hundred years ago,” Molly flashes back at her.
“And where did it start?”
“Italy,” says Heaven.
“And the names of the movements are in what language?”
“French!” Bri calls.
“And why do we study ballet?”
“For grace, posture, strength…” Bri trails off.
“Poise,” says Heaven.
“And confidence,” Bunny finishes firmly. “Let’s go to the barre.”
Once a week, she tutors boys at the juvenile detention center and teaches the girls ballet. Today she’s wearing a black T-shirt, an asymmetrical black chiffon skirt, and high-heeled black mules she kicks off at the barre. “First position.”
The girls all remember. “Second position. Third.” Bunny prods Molly’s foot with a stockinged toe. “Turn it out more. That’s it. And watch your seat, tuck your butt in and let your shoulders drop. That’s what keeps you balanced.” She places her hands on Heaven’s shoulders, forcing relaxation.
“OK, now, plié!” They grasp the knee bends faster than the cowboys did. “Do you remember arabesque?” Bunny asks.
“Point your toes, ladies, always point your toes,” calls Molly.
Hoisting Bri’s leg into midair, Bunny glances over at me, gives a slight eye roll, and grins.
“Now,” she says, “I want you to show how you can walk gracefully.”
The girls straighten into princesses, their heads erect, their knees soft and palms curved at their side as they glide forward. They could be clad in satin and tulle, maids of the Veiled Prophet. This is the confidence she wants them to hold on to.
When Bunny talks about the past, she lights it up—not in neon but with a candle’s warm, flattering glow. She’s the quintessential romantic, alive to suffering and beauty, and she focuses always on what’s marvelous—in other people, in the world—and how lucky she is to experience it. She’s not hiding what’s dark; she just doesn’t give it much weight.
Those elegant, loving parents, for example. She struggled to reconcile her father’s sensitivity (which he kept carefully hidden, as men of his time were trained to do) with the racist views he absorbed growing up in the South. Her mother could be remote, even a little icy, I’m told by others—but Bunny stresses her mom’s kindness and gentle sense of humor.
Why the moods, in such an idyllic life?
“I think her mother loved her brother more,” Bunny says. “I think having that hurt in you makes you more vulnerable.”
Bunny’s nephew Ted Wight says she’s always been his favorite aunt. “Our family was relatively conservative; it was always ‘that adventuress, Bunny,’” he chuckles. “But we had a lot of fun. And the horsey set all loved Swede, because he was a cowboy.”
“Do you think Bunny set out to shock people?” I ask.
He hesitates; he’s just told me about a few times she’s shocked him. But no. “With Aunt Bunny, it’s not about shocking us,” he decides. “It’s about shocking herself with what she can do.”
ACTING HER AGE
Last year, van Ella put on a glitzy New Year’s Eve show. Dancing started around 1:30 a.m. An hour later, she says, Bunny was still there, champagne glass in one hand, dancing to Beyoncé and laughing and blowing a noisemaker.
I smile, remembering the previous evening’s email exchange. After promising to answer my question more fully the next morning, Bunny added: “My lover is here.”
Most of us assume that lust past 70 is simply wishful thinking, a denial of age itself. But the next time she’s part of a panel on successful aging, Bunny intends to summon her courage and ask the audience why they think she’s more interested in sex than ever. She’s honestly not sure.
One thing’s obvious: This lingering desire and curiosity keep her living in the moment, at an age when most people are busy trying to deny, recapture, or enshrine the past.
At dinner one evening, I tell another writer about Bunny. With each anecdote, his frown deepens, and soon he’s shaking his head, not buying it. “Ninety-one?” he repeats. “No way.”
I play a video of Bunny on the trapeze.
He glances casually at the screen—and then he focuses, his energy stilling. For the next five minutes he watches my phone’s small screen without shifting his eyes or uttering a word. When the video ends, he says, a little dazed, “OK. I see what you mean.”
Because the 80th birthday trapeze performance had raised such a tidy sum for Prison Performing Arts, Bunny did it again at 90. She wore the same leotard, just “sewed on a few more sequins.” Hands coated in rosin, she took hold of the bar, swung herself up, gestured—and people oohed and applauded.
“I was laughing so hard, I was afraid I’d fall off the trapeze,” she says. “I mean, it was wonderful of them, but every move, they yelled, ‘Yay!’”
This is the fun of Bunny Herring: Even when she’s enjoying attention, she sees right through it and keeps moving. But what deep well of energy does she draw from when she’s exhausted and her well-used bones ache? People her age always recite some secret of their vitality—yogurt or a nightcap or lots of olive oil…
I ask her friends. Most just shake their heads, marveling without comprehension. Van Ella thinks for a minute, then says, “I think her only secret is that she doesn’t have many secrets. She lives out loud.”
That makes sense; freedom and openness lift a lot of stress. Still, I want to ask Bunny herself. The day I bring it up, she’s sitting across from me, legs crossed, swinging a foot in one of those open-backed heels, laughing about how she tripped and smashed into the sidewalk the day before.
Her face swollen and bruised, she lifts one shoulder in a Parisian’s why-not shrug.
“I don’t want to miss anything.”
Feature photo by Jennifer Silverberg