Ridgefield centenarian with ties to the Roosevelts reflects on the past 100 years

Naomi Manners Stern, right, is celebrating her 100th birthday on Oct. 27. Pictured is Stern with her daughter, Ridgefield Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

Naomi Manners Stern, right, is celebrating her 100th birthday on Oct. 27. Pictured is Stern with her daughter, Ridgefield Selectwoman Barbara Manners.

Alyssa Seidman / Hearst Connecticut Media

RIDGEFIELD — Naomi Manners Stern left her fish and chips untouched as she delved into the details of her life, which, as of Wednesday, is 100 years long.

Stern is the mother of Selectwoman Barbara Manners, whom she lovingly described as her “one and only” child over lunch at the Atria last Friday. Though she moved into the assisted living facility a year ago, Stern is no stranger to the area — she enjoyed a summer residence on Candlewood Lake for nearly 40 years.

The story of Stern’s life is “very uncomplicated,” she said. She was born in New York City in 1921 and lived in a private home on East 74th Street with her parents, three sisters and a grandmother whom she was close to.

“She gave me wisdom and provided a foundation for learning,” Stern said. “She was interested in everything and anything, and constantly asked questions about life in general from everybody. She got different views and she passed them on to us — she was a very important figure in our lives.”

Stern took this vast knowledge with her to college, but admits she only went to Hunter because it was free. In 1941, before her senior year, Stern joined a cohort of students from across the U.S. for a stay at Campobello in the Canadian province of New Brunswick, the summer retreat of then President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his family.

The trip was the beginning of a “very special relationship” that would blossom between Stern and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, she said. Stern stayed at the White House on two occasions, one of which involved a lunch with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Norway’s Crown Princess Märtha.

Churchill was there to convince FDR to give Britain the boats they needed in the war effort, Stern recalled. That night the president hosted cocktails in his study, and when Stern entered the room he remarked, “It’s so lovely to see you again.”

“It was amazing, but when you’re 19 years old you take a left for granted,” she said. “The fact that he took time to recognize me … was sort of special.”

Mrs. Roosevelt attended Stern’s graduation from Hunter in June 1942. Following the ceremony, the First Lady accompanied Stern and another friend into a cab, but when she realized their parents were waiting back at the venue, Eleanor asked the driver to “go right back,” Stern recalled.

When they returned, “She came in and shook everybody’s hand — I’ll never forget that,” Stern said. “She had that magic about her … it’s a very singular kind of thing you have that comes from being known and having the chance to speak out.”

Stern married her first husband, Phil Manners, in 1943 and had Barbara three years later. After they divorced, Stern moved to Miami Beach and started working at Revlon in 1955, earning $65 a week.

“I enjoyed even the parts that were very tough,” she recalled. “It was a good exercise in patience.”

During her 28 years at the company, Stern had 17 different bosses — all of them were men, Barbara said. Two weeks after founder Charles Revson died in 1975, Stern was promoted to vice president of retail services.

In 1970, Stern married her second husband, Dove Stern, who also had children from a prior marriage. She was blessed with a grandson, David, who has been “a shining light in my life,” she said.

Dove died of Alzheimer’s in 2008, but the marriage was a happy one, Stern said.

In all her years she’s learned many lessons, the most important being these: “There is nothing that you can’t do if you have the desire, and that family is extremely important. The ties that bind you together have to be strengthened during your life, because ... towards the end of your life, more than ever, you need those memories to keep you going.”

For her fellow centenarians, Stern offered this piece of advice: “You can be powerful without being tough. … I learned it from living.”