Episode 141: When I'm 85 - an interview with Madeleine Kunin

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, a woman with a long career in public life reflects on what it means to be in her 80s…

“You can still enjoy a sunset at 85 so I try to dwell on things of beauty. When you know there’s not much time left you have to focus on what really gives you joy and what makes life meaningful.”

Retired politician Madeleine Kunin comes of age. Coming up on The Broad Experience.

We rarely hear the voices of older people in the media. And a lot of us don’t have a person in their 70s or 80r or 90s with whom we spent any amount of time. That’s a really different situation from the one we had for centuries, when we all lived in our hometowns in tight family groups.

Some of you will remember I interviewed Madeleine Kunin back in 2015 – she was one of two guests in a show called Politics is Power. She is a former governor of Vermont, a university professor and an author. If you haven’t heard that show I recommend it – you’ll find out much more about Madeleine’s political career there. She is intelligent and thoughtful and a great talker. When I heard she had a new memoir out about growing old, I jumped at the chance to talk to her again.

Her book is called Coming of Age – My Journey to the Eighties. 

AM-T: “You may allude to this in the text but…just picking my age…when you were in your forties did you think at all about being in your 80s?”

“No, it seemed miles away – I think until you begin to feel old and reach your 70s or 80s you still think you’re gonna live forever and that old age is a very distant mirage you don’t really believe is real. Of course I thought of it in terms of my mother and other relatives but I felt invincible in my forties.”

AM-T: “When did you start…did you start to feel a little less invincible in the last decade or so?”

“Yes, I guess so, I can’t pinpoint a date or a time. I guess when I began to feel my knees going up and down stairs I realized something new was happening – and maybe it’s bits of memory, you walk into a room and when you get there you can’t remember what you were looking for. So bits and pieces that make you feel your age. And then just the number. I remember I felt at 70, 70 felt very old, and when I reached 85, which is my present age, 85 didn’t seem related to me – 85 was somebody else, not me. But in the process of writing this book I took responsibility for my age.”

AM-T: “Yeah, well that brings me to my next question which is why did you decide to write about being in your 80s?”

“Well, I felt myself changing – my body, my mind, my emotions, and I also felt like a somewhat different person, it’s like I opened a new door like I could walk in and be more self- revealing. Having lived a public life for so many years where what I said and what I did was carefully scrutinized, and a politician develops a certain defense mechanism, you screen your words through a sieve so that you can omit anything controversial or that can get you into trouble.

As I approached my 80s I became more flamboyant and figured what have I got to lose? And I could explore my inner thinking and write poetry. I had written poetry off and on but very sporadically and suddenly the poetry muse sat on my shoulder, there she was, and poetry requires time and quiet and sustained thinking, something you can’t do ever in public life because you’re on a 15 minute chopped up schedule and you have to go onto the next thing and you also have to be careful, so I sort of enjoy being at the stage I’m in where I can be more free and self-revealing.”

AMT: “I wonder now watching the…a number of women have declared for Democratic candidates for president in 2020 and do you think that’s changed at all, do you think politicians can be a bit more real these days, or not really?”

“Well, I think that is to be seen. The good news is there are now four Democratic women…running for the Democratic nomination for president and they can’t be targets in the same way Hillary was. They still have to be somewhat careful but I don’t think they are as easily attacked. People said to me when Hillary was running I would vote for a woman but just not Hillary, I don’t like Hillary. Well now there are four women you can choose from and if you don’t like them all that makes you prejudiced. I think the variety is healthy. But I did know Kamala Harris wore a black suit, she may wear a black suit throughout the campaign because there’s only so much you can say about a black suit. The others will find their own comfort zone but the hope is they’ll stop talking about shoes and stockings and hair and fingernail polish and whatever it is they zone in on. I mean men just don’t get that attention about their attire, because it’s assumed what a man will wear, a dark suit, red tie, or a blue tie, that’s the end of the conversation. And I think one of the reasons people focus so much on how women look is they’re trying to find out who this woman is who’s competing for a man’s job…is she like a man, is she like a woman, is she tough enough, is she likeable enough? There’s still some extra baggage that women candidates for president have to carry.”

AMT: “I want to go back to you because I want make sure I cover some of the parts of your book I was most interested in and curious about. Well, I guess you can tell me if this is too personal, but when you parted from your first husband you’d been married for about 35 years, right?”


“And I remember you telling me before when I interviewed you that he was a supportive spouse when you were in public office, you probably couldn’t have done it without him…” 


“You were sixtyish when you parted ways, was it hard to be on your own or was it a relief or both?”

