Mae Laborde has her fingers in so many pies that it’s a challenge to keep up with her. One day she is speaking to a civic organization; another day she’s at a board meeting. For fun, she reads tea leaves. And this summer she is growing tomatoes that she’ll sell to Michael’s restaurant in Santa Monica.
A photo in the living room of her Santa Monica home shows Laborde disco dancing. The striking oil painting of flowers behind the couch is her work. And the savory aroma coming from the kitchen is one of her culinary specialties, a tamale loaf. On top of a busy schedule, Laborde does all her own cooking and grocery shopping.
Mae Laborde is 91 years old.
Judging by Laborde and two other seniors we interviewed, the way to live long and fruitfully is to work hard, love what you’re doing, eat well but sensibly, and don’t pay attention to retirement age.
Laborde was hired by First Federal Bank in Santa Monica when well into her 70s. Rachel Leeds of Van Nuys, 78, teaches four classes a semester in public speaking and interpersonal communication skills at Los Angeles Mission College in Sylmar. Alyse Laemmle, 84, conducts a life insurance business from her home in Hermosa Beach.
Laemmle’s oceanfront home is a pleasant place to relax, but you won’t find her lounging on the beach. ‘I have no leisure,’ she says. ‘I can’t give up the service,’ meaning the help she gives to her hundreds of clients. ‘Sometimes it’s 8 or 9 at night, I’m working at my desk, and forget to eat.’ She might continue working to midnight, even 2 a.m., if necessary.
It All Starts With Breakfast
Skipping meals is not her style, however. ‘I’m very responsible for myself,’ says Laemmle. ‘I try very hard in the course of a day to have a balanced diet. I try not to eat a lot of carbohydrates, and I almost never eat desserts.’
Leeds sometimes dashes off to school without an adequate breakfast. On those days, she takes along a breakfast drink of soy or almond milk to which she adds protein powder, frozen fruit such as blueberries, flax seed oil and lecithin.
Leeds, who will be 79 this month, attributes her vitality to a lifelong focus on healthy eating. ‘I like to avoid the fats and have a lot of veggies,’ she says. Dinner might be only soup and salad because she’s trying to cut down on food in the evening. Or she might broil chicken or fish and add a vegetable. Leeds’ husband, Ben, is diabetic, so she has cut down on carbohydrates such as pasta and potatoes.
Laemmle breakfasts late, after hours of business calls. Her breakfast might be orange juice and tea, prunes mixed with cottage cheese, or yogurt and cottage cheese combined with strawberries and banana as well as a matzo or apple quarters spread with peanut butter.
For dinner, she likes thick soups. ‘I’ll make a great big pot and I’ll freeze part of it,’ she says. She buys 10 to 12 pounds of round steak at a time, has it ground at the market, then seasons it, forms the meat into patties and freezes them.
‘One of my tricks is, I never make a single batch of anything. Never,’ she says. The extras are stored in a refrigerator-freezer and a separate, free-standing freezer.
Laborde starts each day with an 8-ounce glass of orange juice. ‘I like it, and it likes me,’ she says. Half an hour later she has breakfast: raisin bran flakes with milk and a banana. Once a week, she adds a poached egg and toast. ‘My brunch,’ she calls it. ‘I don’t snack in the afternoon, and I’m so hungry by the time I start my dinner.’
At night, Laborde might have a baked chicken thigh and a sliced potato baked with a dash of olive oil. ‘Every night I’ll make a green salad. I cook one vegetable. It might be an artichoke. String beans are No. 1. I don’t cook them too long, but I don’t like them crunchy. I try not to bake a dessert unless somebody is coming over.’
No Time to Retire
Like Laborde, Leeds is involved in diverse fields. Along with her sister, Esther Wedner, and a friend, the late Bernice Bloch, she wrote a book titled ‘What to Say When: A Guide to More Effective Communication.’ It’s used as a text in her classes and is available at the Mission College bookstore.
And she’s poised for an additional career. A casting director spotted Leeds and suggested she try out for commercials. Aside from her photogenic face, she is marketable because she has aged naturally, the director said. She doesn’t dye her hair and she hasn’t had a face-lift.
Laborde has appeared in a couple of KCET public television segments on Santa Monica history. She’s a member of the Santa Monica Historical Society, serves on the advisory board of Santa Monica College and went through the Santa Monica Citizen Police Academy, at 89 the oldest person to complete the course. Last year she was honored with a plaque for her 45 years of regular attendance at the Pageant of the Masters at the Festival of Arts in Laguna Beach.
Laemmle is devoted to her synagogue, Congregation Ner Tamid of the South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes. ‘Since I’m alone, it’s my main joy. I try never to miss a Friday night service,’ she says. She also enjoys reading -- ‘serious things, things that inspire me and make me think.’
