Here are some things that did not yet exist when Susannah Mushatt Jones was born in Alabama on July 6, 1899: the Model T, and for that matter the Ford Motor Company. The teddy bear. Thumbtacks and tea bags. Puccini’s Tosca and Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.” The Flatiron Building and the subway system beneath it. Emma Morano, an Italian woman born four months later, who is today the only other living soul who was around before 1900.
One hundred and sixteen years ago, Susie’s tenant-farmer father, Callie, could theoretically have voted, though Alabama’s poll taxes and rigged literacy tests pretty much took care of that. As for her mother, she was barred from the polls twice over, because voting rights for women were two decades off. Mary Mushatt had 11 children — Susie being the third and the oldest girl — and cooked on an open fire with water drawn from a well. Corn bread was baked by burying it in the fireplace’s ashes. The family raised their own produce and meat. Susie walked seven miles to what was then called the Calhoun Colored School, a private academy specializing in practical education. Her family paid the boarding-school tuition by barter: wood cut for the fire, bushels of corn they’d grown.
Her relatives say she did not dwell on the bad aspects of the prewar South. Tee — family members call her that, short for “Auntie” — was the type to put her head down and keep moving. Which is what she did after graduation: In December 1922, she made the three-day train trip to Newark, New Jersey, where a well-off family had hired her to be a nanny and housekeeper. A year later, she jumped to an easier and more glamorous job with a couple in Westchester: Walter Cokell was the treasurer of Paramount Pictures, and he and his wife, Virginia, had no children. Winters took the Cokells and her to Bel-Air and to Florida. She met Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ronald Reagan (all younger than she). Her already-good cooking got better and more refined.
In 1928, she married a man named Henry Jones, but they soon split up. (She doesn’t talk about him but kept his surname.) She had a room in Harlem for a while, in an apartment shared with other women from Alabama, but most of her time was spent as a live-in. After Mr. Cokell died in 1945 — killed himself, actually — she moved on to other domestic jobs. The Andrews family, with five children, was probably her favorite. Gail Andrews Whelan, now in her 70s, says Jones was a great caregiver — neither draconian nor a pushover, someone who laid down the law but also “always had your back,” and could serve breakfast to 30 girls after a slumber party.
Jones retired in 1965, a few months after the Civil Rights Act took effect. She went back to the farm in Alabama for a while, then returned to New York for good. Here, she was similarly surrounded by family, because after her journey north she had become a magnet. More than a dozen Mushatts made the trip after her, in a microcosm of the Great Migration, most settling in Brooklyn. A high percentage of her siblings and their descendants went to college, some with her financial help. Quite a few have lived longish lives, but none remotely like hers. One of her brothers reached 92, and died seven years ago. Of the 11, only she remains.
When she was about 80 — that is, 35 years ago — she moved into a seniors’ home in Canarsie. At 100, she had to stop cooking for herself and give up her neighborhood-watch role, as her eyesight started to go. (Really, it’s just cataracts, but she is too stubborn to sit for the surgery.) Late in life, she lost her aversion to curse words, though she’d subsequently deny any cussing she did. Miss Susie is her building’s microcelebrity, and on June 17, she became the world’s oldest living person upon the death of Jeralean Talley, who had six weeks on her.
She is fragile, no question about it. Sleeps a lot, can’t hear well. But she still loves her bacon — four strips, every morning, eaten with gusto. Has a pretty good appetite, in fact. Chews Doublemint gum. Her hair, long since turned white, has come in brown again. She voted for Barack Obama, twice. (A birthday letter from him hangs on her wall.) And next fall, Susannah Mushatt Jones will perhaps get to vote for a woman as well. Whoever’s elected would be her 21st president.
*This article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.
Friday, January 1, 2016