Helen Faith Keane Reichert, known as “Happy” since she was a child, a psychologist, radio and TV personality, as well as a university lecturer on fashion, died Sept. 25 in New York at 109. She and three siblings, all of whom lived to be more than 100, were studied in recent years by scientists and researchers for their longevity and lifelong activity.
Several obituaries, including one from the Cornell Sun, which lauded her as the university’s oldest alumna, quoted what they said was Reichert’s recipe for long life: “chocolate truffles, hamburgers, Budweiser beer, cigarettes and New York nightlife. Strictly forbidden were vegetables, exercising, getting up early and complaining.”
Some family members said her “recipe” was somewhat of an exaggeration: "She did eventually give up smoking, but I suspect she never inhaled," said her niece, Ruth Slater of New Rochelle, N.Y.
“She was the life of the party, the center of attention, and a master entertainer and storyteller who could captivate a space at 9 or 109,” said Vicky Kahn, her great-niece.
Reichert, her sister and two brothers have been studied by, among others, Israeli physician Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of Yeshiva University’s Institute of Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, who said the family, possibly the oldest related quartet of centenarians, “most prominently present the genotype that produces high levels of good cholesterol, which also may keep them mentally sharp.”
Reichert’s 102-year-old brother runs a firm that manages $700 million in assets, and he spends five days a week in the office.
“That’s why Reichert’s continuing fondness for rare hamburgers hasn’t dented her good cholesterol levels, which rank well above average,” The Wall Street Journal wrote in July.
Reichert was born in 1901 to immigrant parents on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She and her sister Lee, who died in 2005 at 101, sold World War I bonds on the steps of the New York Public Library as part of the one of the first Girl Scouts troops.
She graduated from Cornell University in 1925, where she was a member of the women’s rowing team. She faced anti-Semitism in Ithaca as a Cornell student and had to change her name from Kahn to Keane before local real estate agents would rent her an apartment. She later received a master’s degree in psychology from Columbia University.
Reichert taught "Costume History," a course she created, at New York University’s Graduate School of Retailing, where she taught for more than 30 years. She was a pioneer among women in the fashion industry, founding the Round Table of Fashion Executives for women in 1949. Her TV talk show, "FYI: The Helen Faith Keane Show," won a women’s magazine award.
“In a day when women didn’t have careers, she was an independent, innovative pioneer who wasn’t afraid to push boundaries and make a name for herself,” Kahn said.
In her 80s, Reichert traveled throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. At 90, she went on a hiking trip in the Middle East; she had to receive a permission slip from her doctor when the hosting travel agency initially declined to allow her participation.
“She had an incredible vitality, read constantly and had a wonderful sense of humor,” said Cornell vice president Susan Murphy. “Last holiday season, I received a card from her that said ‘Doing Fine at 109!’ and that really says it all.”
She was married for many years to Philip Reichert, a cardiologist.
The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at firstname.lastname@example.org.