Laemmle has little time for entertaining, but for visitors, she brings out her prized 150-year-old onion pattern Meissen china. Lacy white place mats over blue mats harmonize with the blue and white china and pick up the refreshing mood of the ocean, visible from the table. Cookies, lightly toasted almonds, fruit and a Viennese nut torte complete what could be afternoon tea except that Laemmle serves Viennese coffee, poured into cups over cream whipped with sugar.
Phoning Paul Prudhomme
Laborde allows no help as she serves lunch -- tamale loaf and salad -- and clears the table, which she has set with place mats in a summery garden design, pink paper napkins and cups from her collection of English bone china. Then she pours tea in order to read her guests’ tea leaves. Laborde has entertained groups with her readings, and her predictions at lunch that day were strikingly accurate.
If a personality interests her, Laborde doesn’t hesitate to call or introduce herself. Determined to win a local gumbo contest, she phoned Paul Prudhomme for tips and eventually won the contest and a trip to New Orleans.
Restaurateur Michael McCarty has been a lunch guest, and so has the late Buddy Rogers, husband of Mary Pickford. Lunch for McCarty included the prize-winning gumbo, salad and English trifle, with McCarty assigned to whip the cream. ‘I wasn’t intimidated at all,’ says Laborde. ‘I knew what I was doing. I’ve always been a perfectionist. I want my food to be just so.’
Leeds serves guests the same sort of healthy food that she prefers. A typical company menu would be baked marinated salmon, couscous, a steamed vegetable, salad and a dessert that she would buy at a health food store or other market.
The salad would probably be ‘Sharon’s Hand-Me-Up Salad,’ which she learned from daughter Sharon. It’s a flavorful combination of greens, Belgian endive, apples, dried cranberries, walnuts, goat cheese and a lemony dressing that contains no salt. ‘I never add salt to food,’ Leeds says.
‘The wonderful thing about this salad is, it lends itself to all kinds of variations. You can take out the cranberries and add tuna, or you can add hot couscous. I love the look of it. It’s so beautiful, all the colors and the textures. You can make a meal of this.’
If Leeds serves soup, it might be a vegetable broth inspired by the precepts of Dr. Henry G. Bieler, author of the book ‘Food Is Your Best Medicine’ (Random House, 1965). To make this, she cooks celery, green beans and zucchini in a small amount of water, then blends the vegetables with parsley, garlic and seasonings, producing a fresh green soup that she might top with yogurt. ‘It’s like soul food to me,’ she says.
Learning by the Book
Laemmle did not know how to cook when she got married, so she turned to ‘The Settlement Cookbook.’ ‘The first year I was married, I studied that thing by the hour,’ she says.
Laemmle and her late husband, Kurt -- a member of the well-known theater family -- were married for 57 years. ‘My husband loved to eat, and I adored him,’ Laemmle says. ‘He loved desserts. Like a child, he used to eat the whole meal just to get the dessert. He didn’t like going out to restaurants because he loved my cooking.’
One of her specialties is a Hungarian-style chocolate almond torte to which she adds coffee, a Hungarian technique for bringing out chocolate flavor. Laemmle has made this torte for ears, since she and her husband paid a visit to Hungary, where her parents were born.
This spring she brought the torte to a Passover cook-off staged by women from her synagogue. Laemmle passed out copies of the recipe written in such minute detail that no one who followed it could possibly fail. ‘Giving away recipes is like giving away love,’ she says.
Laemmle has two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Her cupboards are gradually growing bare as she distributes her treasures. ‘I love to give things away. It’s much more fun than keeping them,’ she says.
Being older is a gift, not a disadvantage. ‘In many ways, it is emotionally and intellectually the richest time of my life,’ she says.
Leeds, who has four children and two grandchildren, lives in a small house surrounded by spacious grounds that have been landscaped into a romantic garden. Walking in this beautiful environment helps her to remain peaceful.
After 25 years of teaching at Mission College, she has no interest in retiring. ‘I like the work,’ she says. ‘I am passionate about introducing interpersonal relations into the curriculum.’
About aging, she says, ‘I think we’re more vigorous than ever. I hold myself as a role model, not for my young students so much as for my colleagues, people in their 40s and 50s.’
Laborde has weathered the loss of a husband and her only child, a daughter, but nothing slows her down. She has a large circle of friends, three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
‘I like to keep in touch with things. I just keep busy, and I have fun doing it,’ she says. The way she eats also keeps her lively. ‘I’ve always wanted to be a healthy person, even growing up. I always ate well. I think good food helps your body and your energy.’
Outlook is important too, Laborde emphasizes. ‘You have to have a sense of humor and keep happy thoughts. I keep thinking of the nice things that are going to happen.’