A wish for PEACE
But she sees beauty where others don’t, and offers hope when others won’t.
Mrs. Davis took up painting at 97 — a hip fracture kept her off the tennis courts — and her Jupiter Island home is adorned with dozens of colorful landscapes, portraits and still life canvases that mirror her vision of a world at peace.
As she was about to turn 100, Mrs. Davis looked back on her life and reflected on ways in which she still might make a difference.
To mark her first century, Mrs. Davis established Projects for Peace, an initiative for undergraduates at American colleges and universities that was inspired by her son’s Davis United World College Scholars Program, to design grassroots projects for peace.
She gave $1 million that first year, followed by two more gifts of $1 million to guide the projects. Mrs. Davis, who divides her time between homes in Jupiter Island, New York and Maine, also underwrote last year’s “Peace on Earth” exhibition at the Lighthouse ArtCenter.
Her experiences are firmly anchored in the last century, but Mrs. Davis remains engaged in current affairs.
During a recent Friday afternoon at her home, Mrs. Davis was celebrating the end of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Peace signs adorned her necklace and watchband as she sat in a sunroom that offered views of the Intracoastal Waterway beyond.
Miss Teaser II, her 5-month-old Maltese puppy, scampered about the room, drawing laughter from Mrs. Davis and her two assistants.
But the dog did not distract her from the subject at hand.
“When I think of the people, whoever, being slaughtered, being drowned by air bombs, I think it’s terrible. And for what? Nothing that they don’t have to decide at a peace meeting anyway,” she says. “So I’m very pleased that today, Obama has taken this step, which I hope will be the first step toward making a peaceful world.”
Mrs. Davis, born Feb. 25, 1907, remembers the First World War.
Her own brother joined the cavalry during that first war to end all wars, and lived to tell about it.
“I remember my mother was very shaken because my brother skipped camp and came to Philadelphia to see us and she said he’d be arrested for desertion,” Mrs. Davis says.
It was during that decade that Mrs. Davis had her first taste of activism.
“I do remember marching in a suffragette parade at that time, when I was 4 years old, by my mother’s side, waving my little yellow flag in innocence,” she says with a chuckle. “I didn’t know what I was waving for but it was a good idea. It was for votes for women.”
Some things never change.
“And we’re still working on that in Afghanistan and in places where women are not given their rights. I feel it’s time that all women have the right to vote in the countries in which they live and that if given a choice, they’d vote for peace,” she says.
That certainly gets Mrs. Davis’ vote.
“A lot of people tell me that I’m fighting a losing battle, that it’s ingrained in men to go to war, and I say it isn’t ingrained in anybody. They ingrain it in themselves, and it should be a very easy thing to eliminate, so we must continue to try to eliminate it,” she says. Is fighting that desire to kill an uphill battle?
“I often wonder why the good lord made us so that we all have to eat each other to be satisfied, not that all of us do. Some are vegetarians but I think that’s a minority,” Mrs. Davis says. “I myself am a vegetarian in theory, but in practice I hunger for the meat that I eat, so that’s not good. It’s one of my flaws.”
Yes, but at nearly 105, it is a flaw that seemingly has served her well.
First trip to Russia
Mrs. Davis journeyed to Russia in 1929 shortly after she graduated from college.
She was traveling on horseback with a group through the Caucasus Mountains, when their horses were stolen and the group was forced to survive on a menu of wild berries and spit-roasted mountain goat.
Did experiences like that contribute to her longevity?
“If I hadn’t come back safely, it did,” she says with a laugh.
She earned her doctorate in Geneva and wrote a study titled “The Soviets at Geneva,” about the League of Nations, which had its headquarters there. She has since returned to Russia more than 30 times and she celebrated her 95th birthday with Mikhail Gorbachev.
While in Switzerland, she met her future husband, Shelby Cullom Davis. They married in 1932, and they returned to the United States, where Mr. Davis wrote for such publications as The Atlantic Monthly, Current History and Reader’s Digest. Mr. Davis’ writing attracted the attention of Thomas Dewey, who asked him to be an economic adviser and speechwriter for his presidential campaign. In 1969, Mr. Davis was appointed to a six-year term as ambassador to Switzerland.
