By Torri Singer
SHREWSBURY – A high-heel wearing, bridge playing, French reading, convertible driving Carlotta Niles turned 100 years old on Monday, May 27, and it was quite the party.
Niles celebrated her birthday with friends and four generations of family, including six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. The party was held at one of her favorite establishments, the New Jersey Bridge Club in West Long Branch.
The essentials for such a grand birthday? Cake, champagne, great company and, of course, the magnificent Niles.
It is not so much the number of years this birthday signifies but rather the life that has been built within those years that makes Niles a fascinating woman. She is vibrant and engaging with a high sense of fashion. “Oh I love big high heels, they’re wonderful,” she said, smiling with her perfectly applied red lipstick and sporting what she would consider modest 3-inch kitten heels. “I’ve always worn heels, now they’ve talked me into these little things.”
At 100, Niles hasn’t missed a beat and is extremely active, regularly driving herself to the New Jersey Bridge Club to improve her game with friends; it’s one of her greatest passions and is being nurtured by her bridge instructor.
Though many would agree turning 100 is a huge accomplishment in itself, hitting this birthday milestone is just one triumph among many for this unique woman. Her life is full of pause-worthy events from hot-air ballooning – nine times in seven countries – to globetrotting well into her 90s. She has visited every continent except for Antarctica and Australia. St. Petersburg, Russia, is the top destination in her book. Niles said it is “simply so beautiful,” and has visited half a dozen times.
Niles loves traveling. “Perhaps if you could travel, you should,” she advises. “It’s broadening … You always discover something that you didn’t know was there before.”
One notable trip she took with a granddaughter was a hot-air balloon expedition in Turkey where she recalled playing tennis with banged up rackets and one tennis ball that required a lot of chasing. “That was a real hoot!” Niles laughed. A longtime lover of the sport, she played team tennis at the Seabright Lawn and Tennis Club and platform tennis at the Deal Golf Club up until a few years ago.
Niles has had her fair share of raised eyebrows around the world when she told people she lives in New Jersey. “People very often get, you know, with their noses turned up at the mention of New Jersey,” said Niles, turning up her nose with a slight wave of her hand. She loves the Jersey Shore and thinks that the location – close enough to the beach and also to one of her favorite spots, New York City – is ideal.
Niles prides herself in being up-to-date on the latest from art galleries and plays to museums. Until recently she made a ritual of taking the train every Wednesday to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then catching a matinee at a theater – by herself.
Niles’ point of view on life is straightforward and classic, just like she is. “You’ve got to march along and do the best you can. You shouldn’t upset people with your problems – they’ve got problems of their own!”
A once aspiring actress and daughter of silent film star June Elvidge, Niles’ history is filled with abundant captivating details that she speaks about with nonchalance.
Her father died when she was just an infant and she was raised by her grandmother who, Niles said, was, “very strict” but for whom she is extremely thankful. For a brief time Niles attended Le Conte School, which was called the “School of the Stars,“ while living in Hollywood with her mother, but ultimately returned to her New Jersey roots to graduate from Long Branch High School in 1930 and wed the love of her life soon after.
She married in September 1931 at age 18 after years of being courted by her husband Jonathan Niles, a reporter for a local newspaper who went on to work for the Wall Street Journal. The couple settled in Red Bank.
In 1935 they built their Shrewsbury home where Niles still lives today. One of her fondest spots in the world, it has a pristinely manicured garden she designed with inspiration from her many trips to France. It is the house she has walked into for more than 75 years, raised three children and returned home to from trips around the world.
Niles remembers going to see Queen Elizabeth when she visited New Jersey in the summer of 1939. “My son was so excited to meet the royal family he ran all the way to the Red Bank train station and stubbed his toe!” she said.
Niles has witnessed much change and history. She was 16 when the stock market crashed to begin the Great Depression. At 26, World War II began and at age 56, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. She was 78 when the World Wide Web was invented and she is still going strong at 100.
She is a woman who believes that continuing to expand knowledge is a vital element of life. “I do believe in learning,” said Niles, who regularly visits the library to pick up the latest on the best-seller’s list.
Niles recognizes that she is distinct in her activity level; “so many older people close down their lives,” she said. “You’ve got to try and do something that interests you … and you mustn’t be grumpy. You must play your part and do your share!”
Wise words from a woman with a century of experience to rely upon.