By my definition, a woman who dresses in full mermaid regalia (complete with blond wig, jeweled crown, and webbed feet) on her 80th birthday to receive hundreds of globe-trotting guests while reclining on a divan has a thing or two to tell us about capriciousness. The cover of Jeanette Jaffe Longoria’s delightfully unconventional 2004 memori-mento book, Aprohodite and Me, features her in full body stocking, gauzy gown, shoulder-length blond wig, and seashell crown, emerging from the surf of Cyprus (Aphrodite’s birthplace), looking for all the world like a half-century-younger Christina Aguilera caught filming an MTV video on St. Barts. (Call me skeptical but it’s difficult to imagine my 82-year-old mother pulling off a similar feat. At this late date in my maturation I feel I’ve finally come to understand the true meaning of the word sangfroid after hanging around Jeanette for a few days.)
Married first to San Antonio builder Morris Jaffe (developer of Central Park Mall, among many area projects), then to Mexican powerhouse Octaviano “Chito” Longoria (at one time Chito was the Mexican monetary equivalent of Warren Buffet/ Bill Gates), Jeanette is the mother of seven, grandmother of 13, and great-grandmother of six. Born Jeanette Herrmann to an old German-American family in a house that still stands on the grounds of HemisFair Park, Jeanette, among a myriad of honors, titles, and acclamations, is the Honorary Consul General to the Kingdom of Morocco for the Government of Mexico. She’s also the unsung hero of the Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital, having instigated the initial fundraising drive more than 50 years ago to construct the massive downtown building that faces Milam Park.
How does she do it? From where does such moxie and unwavering resolve emanate? How does any woman (or man) maintain that ineffable measure of charisma and fascination beyond “a certain age”? It’s a question I put to one of San Antonio’s last red-hot authentics, as she sat beside the life-size nude bronze “goddess” that guards her pool in the lush garden of her splendidly exotic Monte Vista maisonette.
“I’ve known a lot of eccentrics in my life. Doesn’t everyone?
“My mother and grandmother were both artists and my aunt was an accomplished sculptor. When you’re surrounded by the arts as a child you just grow with it. Although I didn’t end up graduating, I went to the University of Texas and majored in drama. During World War II I used to sing at various military events around town and my mother would accompany me on piano. At one point I was even offered a studio contract at MGM, but my parents wouldn’t let me go. If I had gone out to Hollywood I’d have probably ended up with seven husbands instead of seven kids, so I have no regrets. ”
“I’m definitely an ‘old soul’. I’ve had so many life ‘recalls,’ some of them in great detail. Morocco is certainly a place I lived in another life. My ancestry is Germanic, but I’m usually drawn to warmer climes — Cyprus, Spain, Latin America. When I married Chito and moved to Mexico City in 1968 I sort of shook things up down there. Chito was 23 years older than I, and women were much more deferential at the time. There was the usual idle gossip that ‘Jeanette’s skirts were too short,’ etc., etc., but I didn’t pay it any mind. Within a year or two all the younger women were wearing dresses shorter than mine. Latin women are some of the chic-est creatures on earth.
“I’ve been fortunate to know some really glamorous women. Dolores del Rio would stroll the beaches of Acapulco wearing a caftan, her long hair flowing in the breeze. She was a vision. Merle Oberon would throw a party and always make a grand entrance, pausing ever so dramatically at the top of the staircase just before descending. Those girls really knew how to play it up back then.”
“Both of my husbandswere definitely high-powered individuals. I can’t tell you how many times Jaff would ring up and say something like, ‘I’ve got John Connally or Lyndon Johnson and 30 campaign workers coming over for dinner.’ You had to be highly organized! I knew just where to get all the last-minute boiled shrimp, where to buy the roast beef. For years I traveled constantly from New York to the South Texas farm, to the Nuevo Laredo ranch, on to Mexico City and back to San Antonio. I kept pre-prepared menus at each location. It was the only way to keep the train on track. You know, Jaff and Chito were always very good friends and stayed so even after I remarried. They were the eternal backgammon-playing buddies. It was odd to me, but what can I say — men and women are just different!”
