By Mia Berman
There’s Sophia. Liza. Rihanna. Gaga. And then there’s Ilona.
I call her the Queen of Gusto. Turning 101 on March 27th, Ilona Royce Smithkin has portrayed Marlene Dietrich, drawn Tennessee Williams’ eye, painted Ayn Rand, sketched countesses in Berlin, and designed hats (“At 12 years old I had a whole clientele,” she explained). An avid fan of WestView News (“I read it cover to cover”), she’s taken gefilte fish taste tests, taught painting in Kentucky, and composed a hilarious rendition of Que Sera Sera involving long eyelashes.
Ilona’s pizzazz indelibly marked my childhood summers in Provincetown and my adulthood treks around the West Village, her home for over six decades. “In my West 4th Street flat, I could sit in the bathtub and see the street,” said Ilona. In her waterfront apartment bursting with color, vintage scarves, polka dots, and paintbrushes, Ilona sat down to share her philosophies of life. I call them “rubies of wisdom.”
ON GREENWICH VILLAGE: “It was homey, more intimate. We talked to strangers. It was confidence-inspiring. We walked everywhere. I found little treasures: Rocco’s bakery, Waverly Inn, Beatrice Inn, Bon Soir, Grand Ticino on MacDougal…sawdust on the floor. It was like discovering the world.”
ON SIMPLICITY: “Baby carriages are filled with circus toys. A child doesn’t have a moment to hear the raindrops.”
ON AGING: “As I grow older, I realize nothing is so serious as people take it.”
ON REMEMBERING THE PAST: “People want to research their ancestry. I don’t want to know about my family…was there a prince or princess. What good is it? I’m here. I am now.” Proust, eat your heart out.
ON ACCCEPTANCE: “I’m losing my eyesight now. I loved dancing. I had wonderful times in my little Village apartment. But I gave it up. It’s all part of life.”
ON PARENTING: “We always hear the words ‘dysfunctional family.’ Our parents knew nothing about psychoanalysis. They gave us a roof, clothes, and food. They did their best. What more do you want, baby?”
ON SHARING: “So many people are competitive, jealous. Why? If I have something to offer, why not share it? Am I going to take it to my grave?”
ON FORGIVENESS: “The French have a wonderful saying: ‘A comprendre tout, c’est a pardoner tout.’ To understand is to forgive.”
ON ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION: “My parents registered me for a rather way-out school. At the annual fundraising ball, Marlene Dietrich appeared with nothing but a fishnet and a bouquet of violets on her crotch. My parents had no idea; they would never have sent me.”
ON PROBLEM SOLVING: “When you have a problem, just ask yourself, ‘Why?’ Sometimes you have an amazing solution.”
ON LOVE: “What good is power? You can only wear one outfit, drive one car. You can’t dance at three weddings. If some people love you, it’s a bonus.”
ON AMBITION: “Everybody wants to be perfect. Why? It reminds me of a scene in the Marilyn Monroe movie Some Like it Hot. Jack Lemmon confesses ‘But I’m really not a woman—I’m a man,’ to which his suitor Joe E. Lewis replies, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”
ON KINDNESS: “I was raised so strictly in Nazi Germany. There was never a day we weren’t afraid for our lives. When I came to America I got crazy seeing my freedom. I’d walk up to strangers and say, ‘You look so nice, I’d like to get to know you.’ I could only afford broken daisies from a florist. When I saw a subway conductor with a sad face, I’d give him the daisies. Some thought I was a prostitute, but I was just trying to make people happy. Can’t somebody be nice?”
ON FASHION: “I need very little, but I’d love a beautiful corset. To lift my legs, not my bosom!
ON EGO (Pythagoras, take note): “I don’t have the need to shine…or to prove anything.”
ON SOLITUDE: “I cherish my friends but my time alone is sacred—to walk, to think, to be.”
ON JOY: Guru Ilona prefers the magical to the mundane. “Don’t waste time on floor dust because you’ll miss the joy dust.”
Some of us bake. Others practice yoga. I’ll take a course in philosophy: Ilona 101.