cynthia adler, 82
cultural explorer, new york
When I spoke to Cynthia Adler, I was drinking green tea and she was drinking coffee with cream, her third cup of the day. “I’m playing Russian roulette with my health!” she laughed.
At 82, she’s got a few decades on me—on most of us—and living a life I can only hope to approximate when I get there. She’s incredibly stylish and curious and an enthusiastic walker of the streets of New York—a city she moved to at the age of 69—and she doesn’t just stroll, she walks at a speed that I have trouble keeping up with.
But more on that later. First, I should offer some quick background on the fabulous Adler family. Daughter Amy is chaired law professor at NYU, and son Jonathan is a potter who grew his passion into a global design business. Cynthia’s husband (who passed in 1999) was both a lawyer and an artist and both of them were the children of judges.
Adler herself was a writer and homemaker before deciding—at the age of 56—to attend law school. “I went on a whim,” she says. “It turned out I loved it. It was wonderful.”
The last word in that sentence is one Adler uses often in conversation. And it’s typically used to describe decisions she’s made “on a whim.” Like the time in 1956 when she was reading an incredible piece of fiction by Dylan Thomas in Harper’s Bazaar and decided to get off the train in New York City, rather than her final destination of Newark. So moved, she marched to the offices of Harper’s Bazaar, asked to see the fiction editor, and asked for a job. She got one.
She later turned that into a brief writing gig for Vogue. While there she worked on a column that involved her going to the museums and theater and assorted performances and writing up reports the columnist would later lift a line or two from for his piece.
New York cast a spell on her, though she raised her children in southern New Jersey: “South of the Mason-Dixon line there was nothing there but crops, migrant workers and fish. It was right on the Delaware Bay. I began to love dirt. I took photographs of flat dirt and crops. There was nothing to do!”
And yet she relayed that anecdote with the same awestruck tone she uses to describe trips to the ballet, or a recent performance she saw at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With many of the folks I talk to, I try to ask questions that provoke answers that are both philosophical and practical on the topic of aging. With Cynthia, I didn’t get any of that. I got something much more: a woman uninterested in articulating her thoughts on aging because she’s too busy living.
The law school decision ended up with her serving as a judge’s clerk and practicing law for 5 years into her 60s. When she was done with that, she made the decision to move to New York, close to her best friend near Lincoln Center (“I wanted to live in the Village … but everything I’ve done has not been particularly planned.”)
The 16 years since, she’s roamed the town—above and below ground—as curious as any fresh arrival. “I love walking down the street and seeing babies,” she says. “I think people in NYC are particularly helpful and friendly and nice. And I just like walking. It’s a great city!” When she goes out to see dance performances—a passion of hers since an early age—she wants to be challenged and surprised. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t miss her husband, or think about the inevitable, with friends in their 90s and one who’s over 100. Yet…
“I’m enthusiastic, I’m optimistic. I have very wide interests from highbrow to lowbrow—I won’t tell you how lowbrow it goes,” she says. “I feel I’m energetic and I’m grateful—to be alive and to be in good enough health—and I feel happy.”