Politics aside, Mr. Davis also invested in a company that became known as Shelby Cullom Davis & Co., and built a portfolio of insurance stocks. An initial $100,000 investment grew to more than $800 million by the time Mr. Davis died in 1994.
The couple’s children are Shelby M.C. Davis, born in 1937, and Diana Davis Spencer, born in 1938; both are active with foundations of their own. Mrs. Davis’ grandson, Christopher C. Davis, runs the family business, now called Davis Funds.
She has eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, all of whom are close to their matriarch.
“My family is thriving, I’m glad to say,” she says.
An artist’s life
Through it all Mrs. Davis has stayed active.
“When I was 96 years old I inadvertently broke my hip on the tennis court and I found out to my distress that I could no longer play tennis,” she says.
She even had worked out a deal with her tennis pro.
“You’re only allowed one serve to my two. You must cover the whole court; I only have to cover the singles court. You must be careful how you hit the ball, because if you hit it and I can’t return it, it means it you didn’t hit it right and therefore it was your mistake and it’s my point,” she says, laughing. “So the poor man accepted all these things and I used to win some games from him.”
The tennis world’s loss was the art world’s gain.
Mrs. Davis took up painting after her injury.
Yes, she uses brushes to paint, but sponges, feathers, leaves and fingers are part of her arsenal of tools.
She works in acrylic — it dries quickly.
And to paint with her fingers, she dons medical exam gloves and gets to work.
“It’s really wonderful how fast you can go. I have some that I can show you that I did in 10 minutes,” she says.
Mrs. Davis says she usually paints from photographs, but do not expect a copy.
“I’m not any good at copying. I try, but I find I wander away and put in some strokes that may not be there,” she says.
Her compositions are strong, and her sense of color is keen in her Impressionistic works.
The painting is part of what keeps her in the present.
“I think that any painting is very good for one’s soul. You can express yourself, and sometimes when I feel a little unhappy that I’m not doing enough in this world, I think I’d better try and paint what I want the world to look like or what I would like to be doing,” she says. “I’d love to be skiing. I’d love to be playing tennis. I’d love to be hiking and climbing mountains, because I always was very active and it’s been very difficult sometimes to be tied down by my lack of strength and my lack of sight, which is my worst punishment, if it is a punishment.
“I think it might be to teach me to learn patience because why else should I be inflicted with bad eyesight.”
Still driven, but not driving
Her eyesight keeps her from behind the wheel of a car, but not a golf cart.
Mrs. Davis, who learned to drive more than 90 years ago, still has a valid driver’s license, which will be up for renewal in 2012.
“I remember when I learned to drive, which was way below the driving age. I was out driving with my brother, who was about seven years older than I, and I said to him, ‘Billy, I’d like to learn to drive.’ And he said, ‘I’ll teach you.’ And I said, ‘Show me.’ So he showed me the clutches. Every car had a clutch — one, two, three — and then one to go back. So I listened very attentively, and I came home and I told my mother very proudly that I now knew how to drive the car and she said, ‘That sounds wonderful, Kat, take me for a ride.’ So I took her for a ride, and luckily, there were very few cars around and I managed to bring her back safely and from then on, I felt I knew how to drive.”
“And this is a lady who has two speeds — fast and faster,” says one of her assistants.
Mrs. Davis says she was amazed at how easy it was to renew her driver license last time. That in turn made her suspicious of other drivers.
“I slowed down considerably because I wanted them to slow down,” she says. “I led them to safety whether they wanted to or not. I did my good deed.”
That gives Mrs. Davis time to focus on what matters.
That includes peace.
“There is a lot to be done, and a lot of people are needed,” Mrs. Davis says.
Still, she remains optimistic.
“I had noticed that I bought some baby underwear for a new grandchild which had peace symbols on it, which are on this watch,” she says, pointing at her wrist. “Apparently, the peace symbol is being reproduced on many things now.”
Slowing down also means more time with that little dog, Miss Teaser II.
So what is the origin of that name?
“I couldn’t remember Maltese,” Mrs. Davis says. “People asked me, ‘What kind of dog is that?’ and I had to think. Her name is Teaser so it must be Maltese. But I call her Sweetie Pie, Lamb Chop, Honey Bunch… ”
“Trouble,” interjects one of her assistants.
“She knows she rules, but she submits to being picked up,” Mrs. Davis says.
And laughter ensues. ¦