“It’s not the material things around us — of course, we all like to have nice things and pleasant surroundings — but I can be just as happy at a roadside picnic table with good friends and family.
“My daughter Jana is a brilliant fashion designer, and she told an interviewer once she learned to develop her own instincts when she was very little after I gave her a clothes pin and told her to drape it. You don’t need a lot of ‘stuff’ to encourage the imagination — it’s all there if you can learn to access it. Kids really miss out on any sense of accomplishment if we just give them everything. The act of discovery is crucial.”
“Not too long ago I was invited to accompany a friend on a last-minute round-the-world trip. We flew to London, motored off to this magnificent country estate in the middle of the night and the next morning took a helicopter to have lunch at the House of Lords. Somebody asked me where I was staying and I said, ‘I don’t have a clue, but we’re leaving for South Africa soon, and I’d love to find out.’ In South Africa my friend fell and broke her hip as we were about to depart for the Seychelles Islands, and our little adventure got prematurely cut short — but I love to travel; anyplace, anytime. I’m wild about Africa. I went hunting in Gabon with Ali Bongo, the president’s son. My own son Douglas, who sells jets all over the world, took me to Equatorial Guinea and Gambia with him.
“I was walking through the native marketplace in Banjul and I stopped at this one woman’s stall, and she just stared and stared at me until finally she couldn’t keep it in any longer and she blurted out, ‘Please tell me, what is the secret to keeping a man?’ You can imagine the look on my face! I bought her some roses and told her to make rosewater and sprinkle some on. That kind of thing happens to me all the time. I go to the dentist, and someone will ask me how to save their marriage. It’s crazy, but of course I’m glad to be of help whenever I can.”
“My first love has to be Morocco — it’s such a fantastic, magical place ... King Hassan was just an incredible monarch; he removed the veil from the women, built roads, instigated major infrastructure programs — he was a great, great asset to his country. And now his son, King Mohammed is doing wonderful things as well. Of course, we’re all aware of the fundamentalist Muslim tide that ebbs and flows throughout the Middle East, but Mohammed is a very smart, modern, and pragmatic ruler. So far, Morocco has managed to avoid the tragedies that have happened elsewhere.”
“Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick was visiting Morocco once, and the Palace rang up and asked me to please come for a reception. When I arrived, all the royal women were seated on a raised dais and the visiting royalty and other government representatives were gathered around the room, and Jeane leaned over to me and asked, in a very nice way, ‘I don’t quite understand who you are and what exactly you’re doing here.’ I laughed and said, ‘I don’t quite understand myself.’ We became fast friends after that.”
“I’m not political. I’ve never tried to ‘meet’ anyone. I don’t pursue. People will come to you if you remain open and curious and understanding. If I have any philosophy at all, it’s this: Try being an optimist! And try being aware of other people’s needs, rather than just your own.
I frequently get asked about my book, ‘Why do you identify so with Aphrodite?’ and I say it’s because she was the goddess of ‘ALL-love.’ She speaks to me. I often feel she’s with me. Plus, she had a really big family to deal with.
“I’m definitely the earth-mother type. Ruth Montgomery, the great author and psychic who wrote all the New Age books on earth changes and past-life regressions, stayed with me many times here in San Antonio. She used to say in another life that I was always out ‘collecting herbs’ and offering advice to everyone. And it’s true. I’m always telling people, ‘If you want love in the coming year wear red panties on New Year’s Eve,’ or ‘Wrap your money in a cabbage leaf, and put it under your pillow on December 31, and you’ll have money all year long!’ I once took two heads of cabbage with me to Morocco when I spent a New Year’s Eve with the King, and I swear everyone in the Palace was clutching a cabbage leaf at the stroke of midnight that year.”