She’s the city’s “It” girl, bouncing from nightspot to nightspot in the wee hours of the morning, skipping the lines and velvet ropes with ease. Always dressed to perfection, she’s got an instantly classic look and gets photographed wherever she goes. But this nightlife maven isn’t Paris or Lindsay or Chloe .
Her name is Zelda Kaplan. She’s the 90-year-old club kid. And the night Team Fly Life went out with her, she kicked our little behinds. I’d first seen Zelda at APT, well past my 3 a.m. bedtime, dancing up a storm on the tiny dancefloor. With an African-style hat stacked atop her head, an African dress made in the same print, and giant circular sunglasses completing the look, she was unmistakable. It was like the fairy of fun had just dropped in.
I first met Zelda this summer at her 90th birthday party, thrown by famed nightlife photographer
Patrick McMullan at Guest House. She didn’t remember me, though—after Guest House (her second stop of the evening), she went to Lotus, and then to Cain. Someone might have been a little tipsy.
Zelda sleeps in till two in the afternoon and stays up all night, mostly because she has insomnia. She says she prefers the company of younger people because older people complain about illnesses, but then, she says she only has one elderly friend left. She nonetheless maintains her old-fashioned class and manners—she doesn’t like it when girls wear jeans when they go out (“They look like such clones!”) and calls you the next day to say what a wonderful time she had. She usually makes the rounds two or three nights a week, but some weeks stretches it to as many as five.
For our escapade, we went to some of Zelda’s favorite places: Double Seven, Cain, and at the last minute, Happy Valley, before ending our journey at Bungalow 8. (“Bungalow doesn’t really get good until 2:30,” Zelda had sagely advised.)
At 11:30 p.m., when most of my friends—who are mostly 60 years younger—were probably sleeping, we met up at Double Seven, the upscale ultra-V.I.P. lounge opened last year by Lotus owner David Rabin and his partners. Zelda was immediately fussed over. We had barely exchanged air kisses when a procession of sorts formed at our booth, with people lining up to say hello and shake her hand. She greeted them all with the benevolence of a queen saying hello to her adoring public. “People are just so nice,” she said afterward. “Don’t you think?”
Lest you think she’s just a frivolous party girl, Zelda is also a humanitarian and feminist of the first order. “It’s so important that girls not defer to the penis,” she says. “I hope to let every girl know that she is somebody.” Raised on a farm in a village in New Jersey, in her long, rich life she’s been a golf pro and a ballroom dancer. She married twice: to a doctor and a lawyer. “I’m now looking for an Indian chief,” she jokes. She used to smoke, but quit in her fifties—”I was sure I would die in my seventies.”
The highlight of her life was hearing pioneering anthropologist Margaret Mead speak at the American Museum of Natural History. “She became my inspiration,” Zelda says. When she was 54, propelled by curiosity about African carvings, Zelda booked a trip to Africa through the museum, but when that more organized outing was canceled at the last minute, she went herself. She’s tried to go back every year since, though she hasn’t been able to in the last four due to concerns about her safety. These frequent trips led her to post-apartheid South Africa in 1995, where she spoke to villages about birth control for women; she frequently travels throughout the continent speaking out against the social practice of female genital mutilation. At home, she raises money for charity. If even one person is affected, she feels she’s accomplished something. “I have been told that five young ladies haven’t been cut genitally because of me,” she says.
Zelda wears her heart on her sleeves—she sports dresses she designs herself using fabric purchased on her trips, which attracts a lot of sincere but sometimes unintentionally hilarious attention. At Double Seven, an African American man claimed that her dress’s fabric came from the same area his family was from. “Oh, that’s not Nigeria. That’s south of Nigeria,” Zelda corrected. Earlier, she’d quickly found a cab near her house on West 57th Street because a driver—who’d been going east—turned around and picked her up. He was from Ghana; he’d seen her outfit as he passed and wanted to meet her.
After Zelda finished her first glass of champagne (she only drinks bubbly or Shiraz), we dashed to one of her favorite spots, Cain, where she has bonded with owner Jamie Mulholland, who is from South Africa. It was Tuesday’s hip-hop night, but Zelda doesn’t really like hip-hop—she prefers to dance to Cuban or Latin beats. So she remained seated and was frequently greeted, as usual, like a celebrity. Cathy Lee Jones and two athletes (who stood a foot taller than Zelda) posed for a picture; on the other side of the club, tipsy girls pleaded for Zelda to visit their table.
Zelda’s bubbly attitude and unique style turn velvet-rope guard dogs into puppies. When we arrived at the much mythologized celebrity haunt Bungalow 8, entrée was a breeze; a friend who showed up later was left standing outside. “She’s so striking, most people fade in the background,” says David Rabin, co-owner of Lotus and Double Seven. “As they say in our business—she’s got juice.”
“She’s like a style icon,” says Kenny Kenny, the legendary doorman and co-promoter of Happy Valley’s Tuesday night. “Nobody looks like that anymore.” Accordingly, Zelda has a soft spot for other people who make individuality a priority, like Amanda Lepore, whom we visited at Happy Valley. “I admire her so much,” Zelda says of New York’s iconic transsexual. “She’s had such a hard life. It really takes courage to be who you are.”
Zelda’s presence in a club provides an instant jolt of energy, but you can tell some people don’t appreciate her. To them she’s just a funny prop, a “wacky” older lady in a funny hat (which one wasted patron at Cain tried to remove) there to spice up their night. But club owners who’ve known her for years know better. “I’ve always felt she’s a true inspiration to all people,” says Bungalow 8’s Amy Sacco. “Instead of staying home and watching TV, she’s out being productive, working with charity, visiting young people, out having a good time. It’s just such a treat to have her.”
As we made our way around in cab after cab to club after club, Zelda chatted about all the people she’d seen throughout the evening. “I think some people come up to me, not because they know me, but because they know of me,” she said, as our cab raced through the city. “I think I inspire them because I am out. I hope I inspire people to not be afraid of being old—really old. And not to feel empty about life, because life is worth living. Don’t you think?” And she stepped back out into the night.
Research assistance: Elizabeth Thompson