“Well I think it was hard to be on my own and somewhat a relief, but I think the actual parting of the ways is never easy in any divorce and I was very fortunate to have a wonderful second marriage, but my first husband was supportive of my getting into politics which I think is essential. It’s hard for a woman to be all on her own through the rigors of a campaign. You’re doing something very demanding and somewhat unusual still, so a partner has to be with you. But as I said my second husband also supported my writing and I couldn’t have written this book, Coming of Age, without my husband’s support. He was my backup and it also allowed me to take more risks in what I wrote about.”

She says she and her husband John made a great team. We’ll come back to their late-life partnership in a few minutes.

When Madelene became single for the first time in decades she was in her early sixties. She had finished her three terms as governor of Vermont. She had also taken on the role of US deputy secretary of education in the Clinton administration. After she divorced, she was appointed US ambassador to Switzerland, the country where she was born in the early 1930s.

She was excited to go back, but when she got to her formal residence in Bern, she realized being an ambassador without a partner could be rather lonely.

“It was a new experience…in a way I had everything one could want – I had staff, maids, chauffeur, chef, but at the end of the day you are alone. As time went on I did find some good friends, swiss friends, I could pick up the phone and say do you want to go to a movie? I also had cousins…that was a source of strength there.”

Still, being a single woman felt awkward at times, especially in such a social role. She writes about a time when there was no available male ambassador to dance with at an annual ball she threw at the US embassy, so a Marine politely made himself available. She left early.

“I think my almost embarrassment applies to women in many situations and I was more self-conscious than anyone else. That was a hard night but most of my stay in Switzerland was happy. It was great to come back to the country where I was born. My mother brought my brother and I to America at the outbreak of WWII and we didn’t know whether Switzerland would be pulled into the War and occupied by Hitler. And we had the American dream, my mother was very optimistic, she said anything is possible in America and that carried me forward, I believed it when we got to the shores of America.”

AM-T: “Yeah, I’d read a little bit about your childhood but to read about what your mother went to when you were too young to remember, your father killed himself, he was depressed, and your mother was left with you and your brother to shepherd through the rest of your childhoods on her own.”

 “Well yes as I got older I grew in my appreciation of my mother’s courage and sense of adventure. She took us both on the ship that was vastly overcrowded as everyone was trying to leave Europe, and brought us to America. She was a gutsy woman and unfortunately she never lived to see me in public life.”

AM-T: “You talk a little bit about your relationship with money and how careful your mother was with money. Now obviously you weren’t destitute or you couldn’t have come to America, she must have had some money to live on but she parsed it out very carefully, is that right?

“Yes, that’s about right. we weren’t living in poverty but we didn’t have a big nest egg. My father had been a successful businessman. He imported shoes from the United States and elsewhere and so there was no panic, no suffering but she knew there was a limited amount and we were just missing little things I wished I had but weren’t essentials, like I wished I had piano lessons, I wished I’d had ballet. I was not really expected to go to college because my mother and the family didn’t go to university in Europe, but I knew I wanted to go – I found my way, there were no loans but you could work as a waitress for the summer and learn enough to get you through.

Which is just what she did. Madeleine says she felt relieved about money when she married a doctor…even though she’d supported herself until then, the pressure was off. She worried about money again when they split up. In fact she sometimes fantasized about stealing a loo roll from a public place, just in case. And she’s not the only one.

“I actually met somebody who said I did that, she stole or was tempted to steal a roll of toilet paper, you suddenly feel maybe I won’t have enough money to buy the essentials, of course I didn’t but the feeling your funds are limited, your options are limited, strikes a lot of women who are newly divorced, maybe I have to fend for myself…”

When Madeleine returned from her time Switzerland she settled back in Vermont. But she didn’t retire. She taught at the University of Vermont and elsewhere, she started Emerge Vermont, an organization to recruit and train Democratic women to run for office, she wrote…and she toyed with the idea of internet dating. She’d heard good things about it, but it felt uncomfortable, being a former governor putting up a dating profile. She never did it.

Then one day about ten years into being single, she met someone. He was someone she knew of – in fact they’d met years before. His name was John Hennessey and he’d been the dean of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. He was a widower, and he and his wife had donated to Madeleine’s campaigns in the past. In the mid-2000s, he asked her if she’d like to get involved with an organization called Americans for Campaign Reform.

Now that doesn’t sound very romantic, but…

“Best decision I ever made to say yes to that invitation. And I hate to use ‘love at first sight,’ it’s such a cliché, but he met two of my criteria – one he was a Democrat, he and his wife had been very active Democrats in New Hampshire. And two he was a feminist, he referred to God as she, and I hadn’t developed that habit but it thrilled me of course when he said that, so we were very well matched and when we met again later for lunch I happened to have 2 tickets to the Vermont Symphony. I asked him if he’d like to come to the symphony that night and he prudently asked, what’s the program? And I said Beethoven’s Ninth, and that did it. So I really have to thank Beethoven.”  

