By Tom Brown
The story of 104-year-old Wanda Fortunée Meriems Johnson, who lives in Duxbury, reads like a Hollywood love story—think Titanic without the iceberg.
It began 80 years ago in Heliopolis, Egypt, when Wanda decided to join a group of young people bound for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Her parents, Jews whose family fled persecution in Europe, were reluctant to let her go, especially with Hitler’s storm clouds closing over Europe. She convinced them, however, and the fair was spectacular, including the debut of a new-fangled device called “television,” which enthralled the fair’s 44 million visitors. But it was the return voyage that changed her life forever and led her to Vermont.
Four days before the ship docked in Alexandria, Egypt, Wanda met Robert Lincoln Johnson, an intellectual New Englander who was headed to Beirut to teach philosophy, psychology, and sociology in the American University there. Before they disembarked Bob proposed to the rather independent Wanda, her second proposal of the trip. She turned down both suitors but agreed to correspond with Bob in the proper courting style of the day.
“We wrote letters to each other on a daily basis, long letters telling all these thoughts and feelings,” she recalled in a firm, accented voice. “After two years of writing each other, the Americans were going to enter the war, and young men were asked to go back to United States and, of course, by that time, I believed he was the kind of person I would want to marry.”
The couple eloped, marrying at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, and after returning to New York, the newlyweds settled on a farm in southern Vermont.
From Heliopolis to Duxbury
The journey of a Jewish girl from Egypt to Duxbury, Vermont, serves as a reminder of the evils of racist pogroms from the 19th century to Hitler’s rise, and at the same time, highlights the opportunities and freedom represented by migration to America.
Wanda’s parents, an Italian-speaking Austrian mother and Russian-Romanian father, left Austria around 1895 when anti-Jewish sentiment started to rise. They settled in Russia, but once again hatred made life untenable. They emigrated to Turkey before settling in Heliopolis, now a part of sprawling Cairo.
Wanda was educated in Egypt’s French schools, where her love affair for that language led to an 18-year career teaching French in Vermont and Massachusetts. But knowing English was the key to finding work in 1930s Egypt, so she attended the American University in Cairo. “I had to learn English to be a typist,” she said. “I worked for an English company as a secretary for a cigarette factory.” She later worked for Warner Brothers Studios in Cairo, where her knowledge of French, English, Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew was invaluable.
After leaving Egypt in 1941, the couple owned farms in West Townsend and Grafton before settling on a 550-acre farm in West Brattleboro, where they raised 10,000 chickens, 350 sheep, and three children: Colman “Cordy” Johnson, Robert L. “Bobby” Johnson Jr., and Carol “Curley” Johnson Collins.
Wanda is quick to admit that farming was not her thing, and two brain hemorrhages suffered by young Cordy kept her occupied. But as soon as the kids were old enough, she went back to her love of French. While teaching in Brattleboro she earned an undergraduate degree from Keene State College in New Hampshire and a master’s from Smith College in Massachusetts.
Un Amour des Livres
With the children heading off to college, farming became unsustainable for Bob, who relied on their labor. He recognized the rise of industrial chicken farms in the Midwest, and knew he couldn’t compete. Seeking to combine their mutual interests the couple found an ad for a bookstore in the heart of Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in 1965 Bob launched The BookCase—a 28-year fixture selling used books to future lawyers, doctors, and dreamers, while Wanda taught French in Boston regional high schools.
In 1993, Harvard University refused to renew the lease for The BookCase store, which was already costing $7,000 a month. Then 80, and having suffered a recent fall, Bob needed to retire and return to the rural sanctity of Vermont, where their children still lived. Wanda couldn’t completely divest, however, and kept 3,000 of her beloved French language books, eventually donating 1,000 to Keene State.
“I like the French books,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “And I like to have a library of French literature. It was a very strong part of my life.”
Fortunately for the couple, their son-in-law, Fred Collins, is a master woodworker who designed, and with the family, built a beautiful round house for them across the road from Fred and Carol’s place in South Duxbury, where they could enjoy their six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Bob passed away in 1995 at age 82.
At 104, Wanda still lives in the house and is helped daily by Carol, Fred, Cordy, Carol’s son Seth, and other caregivers. She is grateful for Meals on Wheels, although the food doesn’t always suit her, she says. Three local folks—Pam Perry, Sharon Turner, and Suzy Markowitt—are a big help to Carol with her daily care.
Wanda isn’t sure about the secret to her longevity. She said she used to smoke but stopped when the dangers became more well-known, “thanks to my daughter.”
“Maybe this is why I have lived so long,” she said while holding her mezuzah. “I held this, every night before I went to sleep, and I thanked God!” The mezuzah is often found in the doorways of Jewish homes and contains bits of parchment with verses from the Torah.
Whatever the reason, Wanda Fortunée Meriems Johnson has lived a long and meaningful love story worthy of Titanic’s Jack and Rose.