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Friends for the Ages

The power of cross-generational, age-defying bonds

Intergenerational Friendships

Brad Trent

"She made me stop looking at myself as just a black ballerina" — Ballerina Misty Copeland, 34, and ballet pioneer Raven Wilkinson, 82

HOW THEY MET: In 2011, Wilkinson — a former soloist for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the first black woman to dance full time for a major ballet company — was introduced to Copeland at an event in Harlem celebrating diversity in dance. They instantly clicked. Copeland's schedule with American Ballet Theatre permitting, they talk often on the phone and, when possible, enjoy meeting at Ed's Chowder House, near Lincoln Center in Manhattan.


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Wilkinson: I saw Misty in a documentary years ago, on television. She was a little girl at the time — 15, I think. We don't term dancers as prodigies in ballet, but she had this breathtaking physical ability. I got on my knees right there and prayed. I said, "Please bless this young girl and let her go on and develop." And I waited and waited and hoped to see her in a performance. Nothing. Then I went to Giselle a few years ago and there was something in the soloist's whole sense of touch. The foot to the floor. She had a brio and élan and a lightness about her that none of the other dancers had. When she came onstage, it was like a breath of air. And I thought, Who's that? And it was Misty. I will never forget our first meeting. I was instantly struck by her. She has this lovely body — her legs, her arms and her beautiful face. And she speaks so beautifully, too. We talked about her experiences in the ballet and mine.

Copeland: The first time I heard Raven's name was when I saw the 2005 documentary Ballets Russes. I hadn't known about American ballerinas who had to go to Europe to dance because of their brown skin. When I learned about Raven, I cried. I felt so connected to her. Eventually my manager had heard me mention Raven in so many interviews that she decided to look her up, and we learned she lived around the corner from me in New York! When we finally met and I saw her small stature, so similar to mine, I hugged her tight. We've been connected ever since.

Wilkinson: One of my favorite memories is Misty's wedding reception last year. I did some dancing, twisted my hips a bit. I'm 82 now, so it takes a bit of twisting to do some twisting!

Copeland: She comes to every important show I have. No matter what's happening in her life, she thinks of others.

Wilkinson: Her presence on the stage has brought people you would hardly ever see to the ballet. It's extraordinary when she's dancing. The plaza of Lincoln Center is just packed with people — packed with people! — coming to see her dance.

Copeland: Raven has faced far more obstacles with race than I have, and she is still so optimistic about everything. It's interesting that she, a black ballerina, made me stop looking at myself as just a black ballerina.

Wilkinson: Misty says that I am her mentor, but I tell her, it's the other way around. Sometimes I get upset about something, and I think, Misty wouldn't be upset. She would look at this differently. I look to her as an example of how to think and how to learn and how to behave. Because we are all still learning. Even at 82, I am always learning.


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Intergenerational Friendships

"I don't think age has much to do with friendship." — Fashion icon and textile maven Iris Apfel, 95, and high-fashion jewelry designer Alexis Bittar, 48

HOW THEY MET: Though they met briefly in 2004, they bonded in 2005 when Apfel asked Bittar if she could wear samples of his jewelry to her big show of hats, shoes, costume jewelry and ensembles at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Bittar declined; he needed them. "I ran into her after that," he remembers. "I said, 'Iris, I saw the show. I loved it.' She hit me on the head and said, 'You bozo! I wanted to wear your designs at the opening, to show them off!' "

Bittar: We bonded over a multitude of things, and I also loved her late husband and their relationship together. Carl was amazing. They seemed literally inseparable until he died in 2015. We'd all talk about fashion, their business, my business, our childhoods. If you have a true friendship, it's amazing what unfolds.

Apfel: Alexis is almost exactly half my age. I don't think age has much to do with friendship. Most of my friends are half my age. I don't feel like I'm 95. I don't feel, with my friends, that they consider me old. They just consider me a friend. Alexis has a winning personality, and I have great respect for the work he's accomplished. He started selling vintage stuff on the streets years ago; then he started making jewelry, and he built it into a terrific business.

Bittar: We're both obsessed with the deterioration of communication because of cellphones and the rise of social media. We can dig into that conversation.

Apfel: I think human relationships are going to hell. Young people don't know how to relate to one another. Technology is a wonderful thing for its purpose, but for human relations, it's a horror. It's made everybody into a mini-machine. All people know how to do is press buttons. Thank God there are people like Alexis, who live their lives.

Bittar: We always do our birthdays together. Hers is the 29th of August; mine, the 25th. I threw Carl's 100th birthday party, too. Last year, we did our joint birthday party at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Apfel: It was magical. We had the garden to ourselves. There were hors d'oeuvres and drinks and people spread out on the lawn. Being in the midst of all that lovely greenery, a beautiful summer night, good friends — what could be better?

