RUTH GREENFIELD, IRRESISTIBLE, IRREPLACEABLE, AS UNFORGETTABLE
Ruth Wolkowsky Greenfield – November 17, 1923, Key West – July 27, 2023, Miami
RIP Ruth Greenfield, Miami will no longer be the same. With the disappearance of this almost centennial indomitable lady, a Miami that defies her in age also leaves forever. A venerated race pioneer, Ruth was a trailblazer, a precious Instrument of change as stated in Steve Waxman’s indispensable documentary filmed in 2013.
As the deserved obituaries will proliferate detailing a fertile and picturesque life like few, allow me to tell my impressions of the first time she invited me to her house (fortunately countless visits came after) regretting so much not having met her before but happy to at least have had that privilege.
On that occasion, I wrote:
“Last night I fell in love. Name: Ruth. Age: 93.
I don’t remember having run into an equal kind of seduction, as unusual and unexpected, embodied in an ineffable nonagenarian. Beautiful, impeccable, cultured, genuine, human, with a warmth that embraces you and an witty, elegant sense of humor revealing a fierce intelligence. Sort of Noel Coward’s Judith Bliss and Peter Shaffer’s Lettice Lovage mixed together but American to the core invites to a house that defines her, between old flowery oaks, there, house and trees compete in age and prestige with the owner… don’t forget a century of Miami equals two thousand years of Rome.
A grand piano, books, paintings, scores, photos, bric a brac, treasures… true “memorabilia”, inhabited by this character and her faithful Mercedes (“This is Mercedes, say hello dear, we share a 30 years romance, I say something and she automatically says NO LADY, and I gladly obey her… this team works wonderfully! … having said that, we are going to serve the second course in view that there is no first!”). In Ruth’s domains, celebrities and anonymous people enter and leave democratically, all seem relatives or very close, all welcomed.
The lady disappears, after a while she returns with a list of great musicians who visited her musical conservatory that ended to be known as “the Carnegie Hall of the south”… then she recounts Mana Zucca (her “almodovaresque” teacher who diligently watered her lush garden of… plastic plants), as well as Arthur Schnabel and in Paris the great Nadia Boulanger “With those teachers don’t you think I could have been a better pianist?” she sweetly reflects.
During dinner she tells me, “My paternal grandparents fled Russia and took refuge in New York ending up in Key West 100 years ago, when I was born we moved into this house…. with us lived a single uncle who occupied the last room at the top floor… when he was not there, I liked to went to his bed for a nap… one day I felt something hard under the mattress …. it was a sex manual! …. obviously, since that day I went every afternoon to study up there…”
So much mischievousness is transformed when she sits at the piano. First, a little Bach – “To clean the air” – then Gershwin, Cole Porter, Chopin and “this piece that I composed and maybe you will hear for the first time because no publisher wanted to publish it; in fact, I sent it to Frank Sinatra and he also sent it back to me, what do you think?” …. with her soft, musical, delicious voice, Ruth is a lesson in authenticity and, if she doesn’t remember something, it happens all the time, she leaves the phrase suspended in the air, flying for someone else to catch it and finish it; then she nods smiling with adorable complicity … she seems to walk through the air…like in the song: nothing touches her, not even the air.
Far from the snobbery and pretension that underpin the image of Miami as an epitome of superficiality, Ruth symbolizes the opposite, she is a Miami for those who really know about Miami, this indefatigable civil rights pioneer who moved to the black neighborhood, who founded a mythical conservatory without distinction of races or religion is a true rara avis and the confirmation, as Beethoven asserted, that kindness is the highest manifestation of intelligence.
Around eleven the hostess reports “Delighted if you want to stay but… I’m going to bed….ay, ay, ay, I forgot, there… my next guests arrive” from a car full of suitcases and orchids as gifts a young couple comes down “they are the children of a friend come to spend the night!”.
Confirmed, I fell in love. Impossible not to.
Postscript: True to her style, Ruth made an elegant mutis at 99 and eight months. A urban anecdote recounts when Jorge Luis Borges’ mother died, at the funeral services someone commented “such a pity Doña Leonor lacked so little to reach one hundred”, to which the poet with his inveterate irony calmy replied “don’t exaggerate the prestige of the decimal system.” Ruth didn’t care about numerical accuracy either, her world reminds us that she was always and will be elsewhere, she literally embodies Antonio Machado’s poem: Everything happens and everything is, but it is for us to pass, to pass by making roads, roads over the sea. Wanderer, there is no road– Only wakes upon the sea.
VIDEO: “Instruments of Change” showcases how the performing arts integrated a community and helped revitalize downtown Miami.
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