Profile: Nancy McBean, a bridge-playing machine

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABY JACK SHORT – If you happen to wander into a meeting of the most prominent bridge club on the island, they might strike you as a pretty homogenous group, quietly pouring over what seems, to the uninitiated, an inscrutable set of tables and cards.


Somewhere near the front of the room sits Nancy McBean, a short, slight woman with gray hair down to her shoulders, parted in the middle. She doesn’t look it, but she’s the only person in the room who was born during the first world war. Well, technically, she was born just as it ended, in November 1918, during Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. That was also the year that Max Planck won the Nobel Prize for his work in quantum theory, and the first full length cartoon was released, “The Sinking of the Lusitania.”

But Nancy didn’t have too much to say about the state of the world after nearly 100 years of living in it. Maybe that’s the secret to kicking around for so long – avoid getting too worked up about anything for too long.

She said she figures she’s been around for 96 years because she loves life. She said there’s no secret at all to staying sharp in her 10th decade of life: “I was just born sharp,” she laughed.

Her sense of humor is well developed, to put it mildly. When asked what she found most astounding about the modern world, compared to the world of her youth, before the last Model T rolled off Ford’s assembly line, she said she was most amazed at her own longevity.

“I should have been dead a long time ago,” she joked.

When pressed for a serious answer, she said simply that she never thought as a young girl that the world would be anything like it is today. She doesn’t bother much with certain modern conveniences _ her housekeeper and friend Maria takes care of anything that would require internet use and, though I didn’t ask, I suspect she doesn’t have a cellular phone.

Nancy still enjoys the hobbies she learned as a young woman. She plays bridge, which she learned when she was 12; up until a few years ago she played golf, which she started playing when she was approximately 18 and, until ten years ago, she rode horses, which she has done since she was a little girl.

Of the things she can’t do anymore, she said she misses riding horses the most.

As a child, she said, that’s all she wanted to do.

Nancy grew up in Locust Valley, New York, on Long Island. Her father, Peter, was a head surgeon in New York until he lost his arm in an automobile accident.

“It was terrible,” she said. “After that he consulted.”

Though her family didn’t have to make egregious adjustments, according to Nancy, it was difficult on them when her father lost a large part of his livelihood. Still, Nancy, her mother, Helen, and brothers, Larry, Roland and Peter carried on.

Nancy attended the Hewitt School, a private girls’ school in New York, for 12 years. After graduating, she said, she didn’t have much interest in going to college.

“I was very lucky,” she said. “My family had enough money that I didn’t have to do much of anything.”

To her credit, she only had a job for one year. That’s one out of 96. She exercised horses for about a year when she was 18.

She spent a year in Europe traveling with her family shortly thereafter and said she loved it, but didn’t do much traveling later.

“I’m not sure why,” she said.

When I asked her what’s the craziest thing she’s ever done, she didn’t hesitate to say it was getting hitched three times.

She was married three times, but never divorced. She met her first husband, George Helmer, at a party not long after she finished school, and married when she was 20.

They lived together in San Fransisco, California, for 12 years, which Nancy remembers fondly. They had a son, Peter, who lives in Greenwich, Connecticut and has two older children.

She returned to Long Island and married twice more and was widowed twice more.

She found Boca Grande because her oldest brother, Larry, had a home here. She visited with the thought of buying a house here and found she liked it. She bought on 9th Street where she lives still. She swam, she said, walked, golfed and rode horses until, little by little, she was forced to restrict herself to walking with Maria and playing bridge.

She said she loves the game, but also appreciates the social aspect.

“I love life,” she said. “I love being alive.”

She said she gets out of bed each day because it’s a beautiful day.

“If it was raining I’d probably stay in bed,” she joked.

Luckily Boca Grande doesn’t have much inclement weather.

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