Bittar: What makes Iris laugh? I think there are moments when she sees pure joy and connection. Like when my twins had their first birthday. She's their godmother. She will just giggle watching them. Times like these, I have seen her really light up.

Intergenerational Friendships

Chris Crisman

"If not for Dr. Abey, I wouldn't be here." — Paralympic snowboarding bronze medalist Amy Purdy, 37, and surgeon Lambert Abeyatunge, 76

HOW THEY MET: In 1999, Purdy, then 19 and living in Las Vegas, thought she had the flu. Within 24 hours, she was in the hospital, diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and fighting for her life. Abeyatunge was passing through the ER when he spotted the pale woman. He ordered a CT scan, then whisked her into surgery.

Purdy: Before I was put into an induced coma, I remember seeing Dr. Abey and the nurses, and hearing them talk. I remember thinking, I know they're helping me, but I'm dying right now. I could literally feel myself detaching from my body. I remember Dr. Abey whispering in my ear. He said, "Amy, whatever it is you believe in, think of that now." And I thought, I believe in love. From the moment I woke up after surgery, Dr. Abey was by my side every day. Even when my eyes were closed, I would smell his cologne, and I would know he was there.

Abeyatunge: I have sacred ash, which has healing properties. With the parents' approval, I put the ash on Amy's forehead, and I prayed for her every day. She began to improve, and eventually, she was sent home.


Purdy: We created such a deep bond, going through that battle together. My journey lasted another year and a half. I was in kidney failure. I lost my legs below my knees and had to learn to walk again with prosthetics. During that time I would go over to Dr. Abey's house. He's a musician; he has all these instruments, and he would play for me.

Abeyatunge: One night later on I got a call from Amy asking if we wanted to get some Indian food. So my wife and I were standing there waiting and an SUV pulled up. I thought, That can't be her, because Amy can't drive. The SUV door opened, and who comes out? This beautiful girl, walking normally!

Purdy: Since my illness, I have lived a life that I never could have imagined, such a wonderful life. If not for Dr. Abey, I wouldn't be here.

Intergenerational Friendships

"Being here with them always makes me feel like everything is going to be OK." —Social psychologist Amy Cuddy, 44 (who gave the second-most-viewed TED Talk ever), and twin graphic designers Jeff and Jack Gernsheimer, 70

HOW THEY MET: Amy grew up in Pennsylvania down the road from Jack and is a longtime friend of his daughter, Jessi. Their home was a comforting place to visit, as much with the twins as with Jessi, talking about dogs, music and life.

Cuddy: I don't know how to explain how rural Bernville is. There are people there who have never been to Philadelphia, 75 miles away. So I can't emphasize enough how unusual it was to meet people like these guys when I was growing up. They had traveled and had lived in New York. They went to Woodstock — even though they got stuck in the traffic jam along the way and never made it to the concert. Around here, nobody did things like that.

Jeff Gernsheimer: Our parents were Holocaust survivors, and they ended up in this town for some reason. My brother and I grew up here, went away to college, to the military, to work in New York. Then we came back and built our design studio here in 1971. We each built houses here from pieces of old barns. Amy has traveled all over. She always comes back to visit us because life changes so much, but Bernville is always here. This place is a creative environment. The farm, the nature, the sound of bullfrogs …


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Cuddy: I really feel like they shaped my worldview. I wouldn't be the person that I am if I didn't know these guys. They made these lives that are lives that they wanted. They made me feel like it's OK to be different and artsy and curious and want to travel and love music. They felt like parents but also friends to us.

Jeff Gernsheimer: Most people don't get our sense of humor. That's one of the great things about Amy — she always got the joke.

Cuddy: When I'm having a hard time, I want to be here in Jeff's house or Jack's house. I want to be sitting with them and having coffee and smoked salmon and listening to music. That always makes me feel like everything's going to be OK.

Jack Gernsheimer: Amy's visits are so important. She has become a family friend, not just my daughter Jessi's friend, and the house feels more exciting when she visits.

Cuddy: We talk about memories. There were so many times when we laughed so hard it was painful. When we talk about memories now, we laugh again. Jeff and Jack made such an enormous impression by exemplifying what men could be. The idea that men could be gentle, musical, artistic, loving and strong, all at the same time, kind of blew my mind.

Jeff Gernsheimer: Amy is someone who has touched millions of people's lives in such a positive way. To think that we had anything to do with shaping her life — that blows my mind.

Giannella M. Garrett contributed to this article


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