Zelda Kaplan, the 95-year-old dubbed "New York's oldest and most beloved night owl," seen by many as a positive model for aging, died yesterday after collapsing at Joanna Mastroianni's show at Lincoln Center at New York Fashion Week. She was pronounced dead at Roosevelt Hospital; a cause of death has not been provided. Ruth Finley, publisher of the Fashion Calendar for nearly seven decades, told the AP: “I was sitting right next to her. She flopped over in my lap. The show was just starting. I thought she fainted. Two men carried her out.”
Steve Kurutz's piece about Kaplan, which ran in the New York Times in 2003, shared the ease with which she flitted from social events and nightlife to travel and human rights work:
Several evenings a week she leaves her rent-controlled apartment on West 57th Street wearing her trademark ensemble -- matching African-print dress, handbag and shoes, and a tall hat that rests atop her head like a cloth beehive -- and bounces from one affair to the next, rarely returning home before dawn.
But Ms. Kaplan also does something surprising for most night creatures, or, for that matter, octogenarians. Periodically, she exits the party circuit to travel, particularly to Africa, where for the past three decades she has tromped through remote villages speaking to tribes about women's rights.
Kaplan, who "transformed" from a conventional housewife to a party girl and fashion-world fixture and humanitarian, moved to New York City from New Jersey in the '60s after her second divorce. She supported herself as a dance instructor for years, and would, at parties, show people "proper footwork." She became interested in Africa after hearing anthropologist Margaret Mead speak at the American Museum of Natural History, and went on to travel to countries including Mali, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Nigeria. "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," writes Tricia Romano, who profiled her (and had her behind kicked, party-wise, by her) for The Village Voice in 2006. Among various gems of wisdom, Kaplan told Romano, "It's so important that girls not defer to the penis." She also said, "I hope to let every girl know that she is somebody."
Kaplan's life was incredibly active, although perhaps her dating life was not. In a wonderful moment in Kurutz's Times piece, he writes, "While Ms. Kaplan meets new people constantly, she has not dated in quite some time and, free from the constrictions of marriage, has no plans to return. ''Two young men did recently ask if they could make love to me,'' she said. 'But what do I want with a 36-year-old?'''
Kaplan was the subject of the 2003 documentary Her Name Is Zelda. More recently, in 2010, Vanita Salisbury did a Q&A with Kaplan for New York magazine's Daily Intel. In it, Kaplan revealed her drink (shiraz), her opinion on what makes a New Yorker ("Someone who really enjoys the energy of this city — and someone who looks forward to coming home!") and her mortal enemy (death). Yet Kaplan was sanguine about the inevitability of meeting that enemy. In 2003, she told Kurutz, "I want to keep learning until it's over. And when it's over, it's over.''
Her friends released the following statement yesterday: “Zelda Kaplan passed away suddenly today at the age of 95 from natural causes ... She will be deeply missed and always loved.” Designer Richie Rich, quoted in Page Six, added, “Passing away in the front row was how it was meant to be. Zelda loves fashion, so she died for fashion. She would have wanted to go out in style. Zelda always said, ‘Live, live, live and have fun’ ... I hope the angels are holding her right now.”