The first time I met Ilona, she lay flat on her back in her bed, beckoning me to kiss her.
The only problem was that my wife was in the room.
I had come to pick up Jo Anne after a painting class conducted by Impressionist Artist Ilona Royce Smithkin. Ilona had been felled by severe back pain and had taught the class from her bed in her Provincetown studio.
In the few years that I’ve known her, Ilona has emerged in my eyes as proof of the theory set forth by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: "People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within."
Ilona, Queen of the Fairies
At 93 years of age, Ilona forbids her inner light to dim. She powers it with inner energy:
- Every day, she paints, swims in Cape Cod Bay and goes for walks through Provincetown -- her summer home since the 1940s -- or in Manhattan’s West Village, where she winters
- She teaches, accepts commissions and does personal appearances
- She performs her “Eyelash Cabaret” to sold-out audiences in Provincetown and Manhattan, singing throaty ballads reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich and Edith Piaf – and winning standing ovations each time she renders La Vie en Rose
“Otherwise, it’s bye-bye baby,” is how she justifies her active lifestyle.
Ilona fled Berlin with her family in 1938. Her father smuggled only enough money to tide them over until he learned English.
Today -- although she may not have the celebrity of other mononymous figures like Cher, Madonna or Prince -- she is known to her devotees around the world by the single name Ilona, which happens also to be the name of the Queen of the Fairies in Hungarian folklore.
At a recent dinner party at the Wellfleet home of Dr. Bill Shay and his partner, Jim Hood, Ilona displayed her skill as a raconteuse. Some examples:
She discovered Cape Cod in 1942 or 1945 – Ilona forgets which, exactly – when she asked a travel agent to recommend a place to go “where I might meet someone or, if I don’t meet someone, a place where I could at least go bike riding.”
On a romantic trip to Nova Scotia with a would-be lover: “It was the first time I saw lobster. He took me to dinner, ordered champagne and then they brought out two steamed lobsters, amorously entwined on the platter. I said, ‘How can you eat this? Their eyes are pleading with you!’ I didn’t eat dinner and there was no sex, either.”
Instead she married the man who took her for a date on his motorcycle. “He told me all the other girls were too afraid to ride with him on his motorcycle. Afterwards, I didn’t hear from him for two weeks. When he came around again, I asked where he’d been. He said, ‘I wanted to see if I could live without you. I can’t.’”
Although she is a larger-than-life lady, Ilona is a distractingly petite woman – well under five feet and far less than 100 pounds. So it could have been understandable when a visitor to a South Carolina gallery showing asked Ilona about the size of her panties. “I thought it was a rather personal question. Then I figured out that in her Southern accent, she was saying ‘paintings.’”
Ilona frequently bursts into song to underline a point she wants to make. To me she likes to sing: Peter, Peter, du war mein beste schtick. You don’t need Google Translate to figure out that one.
In the same way, she continuingly jests about her advanced age, accepting that, as for all of us someday, “the darkness sets in.”
Another larger-than-life lady, Rosa Parks, is quoted as saying: "Each person must live their life as a model for others."
Ilona has been just that – a model -- as this video indicates:
At the dinner table that evening at Bill and Jim’s, Ilona reveled in regaling us with wisdom gained during the decades:
- “Nice people find one another, like rivulets running to rivers.”
- “My painting now is bolder because I don’t care anymore what people say about my work.”
- “I never criticize, because I’m happy to be alive.”
- “I expect nothing, so whatever happens, it’s a surprise.”
- “I believe unendurable pleasure should be prolonged.”
Dear Ms. Ilona, you find pleasure in every person and in every moment … and we pray you enjoy a very prolonged life.
In my next blog: WTF?