AM-T: “What did it feel like falling in love again probably 50 years after you did it the first time?”

“It just felt natural, I don’t know, it was so easy, we moved in together, shared our furniture, we had no arguments, just as if we were on the same wavelength. The only thing was I had to give up my dog, my dog was not a very well-behaved dog and didn’t seem to like John, she’d jump up on him. She was a Swiss dog, a herding dog, not the ideal house pet, so I faced this quandary, John or the dog…obviously it was not much of a quandary, she went to a lovely farm in Montana where she lived happily ever after.”

Madeleine and John got married when she was 72 and he was 80. They traveled to India, England, Egypt, Italy—and lots of other places, enjoying eachother’s company and the fact they were so well matched, it was almost like they’d always known eachother. He’d come with her on all her book tours and take notes each time, keeping tabs on reactions to her speeches. People who saw them out together often assumed they’d been together for years.

They eventually downsized their home to an apartment in a retirement community in Vermont. That became especially convenient when John’s health began to go downhill. He had physical ailments but he also began to suffer from bouts of depression.

AM-T: “How did you find being a carer at the end of his life? A lot of your time was spent caring and worrying that he might fall and worrying about his health…”

“Well the first 8 or so years we saw the world together, we traveled, he was fine, he had never been depressed, so this happened near the end. He was a very upbeat person and he was a person who took women seriously; listened to them, questioned them and also advocated for them. He wouldn’t accept the deanship of the Tuck School unless they allowed women to be accepted at the school, and he got that. That was the proviso the school agreed with.

But being a carer is, it really depends on the two people involved. Love helps. If you really love someone you want to help them get better, you want to be with them, and that gave me strength that we had this love for eachother. But it’s also frustrating at times because there’s only so much you can do even as a loving caregiver. You can’t shake off depression, much as you try. You can for a moment distract and touch and be close but it’s a very hard thing to deal with. I think the most important thing is you don’t give up, that you’re close to the person you’re caring for and you get some respite. I was lucky that we live in a continuing care community, so I had help, which was very important.”

John died at the beginning of last year. He was 92.

Madeleine feels incredibly lucky to have had him in her life. She enjoys good health herself, which she admits is one of the key components of having a good old age.

 “A lot of your ability to enjoy life as you get older is dependent on your financial situation and on your health. Though some people conquer both but it’s true it’s much harder if you’ve got financial worries or a debilitating health situation, but even then you can still work around it. I see people in wheelchairs who give me a big smile. So I think the idea is carpe diem, enjoy the day, and my husband and I used to say that to eachother, carpe diem, and it’s inscribed in my wedding band.”

I asked Madeleine to elaborate on something she said earlier, about noticing how much she was changing in her 80s…how so?

“I’m just more thoughtful, I’m more internal rather than external, I’m writing serious poetry and to write poetry you have to dig deep, you can’t just talk about the obvious, you have to find words. I’m also more introspective. What I try to do but don’t always succeed is to live in the moment, to try to – you can still enjoy a sunset at 85 so I try to dwell on things of beauty, I still read a lot, l am lucky to have good friends. So when you know there’s not much time left you have to focus on what really gives you joy and what makes life meaningful. You can’t do it every day 24/7 but you can pinch yourself every once in a while when you get depressed and say stop, look what you’ve got, you’re so fortunate.” 

AM-T: “Is there anything you didn’t expect that you love about being in your 80s?”

“Well, that I can still be creative, that I can still enjoy things – it’s not what I had pictured in my mind. I remember going to an 80 year old man’s birthday party and thinking wow, that’s really old, and expecting him to be decrepit, and need help walking…and I see a lot of that, old people with some disability where I live, but I see others old people here who are lively, doing things, good conversationalists, so I think it doesn’t end at 80 or 85, as long as you’re still curious, as long as you’re still interested in new things, you can be happy.”

Madeleine Kunin. Her new book is called Coming of Age – My Journey to the Eighties.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. I will link you to more information about Madeleine and her husband and to that last show I did with her under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com.

I said this a few years ago in a blog post and I’ve completely failed to do it…but I would love to interview more older women. Maybe you know someone in her 80s or 90s who comes from a totally different background than Madeleine who might be a good guest on the show. I’m always open to your suggestions – shoot me an email at ashley@thebroadexperience.com

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.